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.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

‘Gorkhaland’: Then And Now

It would require a leap of the head to try to link the upsurge in the Gorkhaland movement in India with the eclipse of our own House of Gorkha. Jumping to other conclusions might not be so far-fetched.
When Subhas Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) spearheaded a bloody campaign for Gorkhaland in the 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government saw some benefit in letting the movement continue. The communist front ruling West Bengal, from which Ghisingh’s state was to be carved out, was growing annoyingly smug.
As Ghisingh subsequently settled for the autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988, there was palpable resentment over the betrayal of the cause. Yet labeling Ghisingh as part of the problem required much more than the allegations of corruption swirling around him.
Decades later, New Delhi provided the justification. Last November, it sought to turn Darjeeling into a tribal region by putting the DGHC in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The federal government initiated the move as a follow-up to a tripartite agreement it had signed with Kolkata and Ghisingh.
Non-tribal Nepalis, some 70 percent of the hill population, were outraged by what they saw as an attempt to divide them along the lines of ethnicity and caste. Adding insult to injury, the federal and state governments treated Ghisingh as the sole representative of the region.
Amid the indignation, New Delhi decided to put the Sixth Schedule Bill on hold. By then, Ghisingh had already lost influence to a former protégé, Bimal Gurung, who had formed the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) pressing for full statehood.
As in the original movement, deprivation and discrimination continue to be blamed for the unrest gripping Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and surrounding areas. Opponents are using many of the same arguments to rebuff the statehood demand.
The fractures in the Indian polity since the last agitation have cluttered its response. The Congress Party remains opposed in principle to the creation of smaller states. But, then, many within the party support the demand for separating Telangana from Andhra Pradesh. The political gains there are simply too attractive to ignore.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supports splitting states to ensure better governance. In 2000, the BJP-led federal government oversaw the creation of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand out of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, respectively. Political expediency played the principal part. Thus, the BJP can be expected to oppose any demand to divide Gujarat – where it holds full sway – no matter how certain the efficiency factor.
The GJM has recognized the change in realities. The current map for Gorkhaland envisages not only the three hills subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, but also Siliguri and parts of the Dooars that fall in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts in North Bengal, extending up to the border with Bhutan.
Moreover, the GJM has benefited from a growing intellectual impetus. A separate state, it is argued, would give Nepalis of India a distinctly Indian identity. To be sure, outbursts of anti-Indianism in Nepal have invariably put them in a tight spot. Conversely, accomplishment has been obscured. Prashant Tamang, who won the last Indian Idol singing contest, is known generally as a generic Nepali. Worse – for India – he was embraced by Nepal’s Nepalis.
The apprehension that Nepal might seek to reclaim the region it lost through the Sugauli Treaty hovers above the Gorkhaland debate. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), which heads the West Bengal government, attributes the revival of the agitation to Ghisingh’s failure to run DGHC as well as to the involvement of “foreign powers”.
The fact that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, and not Home Minister Shiv Raj Patil, came out with the first stinging rejection of the statehood demand was no less telling.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Finally, The Gloves Come Off

With grace and grit, the gloves finally came off.
Ex-king Gyanendra Shah, like much of the country and beyond, ended up seeing the monarchy as part of Nepal’s problem. In his own way.
A nation built against enormous odds bequeathed to this generation successive blows, testing the national will. Those intent on pushing its people further apart triumphed over advocates of unity. Nationalism became a dirty word. Nepal’s rich diversity came to be regarded as its unremitting blight. In a nation known for its people’s valor, victimhood took hold.
Still, pleas for patriotism persisted from its oldest institution. As always, these were interpreted as an offshoot from the monarchy’s alleged quest to perpetuate absolute power. Foreigners had their grudges against the monarchy. Their local enablers amplified the antipathy.
Gyanendra, like his predecessors, had identified the crux of the problem. There was a sustained campaign from abroad to pit the major political players against one another to foster chaos. Nothing would have stopped our waters from flowing south. With popular attention focused on a succession of villains, however, no one would have the time to set a per-cusec price and seek a share.
When it came to the vilification of the monarchy, the external playbook hardly ever changed. At the top was to expose the purported father-son conflicts over personal choice or policy outlook (Tribhuvan-Mahendra, Mahendra-Birendra, Birendra-Dipendra and Gyanendra-Paras). The next step was to identify and denigrate the black sheep in each generation (Basundhara, Dhirendra and Paras).
The trick lay in fitting those into Nepali realities so as to create a cover for real contests. The 1990s were propitious for democracy as an art as well as an ideal. Yet Nepalis were forced to accept it as an end. The hopes and aspirations raised by the 1990 changes played a big part in fueling the Maoist insurgency. Democratic leaders let the people voice all kinds of grievances but ensured for themselves the right not to listen. How long could they continue claiming credit for the sunshine and evading responsibility for the floods?
The Maoist insurgents capitalized on the crude games being played out in the name of democratic practice. The insurgency did not grow out of poverty and discrimination; there were far worse areas in the country than the mid-west, a region that actually benefited from integrated development projects. The Maoists became useful allies for the royalist right against the mainstream parties, whose monopoly over state resources ensured their dominance of the polity.
The Unified Marxist-Leninists accused the Nepali Congress of rigging the 1999 elections, ignoring the fact that it was part of the government. Yet both major parties saw the “working unity” between the royalists and the Maoists not against their depredations but against democracy itself.
Over time, the insurgents became more useful to the Indians, who were intent on perpetuating instability here. The Chinese, infuriated by this misappropriation of the Great Helmsman’s name, saw Nepal as a fertile base for the “containment” lobby ascendant in the West. The foreign minister at the time had spoken of a “new cold war” in Nepal.
The Narayanhity massacre took place at a time when the country was struggling to find its geopolitical locus. The surviving heir to the throne was a man who had strong views on the role of the monarchy and a stronger will to act on his beliefs. What better way to discredit him than to hold him complicit in the carnage?
As the monarch became more candid in the press, the Nepali Congress imploded amid internal strife. The prime minister recommended the dissolution of the legislature, and got his way. Months later, his political rivals recommended that the prime minister be dismissed for failing to hold elections. The monarch did that. But he refused to oblige the parties and, instead, sought greater power and influence to rectify the imbalance inherent the polity. Without changing so much as a punctuation mark in the constitution, he intensified his assertiveness.
The Maoists jumped in to strike a deal with the palace, bypassing the marginalized political parties. The palace-appointment governments were in no urgency to accept the Maoists’ terms. The rebels then began mending fences with the agitating political parties. Amid the triangular standoff, the insurgency grew more virulent, worrying the Chinese and Indians and emboldening the Americans.
When geopolitical compulsions necessitated a more decisive course correction, the monarch seized full control. Having failed to get their nominee as premier, the Indians reverted to their old trick of accusing the palace of flaunting “the China card”. This time New Delhi had a more receptive audience in Washington. The Americans, who used this period of royal dominance to extend their legroom in South Asia, went along with the Indian line.
Gyanendra accomplished what his brother was on the verge of doing before he was eliminated. The international outrage, in this sense, was understandable. The leader of the world’s sole Hindu kingdom wore his religion on his chest. This was too much for the defenders of the world’s other faiths. Communist rebels became useful instruments not only for their ability to mobilize the masses but also for their ideological commitment to the secularization of the country.
The tide of popular protests rose amid a convergence of disparate international interests narrated in detail in previous posts. The Indians, sticking to their playbook, were still bargaining with the palace. The parameters were laid down by the draft treaty New Delhi had submitted to Birendra during the height of the 1990 protests. That single accord governing comprehensive relations with India gained new life.
Gyanendra, we are told, advised the Indians to go to Girija and Madhav and have it signed. They did that. The reinstatement of parliament produced an “historic proclamation” that remade the Nepali state. Still, the architects could not abolish the monarchy outright. With enough pressure, the king might just capitulate to external conditions.
In the guise of the peace process, India did extract concessions on the citizenship laws and river-development contracts. But the Chinese had become far more assertive and outspoken players. Those apprehensive of the military dimension of the Chinese railroad’s arrival in Lhasa saw Nepal as Beijing’s road to the South Asian heartland.
With Bangladesh and Sri Lanka having joined Pakistan in a wider collaboration with China to build strategic stability in South Asia, Nepal’s open border with India became a huge vulnerability. So the Madhes movement became a useful tool to blunt the Chinese.
If the Terai could be turned into something akin to the federally administered tribal regions of Pakistan, the Chinese juggernaut would desist from this “no-go” area. That way, Indian preponderance in the subcontinent could still stand a chance.
With no sign of the king capitulating, the country was declared a republic, which would be implemented by the first sitting of the constituent assembly. To ward off any royalist backlash, the ruling parties – with Indian blessings – empowered themselves to abolish the monarchy at any time if the palace was found to be “conspiring against the people.”
The fissures in the Indian-American convergence on Nepal became clearer. Washington was not thrilled by the way the New Delhi government virtually subcontracted its Nepal policy to the communists. The Indians, too, recognized the limits of strategic partnership with the sole superpower.
On the surface, the UN Mission became the focus of this divergence. Yet in terms of economic, environmental, energy and other policies, the United States and India were far apart. Even in his state of “suspension,” the monarch was being wooed by both. By focusing attention on the “media ambush” of Maoist leader Prachanda existing the Indian Embassy, the ambassador could pursue his furtive meetings with the monarch.
Clearly, the proposals for a ceremonial monarch and a “baby” king were machinations to perpetuate instability. Up until the night the monarchy was formally abolished by the constituent assembly, the palace was being encouraged to accept certain “mutually beneficial terms”. A monarch forced onto the throne in crucial national circumstances twice had a greater sense of history.
In the aftermath of the vote, popular sentiments surfaced in unusual ways. When Nepalis were celebrating the close of a dark chapter, some of these same revelers were angered by an AFP reporter’s assertion that Nepal was once part of the British Empire. The problem wasn’t the message. It was the ferocity with which the messenger had always been struck.
In his farewell speech, Mr. Shah was circumspect in setting the record straight. He spoke of his personal anguish at the canards and calumny heaped on his family during his tenure as – mark the words – “head of state”. He reiterated how “various reasons” had rendered his direct rule unsuccessful. Most importantly, he lamented how he had found no one to defend him.
During the ex-monarch’s final hours in the palace, the Nepali people got an opportunity to appraise the disgrace called the Fourth Estate, many members of which always considered themselves another set of royals. How poignant that the ex-monarch walked away with their halo as well.
As for the great Narayanhity whodunit, we may have to wait for that report stashed in some bank vault in Scotland. In the meantime, Citizen Gyanendra should find it much easier to play the principal part he never really could pursue while on the throne.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Botched, Bothered And Bewildered

The three major political parties, it seems, had really expected His Ex-Majesty Gyanendra Shah to resist the republic resolution with his full force and fury.
Or else wouldn’t they have worked out in advance whether the presidency should be ceremonial or executive? The precise mechanism for electing the head of state, too, would have been laid out. The official residence would have been fixed. By golly, even the designation would not have become so controversial.
Everyone seems to have made the presidency in his or her own image. Our women legislators want a gender-neutral appellation. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) wants either the premiership or the presidency for someone from the Terai. From the MJF’s definition of the region, that would rule out most combinations of the current contenders.
The Maoists want a non-political personality as a hedge against the creation of a parallel power center. Predictably, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) don’t want to bestow on the ex-rebels a victory disproportionate to their popular mandate.
The Indians favor Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, if only to perpetuate instability. The Chinese want the UML’s Subash Chandra Nemwang to deepen Nepal’s Redness. And the Americans? Sher Bahadur Deuba might look too obvious. Grasping the knottiness behind the bickering, the Maoists have laced their willingness to compromise with a caveat. If the wrangling drags on, Maoist chairman Prachanda warns, he would assume both offices and proclaim a people’s republic.
October is still months away. The threat of that much-feared revolution can easily be neutralized through another midnight compromise our peace process has been so capable of springing up. A more perfidious anomaly lies beneath the effort to draft a new constitution. If there was any residual notion that elected representatives would do the job, their CVs have put that to rest.
Koirala wants former Supreme Court chief justice Bishwanath Upadhyaya to head the drafting panel. Confident of retaining his position of head of state, the interim premier also intends to rope in Madhav Kumar Nepal, Daman Nath Dhungana and Nilamber Acharya to ensure – in the words of one daily – a “skillful” draft.
Koirala may have thrown up Upadhyaya’s name as a shrewd move to prevent the Maoists from proposing him as a putative head of state. Yet the oddity of the option is egregious. If the constitution of 1990 – hailed as the world’s best – ended up a dud, how could the man who headed the panel that wrote it be considered qualified to draft a durable successor?
Moreover, we can’t forget how mockingly Upadhyaya had dismissed the demands of ethnic and linguistic groups – by his own admission, 90 percent of the suggestions the panel had received – as irrelevant in 1990.
Furthermore, hadn’t Upadhyaya sided with former premier Krishna Prasad Bhattarai in a last-minute effort to save the monarchy before a news leak scuttled that enterprise? What makes him relevant to the inclusivity of the new Nepal? An act of absolution? The ultimate fusion of truth and reconciliation?
Moreover, why are Nepal, Dhungana – members of the 1990 panel – and Acharya (who contributed to the document as law minister) being brought back? Nepal couldn’t even carry his party, forcing general secretary Madan Bhandari to propose a list of amendments before supporting the statute.
Dhungana, the minutes of the panel’s deliberations show, had pushed Article 127 as a palace-held shield the Nepali Congress could use against communist highhandedness. (Apart, of course, from being a tit-for-tat for the commies’ insertion of the preceding article precluding the Nepali Congress from reverting to its proclivity for short-changing the national interest in its democratic exuberance.)
Admittedly, Acharya used his cabinet stint to transition from a pro-Moscow Red to an independent Leftie via an ambassadorship to Sri Lanka. Still, there is something called guilt by association long in vogue among us. Or is that a standard only to be applied against the now royal-less right?