Sunday, September 23, 2007

History As Tragedy And Farce

For a nation hurtling toward a nebulous newness, history is becoming an increasingly hard thing to beat. The political discourse is oscillating wildly between Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 and the storming of the Bastille a century and a half earlier.
Considering the way things are going, Prachanda & Co. may actually end up bypassing the constituent assembly to seize full state power. Whether they would be able to keep it is a different matter.

A cluster of the chatterati has shifted course. Having considered Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala a potential Alexander Kerensky for the past year and a half, this group is now firmly attuned to the French Revolution. Never since Jang Bahadur Rana’s voyage to France has the name Napoleon loomed so large over Nepal.

In a realm of perpetual ranters, replacing an absolute monarchy and feudal privileges for the aristocracy with the principles and practices of liberty, equality and fraternity becomes too hard to resist.

Cautionary tales of how the subsequent reign of terror led to the restoration of the monarchy in France become badges of defeatism. To be sure, two additional revolutions eventually gave that country its modern democratic polity. Whether the Maoists would let Nepalis complete that cycle of history remains unclear. Tragedy and farce have collaborated in a hugely sinister way well before a recurrence of that history.

Shooting the messenger has become the sport of the season. When Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the man who oversaw Nepal’s transition to democracy in 1990 as interim prime minister, recently admonished republicans within the Nepali Congress, the conversation instantly shifted to his purported senility. The following day, the old man paid a visit to Crown Prince Paras in hospital to prove his lucidity.

It is easy to dismiss the royalism led by the likes of Khum Bahadur Khadka and Govinda Raj Joshi as rank rancidity. (Add Sujata Koirala to this camp and people start covering their noses harder.) Sleazebags they may be, but these two men – both as former home ministers – know the Maoists better than anyone else does.

True, Khadka had famously vowed to crush the insurgency within a week. Yet that may have had less to do with hubris than with history. Khadka, after all, had seen two Nepali Congress-led insurgencies fizzle on account of geopolitics.

Let’s not miss the broader picture here. Khadka was on the same flight B.P. Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh took to Kathmandu with their national reconciliation program in 1976. The mid-air conversation must have covered much more than the quality of their impending incarceration.

Joshi, for his part, was booted from the cabinet by then-premier Koirala after he savaged the military for silently watching the rebels clobber the cops in early 2001. That, in retrospect, was when the minister and the generals were on opposite sides. Time and space have chastened Khadka and Joshi – and the Maoists know that. It’s no coincidence that the ex-rebels have singled them out for “physical action”.

When these men assert that the Nepali Congress would be, in essence, digging its own grave by espousing republicanism, they are perhaps merely conceptualizing a collectivization of calamity. As free thinkers, the party rank and file enjoy the freedom to head in any direction – including the subterranean.

For the nation at large, there’s that nagging question. If the Nepali Congress central committee’s mere decision to draft a post-monarchy manifesto is enough to precipitate a Maoist pullout from the interim government, what might a complete immersion in republicanism produce?

With Prime Minister Koirala on steroids and Maoist supremo Prachanda straining with spondalytis, the national oscillation can only get odder.

Monday, September 17, 2007

New Delhi To Beijing Via Kathmandu?

He came. He saw. But did he conquer?
Winding up his talks in Kathmandu, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon stood firm on the constituent assembly elections being held as scheduled on November 22. Everything else – such as an immediate declaration of a republic by the interim parliament – remains an internal matter for Nepal. Southern non-interference at its best, perhaps.
But there’s that larger question. Did Menon arrive to patch things up among the fractious eight parties in power? Or was he in town essentially to prepare for the next phase of his country’s strategic dialogue with China. Menon’s Chinese itinerary, it may be recalled, was flashed as he was landing in Kathmandu.
The 123 Agreement between India and the United States on civilian nuclear cooperation has brought some interesting Chinese perspectives germane to Nepal. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been most vocal in admonishing New Delhi against annoying Beijing. The public face of this “China’s-interest-is-our-interest” lobby is none other than Sitaram Yechuri, the man instrumental in bringing about the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s 12-point agreement with the Maoists.
Yechuri’s Chinese activism coincided with the intensification of Beijing’s concerns over the quadrilateral strategic interaction involving India, Japan, the United States and Australia. China, needless to say, views this enterprise as one aimed at countering its naval power and presence in the Bay of Bengal/ Indian Ocean region.
New Delhi knows that The New York Times and The Economist have been more critical of the US-India nuclear deal than the Chinese media. Yet South Block is still to recover the pre-shock from President Hu Jintao’s visit to India last year. The Chinese, to recall, had adopted a sharp tone on the border issue, especially on Tawang. The Chinese ambassador in New Delhi asserted his country’s claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. That cast a dark shadow over a visit that was marked by a reaffirmation of the world’s two most popular nations’ intent to bolster ties. In the cooperation-competition-confrontation paradigm, New Delhi remains clueless as to Beijing’s motives and methods in South Asia.
What’s China up to in Nepal? The tealeaves are too crumpled to decipher. India’s “free” newspapers convey the official quandary with great candor; China’s “controlled” media relishes in fueling the guessing game.
The fact that Chinese Ambassador Zheng Xianglin became the first foreign representative to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala raised an important question. Was the gesture a symbol of a monumental policy shift on the part of Beijing, which has traditionally backed the monarchy over pro-Chinese communists? Or was it an affirmation of Beijing’s recognition of the interim constitution? (In which case the term “interim” becomes operative.)
Days later Ambassador Zheng began reaffirming Marshal Chen Yi’s Nepal Doctrine in a way not heard since, well, the original articulation decades ago. The premium put on Nepal’s sovereignty came out loud and clear, regardless of whether the country remained a kingdom or became a republic.
From New Delhi’s vantage point, Beijing’s stance vis-à-vis the Maoists remains nebulous. Ex-rebel supremo Prachanda had demanded at least one of the four major ambassadorships. Considering China’s policy of pragmatism that led to its growing ties with the Maoists, Beijing would have been the logical capital for our comrades to camp in. But, no, the Maoists relented.
Are our northern neighbors still testing the bona fides of the Maoists? That sudden slip into Silguri or Sikkim – wherever it was – couldn’t have earned Prachanda high marks. Prachanda’s audience with President Hu could still be on the cards. For now, Delhi seems more interested in Beijing’s eagerness in becoming a steady supplier of petroleum products.
So Menon and his doubly divine partial namesake heading Delhi’s sprawling mission in Kathmandu have left things in limbo. The saving grace, of course, was Prachanda’s newfound enthusiasm for a legislative declaration of a republic to be endorsed by the constituent assembly. As Nepalis try to sort out this internal matter, all we can do is wait for the next couple of moves on the regional chessboard.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hegemon Hectored By Its Own Haughtiness

From the jumble called the peace process comes another rare flash of candor. Nepal Workers and Peasants Party (NWPP) President Narayan Man Bijukchhe insists that the elections to the constituent assembly would be held only at India’s pleasure.
Before mocking his assertion as an obsequious affirmation of India’s omnipotence, we must delve into the man’s record. Bijukchhe was the first politician to criticize the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s 12-point agreement with the Maoists during King Gyanendra’s direct rule.
Of course, Bijukchhe sounded a little disingenuous at the beginning, especially since his party is part of the SPA. But the man’s underlying objection was to the notion of selling out national sovereignty in the name of restoring democracy. Almost two years later, that has become the defining trepidation of the nation.
Ponder a little deeper and it becomes clear that Bijukchhe’s statement is no so much an assertion of India’s traditional hegemony in Nepal. It’s the creative ambiguity that New Delhi has perfected as it Nepal policy. Playing all sides of the Nepalese political field is something New Delhi inherited from the British Raj. What has changed recently is the domestic content of India’s imperatives.
While the Indian left, right and center have been conducting bilateral relations with fraternal organizations in Nepal, key institutions, too, seem to be anxious. Army Chief Gen. Rookmangad Katawal’s purported four-hour one-on-one with his Indian counterpart in Australia must count for something when opinion polls show the military as the most trusted institution in Nepal.
In all of this, Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee is in an unenviable position. In the end, he had to sneak into talks with King Gyanendra. But he couldn’t fold his sofa bed in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s bedroom. His Excellency’s narration of his palace confabulations at Baluwatar must have elicited more than loud snores from our premier.
The Indians are at a loss for good reason. China’s silence on Nepalese affairs has been as menacing as its increasingly candid statements. Washington, for its part, must have something up its sleeves, especially since James F. Moriarty has returned as ambassador to a country barely 25 kilometers away from where the Maoists had stoned his vehicle.
Ever creative in extending overtures, the Pakistanis scored points by becoming the first foreign government to commiserate with Nepalis during the recent devastating floods. The frequency with which Nepal figures on copy transmitted by the Islamic Republic News Agency and Prensa Latina makes you wonder how far stakeholders in our stability are spread out.
Coming back to the constituent assembly elections, many Nepalis believe the Indians have already drawn up the text the people’s representatives are supposed to draft. Maila Baje strongly disputes those reports. New Delhi already must have drawn up a couple of different drafts conforming to specific scenarios.