Monday, January 28, 2008

Nepali Congress: Battle Royale For Survival

As a party reunited out of compulsion – national as well as international – the Nepali Congress was bound to expose its deep fissures again soon or later. It turned out to emerge sooner in the manifestation of the “royalist” faction.
Now this group seems to have been energized by the induction of Sujata Koirala in her father’s cabinet. Sujata is, by far, the most outspoken advocate of the monarchy, but the extent of her influence on the “royalists” remains obscure.
That matters in a party profoundly influenced by individualism. There was hardly a mutter when the Nepali Congress abandoned its core socialist principles during Girija Prasad Koirala’s first term as premier in the early 1990s. Some old-style Congress leaders like Ram Hari Joshi were forced into retirement. Others, like Dhundiraj Shastri, became embittered to the point of allying themselves with the palace.
In 2002, former premier Sher Bahadur Deuba and his allies walked out of the Nepali Congress because of personal, not ideological, reasons. Deuba’s principal lieutenants – Khum Bahadur Khadka, Bijay Kumar Gachchadar, Jay Prakash Gupta – were onetime protégés of Koirala. The new coterie insulating the party president had simply edged them out. Over the next five years, Deuba kept his flock together purely on the platform of anti-Koiralaism.
Of course, opposition factions in the party have always found an issue to camouflage their disgruntlement. (“One-man-one post” and “passing the torch to a new generation” have been among the favorite.) When political equations changed, and personal predilections intervened, dissidents have devised slogans equally dexterously. (“A divided Congress means a weaker democracy.”)
Khadka returned to the party during palace rule after Koirala called him in detention to inquire about his health, while Deuba virtually ignored him. After King Gyanendra dismissed him for a second time in February 2005, many of Deuba’s loyalists developed serious doubts about having cast their lot with him.
A formal reunification was precipitated last year by the escalating Red Scare. Once the Congress factions reunited, the Maoists and the Unified Marxist-Leninists went back to their own bickering. The
There is an interesting dynamic in the ongoing churning process. Govinda Raj Joshi, a one-time Koirala loyalist widely credited with scuttling the last-minute initiative to save the party in 2002, has joined the dissident camp. And he resents the “royalist’ tag.
You can’t blame him. When Joshi, in the aftermath of a daring Maoist raid in Dunai in 2000, criticized the then-Royal Nepalese Army – and by implication the palace – for failing to aid the beleaguered police and failing to provide them with better weapons, Prime Minister Koirala forced him out of the cabinet.
Joshi’s subsequent proximity to Koirala in the party organization suggests that he held King Birendra, as supreme commander in chief of the RNA, responsible for his ignominious exit. (If he hated the most popular Shah king that bad, you can imagine the scale of antipathy for the current monarch.)
Yet Joshi and his ilk recognize how republicanism has been merely a political expedient for the party along. Long before Narahari Acharya and Gagan Thapa emerged to carry the mantle, Nepali Congress youths like Devinderraj Upadhyaya had proposed a republican platform for a post-Rana Nepal. Upadhyaya, among others, went on to hold senior administrative and diplomatic positions under Kings Tribhuvan, Mahendra and Birendra.
After King Mahendra’s takeover in 1960, Surya Prasad Upadhyaya, home minister in the ousted B.P. Koirala cabinet, ended up supporting the monarchy in a circuitous way. He did so more out of his deference to advice tendered by “friends” across the southern border than out of his own convictions. Kuber Sharma’s path to royalism, we understand, began the day Koirala dropped him from the Congress central committee to bring in Khadka.
For today’s Congress “royalists,” the line is inextricably linked to self-preservation. In private conversations, members of this group are more candid. If the palace would stand to gain from their hard-line against the Maoists, then so be it.
They are acting on something many others in the party recognize: the Maoists already practice a degree of totalitarianism the monarchy could never dream of contemplating.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Coup, But Which One?

So it essentially boils down to whether Nepal will witness a “democratic coup” or a “nationalist” one. From the national discourse outside the corridors of power, the postponement of the April 10 constituent assembly elections seems to be a foregone conclusion. (In private, leading people in power do concede as much.)
Another delay would mark the end of the legitimacy of the Six Party Alliance. Why the trepidation? The masses haven’t marched on Baluwatar, Balkhu or Buddha Nagar desperate to assert their sovereignty.
Perhaps the pain is self-inflicted. As an entity that rose on the public mood of the time, the slightest shift is bound to be perceived as seismic.
Things are moving too fast. Forget the third amendment to the interim constitution that turned Nepal into a monarchical republic. Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader Khadga Oli tells us that the first sitting of the constituent assembly wouldn’t be able to oust the monarchy. (Having absented himself from that vote, he is busy shrugging off the royalist tag.)
The 23-point agreement looks increasingly like a stopgap arrangement until the denouement. Whether the Nepali Congress or the Maoists strike a deal with the military (read palace) first seems to be the only issue.
The fact that senior leaders of all political stripes are fanning across the country on commitment rallies doesn’t seem to matter. How could it? Wasn’t Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala assuring foreign ambassadors of elections until the final hours before their official postponements?
More important, political leaders want elections for different reasons. The situation is spiraling out of the grip of the oligarchy. The proportional representation deal has raised new imponderables.
Echoing UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal, Maoist leader Mohan Baidya sees them as the only shield against a royal comeback. But his boss, Prachanda, is busy meeting with members of King Gyanendra’s erstwhile cabinet. Logically, aren’t these men (and women?) supposed to be busy plotting another coup?
Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba wants elections to ensure that his son wouldn’t have to go to jail again under a monarchy. But he makes that revelation at an army barracks, one of the pivots of King Gyanendra’s regime, in an inebriated state. (No wonder the generals have lost their enthusiasm for Deuba and are hedging their bets on Sujata Koirala).
Narayan Man Bijukchhe of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party offers such tantalizing tidbits on the New Delhi conclave that inaugurated the peace process that it amazing how his peers in the SPA tolerate him.
The national mood takes the cake, here. The alternative to the greatest democratic exercise is a choice between two military takeovers. Take your pick.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ex-Rebel Rehabilitation Red Flag

A key element of the debate on the rehabilitation former Maoist fighters has been overshadowed by the row over the creation of a national army. Among the sops Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s government has given ex-rebels is a pledge of special consideration for foreign employment.
Fine and dandy. But there is a problem. Which country in its right mind would want one-time murderous marauders in their midst? Of course, the government could keep out applicants’ antecedents in a genuine spirit of affirmative action. Would foreign governments be as magnanimous?
This issue becomes more important considering the prime markets of Nepalese labor. Malaysia has its own history of communist insurgency. With the row over Indians still hot, Kuala Lumpur would be hard-pressed to accept another headache.
South Korea is next door to the world’s last pristine communist outpost. South Koreans aren’t too keen about reunification in large part because of the economic costs of subsidizing their ill-fed and ill-read cousins. Ex-Maoists from Nepal ostensibly would be out of the question. Moreover, didn’t the South Koreans deport a Nepali for engaging in something far less unpalatable as trade unionism?
The Persian Gulf states can hardly be expected to be sanguine, either. The Saudis have their own Al Qaeda problem. They don’t need former Nepali insurgents who might volunteer their IED-building expertise but certainly not venture into Iraq to blow themselves up.
The sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates can’t be expected to raise an entire battalion of minders to monitor Nepali ex-rebels. Non-Maoist Nepalis already feature too frequently on the crime pages of Qatari and Kuwaiti newspapers. Bahrain and Oman are hardly oblivious.
The United States would have to withdraw the terrorist tag before the ex-Maoists can even be considered as visa applicants. (The Pentagon could mull using them against its Iraqi adversaries, but then who knows how deep anti-Americanism runs in our young men and women?)
The European Union may be more sympathetic in its outlook on Maoists as politicians, but didn’t France sit on Pampha Bhusal’s nomination as ambassador for so long that Prachanda & Co. had to send her to the cabinet?
The Japanese may be opening up the labor market to Nepalis, but they certainly haven’t forgotten their own mobs of mutineers drenched in the color red.
That leaves traditional employer India. The surge in the crime rate involving Nepali domestic workers in Indian cities would be inhibiting factor even in the best of times. With the Naxalites building that red corridor on a war footing, it would be hard to beat the SSB patrols on the border.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Parallel Peace Process: An Update

When Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala publicly asserted not too long ago that the country would have a woman prime minister soon, there was little doubt that he had his daughter in mind. Since the wily acting head of state abdicating in favor of Sujata was too far-fetched to contemplate, Koirala had had to have some trick up his sleeve.
He couldn’t have booted out Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula to create space for his daughter. Sitaula is too powerfully connected – and too valuable – across the southern border. Sure, Sujata could have gotten Mahant Thakur’s old job, but what would she do tinkering with science and technology?
The only way open to Koirala was to readjust the balance in the cabinet by giving Sujata the widest berth. By bringing her onboard as minister without portfolio, the prime minister has shown much deftness.
Far from being a nepotistic relapse, his move is part of a well-calibrated initiative. The first phase of the parallel peace process Maila Baje wrote about last month has now been completed – or at least the New Delhi side of it has.
This was sealed last month when Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal and Sujata were in the Indian capital about the same time. The Indian version still needs to be reconciled with the Chinese one, which, we are told, is more generous to the Maoists.
The joint plan – which has the blessings of the US administration – is expected to be finalized during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Beijing. (Which, of course, is taking place close on the heels of Gen. Katuwal’s northern sojourn.)
If that deal goes through, the next phase would be set in motion in Kathmandu over the coming weeks. The constituent assembly elections will be postponed once more, prompting Prime Minister Koirala to step down. And the military will step in.
An army-backed Nepali Congress-led government will take charge and announce the dissolution of the interim legislature. Most likely, the interim constitution will be abrogated, too. There is some uncertainty as to the legal underpinnings of the unfolding developments. One idea is the creation of a provisional constitutional order to be endorsed by a future mechanism.
The government will announce a referendum on the monarchy to be supervised by the United Nations. King Gyanendra will remain in “suspension” during this period, as the chief executive exercises the powers of head of state and government.
Clearly, the idea is to get at least 40 percent of the Maoists on board. The Chinese seem to be confident of winning that level of support. Recalcitrant sections will be the target of a massive security operation, jointly backed by China and India.
The Maoist leadership has sought – and received – assurances of full freedom to campaign against the monarchy. In return, they have pledged to honor any adverse result.
Sujata Koirala remains the front-runner for chief executive. Some in the army have voiced their preference for Sher Bahadur Deuba – who has the support of traditional constituents in the western democracies. Deuba’s name, however, is said to have been vigorously opposed from within the party, including some of his allies in the erstwhile Nepali Congress (Democratic).
The real catalyst for change is the “royalist” wing of the Nepali Congress. People like Khum Bahadur Khadka, Govinda Raj Joshi, Chiranjibi Wagle and Purna Bahadur Khadka genuinely fear a massive loss of support for the party from voters sympathetic to the continuation of the monarchy for the preservation of the Nepalese state.
The former panchas, split in three parties, are not capable of tapping into this vote. The result: a significant section of the electorate would simply abstain from the constituent assembly elections. The prospect of an unpalatable, so to speak, outcome has been weighed carefully by all side.
A referendum on the monarchy would address a major part of the constituent assembly imperative. Such other issues as state restructuring, equitable representation and development, decoupled from the monarchy, would then be debated in light of Nepal’s experience of the last two years. A high-risk strategy, of course. But something Nepal’s principal international stakeholders believe may be the country’s last hope.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Singhs In Perfidious Pitch

Among the enduring mysteries surrounding the collapse of King Gyanendra’s direct rule two years ago is the precise content of Indian emissary Karan Singh’s road map. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh endured much criticism at home – as well as from the opposition alliance agitating against palace rule – by dispatching a former Indian royal related to King Gyanendra to restore the democratic process.
Emerging from his talks at the palace, Karan Singh seemed sanguine to reporters. The monarch, he asserted, would speak to the nation soon. The king did, inviting the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) to form an interim government. The rest of the democratic world was ecstatic. But that approach didn’t work with the Nepalese people.
After King Gyanendra reinstated the House of Representatives, Karan Singh claimed that the transfer of power to the SPA was precisely in keeping with his initiative.
Now we are told that India had engaged in hectic bargaining with the palace during those tumultuous days. “Give us control of your foreign and defense policies and we’ll put an end to the violent street protests,” the trade-off purportedly went. Din Bandhu Aryal, a former Nepali Congress minister turned palace supporter, made the revelation at a public program the other day. Actually, it was hardly a revelation. Every Nepalese ruler since Padma Shamsher Rana has received such a proposal from independent India.
What makes Aryal’s disclosure interesting is King Gyanendra’s purported response. “I can’t agree to those terms. Get whatever concessions you want from Girija, Madhav and Prachanda,” Aryal quoted the monarch as saying. “They claim to represent the people and have brought out millions to the street to prove it.”
Aryal obviously is not a disinterested communicator here. He was among the most active supporters of King Gyanendra’s takeover of executive powers in October 2002. Before that, he was an assistant minister in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s cabinet in 1991. (Yes, the one he reconstituted after sacking those Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai loyalists upon returning from his visit to India.)
The fact that Koirala had entrusted Aryal with the Ministry of General Administration at a time when the premier was reinvent the bureaucracy in his own image surely meant something. But, then, Aryal wasn’t the only Nepali Congress leader to break with the premier.
Aryal’s disclosure – made at a talk program on how the ruling alliance had become pawns of foreign powers – forced Maila Baje to ponder a bit deeper into the Karan Singh mission. Another princely Singh – the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Jaswant – had already announced plans to visit Kathmandu. Prime Minister Singh evidently couldn’t let Saffron Brigade subvert the 12-point accord the Reds had helped his government pull off in New Delhi.
The prevailing view was that India had dispatched someone who the king would listen to attentively. In retrospect, that seemed true, but perhaps not for the reason we were led to believe. Karan Singh arrived primarily as the former regent of Kashmir. In that capacity, he could most easily sweeten Delhi’s proposal. Six decades after India absorbed Kashmir, people still blame Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Ballabh Bhai Patel for the massive drain on the nation’s resources. No matter how hard India tries to convince the world that Maharaja Hari Singh – Karan’s father – had signed the instrument of accession, there are woefully few takers.
And Karan Singh? Well, he embarked on a political life that far outweighed his stature as heir apparent of a landlocked Himalayan state. And, yes, Kashmir conceded – at least theoretically – only defense and foreign affairs to the Indian Union.
Prime Minister Singh’s public persona doesn’t quite permit us to conclude that he is relishing some historical justice here. Many Sikhs, after all, do resent Nepal for keeping Rani Jindan Kaur – Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s widow and political successor who sought asylum here after an abortive uprising – under virtual house arrest, thereby snuffing out the last hope of regaining Punjab’s independence from British rule.
Of course, it ceases to matter, in our current political climate, that King Gyanendra’s forebears were hardly freer than Rani Jindan was under the Rana rulers of the time.