Saturday, May 31, 2008

Let A Hundred Rants Rage

With the monarchy consigned to the history books, the Maoist-mainstream alliance was bound to unravel. But few expected the guardians of the republic to fall out so bitterly during the official celebrations of Nepal’s “rebirth”.
Clearly, the farce surrounding the first session of the constituent assembly was a fa├žade for last-minute haggling. Maoist chairman Prachanda revealed that he had agreed to the creation of a presidency and vice-presidency only to ensure the adoption of republic declaration. The Maoists had never renounced their claim to the top positions. That’s not how the Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist-Leninists understood the consensus.
As the participants and observers yawned and moaned at the Birendra International Convention Center, 11th-hour negotiations were going on at another level, too. The military was in an institutional battle for survival. A force gunning for Prachanda’s head until two years ago couldn’t be expected to give him its heart so readily. The Maoists could lay claim to the political space the monarch traditionally occupied, the top brass concurred, but certainly not to the supreme commandership of the state army.
A still momentous round of bargaining was going on elsewhere. If the monarch would accede to the outlines of a comprehensive agreement that would replace the much-maligned 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India, then he might be able to keep his crown. Since the mainstream parties and the Maoists had already made full sectoral undertakings during the previous two years, royal consent would merely affirm new Nepal’s commitment to new special relations.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala decided to let Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula present the republic motion and let other procedural lapses seep into the first session of the constituent assembly. If things went according to plan, the Maoists would walk out of the assembly and the mainstream parties would blame the ex-rebels’ untrustworthiness for their own vote against the republic motion.
Considering how those who egged him on to seize power on February 1, 2005 turned out to be his worst critics, the monarch wasn’t falling for that. The Indians refused to bring everyone together to a roundtable to compare notes because each participant had been handed a different page. Plan B envisaged the creation of two centers of power in presidency and premiership. The rest of the story has a familiar ring.
As the most aggrieved party, the Maoists are entitled to the hottest rage. But can Prachanda do anything about it without undermining himself? Experience taught most Nepalis to expect the Nepali Congress and the UML to buckle under southerly pressure. The Maoist leader rescinded the order to foot soldiers to march on the palace. The security forces, recognizing the political orientation of those who did turn out, easily beat them back.
Out of compulsion, the Americans, of all people, stepped in to help Prachanda put on a brave face. The eagerness of the Indians and the Chinese to evict the United Nations Mission in Nepal had roiled Washington enough. Deb Mukherji, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, shouldn’t have been so hasty in voicing the Indian left’s suspicions of Washington’s motives in the world’s newest republic.
To allow the new dynamics to play out, the Maoists are trying hard to conceal their rifts within. And that too in classic Maoist style. Prachanda is now threatening Kantipur Publications of unspecified consequences for its coverage of the former rebels. The Maoists, he said, had tolerated criticism thus far to ensure the elections. Victory has now pushed bad-mouthing off the national agenda.
Our own version of the Great Helmsman’s “Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom,” indeed.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

‘Greater Nepal’ Or ‘Chindia’?

In our quest for emancipation, Nepalis surely didn’t expect to become inhabitants of a 21st-century equivalent of a trust territory. Especially not when the country got its first modern glimpse of the map of “Greater Nepal”. Yet “Chindia” could be what the future holds.
The United Nations Trusteeship Council, which was formed to ensure that non-self-governing territories were administered in the best interests of the inhabitants and of international peace and security, terminated its operation when Palau became a member of the world body in 1994.
The Nepali variant, administered by our two powerful neighbors for precisely the same reasons, is predicated on the departure of the UN Mission. That imperative, more than the empowerment of the Nepali people, was behind the urgency of holding the constituent assembly elections. China and India had resolved to deal with the poll outcome bilaterally. The Maoists and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum made this arrangement much easier.
The Americans were forced to explain how they never considered the Maoists to be another Al Qaeda. But, still, Washington can’t come out of a prickly watch-and-wait mood. The gaze must extend beyond our northern and southern flanks.
Did all that rhetoric about “Sikkimization”, “Bhutanization,” and “Fijification” turn out to be a ruse? “Chindia” came about at such a pace that it is pointless to argue over whether name predated the notion or vice versa.
China and India are not about to divvy up Nepal the way the victorious powers did Germany after World War II. Nor will they establish their respective zones of influence separated by the Mahabharat range. A joint commission on Nepal, if one ever materialized, would probably get a benign name within the larger mechanism governing Sino-Indian partnership.
So where does all this leave us? Within the confines of the Sino-Indian partnership, of course. Belatedly, Nepalis have come to recognize how the relationship between the world’s two most populous nations is underpinned by a complex mix of cooperation, competition and confrontation. With third parties out of the region, Beijing and Delhi can focus on their complementarities as well as conflicts.
Admittedly, Indian concerns over Chinese motives in South Asia have acquired greater candor in recent months. Still, the Indian establishment cannot criticize China the way it does the United States. The Indians, it seems, have taken that time-tested Chinese adage close to heart: It’s far easier to deal with the “distant barbarian”.
If the Indians were to sign on to a U.S.-led campaign to contain China, they know they would have to proceed with prudence. Amid India’s coalition politics, mainstream communist parties have ideological affinities that impede decisive action when it comes to China. New Delhi, moreover, knows the Chinese establishment is unlikely to have a wing beholden to, say, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The imponderables would influence our course. For now, Chindia has come to rest squarely on the Maoists. Prachanda’s decision to assume the premiership, reversing his pre-poll claim to the presidency, stemmed from these regional dynamics. Beijing obviously saw Dr. Baburam Bhattarai for what much of Nepal did: someone with close ties to India. And proximity, in an unequal partnership, tends to heighten susceptibility to pressure.
Clearly, depriving Dr. Bhattarai the opportunity to lead the government was not enough here. Mohan Baidya and Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal” have effectively checkmated Dr. Bhattarai in the party. This way, the Maoists believe they have bolstered their position to become agents of equidistance. The Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists, in their estimation, would be well advised to reconcile with this new reality.
Both, however, have a far greater grasp of geopolitics to sit back and let the Maoists run the show. Ideology as well as expediency could make it easier for UML to construct a northern wing. Considering Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s actions and utterances over the past two years, the Nepali Congress may be quite capable of springing a surprise or two.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Guessing Game Continues

Barely a fortnight into his tenure, Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood has zeroed in on his brief: regaining India’s initiative in Nepal. Midway through our peace process, New Delhi clearly felt matters slipping from its grip. The United Nations was exceeding its mandate. The Chinese were becoming a far more assertive player – and flaunting it. The much-touted convergence of views with the United States looked fuzzier by the day.
By winning back Afghanistan as India’s top man in post-Taleban Kabul, Sood was the perfect candidate for Nepal. Jayant Prasad’s nomination was quietly buried in the Indian media.
Sood went straight to the heart of the matter. He suggested that India was not privy to any agreement on retaining the monarchy that supposedly facilitated the transfer of power from King Gyanendra to the Seven Party Alliance in April 2006.
But, then, Sood would be the last person to acknowledge the existence of such a document. India’s record speaks for itself. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru revealed the existence of secret letters exchanged with the 1950 Treaty nine years later. He didn’t do that to undermine Mohan Shamsher Rana, then safely in exile in India. Nehru did so to undercut Prime Minister B.P. Koirala’s assertion of Nepalese sovereignty.
New Delhi made public the existence of the 1965 arms agreement only four years later when King Mahendra prepared to expel the Indian military mission that, among other things, manned check posts along Nepal’s border with China.
India has not said a word about the draft treaty it presented to King Birendra in the spring of 1990. It essentially aimed at bringing Nepal tighter into the Indian sphere of influence, in exchange for pledges of support for the Panchayat system. When the palace refused, the monarchy paid the price. Interim prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai wasn’t too thrilled to find the same draft thrown at him months later.
And then there’s the 12-point agreement against King Gyanendra’s regime. It was one thing for top Nepali leaders to require urgent medical care in India at the same time. It was quite another for US Ambassador James F. Moriarty to accompany many of them on that flight. New Delhi has left it to the signatories to expound upon its precise role. Many of them – including Maoist leader Prachanda – did so in glowing terms. Yet when the Madhesi leaders met with government negotiators inside the Indian Embassy, it wasn’t the royalist right but the SPA and the Maoists that cried foul.
If there was any agreement on saving the monarchy, it’s up to King Gyanendra to release it. As the clock ticks down to May 28, when the interim constitution envisages Nepal becoming a republic, the palace is keeping us guessing. One report suggests the monarch has already sent a letter to the Maoists pledging to vacate the palace before that deadline. Others suggest he intends to dig in his heels until the full constitution is written and ratified.
Throw in the soothsayers who predict the monarchy will eventually prevail over the politicians. Then juxtapose that with some of these same stargazers’ assertion that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala would never be able to pull off the constituent assembly elections. The fogginess is perfect for the behind-the-scenes games Sood and other Indian representatives are feverishly engaged in on all sides.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pre-emptive Democracy

Now that the Constituent Assembly election results have been formally announced, public attention has focused on the precise moment that august body would convene. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and the leaders of the other parties within the ruling alliance and outside have not been able to come up with a specific date or time.
Under the interim constitution, the assembly must convene by May 29. But, then, the document could always be amended. Before the body convenes, the government is expected to nominate 26 members to give it full shape. The sovereign people have a right to know the composition of the full body before the eldest member starts reciting the oath.
The assemblage of directly elected representatives and those who rode on the proportional representation lists is not that inspiring. For one thing, most of the Maoist reps are unknown quantities. Even if they are capable of overseeing the constitution-writing process, what’s to stop them from trying to ram their draft down the throats of the other members? Some Maoist members in the interim legislature actually brandished weapons in the chamber, didn’t they? Members from the other parties don’t quite have a collective reputation for resistance.
More than life and limb are at stake here. By sending distinguished personalities from various walks of life to the assembly, the government can inject a dynamic positively unencumbered by the popular mandate. Since their reputations would be on the line, these members have a vested interest in successful deliberation. (Of course, our experience with the interim constitution has left us little to be sanguine about. The most prominent drafters, after all, were among the first to dissociate themselves from the text the people finally got to see.)
The distinguished-personalities rule has always existed. Yet, in the past, those lucky to be nominated tended to be people who distinguished themselves in morning walks to palace secretaries and party satraps. Still, people who had just lost elections invariably were not picked.
This time, it looks like things are going to be a whole lot different. According to reports doing the rounds, there is a sustained campaign to induct prominent losers from all parties. Sujata Koirala, Shekhar Koirala, Krishna Prasad Sitaula, Khum Bahadur Khadka, Govinda Raj Joshi, Arjun Narsingh K.C., Binay Dhoj Chand and Bal Bahadur K.C are among those tipped to make the Nepali Congress quota.
From the UML, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Khadga Prasad Oli, Bharat Mohan Adhikary, Pradip Nepal, and Iswar Pokharel are said to be the frontrunners. Mahant Thakur of the Terai Madhesh Loktantrik Party is also favored. The surprise contenders are Surya Bahadur Thapa of the Rastriya Janashakti Party and Pashupati Shamsher Rana of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
Before you go ballistic over this subversion of the popular mandate, consider this. Keeping these highly motivated and organized people outside the assembly could represent a real threat to Nepal’s democratic future. For one thing, they would be capable of building all kind of alliances. For another, they could be susceptible to all kind of pressures – local and foreign – that are likely to grow in the new political climate.
This is actually what the big parties believe, and the Maoists are said to be the most ardent advocates of this preemptive democracy. How about tossing Jwala Singh and Jai Dev Goit in the lot in the true spirit of consensual politics?

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Maoists’ Russian Roulette?

Although officially an adherent of the Great Helmsman, Comrade Prachanda has managed to pour far greater public admiration on Vladimir I. Lenin. The founder of Soviet Russia, to be sure, remains firmly in the pantheon of Reds of all hues. Yet Prachanda’s devotion to Lenin has, at times, seemed, well, revoltingly lopsided.
After the April Uprising, Nepalis didn’t hear the Maoist chairman talk about the siege of Chengdu, the last decisive battle Mao Zedong led against Chiang Kai-shek before establishing the People’s Republic in 1949. Lenin’s October Revolution was the talk of the nation.
Bolstered by his latest popular mandate, Prachanda has now begun describing himself as the local equivalent of Lenin. The other day, he went a step ahead and brought back the memory of Vladimir’s elder brother Aleksandr in the form of Ram Raja Prasad Singh, the pioneer of Nepali republicanism. “I had met Singh several times during the decade-long rebellion…and had the chance to learn a lot from him,” Prachanda declared at the launch of a biography of Singh.
Singh was the first Nepali practitioner of the art of entering the legislature to expose it. Like the Maoist forerunners in the 1991-94 parliament, Singh was in no position to undermine the status quo. That someone elected from the graduates’ constituency, the closest thing you could get to open elections in those days, could muster the courage to demand the abolition of the monarchy was truly ground-breaking.
Singh’s subsequent defiance on how trees would start producing bombs stirred up audiences of all persuasions because of the haste with which hyperbole had turned heretical.
Prachanda must have continued studying the 1985 bomb blasts in Kathmandu long after the gruesomeness had faded away from public memory. So long after Singh claimed responsibility – and was convicted in absentia – for carrying out synchronized blasts, people still believe the palace masterminded them to thwart the civil disobedience campaign launched by the then-banned Nepali Congress.
Singh saw no need to dispel the perception of the top republican’s collusion with the palace against the monarchical mainstream. The future People’s Warriors must have taken copious notes right there.
What Prachanda might have learned from Singh during the insurgency remains in the realm of speculation. It must be substantial, since the Maoist leader indicated that Singh might be asked to oversee the transition to more perfect republic. Singh, after all, was the consensus presidential candidate of all those madhesi groups united by their hatred for the Maoists.
For our purposes, Prachanda’s Aleksandr analogy must be probed a little deeper. In 1883, the elder Lenin graduated from the College of Simbirsk with a gold medal and entered Petersburg University. There he majored in natural sciences, earning another gold medal for his work in zoology.
Aleksandr took part in underground meetings and illegal demonstrations, carrying out propaganda activities among students and workers. In 1886, he became a member of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) party, ultimately affirming terror as a means of struggle. Aleksandr and his allies began plotting an assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III, and were arrested. In court, Aleksandr gave a stirring political speech, and a few weeks later he was hanged.
Surely, Aleksandr’s execution radicalized Vladimir, who was then 17 years old. He became more involved in student protests and revolutionary propaganda. Grief has often been attributed to Lenin’s decision to choose a Marxist approach to popular revolution, instead of anarchist or individualist version.
The Lenin analogy, as Prachanda knows well, is capable of being repeated as tragedy as well as farce. After he suffered his first stroke, Vladimir Lenin dictated to his wife several papers. Among these were Lenin’s Testament, which criticized leading communists, including Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky. Lenin said Stalin, who had been the Communist Party’s general secretary since April 1922, had “unlimited authority concentrated in his hands.” He suggested that “comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post.”
After Lenin’s death in 1924, his wife mailed his testament to the central committee so that it could be read at the 13th Party Congress. The central committee, at the instigation of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, kept it from the wider Soviet public. It argued that Lenin had been mentally ill in his final years and, as such, his final judgments could not be trusted.
The following year, Lenin’s testament was published in the United States. Trotsky wrote an essay downplaying its significance. He argued, among other things, that Lenin’s notes should not be regarded as a “will” and had neither been concealed nor violated.
Of course, Trotsky fell out with Stalin a few years later and began using Lenin’s papers to step up attacks against his former ally. The Soviet dictator subsequently had Trotsky assassinated in his home in exile in Mexico City. Amid the rumblings of confusion within the triumphant Maoists, this Leninist legacy casts the longest shadow on Nepal.