Monday, January 29, 2007

Cooption Is Not An Option

Hridayesh Tripathy, the senior-most Madhesi in the cabinet, steps down accusing the government of indifference to the conflagration in the Terai. And what does the government do to rebut him? It arrests Kamal Thapa and Badri Mandal, ministers in the royal regime.
No wonder, a week after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala invited Madhesi leaders for talks on regional grievances fuelling the unrest, dialogue remains as elusive as ever.
The Seven-Party Alliance (SPA)’s doggedness in dismissing the violence in the Terai as a plot hatched by reactionary royalists to subvert the constituent assembly elections is disgraceful.
The Maoists are more defiant. At least, they have a reason. The Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, which is spearheading the movement, is led by a former Maoist, Upendra Yadav (pictured). For the former “People’s Warriors,” acknowledgment of those ethnic and regional grievances as genuine would undercut the principal success they claim their decade-long murder and mayhem achieved.
From Bedananda Jha to Gajendra Narayan Singh, the Madhesi movement has progressed in different ways. The former fulminated against, among other things, the imposition of a language that required parents to refer to sons with an honorific locally reserved for the father (babu). When it came to daughters, the new term of endearment (nani) stepped up a generation. Yet the Panchayat system co-opted Jha, who went on to head the Raj Sabha as well as serve as Nepal’s ambassador to, yes, India.
Singh’s movement grew out of Harka Gurung’s population report toward the final years of the Panchayat regime. His plea for the recognition of Hindi and the regional attire inside the Rastriya Panchayat symbolized the region’s quest for inclusion. With homogeneity the order of the day, Singh’s approach to promoting goodwill was a non-starter.
Following the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Singh renamed his organization into a full-fledged party. Nepal Sadbhavana Party could surmount the strict constitutional provisions on political parties whereas many northern nationalities found themselves disqualified for their purported “communalism.”
Yet it was hardly smooth sailing for the NSP. The Madhesis had been coopted once again by a constitution whose principal architect, Bishwanath Upadhyaya, took great pride in having rubbished 90 percent of the public’s recommendations. (Yes, he actually said the country could not afford to get entangled in demands for ethnic, regional and linguistic autonomy.)
When Kathmandu erupted in violent frenzy in late 2000 over slurs falsely attributed to a top Indian actor, Singh’s party offices in the capital were vandalized. In the final months of his life, Singh must have been tempted to rubbish any direct correlation between partylessness and an exclusionary state.
This time, things are different. The blogosphere is full of anti-pahadi rants for, among other things, the tendency to discredit the movement as part of a royalist plot. The demolitions of statues and B.P. Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh, along with the ransacking of UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal’s home, underscores the seriousness of the crisis.
Admittedly, the SPA and the Maoists find it difficult to accuse India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party for fomenting the unrest to restore Nepal’s Hindu identity. After all, it hasn’t been a year since unfamiliar multitudes drove “Jana Andolan II” and gave what the SPA and the Maoists consider an “historic” mandate in perpetuity.
The state and Madhesis are operating in different universes. The SPA-Maoist combine wants the movement to let the constituent assembly institutionalize Nepalis’ hard-won gains first. The movement rejects that premise by challenging the representation envisaged by the interim constitution. Thapa’s and Mandal’s arrests are just another snub to the movement.
Prime Minister Koirala is probably sympathetic to the movement. He might genuinely consider himself a Madhesi, given the Koirala clan’s roots in Morang. Moreover, the prime minister’s electoral constituency has never left the greater Sunsari-Morang belt.
The real issue, though, is whether madhesis consider him one of their own.
Might they were Upendra Yadav to win a seat in the constituent assembly from, say, Taplejung under a revised interim statute? Cooption is not an option, this time.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Deja Voodoo

The process of creating a new Nepal contains too many echoes of the old. Consider, for instance, the Maoists’ continuing contempt for the escalating Madhesi movement.
The Nepali Congress, Unified Marxist-Leninists and the motley parliamentary crew had displayed similar disdain for the early People Warriors. A band of misguided thugs backed by royalists struggling to ward off irrelevance, according to the mainstream view, was bent on subverting Nepalis’ hard-won democracy.
Today Maoist chairman Prachanda sounds pretty much like Khum Bahadur Khadka. The Maoists would be tamed in a week, the powerful Nepali Congress home minister had thundered after the first shots were fired in 1996. (Could this be why they chose his constituency, Dang, to take their insurgency straight into the ex-Royal Nepal Army (RNA) barracks after the collapse of the peace process in November 2001?)
Today, our president-in-waiting would be lucky to get a loyalist to head the home ministry – not entirely because of U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, wants the Maoists and the military to face war crime trials. (Too late for that truth and reconciliation commission, eh?)
Now, Arbour probably hasn’t forgiven King Gyanendra for mounting the February 1, 2005 takeover days after she issued a stern warning in Kathmandu against the militarization of the kingdom. But she also understands that the human rights agency of the United Nations is the last international body that could afford to offend Washington by giving the Maoists a pass.
If the supreme commander of the ex-RNA is to be held responsible for mowing down two dozen protesters in April, can his counterpart expect to evade justice for the 13,000-plus deaths over the last decade?
Actually, the buck doesn’t stop there. From Operation Romeo to Kilo Sierra 2 to full military deployment under a state of emergency, every mainstream political party has blood on its hands. King Gyanendra can expect familiar company at the International Criminal Court, if it ever comes to that.
Our eight clans of new courtiers, publicly gloating over the marginalization of the monarchy, were already bothered in private by the royal silence. Deep depression, Internet gambling, spiritual introspection – what could it be? Arbour’s ardor has made things scarier.
Donning a new mustache, the monarch seems prepared for the adornments of a ceremonial monarchy. That, too, at a time when Crown Prince Paras has started making headlines for hosting a sober birthday party.
One Maoist leader thinks the palace may be preparing for an epic battle. The king is trying to buy off top Maoist leaders and media organizations, according to Pampha Bhusal. But she, too, is regurgitating her rants as an engineering student during the pre-referendum student movement. (Whether she was actually a student of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai at Pulchowk Campus remains to be established, though.)
Nepal’s rebirth should have been more propitious, especially under the midwifery of a man who took part in the struggle that forced Padma Shamsher to draw up Nepal’s first constitution.
Girija Prasad Koirala, who has been at the center of the creation of all successor statutes in one way or the other, is likely to oversee the adoption of the country’s seventh basic law. He, more than any other Nepali, is Mao Zedong’s quintessential permanent revolutionary.
That might have been a sobering thought in easier times. It certainly isn’t when followers of the Great Helmsman are driving the government, Koirala’s own health is failing and ancient grievances are dictating the march ahead. No wonder our prime minister sounds uncomfortable with all the power he has under the interim constitution.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Maoization of the Mainstream?

The alacrity with which the government moved to reject U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty’s suggestion that the Maoists have offered crummy weapons to the United Nations and retained the more sophisticated components of their arsenal leads up to a key question. Has the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) mainstreamed the Maoists or is the other way around?
In its urgency to seal that broader imperative of emaciating – if not entirely eliminating at this point – the palace, the SPA is understandably anxious to defend the Maoists. Yet when a then-Royal Nepal Army helicopter came down near Malangawa during the last weeks of the royal regime, the SPA was cheering this audacious humbling of the state army by its newfound comrades in arm.
Clearly, the arms issue is relevant here. Nobody is really interested in what the Nepali Congress did with the arms it accumulated during its anti-palace insurgencies. B.P. Koirala conceded that Indira Gandhi commandeered part of that arsenal for the campaign to “liberate” Bangladesh. Nepali Congress activists themselves have said the remainder was substantial and under the supervision of our current premier.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is under no obligation to clarify things. By the end of 1976, when B.P. Koirala finally fused nationalism and democracy into a plea for reconciliation, it was pretty clear that the Nepali Congress’ principal foreign sponsor had given up on armed action as tool of political change. (B.P. must have opted for the serenity of Sundarijal long before he made that fateful announcement. Some of the same agencies that deployed men to ensure that the Nepali Congress could procure arms were entrusted with enforcing Emergency-era restrictions on the principal Nepali exile.)
We don’t know that's the case with the Maoists. The fact that Maoist cadres are still armed in Lahan pretty much sums up the situation in other parts of the country. Let’s assume Maoist supremo Prachanda is genuinely committed to the peace accord with the SPA. Considering the background of one of his party's nominees to the interim legislature, Prachanda might still be in a mood of atonement for having once described the former RNA as a pack of plunderers.
But what about the other flank. Is he confident of the intentions of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha factions that have declared war on the Maoists as well as on the pahadi state? A man who reportedly switches residences each night eight months out of the netherworld, Prachanda can't be having much sleep. (Considering his demand for the foreign, defense, home, communication and other important portfolios in the putative SPA-Maoist coalition, insomnia seems to have taken its toll on our top comrade.)
Yet if Prachanda considers himself truly rested and refreshed each morning, then, it raises another question. Could the bad blood between the splinter groups and their former leader merely be a ruse for the Maoists to internally manage their arms before the U.N. monitors arrived? As for the foreign hand, it retains greater plausible deniability in the current conflagration by appearing to be on the side of the Maoists, not the JTTMs.
After BP’s plight, Prachanda must have taken an insurance policy against New Delhi. Consider the sudden concentration of armed Indian Maoists in urban centers of key insurgency-wracked states across our southern border? Could the arms buildup be related to the U.N. arms management process under way here?
Perhaps Moriarty has a larger point here but is constrained by his accreditation to become more candid. Your Excellency, how about calling for an investigation into the model and manufacturer of the anti-aircraft battery that supposedly brought down that ex-RNA chopper? The demand sounds harmless enough to keep Ambassador Mulford out of any firestorm down south.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Remembering How Peace Really Broke Out

With the Maoists now fully and formally part of the political mainstream, it’s time to recognize that single seminal event that made all this happen: King Gyanendra’s February 1 2005 takeover.
Without the much-maligned palace intervention, the external dynamics impeding the resolution of the conflict would not have dramatically changed course. For far too long, India actively continued sponsoring the insurgents while retaining the plausible deniability associated with having officially describing them as terrorists. A perpetually weak Nepali state, after all, was best responsive to Indian pressures.
The months preceding the takeover were ominous. Prachanda only wanted to talk with the king. New Delhi seemed ready to let the monarch take direct control as long as its unspecified – yet barely disguised – interests were addressed.
The eventual takeover didn’t come in the form India had expected. Yet the perceived pro-Chinese nature of the development didn’t prevent India from demanding concessions from the royal regime. Acquiescence wouldn’t have solved the underlying crisis. The palace upped the stakes.
China’s formal arrival in South Asia as an observer to the premier regional body in November 2005 forced India to begin shedding its sham. Forging the SPA-Maoist alliance wasn’t too hard once the principal objective became an imperative. The details of the emerging order could fall in place as events unfolded.
When the combined anti-palace front resulted in the supply of Chinese military supplies, New Delhi detected the danger inherent in its policy of deception. The upsurge in public protests was inevitable. The world was waiting for King Gyanendra to board that helicopter into exile. He happened to be that rare Nepali who knew the Maoists had come as far as their New Delhi mandate had permitted. The restoration of parliament gave the rebels the largest fig leaf.
After swearing in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the monarch, citing the Nepali Congress president’s non-cooperation during the preceding three and a half years, pledged his support to the new order. Now it was the SPA-Maoist combine’s turn to deliver.
For Prachanda, the Madan Bhandari moral remained uppermost. The rebel leader’s consistently profuse praise for India was merely a survival strategy. His anti-Pakistan tirade was gratuitous but it offered New Delhi an insurance policy against future mischief.
And mischief is what India is truly worried about, considering the convulsions the Maoists’ rise has sent across the ideological spectrum there. For a while, Indians were gloating at the way the Chinese had ditched the palace. If that’s really what Beijing had done, then the Chinese must have found someone else to bet on.
Officially, Beijing remains characteristically quiet on developments in Nepal. Academics and media professionals reflecting the official position have been quite candid about how ideologically proximate Beijing is to the Maoists. With the Maoists having renounced violence, the Chinese are reminding us how they had never called the anti-government guerrillas terrorists.
As for the platform of nationalism the Indians had though they had succeeded in denigrating as a palace ploy to bolster autocracy, well, listen to those sonorous Maoist tapes. Don’t they revive every bit of the Panchayat-era patriotic fervor on Radio Nepal minus the references to the monarchy?
By seizing direct control, King Gyanendra knew he was risking his throne. The monarchy may have lost the gamble, but the country hasn’t. The United Nations’ arrival as part of the peace process has ended New Delhi’s monopoly in its tiny northern neighbor.
The United States may seem to have lost ground to India and China in the current dispensation. Yet both New Delhi and Beijing recognize the deep footprints the world’s third most populous nation has sunk in that narrow sliver between the first and second.
The profound ground realists they appear to be, the Maoists probably realize the room for maneuver this gives Nepal.
Who knows, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai might even one day include King Gyanendra in that list of monarchs whose patriotic works the Nepali people will always evaluate highly.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Absolute Premier Assesses Abstruse Politics

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala believes the interim constitution invests too much power in him, but Maoist chairman Prachanda insists the statute be promulgated forthwith. Nepal’s leading republican is fine with an absolute prime minister who also happens to be the country’s preeminent ceremonial monarchist.
The bewilderment is no less baffling at other levels. The price of United Nations involvement in the management of arms and armies was acceptance of former Gurkha soldiers of the Indian Army as monitors. That evidently led to national-service claims from the purportedly more sophisticated ex-British Gurkhas.
Then someone further west across the Atlantic remembered the United Nations peacekeeping reputation the formerly Royal Nepalese Army had earned. Why shouldn’t ex-ex-RNA servicemen be given a role in the national reconciliation campaign?
Now Prachanda desperately needs to find ex-Maoist soldiers, but he can’t turn to the original recruiter. Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal is too busy trying to consign Prachanda Path in the dustbin of history to design a broader communist front.
The problem, though, is that the mainstream communists in the UML are split among Madhav Kumar Nepal, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Bamdev Gautam. (At least the third UML ex-deputy premier Bharat Mohan Adhikary hasn’t created his own fiefdom.) Among leftists further to the left, the convulsions are more compelling. C.P. Mainali is being accused of harboring pro-monarchy sympathies, while the other fronts are in perpetual implosion all but in name.
So the focus shifts to the right. Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) faction has had the worst of both worlds. It consistently refused to back the royal regime, ostensibly to burnish its democratic credentials. The newly ascendant architects of a new Nepal simply cannot trust a royalist party, much less one led by the great grandson of the last autocratic prime minister. (And, lest we forget, the man who one day would have become the father in law of the monarch had the night of June 1, 2001 passed off in normal placidity.)
So Rabindra Nath Sharma steps into take over Kamal Thapa’s breakaway RPP faction. Since we used to mock Thapa’s group as a one-man show that rose and would fall with the discredited home minister, Sharma’s followers need not assume any responsibility for that regime’s actions. The “Nepal” suffix is a clever investment in the period when the full implications of the new citizenship law become clear.
Kamal Thapa, for his part, seems to have retained enough strength from the municipal elections. Prime Minister Koirala had to advise King Gyanendra to drop plans to spend the winter in Thapa’s home district of Makwanpur.
Granted, Sharma’s constituency resembles that of Surya Bahadur Thapa’s Rastriya Janashakti Party. But in a proportional-representation system, royalists won’t be competing against one another in an entirely suicidal way. Moreover, Sharma and Thapa have recognized one fact: even the most ardent republican in the Nepali Congress – barring Narahari Acharya, perhaps – isn’t too thrilled about a republic on Maoist terms.
Nor are the leftists. Blame King Gyanendra for resurrecting some of the most reviled panchas, but the record suggests that the Devi Prasad Ojhas, Kamal Chaulagains, Radha Krishna Mainalis and Salim Miya Ansaris were no less pivotal members of the royal brigade.
Let’s say Prachanda gets his way and the interim constitution is promulgated right away. Prime Minister Koirala then reluctantly exercises his prerogative to prevent the Maoists from getting the foreign, defense, home, information and communication and water resources ministries. What respectable ministry is then left for the comrades? Royal Palace Affairs?