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.