Sunday, November 25, 2007

An Eeriness About This Patriotism

Patriotism has suddenly become politically chic. Maoist chairman Prachanda has turned into an ardent champion in recent days. The country’s pre-eminent non-communist republican, Narhari Acharya of the Nepali Congress, is anguished by the bevy of foreigners bolstering his cause. Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) leader K.P. Sharma Oli sees in the Maoists’ camaraderie with a section of his party a diabolic plot against the entire nation. In a recent speech, Prachanda suggested his People’s Liberation Army and the Nepal Army fight together in the Terai in defense of Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Elsewhere, the Maoist chief had warm words for his erstwhile battlefield adversaries – or, rather, their bosses. Still castigating the national military as politically defeated, Prachanda said the generals couldn’t be blamed for the delay in integrating the two armies. The former rebel in chief’s olive branch came amid incessant warnings sounded by his key lieutenants of an imminent military coup.
Admittedly, Prachanda is doing everything he can to cast off the image created by his recent trip to the Indian Embassy – Dr. Baburam Bhattarai in tow – in the cover of darkness. The widespread belief that Indian Ambassador Shivshanker Mukherjee himself chose to tip off reporters to this surreptitious visit has irked Maoist hardliners and moderates alike.
Whether Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai really dance to the tune of Lainchaur Darbar seems to have become immaterial to the rank and file. More germane is what they consider New Delhi’s sustained effort to discredit the ex-rebels’ nationalistic credentials. So when Prachanda claimed that his party’s relations with the Americans were improving of late, he did not have to elaborate with specific examples.
Acharya, to be sure, cannot forget how Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala once labeled him a “palace agent” for peddling the republican agenda at uncomfortable times. When all those files on Acharya’s computer hard drive went missing during the royal regime, monarchists couldn’t help commiserating with this loss of intellectual property. (Did some of the purloined material find its way to the Carter Center?)
Undaunted, Acharya pressed on, battling prickly questions as to his true motives. Former US president Jimmy Carter’s compromise formula – the immediate declaration of a republic that would be endorsed by elected representatives of the people – undoubtedly raised the profile of the principal snag in the peace process. But Acharya seemed to consider Carter’s ebullience a slap on his face.
As Koirala’s stock continues to plummet in New Delhi, the premier’s uncharacteristic and overt commitment to the national interest is being cited as the trigger for a more conspicuous breach. By bolstering that internal prop, Acharya has no doubt done a good turn to his party chief.
Rejuvenated after a kidney transplant in New Delhi, Oli is still recovering from the abruptness with which his own party threw him overboard earlier this year. Even if UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal wanted him out of the cabinet that bad, he could have still pressed for the same rank for Sahana Pradhan. How prudent was it for the UML to accept a demotion just to make sure neither the Maoists nor the Nepali Congress got the deputy premiership? As UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal is drawn to that elusive premiership on the back of the Maoists, Oli has become a leading apologist for the Nepali Congress.
This outpouring of patriotism may have come too late, especially when Nepalis find fewer and fewer things to be all that humble about. Still, the gush feels good, right? Maybe not. As a virtue of the vicious, this sentiment may yet be a subterfuge to squander what remains.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Populist Resonance Of Regressive Politics

A cliché is haunting Nepal; the cliché of constitutional exceptionalism. Specifically, the inviolability of the 1990 constitution, touted until the night of October 4, 2002 as one of the world’s best.
Granted, the only people who publicly celebrated what would have been 16th anniversary of that document earlier this month belonged to an obscure group. When Sujata Koirala, the feisty daughter of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, fired the first salvo, the country sat up and took notice. The ad hocism of the last 18 months, she asserted, must be corrected by reactivating the 1990 constitution.
Sujata’s rival for the dynasty’s mantle, cousin Shekhar, snuggled into the debate from a slightly circuitous route. The Nepali Congress, he stated, cannot violate the principle of constitutionalism in order to overthrow the monarchy.
Of late, relations among Sujata, Shekhar and Prakash Koirala, the eldest son of B.P. Koirala who was a minister in King Gyanendra’s much-maligned government, have improved considerably, we hear. If these reports are true, then there is a narrative here. This camaraderie cannot be explained as the result of the deaths of co-matriarchs Sushila and Nona, mothers of Prakash and Shekhar respectively.
For the Nepali Congress, the hardening of posture vis-à-vis the communists could not have been better timed. When the Maoists and the Unified Marxist-Leninists ganged up against the senior partner of the ruling alliance to adopt non-binding resolutions directing the government to lay the groundwork for a republic and an electoral system of full proportional representation, many rushed to draft the obituary of the Nepali Congress.
Before Prime Minister Koirala ever felt his job was seriously threatened, the UML recognized the Maoists’ comradeship for what it is: an effort to split the mainstream communist party that was hoping to win the constituent assembly elections.
What the Nepali Congress understood with greater clarity was the speediness with which the Maoists virtually abandoned their demand for a constituent assembly. If our ex-rebels really deluded themselves they could get away with subverting the elections without leaving fingerprints, developments in Cambodia must have come as a rude awakening.
With Khieu Samphan joining Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea in government detention ahead of a genocide trial by a UN-backed tribunal, our Khmer Rouge soul mates may have lost any traces of triumph.
Admittedly, Nepal has moved far beyond the contours laid out by the 1990 constitution. Bishwanath Upadhyaya, the man who headed the panel that drafted that document, proudly rubbished 90 percent of the suggestions he received, saying they pertained to language, culture, ethnicity and other irrelevant issues.
His co-panelist, Laxman Prasad Aryal, who led the group that drew up the interim constitution, was expected to rectify that flaw. But Aryal has long ceased to recognize the statute as what his panel had submitted to the Seven-Party Alliance and the Maoists.
Upadhyaya, for his part, seems to have become a champion of draconian measures to safeguard the rule of law during these extraordinary times. Nepalis needed some drastic intervention that might even entail a temporary suspension our liberties, Upadhyaya was recently quoted as saying. The kicker: whoever took such a “courageous” step would stand to create a fresh chapter in Nepal’s political history.
Don’t expect King Gyanendra to invoke Article 127 anytime soon to reactivate the 1990 Constitution and dissolve the interim parliament and government. Don’t single him out as the emblem of regressive politics, either.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

In Substance, The Challenge Stands

It’s one of those mystifying moments again. A government minister publicly claims that the Maoists and the monarchists have joined hands in a grand alliance against the mainstream democrats.
Prithvi Subba Gurung’s assertion comes days after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala purportedly told his extended family that King Gyanendra had emerged the real winner from the mêlée called the peace process.
The geopolitical strokes are no less intriguing. Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful personage in the world’s most populous democracy, goes to China tugging along royal relative Karan Singh. After that, Wang Hongwei, the preeminent Chinese spokesman on Nepalese affairs passes an opportunity to go ballistic on King Gyanendra’s direct rule.
Then comes a bit of history. Indira Gandhi almost took up King Birendra’s offer of asylum for her extended family after she lost the 1977 elections amid popular revulsion over her emergency rule. By now, you’re forced to wonder whether the Rajiv Gandhi-King Birendra frostiness was really as icy as it was made out to be on the eve of April Uprising I.
Then-Prince Gyanendra was reportedly the intermediary, a former Indian foreign secretary told us in the aftermath of the 2001 palace massacre. That assertion came in an effort to quell growing speculation that the newly enthroned monarch was congenitally anti-Indian.
Six years down the road, the Indians are eager to punish the king for shifting the geopolitical locus of South Asia northward by bringing China into SAARC. But how far can you go when a dynasty’s genetically dominant heart disease skips a generation and strikes Crown Prince Paras.
The notion of a Baby King – enthroning the monarch’s grandson Hridayendra to revitalize the institution – hasn’t quite warmed up the hearts of monarchists. Circumstances have helped King Gyanendra reiterate the reality that, in a monarchy, you don’t get to choose the king.
With India once again on the cusp of dynastic politics – and seemingly out of the clutches of communists – the ex-royals that dominate the ruling Congress Party must be pondering their own dilemma: how do you make a king repent for something he doesn’t believe was wrong?
Back home, each of the king’s adversaries recognizes how badly they need him. Of course, palace bashing was the principal adhesive of the mainstream-Maoist alliance to begin with. The difference now is that each of the protagonists needs the monarch for its own different reasons.
The Nepali Congress, in its newfound struggle for self-preservation, needs a bulwark against the onslaught of a broader communist front it thought could never materialize. The Maoists need the king to ratchet up their rhetoric, especially the nationalism variant revived by their disenchantment with India.
The Unified Marxist Leninists need the palace, if nothing else, to keep both the Nepali Congress and the Maoists guessing. UML ministers, after all, are the most vociferous in claiming that the government was under no obligation to implement the latest legislative directive on laying the groundwork for a republic.
The three major external stakeholders are equally flustered over one other’s true beliefs vis-à-vis the monarchy. They know they cannot afford to remain silent should things spin out of control, which looks increasingly likely.
If we are to believe that, by assuming direct control of government on February 1, 2005, King Gyanendra defied the world to accept him over the messed up mainstream and the marauding Maoists, then we must acknowledge that the substance of that challenge is still alive.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Compromise(d) Solution

After nearly a month of high-stakes legislative posturing, blighting the Dasain bonhomie, the best the Maoists could claim was a resolution directing the government to prepare the groundwork for declaring Nepal a republic as well as fixing a new election date for the star-crossed constituent assembly.
The proportional representation front brought a worse PR fiasco. The nonbinding nature of both votes says it all. The people, again, have been taken for a ride. Or have they? For many, from the outset, the only thing special about this session of the interim legislature was its senselessness.
Each constituent of the ruling Six Party Alliance (SPA) had formally espoused the cause of republicanism. Clearly, Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara could have used his erstwhile position in the cabinet to press his party’s agenda. In retrospect, by quitting the cabinet, the Maoists only acknowledged their inherent ineptitude to govern.
The triumphalism echoing across the ruling establishment stands in sharp contrast to the mood among its fellow travelers, not to speak of ordinary Nepalese. Laxman Prasad Aryal, the chief drafter of the interim constitution, has decried the ad hoc legislature for adopting “anti-constitutional proposals”. (Not that the twice-amended document really resembles the text Aryal and his cohorts drew up.) Other notable legal scholars, spanning the political spectrum, have underscored the inherent futility of the exercise. Some have even posited that the constituent assembly now has been pushed deeper into uncertainty.
If the trajectory of our “new” Nepal has been trivialized, the fault lies collectively with the architects. The principal pivot of the peace process – the fallacy of holding the monarchy responsible for Nepal’s problems – now lies in tatters. The “mandate” of the April Uprising was not the abolition of the monarchy. It was reinterpreted as such amid the political whirlwind whipped up in large part by the Indian sponsors of the 12-point agreement between the SPA and the Maoists. (The fact that the two sides came out with different texts on a supposedly ground-breaking alliance underscored its tentativeness.)
Even then, republicanism was little more than a tactic to bully King Gyanendra into submission ahead of a redesigned monarchy. Evidently, that hasn’t worked for New Delhi. The crux of the matter was apparent all along. Long before loktantra entered the Nepalese lexicon as an apt translation for a kingless democracy, successive monarchs had been using lok sammati (popular will) as the guiding principle of their reign.
Also thoroughly exposed was the ruling alliance’s fraudulence in accusing the Maoists of kicking up the republic frenzy. The entire political establishment had voted for the second amendment to the interim statute that, among other things, provided for the immediate abolition of the monarchy if the palace were found to be conspiring against the constituent assembly polls.
If the palace is indeed behind the post-April Uprising instability, then that provision does enjoy relevance. Obviously, the SPA couldn’t afford to be seen or heard defending the palace against the Maoists’ charges of conspiracy. So the inane became inseparable from the impeccable
The Unified Marxist-Leninists can gloat all they wants over having fashioned an 11th-hour compromise that has essentially compromised the SPA’s ability to govern. The Nepalese people are too smart to miss the sham.