Monday, July 30, 2007

Prachanda’s RAW Deal

Did Maoist-in-Chief Prachanda and key lieutenants slip into Silgudhi for a couple of hours the other day, ahead of the party’s crucial fifth plenary session? The comrades won’t tell us. They probably want us to keep guessing.
So here are some thoughts. Was the visit intended to improve the ex-rebels’ relations with their revolutionary international allies angered by their eagerness to wage peace? Or was it an effort to assuage comrades closer to home that the Nepalese rebels are still wedded to lighting that regional inferno?
It’s more likely that Prachanda & Co. ventured across the border for urgent discussions with their handlers in India’s top spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
After sneaking back into Nepal, Prachanda changed his tune. He began insisting that the Maoists would not quit the government. (So much for the fracas over the sudden deployment of guards from Nepal Army’s “killer” battalion to Maoist ministers.)
So what’s the deal here? If anything, it must revolve around the issue of republicanism. For RAW – or at least the dominant section therein – the monarchy has always been the principal problem. As long as the representative of the creator of the modern Nepali state continues to wield influence in any shape for arm, the logic runs, India would stand to lose.
Consider that contention this way. Every assertion of Nepaliness – which the monarch institutionally and psychologically is inclined to exercise – has been castigated as an abiding quest for autocracy.
What about the firestorm in the interim legislature blaming Indian embankments for the deadly floods in Nepal? The king has no nominees in that body. With Nepaliness having survived the sustained marginalization of the palace, RAW knows it has an uphill battle.
Make no mistake. The end of the monarchy would not guarantee success for RAW. In the ensuing instability, Indian sleuths nevertheless hoped to fortify their posture. That’s why they were so anxious to present the ambivalent political, military and bureaucratic class in New Delhi with a fait accompli.
From RAW’s perspective, the Maoists were ultimately supposed to supplant the palace. The so-called October Revolution was supposed to have inaugurated a new era of hegemony. A year and a half down the road, the ex-rebels don’t seem terribly excited about showing the king the door.
Worse, they are hobnobbing with the Chinese in what may turn out to be a grand palace-Maoist alliance for consolidating Nepaliness. RAW certainly didn’t invest so much over a decade to see Nepali Maoists take that great leap northward.
Sure, some Maoist hardliners are miffed by the way their party has been relegated to the eighth constituent of the ruling alliance. For RAW operatives, the republic cause could come in handy here. The problem is, this group is more anti-Indian than the rest of the bunch.
India had arrested Mohan Baidya and C.P. Gajurel in an effort to preempt any Maoist-palace deal. By depriving Prachanda of these two “nationalist” allies, India forced the Maoist chairman onto an overt pro-Indian path he had purged his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, for having traversed. In exchange, Prachanda persuaded New Delhi to free both of his allies.
Neither seems to have shed his skepticism vis-à-vis New Delhi’s motives in Nepal. Baidya has become the leading critic of Prachanda’s obsequiousness to India. Gajurel is building bridges to China faster than the Indians can assemble demolition crews.
So what might happen next? Will the Maoists, duly admonished by RAW, persuade other members of the interim legislature to abolish the monarchy right away and then promote themselves into constituent assembly elections? Or will the ex-rebels declare Nepal a republic during their upcoming meeting?
Either way, Prachanda has fortified himself. It’s hard count the number of times he has reminded us how King Gyanendra is under no compulsion to pack up and leave Nepal just because interim legislators or ex-rebels say so.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Premier Koirala’s Military Maneuvers

Is he wooing the generals or is he wilting under them? Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s new-found habit of dropping in on Army HQ for national security updates had already raised eyebrows. The latest foray has been truly hair-raising.
The abruptness with which a new group of soldiers descended to protect Maoist ministers has triggered one of the most serious crises the Eight-Party Alliance has faced. Army HQ insists the men were not from the Bhairabnath Gan the Maoists seem to dread. Our ex-rebels remain so unimpressed that they have threatened to quit the government.
If Koirala’s intention in hobnobbing with the top brass is to intimidate the Maoists into the democratic mainstream, the outcome could go either way. Today’s army may have shed its royal prefix, but it mission has not. The Maoists, of all political forces, understand that the Nepal Army’s primary and conventional role is to defend the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Nepal. The military’s official website clearly mentions that providing assistance to the civilian government in the maintenance of internal security is the force’s secondary mission.
On the other hand, the Maoists, like the rest of us, recognize how different today’s Nepal is than that of February 2005 or April 2006. The military, moreover, remains the most segregated institution. With the Terai in flames, it’s hard to see how a band of armed and professional pahadis could help solve the problem. (Installing Upendra Yadav as premier of an army-backed government might be a good first step but it certainly won’t be sufficient.)
But there are other dynamics at play, which both Koirala and Maoist supremo Prachanda recognize. By meeting him at the party office, British Ambassador Andrew Hall – and the European Union he represents for the rest of the year – may have conferred a smattering of legitimacy on Prachanda’s former warriors. But The Fierce One must have been flustered by London’s eagerness to roll out the red carpet for Army chief Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal.
Nepal’s army always has had a political color. After November 2001, when it was deployed against the rebels, it has exuded greater political assertiveness. The generals have had powerful external allies.
In early 2002, Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, chose to confer with the incumbent army chief, Gen. Prajwal Shamsher Rana, without the presence of a single civilian official hosting America’s top diplomat.
A few months later, when President George W. Bush received Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in the Oval Office with an admonition to “finish off” the rebels, Gen. Katuwal was part of the delegation waiting outside.
The generals may have persuaded King Gyanendra to assume direct power. Fifteen months later, they also counseled the monarch to restore the House of Representatives.
After the palace’s capitulation, they were scolded for having offered the traditional salute to the king at Hanuman Dhoka and Dakshinkali. Their absence from the royal birthday bash raised new ominous questions. One recent opinion poll even showed the military as the most trusted national institution.
As for our original question, with this kind of convolution, it really doesn’t matter whether Koirala is wooing or wilting.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What’s Really Going For Nepali Congress Unity

At times, the initiative to reunite the two Nepali Congress parties must seem sickening to the faithful on both sides. One morning, it looks like Girija Prasad Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba are just seconds away from sealing a deal. The next, unity seems an impossible undertaking. Then some senior Congress leader comes out with a timetable. And the cycle continues.
When the Nepali Congress split in 2002, it merely formalized the factional infighting that brought down the Koirala government in 1994. Deuba’s dissolution of the House of Representatives may have provided the trigger, but the actual foot soldiers – people like Khum Bahadur Khadka, Chiranjivi Wagle, Bijay Gachchadar and Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta – were fully armed. In other words, Koirala protégés turned critics led the charge. Of course, there were natural allies like Prakash Man Singh, the son of senior Koirala critic Ganesh Man Singh. Pradip Giri, once brutally assaulted – we are told – for the simple desire to establish marital relations with the Koirala clan, was another readymade heavyweight.
Demonized as the new Tulsi Giri for his proximity to the palace, Deuba eventually had to chart his course. His Nepali Congress faction seemed to gain the upper hand. The power of incumbency needed only the formal recognition of the Election Commission to precipitate a major realignment of Nepali politics.
Somewhere down the road, something went wrong. The Koirala Congress got formal recognition. The Democratic suffix was probably redundant, given the Nepali Congress history, but it sounded good enough for the Deuba Derby to go the polls with.
With parliament gone, Deuba didn’t have to worry about the kinds of machinations Koirala engineered to bring down his government in 1996. Unfortunately for the premier, the other parties were no less active outside the chambers. They pressed Deuba to recommend a postponement of the elections, and specifically instructed him to rebuff King Gyanendra should the monarch seek the premier’s resignation.
Some of the same people advised King Gyanendra to dismiss Deuba should he become adamant about his popular mandate.
After King Gyanendra’s October 4, 2002 intervention, Deuba ended up in a far worse state than B.P. Koirala’s after King Mahendra’s takeover 42 years earlier. Sure, Deuba avoided incarceration. But let’s not forget that the 1959 constitution empowered the monarch to dismiss the elected prime minister.
The Tulsi Giri appellation stuck on Deuba. For the next two-plus years, the mainstream parties didn’t consider him a worthy member of the anti-palace alliance. When Deuba was reappointed premier in 2004, adherents of Koirala’s Grand Design Theory were outraged.
It was only when the real Tulsi Giri returned from decades of exile to become King Gyanendra’s principal deputy in the royal regime that Deuba was rehabilitated.
Today the preponderance of the Maoists and other communists in the national firmament has made Congress unity an imperative. But has the principal circumstance really changed? Nepali Congress (Democratic) leaders may have changed their view on Koirala, but they don’t seem to have on Koirala-ism.
True, Khum Bahadur Khadka returned to Koirala’s party, but he did that to spite Deuba. (Koirala made a phone call to Khadka in detention inquiring about his health, while Deuba was too busy advancing his own victimhood.) Most of the other Nepali Congress (Democratic) leaders don’t seem to want a united party just to see it packed with younger Koiralas.
There is one thing going for unity, though. The Nepali Congress may have turned fiercely republican these days. With the communists dominant everywhere, the oldest democratic party doesn’t see the kind of republic it wants. General Secretary and Peace Minister Ram Chandra Poudel has been quite candid in admitting this.
Now Narahari Acharya, the preeminent republican in the party – whom Koirala once called a palace agent – has set forth his ‘ganarajya’ school of thought. That hasn’t found too many takers within. Worse, critics have been portraying Acharya’s model as a backdoor to national disintegration.
The prime factor, however, lies in the popular mood. Around half the country still wants some kind of monarchy, according to most surveys. Now who might be able to tap into this vote? The question must be worrying both factions, especially after how the equally fractious ex-panchas united for King Gyanendra’s birthday.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Brooding After The Birthday Bash

Fiasco or fright? Fewer than 200 out of the 800 or so invitees showed up for King Gyanendra’s diamond jubilee dinner. Anywhere between 2,000 and 15,000 thronged the palace to greet the monarch on his 61st birthday.
The Maoist Young Communist League (YCL) had vowed to scuttle the celebrations, but fell short. Politicos and pundits within the Seven Party Alliance had dismissed the celebrations as irrelevant. They, too, had their eyes glued on the turnout. Leading anti-monarchy publications carried editorials on the worthlessness of the three-day extravaganza, ignoring the apparent contradiction therein.
You’d think the SPA constituents would tone down their criticism of the YCL goons for a while. But, no, new apprehensions have emerged. Did the YCL politicize the royal bash as part of a Maoist understanding with the palace? Could it be purely coincidental, moreover, that influential sections of the Indian media chose this moment to allude to King Gyanendra’s “open channels” to the Maoists and the madhesis?
Things became really unbearable for the ruling elite when the palace sent out those invitations. For almost a year and half, they’ve tried everything to discredit the monarchy. Asia’s most humiliated man, in the words of a leading critic, somehow seems impervious to disgrace.
Yet that’s not the real problem. Most opinion polls still show the country evenly split on the issue of abolishing the monarchy. According to a survey by one weekly newspaper, over half of the respondents believed it was impolite of the diplomatic corps to have rebuffed the palace invitation.
It’s immaterial whether the Foreign Ministry really had urged the ambassadors to shun the palace. The justification the envoys gave was revealing. In the existing circumstances, they suggested, attending the celebrations would not be useful. Implicit in the emphasis on the present are the possibilities of the future.
The monarchy remains in suspension, awaiting the verdict of the constituent assembly. The prime minister, having started receiving the credentials of ambassadors, is now the chief spectator of Machhindranath’s bhoto.
Like any other recipient of a suspension order, the monarchy, too, can reclaim its role, provided the elected assembly votes to retain the crown. As a taxpayer without direct links to state institutions, the king could perhaps expect greater representation in national life.
What if the elections continue to be postponed for one reason or the other? The SPA and Maoists can’t go on blaming the palace without exposing their own ineptitude. Surely, moreover, there must be some sort of a statute of limitations. The monarchy can’t be expected to wait eternally for a constituent assembly to assemble. Could this be why Surya Bahadur Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana, whose parties have dropped constitution monarchy from their statutes, nevertheless chose to greet King Gyanendra in their personal capacity?
Then there’s the conspicuous absence of Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal and his principal deputies from the festivities? Is this another indication that the military has severed its traditional links with the crown? Or could it be an admonition from the top brass to ordinary Nepalis not to equate that much-anticipated coup with that cliché called royalist regression?
The SPA government has ruled the country as long as the royal regime. As Nepal’s problems multiply, the ruling alliance believes it can set things straight once it gets the monarchy out of the way. It has the interim mandate and the necessary votes in the interim legislature to do just that before the constituent assembly elections. So why can’t they vote in a republic by acclamation?
Surely, not because they have lost some of their hatred for the monarchy. Nor because they have grown more fearful of the Maoists. It’s because they know they haven’t earned the trust of the country – and beyond – as post-monarchy custodians.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Between The Monarchy And The Maoists

Winding up his tenure in Nepal, US Ambassador James F. Moriarty is currently busy conforming to a time-honored tradition of his office. Nepal should do this… Nepalis shouldn’t do that… American ambassadors to Nepal have been at their most candid during their final weeks in office.
Moriarty, of course, has been outspoken almost from the outset. You could love him or hate him, but certainly not ignore him. Rock star and rogue – depending on who’s talking – Moriarty will surely miss the limelight in Kathmandu. After three tumultuous years here, His Excellency is entitled to expounding on his hopes and fears for Nepal with greater bluntness.
His Excellency’s tirades against the Maoists may have obscured it somewhat, but Moriarty remains livid with the palace. In a recent interview with BBC Nepali Service, Moriarty, for all practical purposes, saw King Gyanendra as a spent force. Since the military is no longer loyal to the palace, he claimed, a royal takeover is out of the question. (A military takeover, however, would be squarely blamed on the government, he implied.)
In a subsequent television interview with Bijay Kumar, Moriarty urged His Majesty not to mess things up. Since the latter admonition presupposes the palace’s continued ability to do so, one is obliged to ask what may have led Moriarty to engage in this subtle revisionism.
Regulars to Kathmandu’s cocktail circuit always found Moriarty’s impressions of King Gyanendra both colorful and consistent. The first time you met the monarch, according to the envoy, you were instantly impressed by the monarch. By the second meeting, you invariably gave him the benefit of the doubt. After the third, you could see straight through the palace spin machine. (The ambassador’s real words on the third encounter were more direct and devastating.)
Deep down, Moriarty, it appears, hasn’t forgiven himself for being suckered into such sweet talk. In his first meeting with the US envoy after the February 1, 2005 takeover, King Gyanendra purportedly promised to restore the democratic process in 100 days.
Now, that was Moriarty’s version of the meeting. Since the palace didn’t rebut it, it probably was true. The US ambassador was still being prevented from meeting with Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala, then under house arrest.
Then came that daring midnight arrest of Sher Bahadur Deuba on corruption charges. Since one of his predecessors had facilitated the ex-premier’s marriage as part of, shall we say, advancing American foreign policy interests, Moriarty must have found that slap a little too stinging.
Still, in public pronouncements during his frequent trips back home, the US envoy sounded guardedly optimistic about preventing the world’s first post-Cold War communist takeover.
Then things started going downhill. Even after sharing that flight to New Delhi with UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, Moriarty couldn’t prevent the Seven Party Alliance’s 12-point agreement with the Maoists against the palace. He kept quiet until the Supreme Court ordered Deuba’s release. Then he unleashed a blistering attack against the mainstream parties’ alliance with the rebels, laced with a rebuke to palace rule.
Six months later, the April Uprising gathered momentum as the Young Communist League (YCL)’s forerunners swarmed the country’s streets. Jimmy Carter cancelled his trip. More important, though, was the decision by Denny Hastert, the then Republican House of Representatives speaker, to call off that detour from Delhi.
Then came Moriarty’s warning of a messy abdication. The embassy, for all practical purposes, relocated to New Delhi for the first time since 1959. The outrage over the diplomatic corps’ premature enthusiasm for King Gyanendra’s first address to the nation prompted the world to distance itself from the palace.
With the Maoists in parliament and – subsequently – government, Moriarty was left with balancing repeated warnings against an October Revolution with expressions of a desire to shake hands with our would-be Lenin, Comrade Prachanda. (The appeasement part of the strategy earned him those YCL rocks in Jhapa.)
When he finally did arrive last month, Jimmy Carter did more than shake hands with the ex-rebel chief. He urged Washington to withdraw its terrorism tag on the Maoists.
Granted, the former peanut farmer wants to embarrass the Bush administration at every turn. But in front of the ambassador? It’s possible to see Carter landing in Baghdad one day and urge the White House to open talks with Al Qaeda in Iraq. But in front of the American ambassador? Wouldn’t such an appeal reveal more about Ryan Crocker than Carter himself?
We never got to know for sure whether Moriarty ever had an opportunity to converse with the Chinese ambassador in Mandarin on Nepal’s underlying maladies. He did acquire enough Nepali to assure audiences in the Terai of Washington’s belated recognition of their grievances. In retrospect, getting the Chinese to release that reconnaissance plane and crew in the spring of 2001 must have been a breeze for Moriarty.