Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bracing For A New Round In An Old Rivalry

China offers Rs.100 million in military assistance and 14 armed groups active in the Terai organize a unity meeting in India. Such a straightforward link may be difficult to establish, at first. But there are too many dots that can be connected that way.
The first detailed report on Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa’s impending visit to China emerged in India earlier this month while his boss was busy charming his hosts. Bucking the euphoric trend, a top Nepal analyst, Gen. Ashok K. Mehta, urged his country to judge Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal by his deeds, not words. And those deeds, in Mehta’s view, would surface soon through Thapa.
A Defense Ministry spokesman in Kathmandu said the Chinese assistance would be used according to the needs of the country. Duh! Mehta, for his part, questioned the logic of such cooperation on two grounds. “First, the Maoist and Chinese People’s Liberation Armies are as different as chalk and cheese,” he wrote. “China had castigated the Maoists for hijacking the fair name of Chairman Mao and called them all sorts of names, like 'miscreants' and 'anti-state rebels',” he added. When everyone stopped arms supply to Nepal Army after the royal coup, only China and Pakistan continued to do so, he noted.
But Mehta’s second point was more germane to the context. “Why should the Maoists be trained in China when the integration is to take place in Nepal?” India, he added, had offered to provide vocational training for those PLA members who are not qualified or unwilling to join the Nepal Army. “Moreover, the Indian Army runs an excellent training centre for retiring Gorkhas in Dehra Dun tailored to conditions in Nepal.”
In keeping with his country’s prevailing official stand, Mehta studiously tried avoiding questioning Kathmandu’s freedom to train PLA cadres wherever it chose. “But if this is part of [the] ‘equidistance’ policy or change of direction, the new Maoist leaders need to be reminded that the bulk of training and modernization of the Nepal Army has been done by India,” he said. “Yet it figures nowhere in the security sector reforms,” he lamented. Or, perhaps more appropriately, admonished
Indeed, there has been a long tradition of army-to-army relations between the two countries. Kings Tribhuvan and Mahendra, as Mehta recalled, requested New Delhi to help modernize the then-Royal Nepal Army. (At least, the general who always saw the monarchy as institutionally and congenitally anti-Indian and often let that be known in his impeccable Nepali, has come around to acknowledging the historical record.)
Army chief Gen. Rukmangat Katuwal visited New Delhi last January and, as part of a four-decade-old tradition of exchanging titles, was made an honorary general of the Indian Army. Nepal remains the largest recipient of Indian military assistance and training (which is not much of a record considering New Delhi’s place in international military cooperation.)
During King Gyanendra’s reign, military assistance reached its zenith after the Maoists attacked the military in Dang in November 2001. Clearly, the Maoist debacle in Khara in 2005, a few months after the royal takeover, struck a blow to the hardliners and boosted advocates of a return to the political process. We don’t know precisely what role Indian arms and ammunition played there, especially considering that both sides were using them. Still, Khara gave cover to India to facilitate the 12-point agreement between the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance. (Would the narrative have stood, had King Gyanendra desisted from shifting South Asia’s geopolitical locus northward at the regional summit in Dhaka?)
The Maoists have said, Mehta recalls, that India would not have let them win the “people’s war”. A section, ostensibly including Thapa, is still holding their military defeat against New Delhi. Hence, his China trip. Reports doing the rounds in Kathmandu suggest a graver game plan: the amalgamation of the two armies into a national force that would be ultimately headed by Maoist commander Nanda Kishore Pun ‘Pasang’. The Chinese government, according to some of these reports, has made arrangements to “train” Pasang sufficiently in fulfillment of the requirements for the top job.
Regardless of the veracity of these reports, the logical question stands. What next from India? Kings Birendra and Gyanendra both were punished for cozying up to China in 1988-89 and 2005-06. In the first instance, a crippling economic embargo coincided with a democracy movement. In the second, democracy was a sufficient rallying cry. Neither course would be practically tenable at this time (unless someone in South Block still believes in instigating the Nepali Congress to launch another movement for democracy against the Maoists).
Hence, the next best thing. Should we expect a 14-party multipoint agreement to be formally signed and unveiled in Patna any time soon?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Custodian’s Not-So-Curious Ways

Now that the Maoists and sections of the Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) have declared their intention to tilt the political system leftward in the new constitution, the Nepali Congress can hope to reenergize itself as democracy’s custodian.
Having left the anti-Maoist mêlée to his subordinates during much of his tenure as premier, Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala has now assumed the mantle in full force. There is much more at play here than the dynamics of the post-election power shift.
The grand old man seems to have a real personal beef with the Maoists. When they enticed him to ditch the monarchy by almost demanding him to become Nepal’s first president, Koirala knew the welcome would have worn out pretty soon. Yet the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize was too irresistible, especially by the way nephew Shekhar and chief aide Krishna Prasad Sitaula dangled it in collusion with the ex-rebels.
Considering how former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and British premier Gordon Brown heaped praise on Koirala for mainstreaming the Maoists who are now bent on marginalizing him, the octogenarian may still consider himself a serious contender. But, then, who ever pretended limits could be set on pretentiousness?
In that spirit, Koirala’s talk of spearheading a broad non-communist democratic alliance may have sounded like a dud. But there appears to be a new urgency for him, especially that the personal can now be camouflaged as principle. The reception Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal received in New Delhi must have sowed seeds of suspicions in the Nepali Congress president. Was New Delhi seeking to co-opt the Maoists to tighten their grip on Nepal through India Inc.?
It would have been sufficient for the Indian commentariat to attribute the rise of the charming ex-rebel to the purported despicability of royal feudalism. Why the frontal attack on the political parties that ran the show for 12 years after 1990? Specifically, weren’t the Indians central to the political machinations then? Not an iota of an intention to share culpability could be detected anywhere.
As premier for most of those 12 years, Koirala had reason to be upset. Even before his fortuitous ascendancy after the 1991 elections, he carried enough baggage through his birth in India. (Although, in fairness, one must question the credibility of his critics whose forbears did nothing to stop the Ranas from exiling Krishna Prasad Koirala.)
The pro-Indian tag became outrageously observable during the Tanakpur imbroglio. For all the ills of that abortive subversion of the constitutional process, Koirala did stick out his neck for India so long against the UML and others.
Over the years, he stood up against the Maoists and the monarchy, the prime beneficiary of which, it turns out, was India. But in influential eyes in India, he became the symbol of what was wrong in Nepal, until King Gyanendra became their principal problem.
Koirala knew his 2006 rehabilitation in India was ephemeral, and not only because of advancing age. But the wily man didn’t seem to have exhausted his cards. Spilling the beans on how Indian spooks knew the illegality of some of his anti-Panchayat subversion didn’t stem from age-induced hallucination.
Daughter Sujata was reviled as a monarchist to the point where she had to explain how she was not involved in any business partnership with the king. (Compared to, say, how members of the media house most critical of the monarchy had no problem joining the king as shareholders in a futile enterprise to revive Sajha Yatayat.) A constellation of leaders prepared to take on the Maoists and the UML remained vociferous.
Koirala’s overtures to the former king must still be seen in the light of his 2006 counsel that time would ultimately heal things. Dahal, certainly more adept in building bizarre bridges, has opened his own lines of communication with the former king on a nationalist platform many Maoists now refuse to consider credible.
Can it be much surprise therefore that the restoration of the monarchy has so soon become a central component of our national conversation?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

From The Archives: Geo-Politician Prachanda

Originally posted on Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In his latest avatar as geo-politician, Maoist supremo Prachanda claims India is trying hard to retain the monarchy. In the considered opinion of the supreme commander of the “People’s Liberation Army,” expressed in an interview with BBC Nepali Service, the Indian Army remains at the forefront of the campaign.
For a man who once boasted that his real war would be with the Indian men and women in uniform dispatched to prop up the “old regime,” this progression in thought has all the hallmarks of an honorable retreat.
For students of the triangulation school of thought in India’s Nepal policy -- such as yours truly -- the Maoist supremo was merely stressing the obvious. However, he used another BBC question to set the tone of the debate that is likely to evolve over the weeks and months. The Nepalese Maoists would support India’s attempt to get a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council if New Delhi reconsidered some of its policies toward its small neighbors.
Our erudite chairman continued: “[New Delhi] presently follows what is known as Nehru doctrine under which it seeks to intimidate, interfere, expand its influence and dictate its terms on its neighbors.”
If India reconsidered such a policy, then it would deserve a permanent seat in the Security Council. Now, Prachanda didn’t expound on how such a policy shift might overcome a Chinese veto. Or, even before that, receive Indonesia’s, Pakistan’s and other key Asian nations’ endorsement in the regional rounds. But, then, Prachanda was merely expressing his party’s opinion.
And no insignificant one, at that. This assertion would be the easiest one for the most fanatical of royalists – barring perhaps the religious right -- to agree with. (Any subtle overtures here, Comrade, on, say, secularism for ceremonialism?)
Rounding off the circle, our comrade in chief opined that U.S. pressure and India’s hard-line groups have emerged as the hurdle to Nepal’s independence. Something the Great Helmsman’s country would easily concur with regardless of who those hardliners actually are.
Asked about Nepal’s northern neighbor, Prachanda said China’s policy toward Nepal has traditionally been to back the king as a factor of stability. But the April Uprising against the monarchy may have forced China to reconsider that policy, he added. The operative word here may be “may”. Could a Maoist-palace alliance be in the works here? Not unlikely considering what else the rebel in chief had to say about China.
Urging India to concede the right to self-determination to Kashmiris and people in its northeastern states, he acknowledged the urgency of granting the same opportunity to Tibetans. “But we think that the autonomy that the Chinese government has given there is in accordance with the aspirations of the Tibetan people,” he added.
Asked about the strategic importance of the new Beijing-Lhasa railroad, Prachanda said Nepal and South Asia in general would stand to gain. But not before explaining how Nepal has had to rely on its southern neighbor because of the economy, open borders, transport and communication. “This has put us in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis India which, instead, is in a position to take undue advantage [of us].”
Few might have expected Prachanda to praise Osama bin Laden. So he condemns Al Qaeda’s attacks on innocent people the world over under a blind religious garb as terrorist activities. But only to make his next point. “[I]t is the US which is a bigger terrorist than bin Laden in the sense that it was the US which created him during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.”
In a rare deference to reality over rhetoric, Prachanda conceded that the Maoists were incapable of fighting the US. Then comes the olive branch. “It’s not that we do not want to have relations with the US once we go to power. All we want is to wage an ideological resistance against the US muscle-flexing in the world.” An unexpected resonance of Noam Chomsky and far-left fringe of the Democratic Party. (The Maoist supremo must be watching and listening to all those bin Laden and Zawahiri tapes.)
But when it comes to Nepal and Nepalis, Prachanda remains defiant. “There are more than a hundred countries which are smaller than us. It is not easy for the US to invade us, like it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. If India and China have such designs those would not succeed either, because forces capable of countering such designs have already emerged here.” Does his spirit have any less nationalistic ebullience than all those songs on Panchayat-era Radio Nepal?
Look at the ground Prachanda has prepared. He can claim he tried his best to republicanize Nepal but, as a true communist, can no longer ignore the objective realities of geopolitics and globalization. Those Nepalis who’ve always believed that the monarchy isn’t the problem would certainly not deny Prachanda that Marxist fig leaf.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Empowered And Imperiled

A group of reporters takes their woes to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and come out of the meeting all the more anxious. Collapse of this government, the former rebel-in-chief tells them, would be tantamount to the failure of the state.
Few Nepalis expected their first post-monarchy premier to sound like Louis XIV. But Dahal, too, lacked the bravado normally associated with such assertions over the ages. Our prime minister sounds genuinely worried about the fate of his government. And why shouldn’t he be?
The Nepali Congress has intensified its warning against creeping totalitarianism of the extreme leftist variety. Any working alliance with the Maoists is now limited to bringing out a popularly drafted constitution. The most strident criticism has come not from the Nepali Congress’ anti-communist wing but from friends like Dr. Shekhar Koirala.
Excoriated for having bent over backward to the Maoists during the first two years of the peace process, Koirala ostensibly has had enough. Now he warns the ex-rebels that Nepali Congress members in the constituent assembly would collectively resign once they get the first whiff of a people’s republic. How much of Dr. Koirala’s latest rants stem from the Maoists’ breach of their reported pledge to honor Uncle Girija as the country’s first president remains unknown. But Shekhar Da looks like a commander of a multi-pronged attack.
The main opposition party is asking Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ to explain his assertion that President Ram Baran Yadav had cancelled his trip to China for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics under pressure from foreign powers. Now, if Badal meant the United States, he wouldn’t have hesitated to name names. Whatever he says or doesn’t say will reflect on his boss. The two major coalition partners are becoming more of subversives. (And we haven’t even touched upon the rivalries deepening within the erstwhile people’s warriors.)
The Unified Marxist Leninists’ K.P. Sharma Oli asserts that the Maoists would be wiped out in eight years. General Secretary Jhal Nath Khanal, although sounding less intimidating, has lowered the bar. He believes the UML would beat the Maoists in the next election. Ordinarily, the two UML men might have been hailed as statesmen, considering how far away that exercise seems. But eyeing the next generation before warming up to constitution making is a gross abdication of responsibility.
Khanal’s predecessor, Madhav Kumar Nepal, doubts Dahal’s patriotism after the premier chose to extend an olive branch to India moments after returning from China. Whatever the precise reasons the Maoists reneged on their pledge to support Nepal as their presidential candidate, the former general secretary at least could blame his defeat in both constituencies in last April’s elections. By inducting fellow loser Bam Dev Gautam in the cabinet as his No.2, Dahal has added double insult to Nepal’s injury. Gautam has now become the only UML leader to serve twice as deputy premier, a distinction he will use to bolster his politics well into the future.
Madhesi Janadhikar Forum chief and Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav has asked his cadres to go after the Young Communist League. Nothing like the Gaur carnage is about to ensue. But Yadav has synthesized domestic and diplomatic pressure on the Maoists. By blowing hot and cold on India’s exact responsibility for the Koshi disaster, Yadav has already put Dahal on the defensive before his Delhi visit. Reports of a second prime ministerial visit to China can be of little use here until the state media announces the itinerary.
October may be a couple of weeks away, but the air is bound to acquire added chill when revolutionaries in power feel they are imperiled.