Sunday, December 28, 2008

Of Message, Messenger And Malevolence

All those folks around Narayanhity palace who Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal welcomed into his fold for their patriotism, it turns out, actually abhor the Maoists. Superficially, Dahal’s attempt to blame the ex-royals in the midst of his ex-rebels for the spate of vicious attacks on the media is not illogical.
Former king Gyanendra, for one thing, purportedly informed Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood that most of his supporters had now become Maoists. The media behemoths in question, moreover, were among the most vociferous critics of the royal regime.
The anti-palace alliance between the mainstream parties and the Maoists may have been contrived in New Delhi. The momentum for a full-blown movement against the king could not have been built several months later without the complicity of our own media organizations.
Means, motive and opportunity? Yes. But what if rank-and-file Maoists are the ones who hold that grudge most tightly? It’s not that long ago that the media lavished praise on the Maoists for raising arms for the people and contrasting that with the Royal Nepalese Army’s thirst for the blood of the masses. The agility with which reporters and editors bent over backwards to boost the Maoists during the years of elected governments in a clear effort to discredit the parties in power will remain etched forever in the annals of that era.
The mainstream parties made the Maoists partners in progress toward a new Nepal in full knowledge of what they were and could eternally be. The media almost universally cheered the union. Today, the Maoists’ real agenda may be nebulous even to the most committed of former people’s warriors. But that alone doesn’t make it any less worthy of pursuit for an ideologically hardened band incapable of faking any trace of political or military defeat.
So when the Nepali Congress, the Unified Marxist-Leninists and other parties whine over how the former rebels have not really changed their ways, they are in fact underscoring their own abject dereliction of responsibility as parties to the peace process. If there was any wisdom in making the complete renunciation of violence and return of seized property secondary to the imperative of holding elections, then it became the duty of the media as well to justify that trade-off. Instead, they became unabashed partisans for non-Maoist parties on the eve of the elections.
The outcry against the media attacks has forced Prime Minister Dahal to heed some of the demands of the Nepali Congress, which had been making forlorn efforts in the legislature. Dahal may yet choose to fortify his flank by signing that extradition treaty with India and positively considering New Delhi’s proposal for the construction of a high dam on the Koshi.
Even if the pressure on the government were to subside as a result, the larger question certainly won’t. If the Maoists were deemed competent and credible enough to bring down the monarchy and raise the banner of democracy, why should they be considered unworthy custodians of the change? You don’t have to be a Maoist to be all ears for an answer from the media.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

It’s A Jungle Out There

The man credited with bringing the Maoists from the jungles to the political mainstream now wants them to go back. Not so fast, says top former rebel Chandra Prasad Gajurel. He maintains the Nepali Congress and its president, Girija Prasad Koirala, should be sent to the woods for their obstruction of the peace process.
Koirala seems real upset with the Maoists. Ever since the presidency, which Koirala was purportedly promised during Delhi Compromise II three years ago, slipped away, the octogenarian has revved up on the fast lane of the warpath. During much of his last tenure as head of government, Koirala had bent over backwards to accommodate the Maoists. For a while, the ex-rebels appeared to reciprocate, especially by letting him act as head of state as well.
Koirala appeased the Maoists at the instigation of lieutenants like Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Shekhar Koirala. But the former premier can’t yell at them because they are yelling louder at the Maoists. The setting couldn’t have been more propitious for our usual external purveyors of instability. They instantly swung into action. With enough massaging, Koirala’s ego expanded. He wants to create a broader democratic alliance, but all he can see are clusters of former panchas. Now wonder his deputy, Ram Chandra Poudel, could trash that pitch so easily.
If sending the Maoists back to the jungle were really the solution, Koirala wouldn’t have had to issue a public warning. President Ram Baran Yadav could have used Article 127 of the 1990 constitution to revive that document. (Regardless of what the stars say, restoration of the monarchy is still a no-no, since the ex-king hasn’t shown enough contrition to those who matter.)
Such brazenness probably wouldn’t be enough to undermine the international legitimacy the Nepali Congress has traditionally enjoyed, provided enough sops accompanied it to dispel the appearance of a status quo ante. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum and Terai Madhesh Democratic Party – and quite possibly a sizeable faction of the United Marxist Leninists – would rally behind the Nepali Congress. The 14 armed factions in the Terai would jointly announce a renunciation of violence and join the mainstream. The last six years could have been cast off as a bad dream. Except… the external purveyors of instability – the southern and western variety – wouldn’t have been caught snoring.
That’s why although Gajurel’s retort might have come late, its import remains undiminished. After the royal palace massacre, the Maoists had clubbed Girija together with Gyanendra as part of the clique complicit in the heinous crime. The former monarch has challenged the Maoists to prove his guilt. But it is more than association Koirala has to worry about.
A month after the enthronement of the new king, Koirala resigned because he couldn’t mobilize the army against the Maoists at Holeri. In other words, he stepped down because the new king and his generals would not let the army massacre virtually the entire rebel leadership reportedly assembled there. The royal takeover of 2005 may have obscured that piece of history, but it certainly couldn’t obliterate it.
As for Gajurel, who languished behind bars in Chennai while most of his comrades were official guests on the outskirts of New Delhi, he must have been tempted to put his thoughts more crudely than how he spoke them. Like, say, how about Girija Prasad Koirala going back to plotting hijackings and counterfeiting cash?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Opportune Emphasis On The Obvious

We didn’t really need former king Gyanendra to state the obvious at least on this one. He lost his crown because he helped China get a seat in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation as an observer. South Asia’s geopolitical locus had been shifting northward for quite some time. The Nepalese monarch only helped to make that official.
The real news of the week lay in the fact that the ex-monarch chose to ventilate his feelings at a time when our nascent republic was playing host to a succession of civil and military delegations from the north. (One is forced to wonder why the newspaper editor who met with Mr. Shah largely held back that portion of the interview, allowing another weekly to attribute it to him in greater detail. Pool coverage, one would imagine.)
The cautionary tale is obvious. If the Chinese could fail to rescue the monarch from a crisis strictly originating from its larger geopolitical forays, what makes the Maoists think they can fare better? The ex-rebels should tread carefully here. But they need not be intimidated by the gloss a section of the Indian media has put on the character and quantum of Chinese pledges of development and military assistance. (Actually, it is one reporter who always manages to peddle her story line across a wider spectrum.)
In other words, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher was due here to formally announce that his government had withdrawn the terror tag from the Maoists. But he suspended his visit for unspecified reasons. China’s military interest must have scuttled his itinerary. Turning enemies into friends is far less important than irking a hugely anxious neighbor.
It is useless to argue over whether China’s new assertiveness in Nepal is a response to India or to the United States. The Free Tibet demonstrations kind of fused the two strands. The Nepali Congress can feign outrage over Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s vow to help Nepal safeguard its independence and sovereignty without his having identified where that threat emanated from or alluded to whether Nepal ever sought such assurances. The party had used similar tactics in parliament in late 1959 over allegations of Chinese infiltration. Posing as nationalists, the Nepali Congress was actually abetting the Indians, a stratagem that eventually boomeranged on the multiparty system.
For quite some time, the Chinese have been describing the open border between Nepal and India as a threat to their security. If Beijing has come around to rating the precariousness in the Terai as a close second behind the Tibet issue, it must be because of the hurdle it places on its quiet but calibrated long march into the South Asian heartland.
The creation of a no-go area, under Indian auspices, along that sliver from Mechi to Mahakali through either outright annexation, independence or perpetual instability can be the only logical interpretation up north. Whether the strip can be any less porous in any of those eventualities is a different matter.
How far the Chinese really trust the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-Baburam Bhattarai facade of the Maoists is open to question. They were too closely tucked in Indian territory, with the connivance of officials as well as allies. But, then, the duo has a proven ability to be everything to everybody. Beijing knows that Dahal-Bhattarai combine would not mind prospering on the halo of a tightening northern alliance regardless of the actual firmness of the hug.
Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal, who once threatened our neighbors that Nepal had enough volatility to turn from a yam to a dynamite, retains much of his rhetorical bluster. But, then, even he could not throw in his lot with the “nationalist” faction at the recent party conclave.
So this is where Mr Shah’s emphasis on the obvious cannot be overstated. Be it the Indians, Americans or Europeans, they are here primarily for themselves. Should the diplomatically and politically resurgent Russians decide to stretch their necks above the crowd, don’t expect them to be any more altruistic.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Koirala’s Constitution Con(tra)vention

The Nepali Congress, party president Girija Prasad Koirala says, would be compelled to float its own constitution if the Maoists continue impeding the process of drafting the new one through the constituent assembly.
Ostensibly, this is Koirala’s latest response to the Maoists’ intimation that they would proceed with the integration and management of armies with or without the Nepali Congress on board. Koirala’s acquiescence here seems unlikelier with each new condition he sets. First, he complained he never got a real invitation to join the Army Integration Special Committee. Then he said the national army had no place for politically indoctrinated people. Now he insists the Young Communist League be dissolved before any integration process could begin.
From Koirala’s intensifying stridency, one wonders how open-ended his payback time might just be. The Maoists did heap untold indignities on him from the outset of the peace process. After coming out of the shadows, Maoist supremo Prachanda kept ratcheting up pressure for concession after concession to the point where Koirala had to don an oxygen mask with cylinder in tow.
Forest Minister Matrika Yadav, obviously egged on by Prachanda, got increasingly personal in his acts of insubordination. For several weeks at one point, Koirala seemed to have no clue whether the Maoists were in or out of the government. Since the party’s ministers had forwarded their joint resignations to Prachanda, the ex-rebel in chief became even more ambiguous on their exact status – and improved his bargaining position.
Embittered, the Nepali Congress president has today gone to the point of repudiating key deals that underpin the peace process. From U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Koirala has wasted few opportunities with visiting dignitaries to internationalize the Maoists’ mendacity. Whether it ever occurred to the Nepali Congress chief that his complaints also betray his own failure as the interim head of state and government is moot. (It was his job, after all, to straighten out the Maoists, wasn’t it?)
The Maoists seem to be shrugging off Koirala’s tirades. Why wouldn’t they, since he keeps on claiming the Nepali Congress single-handedly brought about the end of the monarchy? Surely, the Unified Marxist-Leninists have something to say on the matter, but they are too busy conducting themselves as ruling-alliance partners as well as members of the opposition.
If the Nepali Congress were to act on its latest threat, it would not be as outrageous as it might sound. Remember the mock sessions of parliament Koirala presided over during the first phase of the royal regime? Some of the participants themselves privately used to make fun of the proceedings. Yet the resolutions ended up underpinning the “historic” proclamation of the reinstated House of Representatives that, among other things, suspended the monarchy and secularized the nation.
Given the right circumstances, a Nepali Congress-drafted constitution could even go on to win international legitimacy – or at least the calm support of most of the countries that matter in Nepal. Kerensky, in this instance, would stand a chance of trumping Lenin who, in turn, would be scurrying for cover in the constituent assembly. But there’s a catch. Foreign-drafted versions of the constitution, we have long been told, are floating all over the place.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It’s Indonesia And Chile Now

For decades, it was Sikkim and Bhutan. Then it became Fiji, Russia, Bangladesh and Thailand. Now we’re up to Indonesia and Chile. Maoist hardliner Mohan Baidya aka Kiran has turned to some of the painful chapters of the Cold War to inject some additional sparks in the party’s internal struggle for the future.
Casting aside the “pragmatist-purist” skirmish for a moment, what’s most interesting is how life in full public glare has wearied the Maoists. During the early phase of the peace process, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal was threatening a Lenin-style October Revolution. Today our would-be Kerensky, Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala, is traversing the nation seeking to scuttle the Maoist idea of liberating our national army.
The Indonesian and Chilean military takeovers were rooted in different realities. Gen. Suharto “countered” a coup attempt blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965, eventually taking over the presidency from founding president Sukarno almost three years later. Gen. Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte, on the other hand, led a coup d’etat against socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973 and took the presidency the following year. In both instances, the military rulers led a violent anti-left purge that eventually consumed a far wider and ideologically disparate demographic.
With Maoists already in power and, according to persistent rumors, plotting a coup, the Indonesian and Chilean scenarios have fused into a single nightmare. This is not to suggest that a military takeover was ever a distinct impossibility since the onset of the peace process. Having driven the February 1, 2005 takeover and subsequently facilitated the demise of the royal regime, our generals have been shrewd political operatives.
For a while, the imminence of a Thai- or Bangladesh-style coup pervaded the national discourse. The early possibilities ranged from then-king Gyanendra leading a parallel government from Hanuman Dhoka Palace to the chief martial law administrator – presumably the chief of army staff – holding a referendum on vital matters the peace process glossed over.
A subsequent scenario held that the army would back a Nepali Congress-led government, presumably dominated by the royalist faction. But when the generals greeted the abolition of the monarchy with deafening silence, speculation ran wild. Superficially, at a minimum, the option of a military-backed Nepali Congress government should have been alive.
But the Indians – the architects of that plan – could have stepped in through the front door when the winds had swung them wide open. For every armed group in the Terai today, there is potential counterpart in the hills. The SeTaMaGuRaLi combine that emerged after the 1990 democracy movement has since acquired too many factional avatars that carry a payload far in excess of the sum of the total. If New Delhi can now officially see China’s hand in the terrorism gripping its north-eastern states, it surely must comprehend the autonomy Beijing would expect to exercise in Nepal with or without the Maoists in power.
Suggestions of an imminent installation of a Maoist commander as the head of an integrated Nepali Army, purportedly through Chinese good offices, have since been juxtaposed with rumors that Prime Minister Dahal assured his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, that former rebels would not be inducted into the national army. Clearly, the Maoists’ persistent public insistence to the contrary is aimed at mollifying the restive ex-Maoist combatants. But why would the top comrades raise false expectations when they know the eventual price would be full retribution?
Or do the softies in power believe they can drive the hard-liners underground without incurring significant damage. (Remember, prominent Maoist ministers and their “pragmatist” allies today are some of the same people who managed to save their heads in the midst of the most aggressive military campaigns.) Is there an expectation that the “purists” could be “dealt with” before they succeed in drawing external patrons? When it comes to collateral damage, the Indonesian and Chilean parallels start getting scary.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Vice President’s Supreme Bliss

As the principal political parties squabble unabated, another power struggle is turning interesting. President Ram Baran Yadav, having concluded his original medical profession far nobler than politics, now insists he is not a ceremonial president.
Asserting his authority, Yadav has admonished his deputy, Parmananda Jha, not to step outside his pay grade. At one point, we were told, the two men were barely on speaking terms, certainly putting a premium on the unabridged transcripts of the official consultations they have begun. But Vice-President Jha remains confused as to his own role. (So are we, Mr. Veep, if it is any consolation. It’s not as if Nepalis ever had deputy kings.)
Jha seems so flustered that he has trouble holding back his political opinions. The special committee set up to oversee the integration of the Maoist militia and Nepal Army, Jha declared, was unconstitutional because of its representation. Taking aim at the government’s claim that “major parties” were represented in the special committee, Jha asserted that there was no constitutional definition of such parties.
Since the interim constitution did not define “major parties,” involvement of certain parties in the committee did not bear constitutionality, the vice-president claimed. Only the constituent assembly and the Supreme Court could provide an unequivocal definition.
Predictably, that infuriated the Maoists and the Unified Marxists-Leninists, who have hogged the panel. They began talking about impeachment proceedings. Instead of shutting up under duress, Jha accused his critics of being worthy of impeachment. This time, he accused the parties of trying to infringe upon the people’s fundamental rights by trying to impose the whip system.
By this time, Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, whose Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) had put up Jha as its candidate, saw the vice-president’s comments as unconstitutional. “The interim constitution does not clearly define the role of the president and the vice-president,” Yadav said. “I advise them both to remain quiet until new constitution is drafted and their role clearly written.”
Now the MJF chief may hold a law degree but Jha, a former Supreme Court justice, has little patience for a crash course on constitutionalism. The veep insists he is duty bound to vent his feelings because his job – as well as that of the president – is to protect the constitution. (Obviously, the interim as well as the prospective – and hopefully permanent? – one.)
Unapologetic over his use of Hindi while taking the oath of deputy head of state earlier this year, which triggered massive public protests, Jha seems to have lost none of his defiance. The fact that he stepped up his public utterances after an extended meeting with Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood has fuelled speculation of all variety, especially among those who saw the Hindi oath as part of New Delhi’s design. (With the Chinese having made significant inroads into the parties in power under his watch, Sood’s options were certainly narrowing.)
If Jha persists with his candor in the way he has, our nascent republic could find itself in grave institutional turmoil. The constituent assembly has finally stepped into the process of drafting the basic law. But the adoption of rules of procedure alone cannot guarantee that the document would come into force by May 2010 as scheduled.
President Yadav, as supreme commander of the army, could use a drawn-out integration controversy to order the generals and their lieutenants out on the streets to preserve the interim statute. Where would Jha turn? Or does he consider himself the deputy supreme commander of the army, too?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Shedding Light After Blood

True to his nom de guerre, Maoist leader Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’ has been shedding light on burning national issues. “There is nothing special about Nepal-India relations,” the man widely considered the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said at a public function the other day.
That affirmation, to be sure, lacked the teeth of Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista’s response four decades ago to Indian Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh’s declaration of “special” bilateral relations. Bista’s statement was the precursor to the withdrawal of Indian military checkpoints along the Nepal-China border and the Indian military liaison team in Kathmandu.
Baidya’s comment followed Dahal’s assertion that Nepal had reached a place akin to the post-interval phase of a Hindi movie. But Baidya’s sights probably went back to the premier’s touting of bilateral relations as special all but in name during his last visit to India.
Having positioned himself firmly at the helm of Maoist hardliners, Baidya has gradually emerged as the real leader of the opposition. Ordinarily, that role should have gone to Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala. But the same internal wrangling that forestalled the election of a legislative leader, allowing Koirala to retain his preeminent position, would undercut his performance.
Baidya, on the other hand, appears to have used his party’s internal rifts to bolster its ideological regimentation. He stepped down as a member of the Constituent Assembly to put pressure on the Maoists in power. He then became the principal critic of the view that the Maoists drop their formal ties to the Great Helmsman by changing the party name. For now, Dahal, Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ may seem perched on the same precarious branch. Baidya’s calculated campaign to widen their rifts is all too apparent.
Certainly, the nationalist plank has come in handy for the Baidya faction. Yet the man’s politics have guided his pronouncements for quite some time. Picked up by Indian authorities from an eye clinic in Silguri in early 2004, Baidya’s disillusionment with New Delhi is understandable. He was not, say, a Chandra Prakash Gajurel who was trying to board a flight to London from Madras on a forged passport months earlier. If humanitarianism had any place in Indian asylum policy, Baidya could only have seen himself as the perfect candidate.
At the operational level, the arrests of Baidya and Gajurel robbed Dahal of two allies. The Maoists’ nationalist wing, rumored to be close to an alliance with the palace to safeguard nationalism, eventually had to go along with the pragmatist (read: pro-Indian) faction, a confluence that led to the November 2005 12-point accord with the mainstream parties signed in New Delhi.
After Dahal began sounding conciliatory – often obsequious – overtures to Delhi as the peace process unfolded, he had to mollify his party. Dahal claimed that without his ‘pragmatism’, Delhi would never have freed Baidya and Gajurel. The irony there was that Baidya had become the most vocal critic of Dahal’s India policy.
And that has continued in full force since the premier wooed and wowed Indians during his Delhi trip. So much so that wider public curiosity has been building in advance of Dahal’s upcoming second visit to India. (Ironically, this has centered on more stringent extradition provisions, the absence of which allowed Dahal & Co. to survive subterraneously, mostly on the other side of the border, for so long.)
Baidya’s call for nationalists and communists to join hands to safeguard Nepalese independence has acquired greater resonance amid recent calls for a referendum on the integration of the two armies should political parties fail to build consensus. Would it be wide of the mark to expect a longer checklist of issues pertaining to Nepali sovereignty, territorial integrity and independent identity on any such ballot initiative?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What Really Ails The Republic?

Our nascent republic is in danger, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal warns us. Is this an acknowledgment of failure from the omnipotent former rebel in chief who, in war and peace, brought the once-unimaginable kingless country into the realm of the real?
Or is it an invocation of the urgency of preserving the status quo until he can mount a full-throttle frontal march? Perhaps it’s just experience speaking. The role reversal from rebel to ruler must have its ramifications on his raves and rants.
The source of it all must be his successes on the international front. Instead of drawing bouquets for his whirlwind diplomatic dealings, Dahal is mired in internal rifts between the purists and the pragmatists. Top Maoist leaders in the cabinet – irrespective of their own ideological variances – are now clustered against hardliners in the party.
No matter how abhorrent the tail wagging the dog really is, the Maoist ministers know they don’t have arithmetic on their side. Renaming the party, recalibrating the integration of former rebel fighters and reshaping the republic all depend on the resoluteness of the rank and file.
It was impossible for the other parties in power to desist from striking when the iron is so hot. Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) leaders take turns speaking of the government’s inevitable collapse. General secretary Jhal Nath Khanal, mindful of his tenuous hold on the party leadership, plays safe by speaking from both sides of his mouth.
Former UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal, who quit the party leadership after a humiliating defeat in both of his constituencies in April’s elections, now insists he can’t be a constant quitter by rejecting all offers coming his way. The fact that fellow loser Bam Dev Gautam exudes republican radiance in the deputy premiership must have played a part in Nepal’s rethink.
Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) leader Upendra Yadav seems to be using his foreign portfolio to expose Dahal’s innermost intentions on the future of the former People’s Liberation Army combatants. One MJF minister has threatened to pull out of the cabinet over the government’s non-responsiveness to the demands of the Terai. Vice President Parmanand Jha complains he has nothing to do. That assertion comes after his supposedly ceremonial boss, President Ram Baran Yadav, tells the BBC that the monarchy has no chance of making a comeback.
The Nepali Congress, publicly shunning the prospect of sharing power with the Maoists, embarks on a nationwide revival campaign. (See how the term “revivalism” has acquired new respectability after the abolition of the monarchy?) The Congress initiative, if anything, reveals the indispensability of Girija Prasad Koirala to the party’s future. Even Sher Bahadur Deuba now says it would be impractical to edge Koirala out of the leadership.
Contrast that with Deuba’s abortive bid to wrest the party leadership at the Pokhara convention in early 2001, arguing that Koirala’s shoulders had weakened with age. (It was interesting to note how, during the height of the campaign, Deuba himself was stricken by acute shoulder pain, prompting a goodwill visit from Koirala.)
Ram Chandra Poudel, senior vice-president of the Nepali Congress, badly wants the party’s legislative leadership position but, apparently, not badly enough to produce an explanation as to why he thinks he would be the best candidate.
The perplexity of our domestic players alone cannot be blamed for our creeping collective malady. “[H]istory and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” No, that’s not a line Dahal will use somewhere down the line. It was delivered by the first American president, George Washington – a one-time chief of a rebel army – in his farewell address.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Festive Dalliance And Pharynxial Discomfort

The inter-festival hiatus seems to have energized our political class toward creative exuberance. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is bent on roping the Nepali Congress into the ruling coalition. How could our nascent democratic republic grow, after all, without the active participation of its self-proclaimed sole custodian?
That is not the reason why Dahal’s stoop is getting deeper. Besieged by his own party, the premier recognizes that a Nepali Congress in power is also his best insurance against any political “accident”. But Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala, quite against his character, seems to have grown fond of his role as chief opposition leader. Since he is not expecting any position of greater power, what does he have to lose, right?
But, surely, Koirala must be flummoxed by the persistence with which Dahal is dangling that carrot in front of Madhav Kumar Nepal, the former chief of the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML). The Girija-Madhav equation has always proved portentous for the country. How long before junior functionaries in the Nepali Congress stop salivating at the prospect of ministerial portfolios and jump to seize the moment?
For now, that question is bogging the other coalition partner. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) is letting us in on some state secrets. The premier, according to MJF leader and Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, is not in favor of a wholesale integration of the former People’s Liberation Army into the national armed forces. So Nepali Congress acting president Sushil Koirala would probably not have to act on his threat of an agitation. (Mercifully, the real and acting presidents are still speaking in unison.)
Still, party vice-president Ram Chandra Poudel has warned of a revolt within the assembly if the Maoists persisted with flouting past agreements. The Nepali Congress would probably want to let the Maoists fully grapple with their identity crisis. Whether the ex-rebels would actually rename themselves and disavow the Great Helmsman would depend on the hardliners said to dominate the party.
The fact that Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai continues to pledge the full mainstreaming of the ex-rebels means the rival Mohan Baidya faction has not quite kept its own house in order. Even for the ideologically pure, all these years out in the open must have made the idea of renewed subterranean existence, well, a dark one. Dr. Bhattarai’s assertion that Nepal would gradually increase trade ties with China to correct the preponderant southern tilt suggests he is very much in the geopolitical race.
A people’s republic or a democratic one, the decision ultimately rests with the constituent assembly. But that body has already frittered away a quarter of its two-year constitution-making mandate by, among other things, lamenting the lack of progress. The sense of bafflement is so agonizing that that the UML, too, is contemplating a name change dissociating itself with Marx and Lenin. Clearly, this rush to dilute redness reflects on general secretary Jhal Nath Khanal’s tenuous grip.
The velocity of the churning process can also be measured by the comment of Mahanth Thakur, chief of the Terai Madhesh Democratic Party (TMDP). He now believes the politics of ethnicity is becoming harmful to the nation. Is Thakur about to return to the Nepali Congress? Who knows?
Yet a united communist front would certainly prompt an equal and opposite reaction. The abolition of the monarchy has exacerbated the Nepali Congress’s pharynxial discomfort, now that it finds itself alone in that prominent noose.
Would the MJF, the TMDP and other non-communist groups in the constituent assembly really veer closer to the Nepali Congress and vice versa? Much would depend on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC summit next month, during which Dahal expects to raise contentious bilateral issues with the Indian government. The real thing to watch, though, may be the kind of unity the 14 armed groups in the Terai end up forging on Indian soil.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

From The Archives: ...But Not Karnali?

Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran is due in Nepal Sunday on a three-day visit. The Indian and Nepali press have given prominent coverage to schedule in Kathmandu --and with good reason.
With the U.N.-Iraq oil-for-food scandal having claimed Foreign Minister Natwar Singh’s job, Saran, a former ambassador to Nepal, has come to wield much influence over Indian diplomacy.
Considering its “history of unpredictability”, in the words of one Indian newspaper, Nepal-India relations require handling with “extreme care and dexterity”. But as part of its extended neighborhood and given the historical ties that India enjoys with Nepal, an Indian ambassador has a very important role in Kathmandu.
How much Saran’s performance in the kingdom contributed to catapulting him to the foreign secretary’s seat remains unclear. Few Indian ambassadors to Nepal have succeeded in getting the top diplomatic job back home. The fact that Saran superseded almost a dozen babus says a lot.
Although he took over as foreign secretary after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government assumed power last year, Saran’s appointment was actually pushed by the Vajpayee administration. (Another confirmation perhaps of Indian political parties’ broad consensus on matters concerning foreign policy.)
Maila Baje was impressed by Saran’s past as a journalist with Calcutta’s now-defunct JS magazine. Its breezy, graphics-heavy coverage of Nepal stood in refreshing contrast to the normally staid fare of the Indian press. One hopes Saran can enliven South Block’s ambience during his tenure, which ends in less than a year.
As for Nepal, the Indian foreign secretary recently asserted that India had high stakes in the kingdom.
Those who continue to labor over what role New Delhi played in forging last month’s deal between the parties and Maoist rebels shouldn’t have searched any further. Saran was quite candid in insisting that India had begun a process of engagement with all parties to Nepal’s deepening conflict.
Since Nepal’s Maoist rebels and mainstream politicians had only assembled in New Delhi awaiting further orders when Saran met King Gyanendra on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Dhaka last month, there must be much Saran hopes to discuss with the palace.
With 18 truckloads of Chinese arms entering Kathmandu days after Nepal played its part in ensuring China’s firm imprint on South Asia’s geopolitical map, New Delhi felt forced to act. But the mainstream-Maoist accord didn’t have the desired effect.
Four days after returning home from a three-week foreign trip, King Gyanendra reconstituted his cabinet in a way that, among other things, signaled he may be ready to cut his own deal with a section of the rebels.

What About Our Stake?
But Maila Baje thinks something else is bothering India: the Upper Karnali Project, located in the Surkhet-Accham-Kailali triangle, a Maoist stronghold.
India's National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) had reached an initial understanding on building the 300MW project. The NHPC has not replied to the formal memorandum the NEA sent over a year ago.
Here’s the rub: The NHPC was reported to have insisted on an 85 percent stake in the project, something Nepal considered highly unfavorable. In the draft the NEA sent, Nepal sought a 49 percent stake.
Given its severe power shortage, Assistant Minister for Water Resources Binod Kumar Shah said in a recent interview with Indo-Asian New Service, Nepal can't go on keeping the project on hold.
At a public program, Shah announced the government’s plan to promulgate a new Hydroelectricity Act and an Ordinance to attract investment from other sources.
The “other sources” are clearly visible to Saran and his bosses.
Weeks after the Feb. 1 royal takeover, Xinhua news service reported that China and Australia planned to invest in the 750MW West Seti project. The $1.2 billion project, scheduled for completion within five and half years, aims to sell power to India.
Shah and his immediate boss, Tulsi Giri, retain the water resources portfolio.
Koshi, Gandaki, Mahakali but not Karnali – how can that be?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bracing For A New Round In An Old Rivalry

China offers Rs.100 million in military assistance and 14 armed groups active in the Terai organize a unity meeting in India. Such a straightforward link may be difficult to establish, at first. But there are too many dots that can be connected that way.
The first detailed report on Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa’s impending visit to China emerged in India earlier this month while his boss was busy charming his hosts. Bucking the euphoric trend, a top Nepal analyst, Gen. Ashok K. Mehta, urged his country to judge Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal by his deeds, not words. And those deeds, in Mehta’s view, would surface soon through Thapa.
A Defense Ministry spokesman in Kathmandu said the Chinese assistance would be used according to the needs of the country. Duh! Mehta, for his part, questioned the logic of such cooperation on two grounds. “First, the Maoist and Chinese People’s Liberation Armies are as different as chalk and cheese,” he wrote. “China had castigated the Maoists for hijacking the fair name of Chairman Mao and called them all sorts of names, like 'miscreants' and 'anti-state rebels',” he added. When everyone stopped arms supply to Nepal Army after the royal coup, only China and Pakistan continued to do so, he noted.
But Mehta’s second point was more germane to the context. “Why should the Maoists be trained in China when the integration is to take place in Nepal?” India, he added, had offered to provide vocational training for those PLA members who are not qualified or unwilling to join the Nepal Army. “Moreover, the Indian Army runs an excellent training centre for retiring Gorkhas in Dehra Dun tailored to conditions in Nepal.”
In keeping with his country’s prevailing official stand, Mehta studiously tried avoiding questioning Kathmandu’s freedom to train PLA cadres wherever it chose. “But if this is part of [the] ‘equidistance’ policy or change of direction, the new Maoist leaders need to be reminded that the bulk of training and modernization of the Nepal Army has been done by India,” he said. “Yet it figures nowhere in the security sector reforms,” he lamented. Or, perhaps more appropriately, admonished
Indeed, there has been a long tradition of army-to-army relations between the two countries. Kings Tribhuvan and Mahendra, as Mehta recalled, requested New Delhi to help modernize the then-Royal Nepal Army. (At least, the general who always saw the monarchy as institutionally and congenitally anti-Indian and often let that be known in his impeccable Nepali, has come around to acknowledging the historical record.)
Army chief Gen. Rukmangat Katuwal visited New Delhi last January and, as part of a four-decade-old tradition of exchanging titles, was made an honorary general of the Indian Army. Nepal remains the largest recipient of Indian military assistance and training (which is not much of a record considering New Delhi’s place in international military cooperation.)
During King Gyanendra’s reign, military assistance reached its zenith after the Maoists attacked the military in Dang in November 2001. Clearly, the Maoist debacle in Khara in 2005, a few months after the royal takeover, struck a blow to the hardliners and boosted advocates of a return to the political process. We don’t know precisely what role Indian arms and ammunition played there, especially considering that both sides were using them. Still, Khara gave cover to India to facilitate the 12-point agreement between the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance. (Would the narrative have stood, had King Gyanendra desisted from shifting South Asia’s geopolitical locus northward at the regional summit in Dhaka?)
The Maoists have said, Mehta recalls, that India would not have let them win the “people’s war”. A section, ostensibly including Thapa, is still holding their military defeat against New Delhi. Hence, his China trip. Reports doing the rounds in Kathmandu suggest a graver game plan: the amalgamation of the two armies into a national force that would be ultimately headed by Maoist commander Nanda Kishore Pun ‘Pasang’. The Chinese government, according to some of these reports, has made arrangements to “train” Pasang sufficiently in fulfillment of the requirements for the top job.
Regardless of the veracity of these reports, the logical question stands. What next from India? Kings Birendra and Gyanendra both were punished for cozying up to China in 1988-89 and 2005-06. In the first instance, a crippling economic embargo coincided with a democracy movement. In the second, democracy was a sufficient rallying cry. Neither course would be practically tenable at this time (unless someone in South Block still believes in instigating the Nepali Congress to launch another movement for democracy against the Maoists).
Hence, the next best thing. Should we expect a 14-party multipoint agreement to be formally signed and unveiled in Patna any time soon?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Custodian’s Not-So-Curious Ways

Now that the Maoists and sections of the Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) have declared their intention to tilt the political system leftward in the new constitution, the Nepali Congress can hope to reenergize itself as democracy’s custodian.
Having left the anti-Maoist mêlée to his subordinates during much of his tenure as premier, Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala has now assumed the mantle in full force. There is much more at play here than the dynamics of the post-election power shift.
The grand old man seems to have a real personal beef with the Maoists. When they enticed him to ditch the monarchy by almost demanding him to become Nepal’s first president, Koirala knew the welcome would have worn out pretty soon. Yet the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize was too irresistible, especially by the way nephew Shekhar and chief aide Krishna Prasad Sitaula dangled it in collusion with the ex-rebels.
Considering how former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and British premier Gordon Brown heaped praise on Koirala for mainstreaming the Maoists who are now bent on marginalizing him, the octogenarian may still consider himself a serious contender. But, then, who ever pretended limits could be set on pretentiousness?
In that spirit, Koirala’s talk of spearheading a broad non-communist democratic alliance may have sounded like a dud. But there appears to be a new urgency for him, especially that the personal can now be camouflaged as principle. The reception Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal received in New Delhi must have sowed seeds of suspicions in the Nepali Congress president. Was New Delhi seeking to co-opt the Maoists to tighten their grip on Nepal through India Inc.?
It would have been sufficient for the Indian commentariat to attribute the rise of the charming ex-rebel to the purported despicability of royal feudalism. Why the frontal attack on the political parties that ran the show for 12 years after 1990? Specifically, weren’t the Indians central to the political machinations then? Not an iota of an intention to share culpability could be detected anywhere.
As premier for most of those 12 years, Koirala had reason to be upset. Even before his fortuitous ascendancy after the 1991 elections, he carried enough baggage through his birth in India. (Although, in fairness, one must question the credibility of his critics whose forbears did nothing to stop the Ranas from exiling Krishna Prasad Koirala.)
The pro-Indian tag became outrageously observable during the Tanakpur imbroglio. For all the ills of that abortive subversion of the constitutional process, Koirala did stick out his neck for India so long against the UML and others.
Over the years, he stood up against the Maoists and the monarchy, the prime beneficiary of which, it turns out, was India. But in influential eyes in India, he became the symbol of what was wrong in Nepal, until King Gyanendra became their principal problem.
Koirala knew his 2006 rehabilitation in India was ephemeral, and not only because of advancing age. But the wily man didn’t seem to have exhausted his cards. Spilling the beans on how Indian spooks knew the illegality of some of his anti-Panchayat subversion didn’t stem from age-induced hallucination.
Daughter Sujata was reviled as a monarchist to the point where she had to explain how she was not involved in any business partnership with the king. (Compared to, say, how members of the media house most critical of the monarchy had no problem joining the king as shareholders in a futile enterprise to revive Sajha Yatayat.) A constellation of leaders prepared to take on the Maoists and the UML remained vociferous.
Koirala’s overtures to the former king must still be seen in the light of his 2006 counsel that time would ultimately heal things. Dahal, certainly more adept in building bizarre bridges, has opened his own lines of communication with the former king on a nationalist platform many Maoists now refuse to consider credible.
Can it be much surprise therefore that the restoration of the monarchy has so soon become a central component of our national conversation?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

From The Archives: Geo-Politician Prachanda

Originally posted on Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In his latest avatar as geo-politician, Maoist supremo Prachanda claims India is trying hard to retain the monarchy. In the considered opinion of the supreme commander of the “People’s Liberation Army,” expressed in an interview with BBC Nepali Service, the Indian Army remains at the forefront of the campaign.
For a man who once boasted that his real war would be with the Indian men and women in uniform dispatched to prop up the “old regime,” this progression in thought has all the hallmarks of an honorable retreat.
For students of the triangulation school of thought in India’s Nepal policy -- such as yours truly -- the Maoist supremo was merely stressing the obvious. However, he used another BBC question to set the tone of the debate that is likely to evolve over the weeks and months. The Nepalese Maoists would support India’s attempt to get a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council if New Delhi reconsidered some of its policies toward its small neighbors.
Our erudite chairman continued: “[New Delhi] presently follows what is known as Nehru doctrine under which it seeks to intimidate, interfere, expand its influence and dictate its terms on its neighbors.”
If India reconsidered such a policy, then it would deserve a permanent seat in the Security Council. Now, Prachanda didn’t expound on how such a policy shift might overcome a Chinese veto. Or, even before that, receive Indonesia’s, Pakistan’s and other key Asian nations’ endorsement in the regional rounds. But, then, Prachanda was merely expressing his party’s opinion.
And no insignificant one, at that. This assertion would be the easiest one for the most fanatical of royalists – barring perhaps the religious right -- to agree with. (Any subtle overtures here, Comrade, on, say, secularism for ceremonialism?)
Rounding off the circle, our comrade in chief opined that U.S. pressure and India’s hard-line groups have emerged as the hurdle to Nepal’s independence. Something the Great Helmsman’s country would easily concur with regardless of who those hardliners actually are.
Asked about Nepal’s northern neighbor, Prachanda said China’s policy toward Nepal has traditionally been to back the king as a factor of stability. But the April Uprising against the monarchy may have forced China to reconsider that policy, he added. The operative word here may be “may”. Could a Maoist-palace alliance be in the works here? Not unlikely considering what else the rebel in chief had to say about China.
Urging India to concede the right to self-determination to Kashmiris and people in its northeastern states, he acknowledged the urgency of granting the same opportunity to Tibetans. “But we think that the autonomy that the Chinese government has given there is in accordance with the aspirations of the Tibetan people,” he added.
Asked about the strategic importance of the new Beijing-Lhasa railroad, Prachanda said Nepal and South Asia in general would stand to gain. But not before explaining how Nepal has had to rely on its southern neighbor because of the economy, open borders, transport and communication. “This has put us in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis India which, instead, is in a position to take undue advantage [of us].”
Few might have expected Prachanda to praise Osama bin Laden. So he condemns Al Qaeda’s attacks on innocent people the world over under a blind religious garb as terrorist activities. But only to make his next point. “[I]t is the US which is a bigger terrorist than bin Laden in the sense that it was the US which created him during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.”
In a rare deference to reality over rhetoric, Prachanda conceded that the Maoists were incapable of fighting the US. Then comes the olive branch. “It’s not that we do not want to have relations with the US once we go to power. All we want is to wage an ideological resistance against the US muscle-flexing in the world.” An unexpected resonance of Noam Chomsky and far-left fringe of the Democratic Party. (The Maoist supremo must be watching and listening to all those bin Laden and Zawahiri tapes.)
But when it comes to Nepal and Nepalis, Prachanda remains defiant. “There are more than a hundred countries which are smaller than us. It is not easy for the US to invade us, like it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. If India and China have such designs those would not succeed either, because forces capable of countering such designs have already emerged here.” Does his spirit have any less nationalistic ebullience than all those songs on Panchayat-era Radio Nepal?
Look at the ground Prachanda has prepared. He can claim he tried his best to republicanize Nepal but, as a true communist, can no longer ignore the objective realities of geopolitics and globalization. Those Nepalis who’ve always believed that the monarchy isn’t the problem would certainly not deny Prachanda that Marxist fig leaf.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Empowered And Imperiled

A group of reporters takes their woes to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and come out of the meeting all the more anxious. Collapse of this government, the former rebel-in-chief tells them, would be tantamount to the failure of the state.
Few Nepalis expected their first post-monarchy premier to sound like Louis XIV. But Dahal, too, lacked the bravado normally associated with such assertions over the ages. Our prime minister sounds genuinely worried about the fate of his government. And why shouldn’t he be?
The Nepali Congress has intensified its warning against creeping totalitarianism of the extreme leftist variety. Any working alliance with the Maoists is now limited to bringing out a popularly drafted constitution. The most strident criticism has come not from the Nepali Congress’ anti-communist wing but from friends like Dr. Shekhar Koirala.
Excoriated for having bent over backward to the Maoists during the first two years of the peace process, Koirala ostensibly has had enough. Now he warns the ex-rebels that Nepali Congress members in the constituent assembly would collectively resign once they get the first whiff of a people’s republic. How much of Dr. Koirala’s latest rants stem from the Maoists’ breach of their reported pledge to honor Uncle Girija as the country’s first president remains unknown. But Shekhar Da looks like a commander of a multi-pronged attack.
The main opposition party is asking Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ to explain his assertion that President Ram Baran Yadav had cancelled his trip to China for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics under pressure from foreign powers. Now, if Badal meant the United States, he wouldn’t have hesitated to name names. Whatever he says or doesn’t say will reflect on his boss. The two major coalition partners are becoming more of subversives. (And we haven’t even touched upon the rivalries deepening within the erstwhile people’s warriors.)
The Unified Marxist Leninists’ K.P. Sharma Oli asserts that the Maoists would be wiped out in eight years. General Secretary Jhal Nath Khanal, although sounding less intimidating, has lowered the bar. He believes the UML would beat the Maoists in the next election. Ordinarily, the two UML men might have been hailed as statesmen, considering how far away that exercise seems. But eyeing the next generation before warming up to constitution making is a gross abdication of responsibility.
Khanal’s predecessor, Madhav Kumar Nepal, doubts Dahal’s patriotism after the premier chose to extend an olive branch to India moments after returning from China. Whatever the precise reasons the Maoists reneged on their pledge to support Nepal as their presidential candidate, the former general secretary at least could blame his defeat in both constituencies in last April’s elections. By inducting fellow loser Bam Dev Gautam in the cabinet as his No.2, Dahal has added double insult to Nepal’s injury. Gautam has now become the only UML leader to serve twice as deputy premier, a distinction he will use to bolster his politics well into the future.
Madhesi Janadhikar Forum chief and Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav has asked his cadres to go after the Young Communist League. Nothing like the Gaur carnage is about to ensue. But Yadav has synthesized domestic and diplomatic pressure on the Maoists. By blowing hot and cold on India’s exact responsibility for the Koshi disaster, Yadav has already put Dahal on the defensive before his Delhi visit. Reports of a second prime ministerial visit to China can be of little use here until the state media announces the itinerary.
October may be a couple of weeks away, but the air is bound to acquire added chill when revolutionaries in power feel they are imperiled.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Freedom, Fluster And Fatalism

Viewed from a section of the south, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s northern sojourn was a damp squib. That the Maoists’, like their ideologically disparate forerunners in power, never intended to set off fireworks, was beside the point.
Beijing, according to the dominant Indian media storyline, did not shower financial largesse on Dahal suggestive of a patron-client relationship. The trust deficit, therefore, must still be too wide. By alienating Delhi, Dahal only contributed to shortening his tenure as premier. The last conclusion stems locally, from analysts allied to the opposition Nepali Congress known to reflect Indian opinion.
Yet the sting still seems to burn in other parts of New Delhi. The Manmohan Singh government is anxious to welcome Dahal on his way to the United Nations General Assembly. Landing in New York City is not tantamount to visiting the United States, but the Indians don’t want to be downgraded another notch.
Dahal, upon return, immediately went on damage-control mode. He said he would make his first political visit to India. Why this sudden surge of obsequiousness? Did the Chinese really cold-shoulder him?
There’s probably a very basic explanation. Dahal must have had ample time during his shadowy subterranean existence – before the People’s War, if not during it – to study the range of India’s capabilities in Nepal.
Shortly after his election as our first democratically elected premier in 1959, B.P. Koirala had rebutted his Indian counterpart’s suggestion that Nepal fell within India’s security perimeter. In response, Jawaharlal Nehru yielded to B.P.’s assertion of Nepali sovereignty. But he chose to make public the letters exchanged with the 1950 treaty. Mohan Shamsher Rana, the Nepali signatory, could afford to laugh off the time lag; history had ensured an irredeemable reputation for his clan.
B.P., on the other hand, wasn’t going to be beholden to the Ranas eight years after their ouster. Certainly not when he was building bridges to Israel, one of Nehru’s favorite whipping boys.
B.P.’s assertion was bold, but it would mark the beginning of his travails. After eight years’ imprisonment in Sundarijal, B.P. went into exile in India to discover that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had almost become nanny to his daughter Chetana during his official visit as premier, couldn’t schedule a mutually convenient meeting for quite long.
A pattern of sorts emerged. In 1971, the Nepali Congress’ arsenal for the second insurrection against the palace had to be redirected to Bangladesh. Amid the 1975 emergency in India, B.P. somehow concluded that Sundarijal had been more comfortable. (At least he could gauge the mood of the royal regime by the quality of the cheese it offered each day.) Clearly, he died ruing the capacity for greatness his Indian friends had squandered in Nepal.
Yet B.P. was lucky. Few can decouple UML leader Madan Bhandari’s death in 1993 from his fierce opposition to the Tanakpur accord. Marx had enough space to live a life of influence in Nepal. He didn’t have to hobnob with the commies in West Bengal in an effort to paint Bihar and Uttar Pradesh red.
It’s hard to miss the connection between the Narayanhity carnage eight years later and King Birendra’s refusal to sign that controversial citizenship bill. The struggle between the palace and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala over the precise number of the treaties to be signed during Chinese premier Zhu Rongji’s visit might seem like a footnote today. Could it be any coincidence that the ones that weren’t would have had integrated Nepal’s economy closer to the north, leaving it less vulnerable to political manipulations from the south?
That ex-king Gyanendra owes his commoner’s status to his effort to bring China into SAARC as an observer is well known. Until then, efforts by one section of the Indian establishment to create a Maoist-mainstream alliance against the palace were being ridiculed by the other end. Honestly, how many of us haven’t wondered whether the last king could have avoided a fate worse than his brother’s were it not for the dimness of the potentially expedient line of succession?
Clearly, Prime Minister Dahal took a great risk by boarding that flight to China. His subsequent clarifications should not substantially diminish its importance. It would be safe to say that his personal well-being is now intertwined with Nepal’s.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Snub Of The Story

So this is what it has come down to. King Gyanendra infuriates India by easing China’s entry into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and is eventually overthrown. The Maoists, whom the Indians used to empower their listless lackeys in the mainstream, do bring down the royal regime. China, which armed the royal regime against rebels who they claimed tarnished the memory of the Great Helmsman, ends up embracing the Maoists.
The Maoists go on to win the largest number of seats in the elections carefully choreographed in New Delhi. The Indian Maoists see the outcome as vindication of their continued armed struggle. New Delhi tries to foist another lackey onto the presidency, this time through the Maoists. But Ramraja Prasad Singh is routed by Ram Baran Yadav, whose Nepali Congress scuttles at the 11th-hour the Maoists’ alliance with the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum’s Upendra Yadav.
The Maoists feign outrage and refuse to form the government. They relent, but set preconditions that deepen the deadlock. Interim prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala gets to attend the SAARC summit, but jawbones about his parleys with the Indian leadership as a way of keeping the job. The Maoists use Upendra Yadav’s men and women as a buffer against the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML), still smarting from the ex-rebels’ refusal to back former general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal as president.
The UML seeks the army’s help to checkmate the Maoists. But the generals remind general secretary Jhal Nath Khanal that it was not for lack of will that the royal regime failed to crush the rebels. The Indians pressure President Yadav from cancelling his visit to China, but the Beijing Olympics open without a glitch. Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal becomes prime minister. UML ministers refuse to take the oath because Bam Dev Gautam is not designated No.2 in the cabinet. Gautam, who lost the election, is portrayed as just another power-hungry pol, which suits the UML’s Jhal Nath Khanal, Madhav Kumar Nepal and K.P. Sharma Oli just fine.
The Koshi floods spark a rivalry between the heads of state and government in an anti-Indian frenzy. Prime Minister Dahal, for his part, prepares for his first address to the nation. He paraphrases paragraphs from compendiums of King Mahendra’s speeches and flies to Beijing to attend the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games. By the time he lands in the Chinese capital, Dahal’s trip acquires all the trappings of an official visit.
The Indians feel the stinging slap. But they can’t figure out whether it really came from Dahal. After all, he owed his life and limbs to the anonymity Delhi’s outskirts had provided for so long. So the whack also smacks of Beijing’s drive to contain India from joining the U.S.-led containment of China.
Then Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav defends Dahal’s visit as part of an effort to restore balance in Nepal’s relations vis-à-vis its two giant neighbors. He doesn’t stop there. Yadav warns foreign ambassadors not to expect a free rein under the new government, a day after Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood is a no-show at the prime minister’s departure ceremony.
By this time, the Nepali Congress leader enjoying the closest ties with the Maoists, Shekhar Koirala, has warned of withdrawing his party’s representatives from the constituent assembly if Dahal & Co. veered toward totalitarianism. Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) leaders irked by chairman Kamal Thapa’s late-blooming bonhomie with the Maoists break away to return to the mother party.
Both factions attend the birthday bash for former queen mother Ratna, who still lives in Narayanhity Palace, at the former crown prince’s residence while the owner is away. The celebrations turns into an intense political conclave at a time when former king Gyanendra was supposed to be writing his memoirs at what is still officially Nagarjun palace.
Before Prime Minister Dahal can draft that eviction order, the former king is said to have made up his mind to settle in Him Shail, the Tahachal residence he inherited from his childless late uncle Himalaya and aunt Princep. Suddenly, for the rumor mill, the ex-monarch’s graceful exit has turned into a strategy for a grand comeback.
Come to think of it, the former king never insisted on that referendum he had obliquely pushed during that conversation with Japanese reporters. Prime Minister Dahal, for his part, has not revised his public assertion as rebel-in-chief that the Maoists would accept a Panchayat-style monarchy if the people so desired. Is there some connection here? Just curious.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Real Change In The Works

The principal political forces have struck a balance – or at least a semblance of it – in our post-monarchy state structure. The Nepali Congress has the presidency, while the Maoists control the premiership. The Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) hold the constituent assembly, while the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) controls the vice-presidency.
How factional dynamics within these parties play out remains the key imponderable. And the spotlight falls squarely on the Nepali Congress. Sher Bahadur Deuba suddenly jumped into the ring after Ram Chandra Poudel was touted as the token challenger to Pushpa Kamal Dahal for the top executive job. Why did a three-time premier agree to such a conspicuous losing proposition? 
Was this the outcome of last-minute confabulations among diplomats from countries traditionally influential in Nepal? Or did it stem from Deuba’s desire to live up to his given name in front of the man he once called brave? Or to reinforce the message that, come what may, he is the pretender to the premiership?
How long will the Nepali Congress deign to stay in the opposition? The UML’s populist Nine S’s program instantly goaded the party into alliance with the royalists. Although royalty has departed, sections of the Nepali Congress-friendly media have reached out to ex-royalist Prakash Chandra Lohani of the Rastriya Janashakti Party to endorse their view that the Dahal government cannot, by any definition, be considered consensus driven.
The Maoists would love to know what the Nepali Congress is really up to, but their own house remains messy. When Dr. Baburam Bhattarai issued that hard-hitting statement defending his nationalist credentials, it became clear that the former rebels have much more than residual resentment from the purge of 2005. 
Dahal, for his part, has resigned as chief of the People’s Liberation Army to become the entire nation’s premier. The analogy may not hold, but our new premier, under protection of the state army, must find himself counting Pervez Musharraf’s travails once he shed the uniform in Pakistan.
The UML remains the wild card, especially since it has four former deputy premiers constantly itching for the top job? Khadga Prasad Oli and Bam Dev Gautam may be tugging the party in opposite directions, but general secretary Jhal Nath Khanal has other ambitious comrades to worry about.
The MJF is an amalgam of rightists, leftists and centrists that ran old Nepal. In a party that still calls itself a forum, members are perhaps at greater liberty to ventilate their disagreements without having to own up ideologically relevant consequences. Yet the fault lines in the MJF appear more debilitating to the nation.
Despite such murky portents, the state can no longer postpone the process of writing the new constitution. Madhav Kumar Nepal, the former chief of the UML, and Bishwanath, former chief justice of the Supreme Court, seem to be the leading contenders to head the drafting panel. 
You could question the choice, since both were the principal architects of the doomed 1990 constitution. In a spirit of conciliation, however, you could also argue that these men desire to set things right this time. Upadhyaya, in particular, can be expected to exhibit more seriousness on the issues of language and ethnicity he had summarily dismissed during the 1990 drafting process.
The process is not going to be pretty. Those seeking inclusion in state structures have already sharpened their swords. What about those resisting exclusion? It would be a mistake to laugh off the recent call for an alliance between Bahun-Chhettris and Rana-Shahs. In the battle for survival, history offers a sobering lesson. It’s not how the Ranas and Shahs joined hands after the 1950 change. It’s how the Gorkha Parishad, supposedly the party of the Ranas, joined hands with the Nepali Congress after the royal takeover a decade later. As for the priestly caste, the kumai and purbia bahuns could finally settle their scores, now that we no longer have royal preceptors. Where do jaisis and khatris fit in all this?
Hindi, as Vice-President Parmananda Jha recently stated, could end up as an official language in the constitution. Could Urdu be a less credible candidate, considering the prominence of our Muslim minority? (Going by Indian media reports on the mushrooming of madrassas along the border, Arabic could be an equally potent contender, though.)
Still, real change may be in the works. During our last brush with democracy, all three elected assemblies died a premature death at the hands of ambitious prime ministers. Considering the strenuousness of its task, this one could get extensions ad infinitum. New Nepal, indeed.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Staying Sane Around Smarmy Spoilers

When Ram Raja Prasad Singh starts blaming India for his defeat in the presidential elections, you are, at first, forced to question your own sanity. Actually, Singh only voiced suspicion over India’s role in his defeat. Still, the distinction does little to dilute our astonishment.
After the 1985 bombings outside Narayanhity Palace and the Rastriya Panchayat and inside Hotel Annapurna, rumors swirled for quite some time that palace hardliners had paid Singh to claim responsibility for their acts clearly aimed at thwarting the Nepali Congress’ non-violent agitation.
Singh spent the next five years across the southern border as a hunted man. He wasn’t your conventional exile, though, having domiciled himself on both sides of the Jange Pillars.
Even in the midst of the openness the spring of 1990 unleashed, Singh couldn’t establish his relevance. It was no small matter to castigate the palace and campaign for a republic during those partyless decades. Singh’s rants contained little beyond the regular after an entire nation had risen up against a politically preponderant palace.
As the Maoists gained ground, Singh would make public statements in support of the new push for republicanism. Beyond that, you heard very little from the man. Some reports suggested Singh was too ill to be a serious political contender, while others believed he was training a new corps of revolutionaries.
The prospect of republicanism sparked by the collapse of royal rule in April 2006 brought Singh to national prominence. It was only after the Madhesi agitation gained steam that he rose in stature. At a meeting in Patna, Singh declined to become titular head of the disparate agitations in the Nepali plains. That was surprising considered the permanence of the “RAW agent” tag he did so little to tear.
The ball started rolling once more after the constituent assembly voted to abolish the monarchy. “I met with Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood at the inauguration ceremony of the Narayanhity Palace Museum,” Singh confirmed in a recent newspaper interview. He [Sood] was brought by a person and he introduced himself.” Sood stated that Singh was going to have great responsibilities on his shoulders soon and congratulated him in advance.
The Maoists got the message and nominated Singh as their presidential candidate. That choice tarnished the ex-rebels’ nationalist credentials. Singh’s defeat gave the Indians the space to operate under deeper cover. “Many countries wanted to see the revolution defeated….maybe India wanted that, too,” Singh told the newspaper. 
His subsequent revelations exuded much more than traces of suspicion. Insisting that his relations with India were never smooth, Singh said he felt there was nothing in them that could deteriorate further. “The Maoists knew this fact very well.”
Then came this bit that the country did not know too well. “I never supported the New Delhi-sponsored 12-point agreement between the mainstream parties and the Maoists. If the agreement had been signed in Kathmandu, I would have definitely supported it with an open heart”.
Until now, it sounded as if Singh’s objection was to the venue not the value of the alliance. But he reframed the debate. Singh said he had met with Maoist chairman Prachanda for the first time in New Delhi and had told him not to compromise. “I always believed that in a revolution there is no such thing as compromise… however, they compromised”.
Yet Singh had no qualms about becoming the compromise presidential candidate of the Maoists and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum. The swiftness with which that alliance unraveled must have heightened Singh’s soreness. “If I say that I was not hurt after the defeat, I would be lying. But now, I have controlled my composure”. Good for him.
When the newspaper asked Singh directly whether he thought India was behind his defeat, the pioneer republican refused comment. 
After all that Singh said in the course of the conversation, why did the reporter have to spoil the interview? 

Monday, August 04, 2008

Ceremonialism By Executive Order

President Ram Baran Yadav remains in a state of volatility on matters ranging from official abode to administrative assistance. The way he appears to be redefining the role and reach of the highest office of the land thus becomes all the more remarkable.
Contrary to the purely ceremonial role envisaged by most architects of New Nepal, Yadav seems set to acquire executive influence. His high-profile political consultations in connection with the formation of the new government have angered sections of the Maoists.
The president’s direct participation in the activities of the Nepal Army has alienated some quarters on the other end of the ideological spectrum. In conveying best wishes to soldiers heading for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and expressing hope that they would carry out their duties with discipline, Yadav hardly departed from the tradition established by his predecessors as supreme commander. The president’s physical presence at Panchkhal sparked a queasiness among some that remains unmitigated by the realization that he would, in all probability, never don the uniform.
Overall, this overt exhibition of republicanism has set off speculation of an emergence of a political co-habitation practiced by that other former monarchy, France. Former king Gyanendra Shah’s overtures to Yadav have put in new perspective the possibility of a broad nationalist platform.
As such, geopolitics has lost little time in entering the debate. President Yadav’s understandable preoccupation with the construction of the long overdue post-election government forced him to cancel a visit to China to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Scribes across the southern border scurried to put on a sinister spin. Yadav knows he did not snub the Chinese, at least not deliberately. Deep down, the mandarins up north must have known he was in no position to break with tradition and pay them a visit first.
Indian ebullience on this count came after the media there went gaga over Yadav’s supposed Indian roots. Admittedly, the physician turned politician shares fewer such links than, say, his former boss Girija Prasad Koirala, who was born in India. But that piece of reality did not fit the operative narrative of the reporters and editors – and the officialdom patronizing them – down south.
Yadav’s 11th-hour ascension to the top job has evidently satisfied the Nepal Army, whose reluctance to take orders from a presumptive Maoist protégé fueled rumors of an imminent political accident. Yet talk of a military coup has acquired greater resonance since Yadav took his oath. And not only because of his deputy’s choice of language at the swearing-in ceremony.
Should Sujata Koirala win the by-election through the active support of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum’s Upendra Yadav, who vacated one of last April’s keenly contested seats, the non-communist bloc will have gained significant ground.
Efforts to marginalize the Maoists from monopolizing the state would see President Yadav’s active participation. Endeavors to tame the former rebels, too, can be expected to feature Yadav in the central role.
With Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah and current president Pervez Musharraf having entered the core of Nepal’s political lexicon, the non-left cluster would do well to examine another analogy.
In the early 1990s, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party named one of its senior leaders, Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari, as candidate for president. Ensconced in office, Leghari ended up dismissing Benazir and her government in 1996 (while, one might add, our own star-crossed Sher Bahadur Deuba was paying an official visit as premier). The head of state is, after all, expected to rise above the party. A sobering thought indeed for the Nepali Congress.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dignity As A Diplomat’s Refuge

In his agonizingly belated response to allegations of New Delhi’s mounting interference in Nepalese affairs, Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood put up a fascinating defense. “I will not dignify the question with an answer,” he told a Kathmandu-based Indian reporter.
The question related to the claim by Chandra Prakash Mainali, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist Leninist, that the Maoists’ last-minute decision to break a pact with the communists to propose Ram Raja Prasad Singh as president had come under Indian pressure. That, of course, was before the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) broke its deal with the Maoists to support the Nepali Congress’ Ram Baran Yadav for the highest office of the land.
Mainali claimed that the Maoists had nominated Singh under pressure from India, which had become disenchanted with Koirala. Koirala had realized that India was trying to turn him into another Lhendup Dorji, who as prime minister of Sikkim played a key role in the merger of the Himalayan nation with India, according to Mainali. Once Koirala began to resist New Delhi’s pressure, he was no longer acceptable.
Sood’s rejoinder was bound to be viewed in the context of India’s predominance in charting Nepal’s future after the collapse of the royal regime in April 2006. His predecessor, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, had made Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s official residence virtually his second home.
Mukherjee was rewarded for his accomplishments in Nepal with ambassadorship to Britain despite unsavory allegations swirling around his spouse, which the Nepalese media considered too scorching to cover. Still, Mukherjee’s tenure paled in comparison to that of his immediate predecessor Shyam Saran, who subsequently superseded 10 people to become foreign secretary.
Sood’s persona preceded him to Kathmandu. His nomination hit the headlines after months of speculation that Jayant Prasad was getting the job. Prasad, the son of another controversial Indian ambassador, Bimal Prasad, would have set a record in his own right. But Sood’s resume seemed more compelling in view of the task at hand.
Having wrested Afghanistan out of Pakistan’s sphere of influence, Sood assertively landed in Kathmandu with a brief to score an encore. He blew his horn a little too stridently. Even before presenting his credentials to Prime Minister Koirala, Sood embarked on a series of high-profile meetings with Nepalese politicians.
He must have gathered from his briefing books, that, as far as straight talk vis-à-vis the Indians goes, Mainali is a class of his own. He criticized the November 2005 12-point pact between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists. Weeks later, he said his concern was only over some “procedural matters” and then pledged full support to the accord.
Months later, Mainali accused the Indian establishment for flaring up the Terai crisis, claiming that the top representative at the Indian Consulate in Birgunj was personally disbursing millions. The Indians did not have a Nepal policy, he went on. They just wanted concessions from Nepal and were using the Terai crisis as a bargaining chip.
A couple of months later, Mainali excoriated ruling alliance leaders for allowing the Nepali Congress’ Amresh Kumar Singh to attend a meeting. Singh, who shot to prominence after the fall of the royal regime, remains the modern-day avatar of Bhadrakali Mishra. Mishra, it may be recalled, arrived from almost nowhere to join the Rana-Nepali Congress government in 1951 and ended up alienating almost every party and politician well into the 1990s through his southward proclivities.
With this record of intrusiveness, what else but dignity could Sood have invoked to deflect the issue?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wackiness In Our Out-Of-Whack Times

These last couple of weeks must rank as some of the wackiest in Nepal’s politics. Caretaker premier Girija Prasad Koirala exudes a palpable sense of relief when he asserts the onus for solving the nation’s problems lies with his presumptive successor, Prachanda. Yet Koirala, demanding the presidency as the price of relinquishing the premiership, lectures us on the virtues of political morality.
Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Jhal Nath Khanal, calling February’s accord between the government and the agitating Madhesi groups flawed, claims that no agreement is ever etched in stone. The UML’s chief whip, Ram Chandra Jha, accuses Madhesi leaders of following in the footsteps of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. To avoid any religious connotation to the analogy, Jha, himself a Madhesi, also throws in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers chief Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The separatism slur too much for Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) leader Bijay Kumar Gachchadar. He accuses the UML of trying to divide the madhesis. Now look who’s talking. Isn’t the elevation of Gachchadar, a Tharu, as the MJF legislative contingent’s chief a blatant effort to split one of the principle groups against the One Madhes One Province demand. Who can forget Koirala’s tap on Gachchadar’s shoulder in the assembly chamber following his resignation speech that wasn’t, which set off the post-monarchy bedlam? Or, for that matter, Gachchadar’s defiant claims till the very last minute that he would never abandon the Nepali Congress?
The Maoists, wearied by this war by other means, finally agree to consensual politics before any resort to majority governance. Nepal could head toward disintegration if it does not stick to the path of consensus, Prachanda concedes. Hard to quibble with that, although it would have been nice to see that realization while the unelected interim legislature was busy foisting that overly liberal citizenship law on the country.
The Nepali Congress immediately scents a Maoist-Madhesi alliance (Remember the Maoists’ self-proclaimed “restraint” after the Gaur carnage?) Bolstering the NC’s suspicions is the Madhesi reps’ boycott of the legislative session to allow the fifth amendment to the interim statute to be adopted. In doing so, the Madhesi MPs retain the right to agitate at will and, by extension, provoke a wide array of other Nepalis as the Pandora’s Box lets out its most vicious apparitions.
Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal, underscoring that matters had not reached boiling point as far as Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were concerned, nevertheless suggests the moment of reckoning may not be so far off.
Then comes the stunner. Paraphrasing UML chief Khanal, Kamal Thapa, president of the only avowedly monarchist party in the assembly, emphasizes the interim nature of our nascent republic. While his Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal continues a campaign to reinstate the monarchy during the drafting process of a full-fledged constitution, Thapa also foresees cooperation with the fiercely republican Maoists on issues of nationalism. Bewildering as that balancing act appears, it remains consistent with our out-of-whack politics.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Maoists Face The Surreality Of Newness

The stars seem to have gone retro on the Maoists after their electoral surge in April. The Madhesi parties rose up in defiance moments after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala finally announced he would step down.
Now former Gorkha soldiers are warning of an agitation should the comrades proceed with their plan to end recruitment. (It was, let’s not forget, Nepal’s major victory from its defeat in the war with the British.)
The Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML), despite their recent bonhomie with the Maoists, have set up their own brigade of brigands to counter the Young Communist League. With enough revolutionary shine, the UML might gain far more than the men and women it lost to the Maoists in the early years of the People’s War.
The Nepali Congress is proving more resilient than the average runner-up in a hung assembly. From the way Prime Minister Koirala tricked the nation into believing his intent to resign was an actual resignation, it is clear the wily octogenarian is far from a spent force. The split in the Nepali Congress on addressing the Madhesi issue could be contrived for a much wider objective.
Both sides of the One Madhes debate have accused the government of betrayal. Even amid the emphasis on collective responsibility, it must not have been easy for Prachanda to hear J.P. Gupta club him together with Koirala and former UML chief Madhav Nepal as Indian agents for having signed the pre-election accord with the Madhes-based parties. With the monarchy gone, the feudalism tag has centered on the upper castes dominating the major parties. As the largest one, the Maoists are particularly vulnerable. A coalition of the petrified is coagulating. The political class is worried about the emerging polity. The civil service is horrified by Forestry Minister Matrika Yadav’s penchant for toilet-training as a mode of re-education. The fourth estate is worried about its own freedoms. Geopolitically, things are in a state of flux. India’s home minister keeps assuring his country that Nepal’s Maoists share nothing beyond ideological ties with the Naxalites. But sections of the Indian media have the opposite view and have been reaffirming it with energetically in recent weeks. Supporters, too, are sending thinly veiled messages. One Calcutta newspaper suggested how Gyanendra Shah’s birth chart remains royally propitious. That came after a news service opined that the monarchy could make a comeback if political infighting continued.
The Chinese lifeline, on the other hand, is listless. It will probably remain so until the Olympics Games are over. And who can say what will happen then. The Chinese, after all, have reduced Prachanda to begging for an invitation. Beijing’s Nepal pointman, moreover, has conveyed his country’s expectation that the new premier would visit India first. The Americans cleverly stepped in after the elections to clarify how they never equated the Maoists with Al Qaeda. But they have done little since.
With the transition to the premiership becoming so thorny, Prachanda must be scared stiff of what might await him in power. If the Maoist rank and file still expect an October Revolution, they probably realize it may be mounted against them.
Obeisance to the south has thus become the Maoists’ strategy for survival. Mohan Baidya, in a swift turnaround, now believes the threat to Nepal’s sovereignty does not emanate from India. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai cancelled his much-hyped trip to Kolkata to accept the felicitations of ideological soulmates.
Prachanda speaks every couple of weeks to one Indian media organization or the other on how he wants better ties with India based on new realities. It must be hard to figure that one out – and the rest of it all – when newness is becoming so surreal.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Who Is The Reddest Of Them All?

The Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) have stepped up their anti-India posture several notches. A few weeks ago, the party’s youth front became the first organization to lodge a formal protest against the meddling of Rakesh Sood, the new Indian ambassador.
Now the tightening of the Madhesi knot, following the resignation of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, has forced the UML toward another realization: the obstructionism of the Madhesi legislators at the Consistent Assembly has its origins across the southern border.
“India is provoking each and every political party in Nepal to add up to the political deadlock,” one newspaper quoted a leading UML member as saying the other day. That statement would have acquired greater credibility had the UML source be willing to go on the record.
The April elections downgraded the UML to becoming Nepal’s second dominant communist organization. Many expected the defeat of Madhav Kumar Nepal in both constituencies and his subsequent resignation as party chief to pave the way for a radicalization of the UML.
The anointment of Jhal Nath Khanal, an opponent of Madan Bhandary’s doctrine of People’s Multiparty Democracy, underscored that imminent shift. An alliance with the Maoists was deemed necessary to weaken the Nepali Congress. The UML doesn’t really need the presidency for that. When it’s time for a head-to-head contest between the two Reds, the UML will be tempted even more to play the nationalism card. And that’s where UML leaders are most vulnerable.
When Bhandary made his national political debut through an extensive interview with the Times of India as the 1990 democracy movement gathered steam, he astounded many. Still, few saw him as the general secretary of the erstwhile Marxist-Leninist faction. By the time the Marxist-Leninists and the Marxists joined hands to form the UML, few considered anyone other than Bhandary as its leader.
After defeating interim premier Krishna Prasad Bhattarai in a prestigious capital constituency the following year, Bhandary was lionized in parts of the West as the living embodiment of Karl Marx. Whether or not that epithet was intended as a kiss of death, it did created a new dynamic.
Bhandary led the protests against the Tanakpur. A prime minister caught lying to the country on the touchy issue of sharing water resources enhanced Bhandary’s nationalist credentials. The loss to the intended beneficiary was enormous. Bhandary, meanwhile, hobnobbed with the Indian Left that was seeking to expand its base in the other states bordering Nepal.
Having once challenged King Birendra to take off his crown and enter the political arena, Bhandary now acknowledged the palace as a power center. His growing proximity to Ganeshman Singh presaged a new alignment.
It was immaterial whether Bhandary’s death in a jeep crash was part of a grand conspiracy. It led to a chilling effect on his successors. After the 1994 election, Madhav Nepal may have succeeded in forcing Nepali Congress-friendly Bimal Prasad out as India’s ambassador. But he had to befriend Prasad’s successor, K.V. Rajan. (Who can forget Nepal’s merriment at Madam Rajan’s birthday celebrations?)
The UML remained opposed to the Tanakpur agreement. But what about a comprehensive deal? Enter the Mahakali Treaty. With the ball rolling on that front, Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikary’s minority government was dispensable. Under Adhikary’s successor, Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Mahakali Treaty won broad consensus in the legislature and was ratified.
Yet a section of the UML abstained, the very group that would go on to split the party. Bam Dev Gautam became the voice of nationalism on matters beyond water resources. His prime ministerial ambitions were whetted by that stint as deputy premier, during which he was his de facto boss. Gautam lost the 1999 election, his faction failing to win a single seat. He returned to the UML, accepting a virtual demotion.
Amid the factionalism in the UML, each contender knew how to keep Gautam on a tight leash. He responded by moving closer to the palace. After the February 2005 royal takeover, Gautam was addressing gatherings in New Delhi on how profoundly grateful Nepalis were for India’s consistent support for democracy.
Madhav Nepal had already been undermined by charges of opportunism. Among them, the revelation that he used his influence to secure a better medical college for his daughter by downgrading the real beneficiary had to have come from the Indian Embassy.
With the Maoists poised for power, the UML has jumped at the opportunity to regain the initiative. Any source of support – internal and external – would be welcome to every aspirant. No wonder the UML leader chose to remain anonymous.