Monday, December 31, 2007

Dude, Where’s My Country?

As our seven satraps gloated over Nepal’s gambol to republicanism, two events on the other side offered a gleaming contrast. As Maila Baje surveyed the hundreds of people that converged on the royal palace gates to extend birthday greetings to Crown Prince Paras, the first thing that struck him was the diversity.
One saw a similar multiplicity at Durbar Marg two weeks earlier, as hundreds assembled in front of King Mahendra’s statue to commemorate his 1960 takeover. If the palace really staged both events – the critics’ standard line – then it did a pretty good job of rounding up a representative sample.
From youths donning baseball caps to older Nepalis attired in their respective cultural brilliance, the turnout epitomized the nation we are being incited to abhor. What inspired these men and women to come out in support of what is increasingly portrayed as a sinking ship? And that, too, amid palpable threats from the more militant sections of the ruling establishment?
Almost two years after the collapse of King Gyanendra’s regime, Maoist guns have fallen silent in deference to a contrived peace process. Who knows when they will start booming again? Moreover, warning shots are being fired from all sides as new disgruntled groups emerge. Pre-1769 Nepal has returned in its full scariness. While everybody is busy articulating their victimhood, petty principalities are looming large in the name of inclusion.
Pashupati Shamsher Rana and Pari Thapa represent opposite poles of the political spectrum. That didn’t stop them from voting against the third amendment to the interim constitution. Madhesi leader Upendra Yadav is already demanding a fourth amendment specifically to address his region’s grievances. And he’s not the only spokesperson for geographically defined grudges.
The advent of a republic has failed to enthuse diehard followers of the seven ruling parties, for different reasons. Deep down, they surely know that it wasn’t part of the original manifesto of the April Uprising. True, venomous anti-monarchy slogans were raised by the tens of thousands who took to the streets. But what about the millions who stayed home? Could any genuine drivers of democracy have the audacity to expropriate the people’s sovereign rights?
With distance, the practical dimensions of change have become too obvious. If the Maoists truly believed the movement was for ending the monarchy, why didn’t they press on and move toward Narayanhity? And why didn’t the mainstream opposition parties rebuff King Gyanendra’s reinstatement of the House of Representatives and push for a full-fledged republic? As for ordinary Nepalis, there is only one way of finding out what they really think. No wonder a referendum on the monarchy is what scares the seven parties.
The goal posts have been shifting in the name of the peace process, primarily because the masterminds of the 12-point alliance are busy playing all sides. At this very moment, New Delhi is probably pressuring the palace on precisely those matters the monarchy has traditionally resisted. With Beijing and Washington having emerged as more robust players since the restoration of democracy, India is probably under new urgency to calibrate its Nepal policy.
The country is a republic, but the monarchy could be abolished if it were found to be conspiring against the constituent assembly elections. The contradiction doesn’t stop there. The Nepali Congress finds it expedient to commemorate National Reconciliation Day while undermining the monarchy B.P. Koirala counseled a rapprochement with in the interest of preserving national independence.
Regardless of the effort the seven parties have put in defending this sleight of hand, the people recognize the 23-point agreement for what it is: an affirmation to hold on to power at all costs.
Few people have a problem with that. What’s galling is the SPA’s haughtiness in blaming the palace for our ills while conceding everything to a growing number of external power centers pushing their own agendas.
In that sense, the royal commemorations convey a larger message. Having been denied the right to determine the future of their country, people are beginning to vote with their feet.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Probing The Parallel Peace Process

The ruling alliance has finally decided to declare Nepal a “federal democratic republic state,” a status that would be ratified by the first sitting of the constituent assembly. Their resolve to hold the elections within mid-April, together with the Maoists’ apparent readiness to rejoin the interim government, has contrived a modicum of stability.
With the Six Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists dominating the interim legislature, the relevant amendments to the interim constitution should breeze through. Despite their public opposition, “royalists” within the Nepali Congress can be expected to go along with these changes, now that even the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) has disavowed official links to the monarchy.
Ordinarily, the spectacle of a self-appointed assembly striving to make such a sensitive decision, with the monarch safely ensconced in the palace, would prompt jeers of derision. The absence of rudimentary national debate on such issues as federalism and democracy a post-monarchy Nepal would have underscored the buffoonery.
They don’t because these public moves seem to have provided a smokescreen for a parallel peace process. From conversations in Kathmandu over the last several days with individuals familiar with this relatively stealthy exercise, Maila Baje can identify the two principal domestic protagonists: Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katawal and Maoist supremo Prachanda. The external players are the usual suspects: India, China and the United States.
No source this blogger spoke to could offer a coherent plan in the works, but these conversations did suggest broad outlines. Central to this initiative is the retention of the monarchy in a ceremonial form with overt backing of the Maoists.
This “nationalist” realignment is understood to have been the principal pivot of China’s growing activism in the country. When State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister, arrived in Kathmandu during the final weeks of King Gyanendra’s regime, he had received categorical pledges of support for the monarchy from principal Nepali opposition leaders.
After its early overtures to the former rebels, Beijing was subsequently said to have given a specified timeframe to Prachanda to persuade his rank and file of the urgency of building an alliance with the palace. The Maoist supremo’s much-anticipated visit to China is believed to be contingent upon his ability to rally his party behind him.
Maoist representatives visiting Beijing have, almost to the person, have been politely reminded of that imperative, while successive Chinese delegations in Nepal have pressed the point directly with former rebel leaders.
Growing Chinese assertiveness is believed to have precipitated a thorough review of India’s policy on Nepal. Gen. Katuwal’s high-profile visit to India provided the public manifestation of an impending shift. Nepali Congress leader Sujata Koirala’s less conspicuous discussions in New Delhi reinforced key tenets for Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s benefit.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s personal intervention is said to have been behind the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)’s chief’s recent visit to Nepal. Although he met with all leading power centers, according to Nepali sources, the RAW chief was preoccupied with covering his tracks on a strategy gone awry.
The United States, for its part, is believed to be amenable to a military-backed government led by the Nepali Congress. Washington, which seems more insistent on holding a popular referendum on the monarchy than on constituent assembly elections, believes such a government would draw the support of the RPP and Rastriya Janashakti Party as well as an influential section of the Unified Marxist-Leninists. The monarchy, in the run-up to a referendum, would remain out of the public scene.
That specific proviso runs counter to Beijing’s instincts, according to sources. The Chinese, with an eye on the Beijing Olympics, are averse to doing anything precipitous. On the other hand, they see the referendum plan as a prelude to the end of the monarchy. Still distrustful of the Maoists’ links to constituencies in India, Beijing views the monarchy at the center of the nationalist plank in Nepal. Gen. Katuwal’s upcoming visit to China may not be as high profile as his visit down south, but, according to Nepali military sources, it promises to be politically significant.
Significantly, the Nepali Army figures prominently in all three external stakeholders’ political calculations. Senior commanders, contrary to rumors of frenzied jockeying for power, are apprehensive of the political establishment’s record of destroying the police between 1990 and 2002. Concern for professionalism remains the strongest adhesive in the military.
The Maoists seem most worried by this external convergence. During the height of the Madhes movement last winter, the former rebels seemed confident that the most segregated institution, in that context, would desist from striking. The dramatic dissipation of the movement seems to have reinforced Maoist fears of external involvement to their detriment. Accordingly, a dominant section of the former rebels is trying to woo the generals and soldiers alike with the nationalism plank.
The Young Communist League’s recent warning of a mass revolt should the party leadership forge ties with royalists was played down by key Maoist functionaries during recent conversations with this blogger. They seem to be growing extremely anxious about their physical well-being. This, they concede, may nudge prominent mid-level leaders toward an alliance with the palace.
As for the rank-and-file, according to these sources, the same threat of an “externally inspired campaign of physical liquidation” could significantly tone down their recalcitrance over the next few months. Prachanda may then get his long-cherished audience with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Divided They Stand

Wearied by the re-
assembly-election-first rigmarole, Maila Baje decided the other day to take solace in a once-favorite refuge: the Reporters Club. The fact that Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) president Pashupati Shamsher Rana was scheduled to speak proved an added attraction.
Quietly taking a seat among relatively younger scribes, one was enthralled by Rana’s fieriness. Admittedly, the newly re-elected RPP chief’s threat to launch a decisive movement against the Six Party Alliance-Maoist combine if the interim legislature voted in favor of a republic was little more than bluster. Considering the latest allegations of fraud gripping the recent party elections, it’s doubtful whether any significant number of RPP activists would join street protests.
Rana’s support for a fully proportional representation system was hardly surprising, either. Ostensibly, the RPP expects to gain seats commensurate with the popular votes it would get, something it was denied during each of the three parliamentary elections since 1991.
Where Rana really excelled was in his articulation of the RPP’s agenda for the constituent assembly elections. Claiming that the seven parties in power – Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala hasn’t accepted the Maoist ministers’ resignations – had appropriated the people’s rights, Rana said he would exhort the people toward regaining their sovereignty.
In his impeccable Nepali, amplified by a near baritone, Rana built a sturdy case against a government that, by all reckoning, is bent on perpetuating itself into permanence. The RPP chief’s finger-wagging from the lectern prompted scribes around Maila Baje to scribble along. How much of those notes would be reflected in news coverage was a different matter.
As Rana spoke, Maila Baje couldn’t help marvel at how Panchayat-era politicians, despite their own rifts, have emerged as the preeminent voices of the opposition. Former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, like Rana, is a member of the interim legislature. His reflections in the house draw some news inches and airtime. It’s Thapa’s comments at public functions that tend to provide the people with a broader perspective of current events.
Kamal Thapa, home minister in King Gyanendra’s regime, handles hostile questions with great aplomb. In a recent BBC interview, questioner after questioner seemed genuinely intrigued by his open support for the continuation of the monarchy.
Rabindra Nath Sharma, chief of Kamal Thapa’s breakaway RPP-Nepal, has been enduring physical blows in his campaigning for the monarchy. Largely credited with masterminding Lokendra Bahadur Chand’s and Surya Bahadur Thapa’s return as premier with UML and Nepali Congress backing respectively, Sharma recently said he did so to expose the two main parties’ greed for power.
Divided the ex-panchas most certainly are. Maybe that’s why they're standing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bruised But Unbroken ...

Education Minister Pradeep Nepal, in some ways, sounds like a man ahead of his time. Long before Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala offered the advice, Nepal had urged King Gyanendra to abdicate and reside in the country as a respectable citizen.
Last winter, that counsel was viewed as part of the manoeuvrings in the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party. Specifically, Nepal’s remark was seen as an effort to torpedo the idea of a referendum on the monarchy, which his boss and (sur)namesake Madhav Kumar Nepal had been advocating. That was then, of course, when the UML was pushing for full proportional representation and the Maoists insisted on a mixed system.
Months after joining the Koirala cabinet this year, Nepal began insisting that the interim legislature didn’t have the authority to abolish the monarchy. This notwithstanding the fact that the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists had jointly railroaded the second amendment to the interim statute specifically empowering our unelected representatives to do precisely that.
When Maoist leader Prachanda began dangling the premiership to Madhav Nepal in a flash of broader Red bonhomie, Pradeep Nepal came out with a great revelation. Koirala would rather return power to the palace than see the UML chief finally get his job. If that remark ended up shoring up Koirala, it was an unintended consequence. Pradeep Nepal doesn’t seem happy in the cabinet.
For weeks on, he had a hard time getting the premier appoint university vice-chancellors. Koirala did make the appointments, but that didn’t seem to help. Last month, Nepal accused Koirala of preventing him from carrying out his work.
The reason? Koirala’s purported fear that the UML would score electoral points if the people saw the Education Ministry function smoothly. Echoing comments by former Maoist ministers Matrika Yadav and Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Nepal claimed the premier simply didn’t understand the meaning of cooperation. He didn’t stop there. Nepal described himself as “the most victimised person at the hands of the premier.” (Yadav and Mahara would probably dispute that categorical assertion.)
Still, Pradeep Nepal is against changing the leadership of the government during these trying times. It’s easy to dismiss his stance as an act of self-preservation. Nepal, after all, runs the risk of losing his job should Koirala step down voluntarily or under pressure. (Not that he would lack a political platform. We heard recently that he is a promoter of Saptakoshi FM.)
As the rest of the country remains petrified by repeated delays in the constituent assembly elections, Nepal remains unruffled. Where have such important elections been held on schedule, he asked one recent interviewer. With the specific examples he laid out – from Guatemala to South Africa – not a few nerves must have been somewhat soothed.
In his latest policy position, Nepal wants a merger of the Maoist fighting force with the national army before the constituent assembly elections. That way, he argues, the Maoists wouldn’t be able to avoid the elections. A smart move indeed, if the Maoists were the only ones uninterested in seeking a popular mandate.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Myths That Deserve To Be ‘Flattened’

The maelstrom created by Maoist supremo Prachanda’s call to include royalists in a new Nepal makes it easy to miss the significance of another story relating to the monarchy.
The Times of India carried a piece on a new book that “demolishes the popular myth that the kings of Nepal are reincarnations of Hindu god Vishnu and even the belief that they are descendants of the ruling Rajputs of India.”
Under the stimulating headline “Book flattens Nepal king’s divine myth,” the reporter covered Subodh Singh’s work tracing the ancestry of the Shah dynasty to Magars and Tharus. Both, the reporter pointedly reminded readers, are “low in Nepal’s social hierarchy.”
Without having read the book, it would be difficult for one to address the specific revelations in The Return of the Mauryans. Evidently, the author provided enough material to allow the newspaper to carry that storyline with sufficient credibility.
For purposes here, therefore, the Times text is the focus.
The issue of divinity is something the monarchy’s adversaries have long used against the institution and for their own narrow purposes. Rana prime ministers perpetuated this deification primarily to confine successive kings within palace walls.
For modern mainstream politicians, divinity morphed into constitutionalism. Specifically, elected politicians after the 1990 change sought to curtail the king’s space to just enough to prevent asphyxiation.
Admittedly, the monarchy has benefited from this aura of divinity. Yet, in all fairness, no monarch has ever claimed such a status. After his accession in 1972, King Birendra addressed the issue in interviews with western journalists. In a conversation with a Newsweek reporter, he described the popular perception of his being an incarnation of Lord Vishnu as something influenced by tradition.
King Gyanendra has been more categorical. When a reporter for TIME magazine brought up the subject in early 2004, the monarch sounded palpably ecstatic. Expressing delight that his role had been spelled out in terms of “the preserver of all things,” King Gyanendra added emphatically: “But I’m a pragmatic and practical person. I’ve never said I’m God.”
Far louder have been the actions of the two kings. Undiluted divinity would have precluded King Birendra from making that high-profile pilgrimage to Sai Baba and wearing that locket until his tragic end. The fact that King Gyanendra was so demonized for his abiding belief in higher powers absolves him from charges of harboring divine aspirations.
The perception persists also because it serves some value. Amid the global convulsions precipitated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, how might Nepal have garnered the sustained attention of western news editors but for the Vishnu verisimilitude palmed off by their color-starved reporters? Fast forward 16 years and the secularization of the world’s only Hindu state made the greatest sense in the context of the humbling of its monarch.
The book helps debunk a second myth. If the Shahs’ roots are really among Magars and Tharus, wouldn’t that make them, contrary to some detractors’ claims, among the original inhabitants of the country?

Monday, December 03, 2007

The RPP: Radicalism Or Ruse?

This isn’t a good time to be Pashupati Shamsher Rana. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) chairman opposed King Gyanendra’s direct rule to the point of allowing the party to split. The breakaway group led by Kamal Thapa considered Rana as much of a destabilizer as the agitating opposition alliance. Yet to this day, few Nepalis consider Rana little more than a palace frontman.
Rana’s claim to formal recognition as the opposition leader in the interim legislature would have helped the ruling alliance. The perception of a fractured coalition fumbling in power might have been dispelled to significant degree by the RPP’s cutting perorations. The Six Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists might have succeeded in raising the anti-monarchy banner higher in the house. Their compulsion for political cover apparently paled when considering the perils of countenancing the ex-panchas in a parliamentary role on the road to a new Nepal.
The ruling establishment’s loss hasn’t translated into Rana’s gain. A man who won all five adult-franchise-based elections since 1981 from his Sindupalchowk constituency is still struggling to establish his party’s democratic credentials.
In a sense, political fortune has looked kindly upon Rana. He was knee-deep in the Tanakpur waters in the final years of the Panchayat system. But Girija Prasad Koirala is who the country associates with the blot. As to the parliamentary ratification of the much-maligned Mahakali Treaty, how many people remember Rana’s exuberance that the sun had dawned from the west? Or, for that matter, his refusal to join the cabinet of one-time boss Lokendra Bahadur Chand because he didn’t get his favorite water resources ministry?
On the personal front, too, Rana has largely avoided major political ramifications. After the Narayanhity massacre in 2001, Rana was well placed to shed light on the tragedy. He is, after all, the father of the woman Crown Prince Dipendra couldn’t marry, driving him to open fire on everyone around him before turning the gun on himself.
Equally, Devyani’s Dad could easily have sustained the competing theory that would have exonerated the crown prince. Yet Rana was about the only person of interest that kept quiet – and got away with it. By the time Devyani returned to Kathmandu for her wedding reception, hardly anyone recalled her as the palpably distraught woman who had refused to depose in person before the panel probing the massacre.
In the run-up to the party convention, the RPP has dropped references to constitutional monarchy from the statute and all other official documents. But it stopped short of openly espousing a democratic republic, largely because of Rana’s stand, we are told. In fact, republicanism has gained significant ground in the party, with some erstwhile members of the partyless legislature among key advocates.
This camp has readied an alternative to Rana at the convention should matters take a divisive turn. The party chief, for his part, seems prepared with a proposal to coalesce the royalist factions of Surya Bahadur Thapa and Rabindra Nath Sharma under Chand’s leadership.
A year ago, Rana signaled that some momentous change was underway in the party. In a speech in Biratnagar, he rejected suggestions that the RPP was a royalist group. Thereafter, the party took a major step in repudiating its relations with the palace while registering with the Election Commission for the constituent assembly polls.
The RPP characterizes its latest posture as a prudent “middle path,” between republicans and monarchists. It could just as well mean the party is setting on the fence. The RPP probably believes that an avowedly monarchist party wouldn’t garner significant votes amid the frenzy whipped up by SPA and Maoists. Otherwise, it would not have let the breakaway RPP (Nepal) hog that field.
Or perhaps the RPP has been watching the Nepali Congress rather closely. Even after the party convention that plunged the largest democratic party into the sea of republicanism, the Nepali Congress is finding it difficult to break its bonds with the monarchy in the interest of self-preservation.
Considering the number of power-brokers in the Nepali Congress that seem to have recognized the political benefits of the monarchy amid a resurgence of the Reds, a lot could change in terms of the party’s voting pattern in a putative constituent assembly.
So it comes down to this. If an overtly republican platform needn’t constrain the Nepali Congress’ room for maneuver vis-à-vis the monarchy, why should it impede the RPP’s more nuanced approach?