Friday, April 27, 2007

A Nation Loses A True Nationalist

In the death of Mohan Gopal Khetan, Nepal has lost much more than a businessman at the helm of an impressive array of ventures. As he strove to build one of Nepal’s biggest industrial houses, ranging from banking, breweries and insurance to processed foods, Khetan remained loyal to the soil until he suffered that fatal heart attack Thursday at age 61.
Mohan Khetan could not have achieved his business successes without at least some of the “shadiness” ordinarily associated with entrepreneurs. Where he stood out was in his espousal of issues going to the heart of Nepal’s existence as a sovereign nation.
Introduced to the family business as a teenager, Mohan Khetan remained influenced by his father, Bihari Lal. Once, when a potential partner proposed a timber-based venture, Khetan declined straightaway. He politely reminded the visitors at his Sanepa residence that his father had taught him never to cut trees. Family values must have gone a long way in the emergence of his son, Rajendra, into a prominent business leader of this generation.
During the Panchayat years, Mohan Khetan’s office at Makhan Tole would see a plethora of politicians seeking donations. Other prominent members of the Kathmandu establishment sought his support for a variety of personal, social, cultural and other causes. Considering some of the conversations there, one could be forgiven for mistaking the venue for a politico-economic brainstorming. Mohan Khetan’s own views were unconventional for a businessman, more so under the partyless polity of the time.
Rivals accused Khetan of buying influence in the palace by, among other things, contributing funds to the Social Services National Coordination Committee Queen Aishwarya led. Some were embittered by how Khetan had “purchased” medals and awards. Others lamented how the scale of his munificence had made social service simply too expensive. The visage of Khetan, with his trademark salt-and-pepper beard, could be seen heading from one destination to another. He would almost always be in the front seat of the vehicle, as if in some kind of partnership with the driver.
After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Khetan became known as the “Marxist billionaire.” In a television interview, Jhal Nath Khanal, the Marxist-Leninist representative in Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s interim government, denied ever having heard of a man called Mohan Khetan. The accompanying footage, of course, disputed Khanal’s claim. Association with Khetan – or at least the perception of it – must have helped Khanal’s party – today’s UML – in transforming itself into an advocate of private entrepreneurship and free markets at a time when communism was under sustained assault in the rest of the world.
During Girija Prasad Koirala’s first tenure as premier, Khetan was imprisoned. A chronic diabetic, that experience took a toll on his health. Khetan was charged with violating Nepal’s foreign exchange regulations, which the state could not prove. The episode was really part of Koirala’s projection of toughness in his power struggle with Ganesh Man Singh. Years later, Khetan complimented Koirala as being the only politician with class. (In one revealing quote, if Maila Baje recalls it correctly, Khetan described Koirala as the only politician who never sought donations from him personally.)
At the height of the Maoist insurgency, Khetan had good words for Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. Again, it was tempting to dismiss Khetan as a consummate businessman seeking to curry favour with all potential power centers. A more careful reading of his newspaper articles and interviews on Nepal’s national interests, however, suggested a clear convergence with some of the Maoists’ views.
Khetan was quite vocal in attacking India’s refusal to acknowledge Nepal’s existence as a sovereign state. Many dismissed his stand as little more than an effort to cover his own “Indianness.” The fact remained that Khetan’s Nepali roots went farther back than those of many of his critics. The country has lost a true nationalist.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Deciphering These Rattles Of Diplomacy

The fact that Chinese Ambassador Zheng Xianglin became the first foreign envoy to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala contained much symbolism. The normally reticent official Chinese media, too, highlighted how this development broke the tradition of ambassadors presenting credentials to the king.
Equally meaningful was the reality that the Chinese recognized Koirala as head of state only after the prime minister unequivocally called for Beijing’s inclusion in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation as a full member. And that, too, at a time when India wasn’t willing to let Beijing even contribute to the regional development fund.
That’s not where diplomatic symbolism stops, as Nepalis wade deeper into the nebulousness of newness. Nancy Powell, the specialist for South Asia at the National Intelligence Council (NIC), is to succeed James F. Moriarty as US ambassador later this year. The NIC is the US intelligence community’s center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking. It supports the Director of National Intelligence, who heads the 16 US intelligence organizations. That position, one may recall, was created in the aftermath of the intelligence failures leading up to the 9/11 attacks.
Since March 2006, Powell has been leading the NIC effort to expand its coverage in a region vital in the war on terror. She has been working to enhance the NIC’s focus on questions related to India’s emerging as a major power, in addition to India-Pakistan relations.
Let’s consider Powell’s appointment from another angle. This is the first time the US has appointed as its top diplomat in Nepal someone who has already served as ambassador at a more important South Asian nation. (Barring, of course, the ambassadors to India concurrently accredited to Nepal in the old days.)
Named ambassador to Pakistan almost a year after the 9/11 attacks, Powell presided over the strengthening of the Washington-Islamabad alliance in the war on terror. By upgrading the embassy’s physical infrastructure as well as the stature of the ambassador, Washington’s has underscored the elevation of its interest in Nepal.
India’s ambassador-designate Jayant Prasad offers another symbolism. A seasoned foreign service officer, he is the son of Bimal Prasad, India’s ambassador to Nepal in the early 1990s. Prasad Sr., one recalls, was the man who told Nepali Congress president Krishna Prasad Bhattarai that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala was sacking six ministers close to Ganesh Man Singh. After coming to power in 1994, the UML mobilized its allies in the Indian Left to instigate Bimal Prasad’s recall for his perceived proximity to Koirala and the Nepali Congress.
Jayant Prasad may not necessarily share his father’s outlook or approach at a time when Koirala is back in the saddle – and a shaky one, one might add. Given the overt external dynamics defining Nepal’s political process, more germane to us may be Prasad Jr.’s views on the other two central players, the United States and China. He is found to be most candid on this front long before the Indo-US strategic partnership blossomed. As a fellow at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center of International Affairs in 1998-99, Prasad clearly saw the contours.
“The attractions of an expanding market, made more accessible by openness to foreign investment and a lowering trade barriers, as also India’s pattern of responsible behaviour on matters affecting the vital interest of the United States, without compromising on its own principles, such as in the Middle East, the Gulf, Afghanistan and in the SAARC region, is shaping this improvement in relations,” he wrote in a paper. “There is a more ready realization in both India and the United States that their way of life and manner of thinking, the shared commitment to democracy, multiculturalism and the rule of law provide deeper affinities in the present context, even if they did not do so in the past.”
Stating that the waxing and waning of Sino-US relations would have an inevitable impact on relations with India, given its countervailing utility, Prasad wrote: “[B]ut this will be US inspired and not part of India’s strategic design. India seeks a more intense engagement with the United States for its own sake, in recognition of its relative stability and potential as a reliable, long-term partner.”
In what would turn out to be a disturbing prescience for many Nepalis, Prasad asserted: “Both sides need to show consideration for each other and acknowledge their commitments and frailties. They will have to put up with the incertitudes of their domestic politics and compulsions of geopolitics.”
Prasad’s views on India’s role in Nepal are apparent enough. How do they square with contemporary American views? As ambassador in Islamabad, Powell apparently persuaded New Delhi that she was a friend of India’s. (She once described Pakistan as a platform for terrorism, a remark that won instant Indian admiration.)
Today Indian media have been pointing to growing links between Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence and Nepali Maoists. Couple this with a recent report by Stratfor – considered the private-sector equivalent of the CIA – on ISI-led efforts to expand the Islamization of India’s vital northeast corridor. Put those two developments together with the Maoists’ growing temptation to view India once more as their No.1 enemy.
Regardless of whether the “thickening of [Indo-US] interlinkages” is progressing in keeping with what Prasad had envisaged at Harvard, Chinese Ambassador Zheng, too, probably hears the Nepali pot rattling loud and clear.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

King’s Ceremony & Democracy’s Desperation

King Gyanendra chose to offer the monarchy’s traditional Baisakh prayers to Goddess Dakshinkali on the anniversary of the day he breathed new life into a legislature that stripped him of all political power.
Regardless of whether the palace secretariat’s scheduling was deliberate, it certainly conformed to the enigma being celebrated. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, arguably the most powerful prime minister the country ever had or will ever see, needed, among other things, to assure the people that no one could “usurp” the gains of the year.
Maoist supremo Prachanda amplified the desperation several decibels by demanding that the country be declared a republic “before it is too late”.
The insecurity the dancing on the streets couldn’t shield is emblematic of the improvisation the peace process has become. For the past year, the palace has provided the sole adhesive for the ruling alliance. Now that doesn’t seem sufficient to cover the conflicts in each of its constituents.
The Nepali Congress feels the government has become a Maoist puppet. Many Maoists, for their part, seem to find the peace process another Koirala-led conspiracy against the communists. The Unified Marxist-Leninists, true to tradition, are eager to play both sides, but don’t seem to know how.
Constituent assembly, referendum, interim legislature, the streets – the principal political contenders can’t figure out how best to oust the monarchy. The palace could buy off enough elected representatives before the first sitting of the constituent assembly. A referendum might go in favor of the monarchy. Even if the interim legislature voted to abolish the monarchy, would the people do their bit by thronging the streets again?
Each moment of vacillation, the ruling parties recognize, works to the palace’s advantage.
If anything, the Dakshinkali trip showed how comfortable King Gyanendra already is in the role of a ceremonial monarch. This must have only deepened the desperation of his detractors.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Matrika’s Hierarchical Theory Of Speaking Out

As our Maoist ministers scurry to stamp their mark on statecraft, Matrika Prasad Yadav has emerged the clear frontrunner. The track is tortuous and the finish line still hazy. The race so far has some salient features.
Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the seniormost ex-rebel in the cabinet, is in a bit of a disadvantage. First, he had to abandon the claim to the deputy premiership in the interest of saving the peace process. Then he got the information and communication portfolio, making him the spokesman of a government most of whose policies and pronouncements his party probably disagrees with.
Dev Gurung was the first senior Maoist to insist that his party had lost faith in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and would not join the interim government. Regardless of whether that was a crude bargaining ploy, his portfolio is unenviable. Having to restore the local infrastructure his party destroyed during the decade-long people’s war is arduous enough. Gurung now has to share part of that responsibility with Hisila Yami.
Should the ex-rebels, by a stroke of good fortune, really achieve that daunting task, Yami could end up getting all the credit. She has a spouse with great media skills.
Long before she met Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Hisila learned a thing or two about the public limelight as a daughter of litterateur Dharma Ratna Yami. She understands the striking legacy that sometimes entails.
As deputy forest minister in Matrika Prasad Koirala’s government, Papa Yami once hit the headlines by issuing a statement that touched on the fuzziness of Nepal’s foreign and domestic policies. Papa Yami condemned B. P. Koirala for accusing Indian Ambassador Chandreshwar Prasad Narayan Singh of interfering with Nepal’s independence.
The deputy minister described such charges, which were quite widespread then, as “meaningless propaganda of ungrateful elements who have fallen from power.” Urging “progressive elements” not to be misled by such rants, Papa Yami concluded: “The role played by His Majesty [King Tribhuvan] and the Indian ambassador in bringing about the recent change in Nepal has been no less important than that of the people.”
Dr. Bhattarai, like Ms. Yami, obviously finds it convenient to forget that episode of Nepali history. But he still seemed to have taken his father in law seriously. After April Uprising I in 1990, Dr. Bhattarai could be seen badgering potential reviewers to take a look at the hagiography of Papa Yami that had just come out.
As women, children and social welfare minister, Khadga Bahadur Biswakarma probably has the easiest job. With the fair sex and younger ones already in the employ of the People’s Liberation Army, the Maoists can afford to sit back and relax on that front. With respect to social welfare, well, one of the few good memories Nepalis have of the insurgency is that anti-alcohol campaign.
Of them all, Matrika Yadav is under the greatest urgency to act. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum and the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha factions have undercut his claim to have emancipated the other half of Nepal. In power, he has the responsibility of preserving a resource that has the least likelihood of being saved. Yadav’s inauguration coincided with the uncovering of a sandalwood scandal.
If life has handed Yadav a lemon, he has been quick to make lemonade. The pitiable plight of our forests has allowed Yadav pick a fight with the military, challenge Prime Minister Koirala over jurisdictional issues, and excoriate other ministers for their lack of cooperation.
He has now propounded the Hierarchical Theory of Speaking Out: A new Nepal cannot be built in an atmosphere where wardens cannot speak out against the director general; where the director-general cannot speak out against the minister; and where minister cannot speak out against the prime minister. Call this a fusion of Chinese Cultural Revolution-era denunciations with our own scorching ancient grievances.
In one sense, Matrika Yadav is the only minister who really believes the interim government is coalition between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists, not one where the eight parties have struck a partnership of equality.
The Maoist high command’s sheer inability to get this message must enrage Yadav. When can we expect you to speak out at Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Matrika babu?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Repulsive Referendum Rigmarole

This whole referendum rigmarole is becoming more repulsive by the day.
First, Maoist supremo Prachanda startles the nation by demanding a popular vote on the monarchy as an alternative to the immediate abolition the communist-dominated interim legislature is already empowered to announce.
Then the nation’s premier democratic party rebuts him by suggesting, in effect, that the palace would rig the results in its favor. Now, Senior Minister Ram Chandra Poudel’s apprehensions are understandable. The last time the Nepali Congress accepted what was a referendum on the palace in all but name, it burned its fingers as well as toes.
The party doesn’t like recalling how B.P. Koirala’s “inexplicable but …” endorsement of the outcome gave a reformed but still partyless Panchayat system another decade of life.
That, too, is partly comprehensible. Like many Nepalis, Poudel probably still hasn’t figured out whether Surya Bahadur Thapa’s administrative adroitness or the Marxist-Leninist faction of the subterranean Communist Party’s perfidy bestowed on partylessness popular sanction.
Coming from Prachanda, the latest referendum call must have sounded a louder alarm bell in Poudel’s mind. If memory serves Maila Baje right, Poudel was the last politician in power who publicly referred to the residence of then-Prince Gyanendra as the top Maoist pilgrimage.
Prachanda’s proposal, moreover, must have brought alive in Poudel’s mind the image of Kumar Phodung, the retired Royal Nepalese Army major-general the Maoists nominated as a member of the interim parliament.
Poudel’s personal desire to dump the monarchy is not inexplicable. The debilitating toothache he had had to endure under detention in Tanahun during the royal regime would have turned Dipak Bohara into a rabid republican.
The Nepali Congress general secretary’s belief that the palace is on its last legs cannot be dismissed out of hand, either. After all, the monarchy is being held accountable for the cumulative 142 years it was a virtual prisoner of Bhimsen Thapa, the Ranas and political parties – corresponding to nearly 60 percent of the Shah Dynasty’s existence.
Poudel’s own contribution to our political devastation is worth mentioning here. In the summer of 2002, he had promised to head Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress faction and dispatched key supporters to the Young Turks, but then mysteriously stuck with Girija Prasad Koirala. It’s unclear whether the absence of that maneuver would have been enough to prevent the Nepali Congress split and everything else that followed. It would certainly have added to Poudel’s credibility now.
A man who is a breath away from the premiership should have come up with a better case against a referendum. (How about, say, “Since the monarchy was never installed by popular mandate, why should it get the privilege of being voted out by the people?”)
It’s all the more puerile at the practical level. Here you have the anti-palace alliance monopolizing power. Presumably, the United Nations – or at least credible international observers – would oversee the plebiscite, including the dirty tricks the Maoists or the UML might be tempted to mount against the Nepali Congress.
If the palace were to surmount those odds and still emerge triumphant in a ceremonial, constitutional, constructive or even active form, then where’s the problem?
On second thoughts, maybe that is the problem for the parties in power.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Of Visa Lottery Travails & Payback Time

US Ambassador James F. Moriarty has urged a group of agitating Nepalis to “think first about their families, lives, and future in Nepal, and give up this futile protest.”
Amid the more weighty grievances Nepalis of all classes and creeds have been articulating over the past year, the American Diversity Visa Victims Association (ADVVA) has chosen a narrow path.

While empathizing with Nepalis who have lost time and money in a futile quest for that Green Card, one cannot ignore Moriarty’s plight. The lottery as well as the attendant procedures, fees and ultimate privileges are mandated by Congress. The lottery administrators mail out winning notifications to twice as many people as they have visas set aside for. The idea is not every winner is interested, qualified or even alive to secure a visa. Those rules govern all nations eligible to participate in the DV process.

Making an exception for financially strapped Nepalis would require legislative action. So if the ADVVA really wants its grievances addressed, maybe members should flood the offices of Senators and Representatives on the concerned committees with emails. With President George W. Bush striving to make immigration reform his lasting legacy, this may be a propitious time to press the send button.

Some influential legislators are accessible only to constituents through their individual websites, but then it shouldn’t be hard to look up a county and its corresponding ZIP code.
In one sense, though, Moriarty has it wrong. The Nepalis are protesting so vigorously precisely because there are thinking about their families, lives and future in Nepal. His Excellency might want to direct the protest leaders to some previous recipients who seem to have regretted their decision the moment they finally walked passed the immigration officer at the port of entry.

***** ***** *****

Sher Bahadur Deuba must be ecstatic. How could he have forgotten that day in early October 2002, when everyone except his Nepali Congress (Democratic) wanted a postponement of the parliamentary elections? He was the first SPA leader to call for a postponement of the constituent assembly election and then hail the subsequent Election Commission announcement.
The marginalization of the monarch who had sacked him twice for incompetence must have meant much to our Brave Lion. Yet Deuba must also be ruing his unfulfilled revenge. From his subsequent comments, one distinctly remembers that Deuba’s real beef was with the Brave Sun.
RPP leader Surya Bahadur Thapa had apparently told Deuba not to falter should King Gyanendra demand his resignation, because he was an elected prime minister. Thapa cited his own experience with King Birendra in 1983, when the prime minister refused to step down without facing a confidence vote in the Rastriya Panchayat.
In that crucial meeting with King Gyanendra, Deuba followed Thapa’s advice. But he didn’t know that the wily RPP leader had already briefed the monarch of his impression that Deuba was too stubborn to resign. In that eventuality, the monarch would do well to sack the premier. A constitutionally unencumbered prime minister would be in the interest of neither the palace nor the people.
The first time Deuba lost the premier’s job was when his former guru Girija Prasad Koirala instigated him into seeking a parliamentary vote of confidence he was not obliged to seek, before spiriting away two Nepali Congress legislators.
With all this talk of a democratic front comprising Koirala, Thapa and other seasoned veterans, Deuba must be the most vigilant politico around.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

CA Election: Credibility & Cover

With Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee having stepped into it, the debate over whether the constituent assembly elections can be held on schedule has been reframed. Now we are being told that elections can be held in “unusual circumstances” and that Nepal can “show its own example.”
We didn’t really need Chief Election Commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokharel to give us that first nugget. King Gyanendra had held municipal elections in much worse circumstances with a 20 percent turnout. For all the condemnation the balloting provoked, no one seriously questioned the level of voter participation.
In suggesting that Nepalis should establish their own electoral paradigm, the Indian ambassador has much more than overruled UNMIN chief Ian Martin. Mukherjee has assured our SPAMers not worry about trifles like international credibility; the world’s largest democracy has already conferred all the legitimacy this government will ever need.
With Indians as the principal beneficiaries of the latest drive to distribute citizenship papers, there is an obvious urgency on the part of New Delhi to see the CA elections held on time.
Moreover, the mainstreaming of the Maoists has an important internal-security dimension down south. New Delhi doesn’t want the Maoists to go back to fighting, especially when a significant section of the Indian military-security establishment is working overtime to prove the ex-rebels connections with Islamic militants.
As for UNMIN, the worst it can do is pull out, something the Security Council resolution mandating its creation has specifically provided for. That way, New Delhi will have burned enough international fingers to keep the United Nations out of its neighbourhood for good. (This was probably why it acceded to an international role in Nepal in the first place.)

India’s stamp of approval on a flawed CA election would inevitably get the United States and Britain onboard. The Chinese aren’t ones who are going to go public with their reservations. Actually, they have reason to be happy.
By seeking Beijing’s inclusion as a full member of the SAARC on the sidelines of the New Delhi summit, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala let us in on part of the conversation he had had with Chinese state councillor Tang Jiaxuan in Kathmandu ahead of the April Uprising. With the Nepali Congress having flashed the “China card,” Nepal has fully and formally drawn South Asia’s new center of gravity.
Forget all those technicalities. The only reason the CA elections won’t be held on time is because no one is sure of the outcome. The SPAMers denied the Nepali people the right to vote in a simultaneous referendum on the monarchy, insisting the issue be addressed by the first sitting of the elected assembly.
But then they realized the palace could buy off enough legislators to stay on. So a second amendment to the constitution has appropriated popular sovereignty by reserving the interim legislature’s right to abolish the monarchy should the palace be found to be plotting against the CA polls. A double whammy? Not quite.
Maoist chairman Prachanda has cushioned himself enough by declaring that the monarchy won’t be uprooted just because of a legislative vote. He wants the people to flood the streets once more. If they don’t, well it’s not Prachanda’s fault.
It’s the SPA component of the ruling coalition that badly needs a cover to delay the polls. King Gyanendra should give them one. The monarch should use his widely anticipated New Year’s message to go a step further in justifying his February 1, 2005 takeover.
The story should begin with the election of the Congress-led government in 2004, covering Natwar Singh’s visit, the Prachanda-Baburam Bhattarai split and the haggling over that royal visit to India that never happened. Then we can wait and see how our interim legislators actually vote.