Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Insulted But Not Humiliated

Around this time last year, he was designated Asia’s most humiliated man. This year King Gyanendra – according to the same bestower – is the “humiliated scarecrow of the institution that helped bring Nepal together as a nation-state.”
Evidently, the monarch does not share the sense of mortification conveyed by this gentleman, whom the Voice of America described as “one of Nepal’s most influential civic voices.”
The day after he received last year’s title, King Gyanendra issued a public statement welcoming the comprehensive peace agreement. Those who mocked what they considered the monarch’s eagerness to take credit for the mainstream-Maoist rapprochement weren’t jeering on for too long.
This year’s designation didn’t deter King Gyanendra from discharging the crown’s Dasain duties within the palace perimeter and outside. Stung by his ill-conceived reaction to the monarch’s visit to Kumari Ghar the previous month, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala chose to play it cool this time.
The public turnout at Narayanhity for the traditional Dasain tika may not have merited headlines in the Nepalese media (much of which was on holiday any way). The scant coverage it did receive outside the country seemed to have forced some to pause a bit. (“Festival shows uneroded Hindu support for Nepal king,” went one. “Embattled but still revered: Nepal lines up before King,” read another.)
Coincidental or not, one Maoist leader, C.P. Gajurel, indicated his party’s readiness to drop its demand that the interim legislature announce the abolition of the monarchy. How far that stance would reinforce the Maoists’ other demand – a fully proportional electoral system – remains to be seen.
What matters far more is our wider predicament. Domestically, the utter senselessness of the Six Party Alliance (SPA)-Maoist accord forged in New Delhi in November 2005 was apparent from the outset. For its external sponsor, the tie-up made tactical sense.
For New Delhi, the singular objective of the April Uprising was to forestall the reconfiguration of Nepalese statehood along monarchical lines. That, too, only after the royal regime’s tenaciousness in correcting Nepal’s detrimental southern tilt appeared irreversible.
Autocracy became a convenient cover to discredit the monarchy’s effort to widen Nepal’s sovereign space. The bad news: the slur stuck to the seven-party oligarchy. As “democracy” deepened Nepal’s drift, its civil society contractors couldn’t skirt responsibility. New Delhi, meanwhile, set out to operationalize the second phase of the SPA-Maoist pact.
The systematic marginalization of the ex-rebels in the name of a muddled peace process might have succeeded but for the activism of the other two external players. Geography and topography would shield America and China from the worst turbulence emanating from Nepal. How insulated could India expect to be?
That was their problem. What about ours? When a retired Indian general asserted that New Delhi might feel compelled to send in its troops unilaterally, many rushed to condemn him. Yet few in Nepal felt the urgency of pulling the country from the brink of a disaster that could easily precipitate such preemption.
Following Army Chief Rookmangad Katuwal’s assertion that his soldiers would never mount a coup, might the external dimensions of a stabilization initiative come into sharper focus? Now that would be some humiliation, wouldn’t it?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nitty-Gritty Of A Northern Alliance

India’s edginess over China’s new assertiveness in Nepal has now gushed into our own deliberations. In the run-up to the annual Dashain recess, the media have been speculating copiously on the emerging dynamics precipitated by our normally quiet and composed northern neighbor.
The proliferation of delegations emanating from the north, the growing warmth between our ex-rebels with the successors of the Great Helmsman, the mounting candor of Beijing’s top diplomat in Kathmandu, among other things, have been perceived as a novel assertion of China’s uncharacteristically overt interest in our affairs.
The fact that Chinese Ambassador Zheng Xianglin chose to meet Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala not at the premier’s official residence but in the relative seclusion of daughter Sujata’s home has additionally befuddled not a few analysts on both sides of our southern border.
Had Zheng merely wanted to avoid the surveillance devices Baluwatar is widely presumed to be rife with, he could have easily chosen from a host of other venues. For this quintessential mandarin, Mandikhatar had multiple benefits as both medium and message.
Take the fact that Sujata Koirala remains among the vocal proponents of the monarchy in the newly republicanized Nepali Congress. Mesh that with the opaqueness surrounding China’s positions vis-à-vis the monarchy as well as the Maoists.
As to the latter, after months of warming up to each other, Prachanda’s surreptitious foray into Silgudi (or was it Sikkim?) seemed to have raised China’s guard. When the Maoist chairman staked his party’s claim to one of the top four Nepalese embassies, his sights were clearly up north. What made Prachanda & Co. steer clear from that demand? China’s unwillingness to accept a Nepalese Maoist as the top envoy so early in the day? If so, what might have caused that to happen? Is Beijing still in search of reliable interlocutors from among the former rebels?
It’s unclear whether the emergence of a “nationalist” camp comprising the Mohan Baidya and Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal” wings could be construed as an outcome of this northern exposure. If it is, may we stretch the point further? Did Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s recent call for a nationalist front capable of safeguarding national sovereignty presage in any way some kind of alliance with the monarchy?
That wouldn’t be impossible even amid the ex-rebels’ ongoing republican ruckus in the interim legislature, considering their own track record. (Remember the “working unity” with King Birendra Maoist ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai took such great pride in revealing after the monarch’s murder?)
As for the palace, are the Chinese working to cement an alliance between their traditional ally and the Maoists as a bulwark against India’s growing influence since the fall of the royal regime? Or has that been Beijing’s objective all along since State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan’s visit on the eve of the April Uprising.
Much was made about how Tang’s meetings with leading Nepalese opposition politicians marked a vital shift in Chinese policy. Was that gesture in fact Beijing’s subtle way of distancing itself from the beleaguered palace, which many in Nepal and India had then so gleefully concluded? (Obviously those who forgot – or chose to ignore – how President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji had met with opposition leaders during their visits.)
Or did Tang use those meetings to lay out his government’s expectations from Nepalese political parties regardless of the nature of the government of the day? In one of his public engagements, Tang himself had proffered: “China is ready to increase friendly exchanges with the royal family, government, political parties.”
So when Zheng became the first ambassador to present credentials to the prime minister, instead of the king, earlier this year, was that an acknowledgement of the interim constitution’s realities laced with a reminder of the assurances Tang had received?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Big Chill Sets In

Speculation of a change of government has intensified with the convening of a special session of parliament on October 11. A chill of sorts has crept into relations between the prime minister and the army chief. The king, while maintaining a studious silence in public, has stepped up his own consultations. Throwback to the old Nepal? Not quite.
Few thought Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal could ever match the rhetoric his former boss Prajwalla Shamsher Rana unleashed five years ago against the games being played in the name of democracy. Fewer still expected Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to melt in front of the army chief.

Going into that meeting on October 1, Koirala intended to reprimand the army chief for facilitating King Gyanendra’s visit to the Kumari seeking her annual blessings. Instead of breathing fire down Katuwal’s neck, the premier’s throat seemed to parch. The military, the top general asserted, would follow all legitimate orders. It was after that affirmation, we are told, that Koirala started considering himself the first detainee of an impending military takeover.

Is the premier’s position really that shaky? The interim legislature can’t really oust Koirala. Certainly not without the two-thirds majority the non-Nepali Congress parties don’t have.

Can the house pass a resolution of intent to usher in a republic that could undermine the premier? Not one that could be written into the interim statute or could be binding on a putative constituent assembly. For that to happen, the cabinet – which the Maoists are no longer part of– would have to sponsor the relevant motion. And here, too, the premier stands above the two-thirds threshold.

So there must be a more profound issue involved. Something that ties into the riddle as to why didn’t Koirala take the interim president bait dangled from across the southern border. Did the democrat in him abhor the idea of anointment? Or did the nationalist in him – as odd as that might sound – see through the “South Asian statesman” appellation his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, had conferred on him last year? Or was it something as simple as Ganesh Man Singh’s declining the premiership in 1990 – frailty of body and mind?

If that’s what it is, why, then, this infirmity of the spirit? Could despondency be Koirala’s way of bowing to the inevitable without the appearance of so much as tilt? Nothing, after all, can be left to coincidence when it comes to Koirala.

Ever since his party virtually ditched B.P. Koirala’s national reconciliation policy by deciding to go for a republic, the prime minister has been articulating its principal tenet more assiduously. After cryptically claiming that Nepal’s sovereignty was under threat, Koirala now has been affirming his refusal to compromise on either democracy or nationalism.

Of course, he has been reinforcing his anti-palace plank by asserting that reconciliation herewith would be with the Nepalese people, the real symbol of national unity. Could that latter remark have some greater import? Such as, say, recognition of India’s traditional machinations?

The only time Koirala ever came out in public against India was after his resignation in 2001. He accused the palace and India of masterminding the Maoist insurgency to subvert multiparty democracy. After both protested, Koirala gave a vague appearance of a retraction.
Something must have triggered his sovereignty-in-danger stance. Was it Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee’s wide-ranging talks with King Gyanendra at Narayanhity the evening the government announced the nationalization of the palaces? Not the content of the discussions, but the mere fact that the palace as well as the embassy considered it convenient enough to spread the news?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Koirala’s Crown Of Thorns

So Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has lost patience with King Gyanendra. Evidently, the fact that the monarch trailed the acting head of state to Kumari Ghar by an hour to seek the blessings of the “living goddess” hasn’t mitigated the circumstance.
Koirala rung up royal secretary Pashupati Bhakta Maharjan demanding an explanation for this act of defiance. (One wonders why he chose not to summon Maharjan to the prime minister’s residence.) Then the premier stared down army chief Rookmangad Katuwal with a demand to whittle down the palace’s security personnel. (To what avail, one might ask, considering the kumari’s consent to adorn the royal forehead.)
Koirala’s discontent is understandable. His debut at Indra Jatra – that ultimate symbol of his usurpation of royal religious rights – was hardly propitious. The kumari’s chariot malfunctioned, among other things, sending shivers down the spines of the more traditional constituencies of the capital. Koirala must have wondered whether the omen applied to himself or to the king.
There is a deeper malaise. Having finally acknowledged that Nepal’s sovereignty and independence were imperiled, the premier hasn’t been able to rally the cabinet, much less the nation, behind him. More and more people consider him the cause of this impending jeopardy and want him to shed his penchant for the cryptic. Clearly, there can be no grandeur in a design wrapped in a riddle for so long.
Indeed, the Nepali Congress’ reunification marked a personal vindication for the premier. Five years ago, Sher Bahadur Deuba and other dissidents broke away from the party primarily because they didn’t like their onetime mentor. If anything, their return represented a collective reversal of that sentiment.
No one expected a historically fractious party to shed that legacy. But the Nepali Congress’ post-reunification amity couldn’t last a day. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the only surviving founder, quit the Nepali Congress less in defense of the monarchy than in defiance of his longtime nemesis.
The “royalist” wing of the party – led by the premier’s daughter, Sujata – seems to be stockpiling for a battle a little further down the road. For now, the Nepali Congress’ platform of republicanism has allowed candor to overwhelm conviction. That alone portends the agonizing wait Nepalis must endure for constituent assembly elections.
Steroid shots or not, Koirala seems eager to keep up his head of state swagger and shtick. The artifice is most apparent when it comes to officiating tradition. A family background of brazen agnosticism doesn’t quite gel with the religious demands of his elevation. And certainly less so in an officially secular nation. It’s hard to believe that our premier has become a born-again Hindu of sorts.
Koirala, to be sure, doesn’t have the luxury of taking on the Maoists and the monarchy together. The last time he did that, he ended up reading out his resignation speech before the TV cameras. With Sher Bahadur Deuba growing more sympathetic of the Maoists’ increasingly strident pre-election demands, Koirala must be quite aware of the other parallels at play.
As for the Maoists, the ex-ministers can’t quit venting their exasperation with the absolutism they saw in full regalia at Baluwatar. There’s no public sign of the ex-rebels’ reversion to their pre-February 1, 2005 proximity vis-à-vis the palace on issues of nationalism. The atmosphere is conducive enough, though. (The fully proportional voting system the Maoists are demanding would help the opposite extreme of the spectrum as well, wouldn’t it?)
Since the premier has now firmly trained his guns on the palace, there must be some inclination to squeeze the trigger a bit harder. The logical question is obvious. Will we now see a special session of the interim legislature adopt that formal resolution abolishing the monarchy?
It all depends on how deep Koirala’s outrage really is. It’s possible, after all, that the premier merely sought to deflect the Nepali Congress delegation’s dissatisfaction by voicing some of his own. And, of course, give some respite to the Maoists.