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.