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?