Monday, February 25, 2008

What’s There To Be Sorry For?

It’s easy to dismiss Chandra Prakash Mainali’s latest outbursts against India as an exhibition of individual duplicity at its worst. A signatory to the 12-point agreement drafted and signed in New Delhi today wants leaders who went into the Indian Embassy for talks on resolving the Madhes imbroglio to apologize publicly.
In fairness, one must state for the record that Mainali and Narayan Man Bijukchhe of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, another signatory to the Delhi accord, at least had the courage to question the intention and impact of such an externally imposed alliance. (It is baffling nevertheless that both are still part of the ruling alliance.)
But Mainali is in a class of his own. At one time, he was the most prominent young communist of Nepal. The violent Jhapa movement Mainali was part of in the early 1970s was almost a legend that deepened with his own daring escape from a Panchayat prison. After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, he became the first leader to publicly admire King Mahendra’s contributions to nation building. He subsequently lost to the more charismatic Madan Bhandari whose ideology of Multiparty People’s Democracy carried the day. But not without mounting a serious effort at preventing the newly formed Unified Marxist-Leninists from abandoning the core tenets of their German and Russian heroes.
Having lost the speakership to the Nepali Congress’ Ram Chandra Poudel after the 1994 elections, Mainali was named supplies minister in the UML’s minority government. The shabby treatment party colleagues meted out to Mainali during the sugar scandal said much about his prospects in the UML. So when Bam Dev Gautam led his supporters out of the UML in 1998, Mainali didn’t surprise many by walking out, too. The creation of the Marxist-Leninist faction hardly settled his politics. In the party leadership contest, Mainali lost to Gautam, who continued to espouse Bhandari’s Multiparty People’s Democracy. The ML’s rout in the 1999 elections precipitated its reunification with the UML, but Mainali chose to stay out. This persistence amid sustained marginalization is something rare and admirable in contemporary Nepali politics.
Through his comments at the Reporters Club the other day, Mainali, who now heads the United Left Front Nepal, has attempted to brighten his nationalist credentials by several watts. He accused the Indian establishment for flaring up the Terai crisis, based on “firm” proof he chose not to elaborate on. (Unless you count his assertion that the top representative at the Indian Consulate in Birgunj is personally disbursing millions.)
Mainali’s other revelation was just as interesting. The Indians don’t have a Nepal policy, he said. They just want concessions from the Nepali establishment. They are using the Terai crisis as a bargaining chip. How many of us really didn’t know that? But it’s different when a member of the ruling alliance says that.
No sovereign Nepali can ever accept the demand for a separate Madhes province, surrendering to pressure exerted from within or without, Mainali claimed. This leads to the inequity of the wider argument being advanced against the one-Madhes-one-province credo.
The hills people never saw madhesis except in their collective image. Sunsari, Saptari and Siraha may have been distinguishable from one another to the migrants from the hills. For those who still inhabited the nation’s rugged terrain, it really didn’t matter whether you hailed from Bara or Banke.
To suddenly claim that there is no contiguous madhes – geographically, politically ethnically or emotionally – is disingenuous. Equally so is Mainali’s plea to madhesis – shared by the ruling alliance in general – to wait until after the constituent assembly elections. If an unelected interim legislature could secularize the state and turn Nepal into a republic, it certainly can oblige the Terai agitators.
Returning to Mainali’s main point, if Nepali leaders could fake illness at the same time to fly to Delhi for medical care only to forge – in the fullest sense of the word – an unnatural alliance, why should venturing into the Indian Embassy be considered such a sacrilege? It saved time, money and energy, didn’t it?

Monday, February 18, 2008

New Nepal Tied Down By The Old

For quite some time now, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has been sounding like King Gyanendra. Lately, Maoist chairman Prachanda is echoing Ganesh Man Singh. Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal reminds you of, well, Sher Bahadur Deuba.
National sovereignty and territorial integrity seem to have become the pivots of the legacy Koirala wants to build. Having done his best to de-develop the nation in its people’s name, Prachanda now envisages an economic revolution. The road to the putative presidency is paved with the hopes of its people. Madhav Nepal has an immediate focus: elections at all costs.
The national interest isn’t a concept Nepalis generally associate with Koirala. From Tanakpur to the privatization of Chinese-built enterprises, Koirala’s first term as premier was a saga of obeisance to the south. He never seemed to mind the “pro-Indian” tag.
This time, Koirala seems intent on undercutting his land of birth at every opportunity. Holding Indian officialdom complicit in everything from hijacking to currency counterfeiting to the Terai crisis, Koirala has warmed up to the Chinese. The handover of Dr. Kidney, too, seemed more of an effort to forestall the political fallout of Indian sleuths swooping on Kathmandu.
In some ways, this transformation – if that’s what it really is – mirrors that of his illustrious late brother. B.P. Koirala once campaigned against Nepal’s membership of the United Nations, arguing that it was merely an administrative unit of India. As Nepal’s first elected prime minister, he made some of the most passionate speeches ever in defense of Nepalese independence.
Of course, we all know what happened to B.P. Koirala after that. In the end, he found Sundarijal more comfortable than South Extension or Sarnath because of the deviousness of his Indian hosts. Much as he opposed King Gyanendra’s direct rule, Girija Prasad Koirala must have come face to face with his own helplessness in New Delhi during the pre-February 2005 phase.
Given his age and virtual indispensability to the other stakeholders in Nepal, Girija Prasad would probably avoid the direct humiliation heaped on his brother from the south. But New Delhi’s cardinal rule remains that Koiralas aren’t supposed to flaunt the China card.
The Indians have grudgingly left that to Prachanda. But the Chinese don’t seem to trust him enough. Their overtures to Rabindra Shrestha, leader of the breakaway Maoist faction are certainly not rooted in his abiding fondness for the Cultural Revolution.
Economic revolution is something Prachanda should quit talking about. Ganesh Man Singh’s vision after the 1990 democracy movement assumed that Nepal’s political contradictions had been settled for good. That end-of-history conceit had a certain respect during those heady times. But consider the flip side. The Koirala cabal succeeded in subverting Singh’s supreme leadership faster precisely because of such rhetorical flourishes.
The Maoists, who advanced on the impossibility of overnight economic improvement, should know better. Nepal’s almost six-decade-old quest for political equilibrium remains as unstable as ever.
Madhav Nepal seems to have grasped that well. There will never be a perfect situation for elections, he tells us. This conviction could easily have come from experience. If Deuba had gone ahead with the parliamentary election scheduled in November 2002, the UML would have benefited the most.
Deuba, who insisted that he postponed them only under pressure from other parties, could invited international monitors to offset the Maoists’ threats. Why the UML chief went along with the rest of the anti-Deuba crowd, resulting in King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Nepal’s last elected premier, is unclear. Less ambiguous is the fact that Madhav Nepal lost the most in the intervening years.
New Nepal is simply tied down by the old.

Monday, February 11, 2008

In The Name Of Thy Daughter

With Dr. Kidney having accelerated his political convalescence, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has now begun assuring us that the constituent assembly elections would be held as scheduled on April 10.
It’s too early to tell whether Koirala’s intervention in expediting the extradition of Dr. Amit Kumar has improved his stock in New Delhi. Regardless, the premier cannot afford any lassitude. Any indication of irrelevance is a no-no when King Gyanendra has begun raising his profile. The last time that happened, Maoist leader Prachanda helped catapult Sher Bahadur Deuba to power.
True, things are different for Koirala this time. Daughter Sujata has become acceptable as his successor to the principal external stakeholders. Domestically, he needs to fortify her credentials as the modern-day Jang Bahadur our nation of malcontents secretly longs for.
Prime Minister Koirala recognized all along that if the Nepali Congress was to survive politically, it could not afford to resemble the communists. He just wanted Sujata to raise that banner. Playing the Maoists and monarchists off against each other seemed fun for a while. Moreover, who knows when the premier would get to be acting head of state again? But when the question of succession in the family neared, the palace held much more attraction.
Nobody has been able to hold the designation of Minister Without Portfolio with any degree of firmness since Damodar Shamsher Rana in the Panchayat years. For Sujata, it came as an opportunity to train for the real job.
Not that she fell short. The raids on the Maoist Young Communist League offices she ordered seems to have touched off more anger within Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula’s camp than among the Maoists. If the Maoists are to provide the justification for that political realignment everyone is talking about, Sujata needs to do more to make the ex-rebels’ blood boil.
She should have sufficient time for that. Since becoming minister, Sujata has entrusted her pro-monarchy agenda to the principal dissident faction in the party. Her campaign to revive the 1990 constitution, too, could be best left to the deepening political uncertainty.
By wooing over the military, she can expect to reinforce the Nepali Congress’ backbone. But competition is tough on that front. The UML and the Maoists are already active players. If the left struck a deal with the right first, then the whole succession could unravel.
Papa did have to step in and preach, what with the bevy of delegations arriving from India in advance of that country’s widely anticipated policy shift on Nepal. Surely, the Indian left, right and center would want credible and candid updates that could go into a coherent strategy before the mandarins upstaged the babus.
It was one thing for King Gyanendra to cozy up to Beijing. Many leading Indians considered him pro-Chinese from the moment he ascended to the throne. It is altogether another for someone Delhi had hailed as South Asia’s greatest statesman to flaunt the China card on something as sensitive as fuel supplies. And the public revelations on official Indian complicity in hijacking and counterfeiting? (No wonder Dr. Kidney could deny “snatching” organs with such a straight face.)
The Chinese are probably already briefed well by their study centers mushrooming across the country. For the Americans, keeping the Indians and Chinese wary of each other has lost none of its Nixonian virtue.
If father and daughter can keep their stories straight, that might be just enough for now. Depending, of course, on what now means.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A Timely Tutorial On The Throne

You have to hand it to King Gyanendra for clarity of conviction. Breaking his silence on a nation in disarray, he has carefully tailored his message in tune with the medium.
In his widely quoted conversations with journalist Hari Lamsal, the monarch astutely preempted critics by alluding to a secret deal between the palace and the Seven Party Alliance under which he reinstated the House of Representatives. (What could such a deal actually contain? A commitment to retain the monarchy duly signed by the king, mainstream parties and the Maoists in triplicate, with Karan Singh or his designated representative as a witness?)
Then the king snubbed the ruling alliance by professing ignorance at Nepal having become a republic. To ordinary Nepalis, the monarch offered some contrition laced with compassion. The royal takeover of February 1, 2005 was an attempt to save the nation that couldn’t succeed. And the people are paying the price of the failure, he stated.
We may or may not be as magnanimous a people as the monarch gave us credit for, but the compliment certainly felt good. Should Nepal become a republic, the monarch would not leave the country. (Doesn’t that raise the prospect of Gyanendra Shah joining the Maoists?)
But the people must make that decision. In an interview with Japanese journalists, King Gyanendra quite explicitly described the interim legislature’s decision to declare Nepal a republic undemocratic. That prompted Maoist chairman Prachanda to urge the monarch not to lecture the parties on democracy. But, then, look who’s talking.
King Gyanendra cleverly chose Japanese journalists for his first full-fledged interview since losing power. The Thai press would be the next logical choice, but reporters and editors there are busy grappling with a political crisis in which their beloved king, too, seems to have miscalculated.
The upshot: The king can do wrong and accept it. King Gyanendra cited a recent opinion poll that showed 49.1 percent of the people supported the monarchy. Since the Asia Foundation and Britain’s Department for International Development funded the survey, it became hard for critics to question its credibility. So they spun in another direction.
King Gyanendra doesn’t get it, one newspaper editorial gushed. Nepalis may want the monarchy, the Friday weekly asserted, but few want Gyanendra or his son on the throne.
Clearly, it’s the critics who really don’t get it. In a monarchy, you don’t get to choose who sits on the throne. Only the monarch does. That’s what King Gyanendra has been hammering home since the April Uprising, through silence as well as semantics. If he doesn’t like the idea of a Baby King no matter how much he may love his grandson, that’s the monarch’s prerogative. Opponents are free to campaign for a republic.
It was hard to miss the publishers’ impertinence in the editorial. How many of us have actually forgotten the foray of their Southasian platform after the Narayanhity massacre? Didn’t the same media house ask Nepalis to ponder what might have happened had King Dipendra had actually lived?
Admittedly, the question was framed in the context of describing the job for a “democratic king.” But how does that explain the publishers’ urgency to indict the dead crown prince when so much was up in the air? And what happened subsequently? Did the royal regime’s drift northward automatically galvanize the chaebol toward its Southasian responsibilities?
As for King Gyanendra not getting “it”, the opinion poll accompanying the editorial on the weekly’s website had an interesting revelation. Almost 60 percent of Nepalis wanted the retention of the monarchy, with a full 13.5 percent favoring an absolute monarchy. So much for the distinction between the king and the crown.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The ‘Ignorance,’ Too, Is Illuminating

From the swiftness with which some of the people said to have recently met with King Gyanendra are issuing denials, you’d think the palace has sunk deeper into putrid toxicity. Yet the national gaze remains firmly focused on Narayanhity.
What another postponement of the constituent assembly elections could possibly invite is anybody’s guess. Still, each scenario has a royal component.
From journalist Hari Lamsal’s summary of his conversations with the monarch, King Gyanendra sounds updated as well as upbeat on current affairs. The exception, of course, is the monarch’s professed ignorance of the republicanism that has crept into the interim constitution.
What’s significant here is the nature of the denials of these purported palace visitors. Nepali Congress leader Govinda Raj Joshi, a leading figure of the “royalist” wing of the party, vigorously denied having met with the monarch. But he found it convenient to reiterate his opposition to the interim legislature’s foray into republicanism. Journalist Jib Raj Bhandari, too, rubbished reports of a palace audience. But not without asserting his solid monarchist credentials.
Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) president Pashupati Shamsher Rana claimed he had no reason to meet with the king. In an interview with a Kathmandu weekly, Rana claimed he would meet with the monarch in full public view if he thought it was necessary. A few breaths later, the RPP chief questioned the interviewer why such a meeting should be considered newsworthy anyway.
The establishment’s reaction to King Gyanendra’s response on the unfolding national situation offers an interesting historical contrast. When King Birendra granted his first interview to a leading Kathmandu weekly two years after the collapse of the Panchayat system in 1990, the political leadership was up in arms.
“Supreme leader” Ganesh Man Singh questioned the propriety of a constitutional monarch speaking directly to the press. It didn’t matter that King Birendra had merely expressed his acceptance of the nation’s new political reality. That, too, in response to a set of questions submitted by the editors well in advance.
When King Gyanendra defended his takeover on the eve of its third anniversary, there was relative silence. You could argue that the calm merely represented the palace’s irrelevance as far as the seven parties in power are concerned. But the muddle emitted by those who did respond undercuts that contention.
Peace Minister Ram Chandra Poudel urged King Gyanendra to contest elections, oblivious to the hastiness of his counsel. How about first persuading the country, much less the palace, that Nepal has become a republic?
Commentators close to the ruling establishment, too, seem to have lost some of their certainty. Instead of invoking the finality of the popular mandate the April Uprising supposedly embodied, some analysts reminded us how the country could not afford to squander a rare opportunity for change.
That’s a sentiment some of our foreign friends quite anxiously seem to share. They are growing more and more candid about their displeasure with the Maoists’ monopolization of the state. While they do acknowledge the palace as a pivot of stability, they don’t want to be seen handing King Gyanendra victory on his terms. Especially not at a time when the monarch views events vindicating his action.
For them, time is running out, particularly with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s faltering health. His anointment of daughter Sujata as heir apparent has made succession within the ruling alliance difficult. She may have distanced herself from the palace in recent days, but that might not be enough to win her the premiership.
All said, the republic enshrined in the interim constitution is looking increasingly elusive outside the palace. King Gyanendra’s ignorance, too, is meaningful.