Sunday, November 30, 2008

Koirala’s Constitution Con(tra)vention

The Nepali Congress, party president Girija Prasad Koirala says, would be compelled to float its own constitution if the Maoists continue impeding the process of drafting the new one through the constituent assembly.
Ostensibly, this is Koirala’s latest response to the Maoists’ intimation that they would proceed with the integration and management of armies with or without the Nepali Congress on board. Koirala’s acquiescence here seems unlikelier with each new condition he sets. First, he complained he never got a real invitation to join the Army Integration Special Committee. Then he said the national army had no place for politically indoctrinated people. Now he insists the Young Communist League be dissolved before any integration process could begin.
From Koirala’s intensifying stridency, one wonders how open-ended his payback time might just be. The Maoists did heap untold indignities on him from the outset of the peace process. After coming out of the shadows, Maoist supremo Prachanda kept ratcheting up pressure for concession after concession to the point where Koirala had to don an oxygen mask with cylinder in tow.
Forest Minister Matrika Yadav, obviously egged on by Prachanda, got increasingly personal in his acts of insubordination. For several weeks at one point, Koirala seemed to have no clue whether the Maoists were in or out of the government. Since the party’s ministers had forwarded their joint resignations to Prachanda, the ex-rebel in chief became even more ambiguous on their exact status – and improved his bargaining position.
Embittered, the Nepali Congress president has today gone to the point of repudiating key deals that underpin the peace process. From U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Koirala has wasted few opportunities with visiting dignitaries to internationalize the Maoists’ mendacity. Whether it ever occurred to the Nepali Congress chief that his complaints also betray his own failure as the interim head of state and government is moot. (It was his job, after all, to straighten out the Maoists, wasn’t it?)
The Maoists seem to be shrugging off Koirala’s tirades. Why wouldn’t they, since he keeps on claiming the Nepali Congress single-handedly brought about the end of the monarchy? Surely, the Unified Marxist-Leninists have something to say on the matter, but they are too busy conducting themselves as ruling-alliance partners as well as members of the opposition.
If the Nepali Congress were to act on its latest threat, it would not be as outrageous as it might sound. Remember the mock sessions of parliament Koirala presided over during the first phase of the royal regime? Some of the participants themselves privately used to make fun of the proceedings. Yet the resolutions ended up underpinning the “historic” proclamation of the reinstated House of Representatives that, among other things, suspended the monarchy and secularized the nation.
Given the right circumstances, a Nepali Congress-drafted constitution could even go on to win international legitimacy – or at least the calm support of most of the countries that matter in Nepal. Kerensky, in this instance, would stand a chance of trumping Lenin who, in turn, would be scurrying for cover in the constituent assembly. But there’s a catch. Foreign-drafted versions of the constitution, we have long been told, are floating all over the place.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It’s Indonesia And Chile Now

For decades, it was Sikkim and Bhutan. Then it became Fiji, Russia, Bangladesh and Thailand. Now we’re up to Indonesia and Chile. Maoist hardliner Mohan Baidya aka Kiran has turned to some of the painful chapters of the Cold War to inject some additional sparks in the party’s internal struggle for the future.
Casting aside the “pragmatist-purist” skirmish for a moment, what’s most interesting is how life in full public glare has wearied the Maoists. During the early phase of the peace process, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal was threatening a Lenin-style October Revolution. Today our would-be Kerensky, Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala, is traversing the nation seeking to scuttle the Maoist idea of liberating our national army.
The Indonesian and Chilean military takeovers were rooted in different realities. Gen. Suharto “countered” a coup attempt blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965, eventually taking over the presidency from founding president Sukarno almost three years later. Gen. Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte, on the other hand, led a coup d’etat against socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973 and took the presidency the following year. In both instances, the military rulers led a violent anti-left purge that eventually consumed a far wider and ideologically disparate demographic.
With Maoists already in power and, according to persistent rumors, plotting a coup, the Indonesian and Chilean scenarios have fused into a single nightmare. This is not to suggest that a military takeover was ever a distinct impossibility since the onset of the peace process. Having driven the February 1, 2005 takeover and subsequently facilitated the demise of the royal regime, our generals have been shrewd political operatives.
For a while, the imminence of a Thai- or Bangladesh-style coup pervaded the national discourse. The early possibilities ranged from then-king Gyanendra leading a parallel government from Hanuman Dhoka Palace to the chief martial law administrator – presumably the chief of army staff – holding a referendum on vital matters the peace process glossed over.
A subsequent scenario held that the army would back a Nepali Congress-led government, presumably dominated by the royalist faction. But when the generals greeted the abolition of the monarchy with deafening silence, speculation ran wild. Superficially, at a minimum, the option of a military-backed Nepali Congress government should have been alive.
But the Indians – the architects of that plan – could have stepped in through the front door when the winds had swung them wide open. For every armed group in the Terai today, there is potential counterpart in the hills. The SeTaMaGuRaLi combine that emerged after the 1990 democracy movement has since acquired too many factional avatars that carry a payload far in excess of the sum of the total. If New Delhi can now officially see China’s hand in the terrorism gripping its north-eastern states, it surely must comprehend the autonomy Beijing would expect to exercise in Nepal with or without the Maoists in power.
Suggestions of an imminent installation of a Maoist commander as the head of an integrated Nepali Army, purportedly through Chinese good offices, have since been juxtaposed with rumors that Prime Minister Dahal assured his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, that former rebels would not be inducted into the national army. Clearly, the Maoists’ persistent public insistence to the contrary is aimed at mollifying the restive ex-Maoist combatants. But why would the top comrades raise false expectations when they know the eventual price would be full retribution?
Or do the softies in power believe they can drive the hard-liners underground without incurring significant damage. (Remember, prominent Maoist ministers and their “pragmatist” allies today are some of the same people who managed to save their heads in the midst of the most aggressive military campaigns.) Is there an expectation that the “purists” could be “dealt with” before they succeed in drawing external patrons? When it comes to collateral damage, the Indonesian and Chilean parallels start getting scary.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Vice President’s Supreme Bliss

As the principal political parties squabble unabated, another power struggle is turning interesting. President Ram Baran Yadav, having concluded his original medical profession far nobler than politics, now insists he is not a ceremonial president.
Asserting his authority, Yadav has admonished his deputy, Parmananda Jha, not to step outside his pay grade. At one point, we were told, the two men were barely on speaking terms, certainly putting a premium on the unabridged transcripts of the official consultations they have begun. But Vice-President Jha remains confused as to his own role. (So are we, Mr. Veep, if it is any consolation. It’s not as if Nepalis ever had deputy kings.)
Jha seems so flustered that he has trouble holding back his political opinions. The special committee set up to oversee the integration of the Maoist militia and Nepal Army, Jha declared, was unconstitutional because of its representation. Taking aim at the government’s claim that “major parties” were represented in the special committee, Jha asserted that there was no constitutional definition of such parties.
Since the interim constitution did not define “major parties,” involvement of certain parties in the committee did not bear constitutionality, the vice-president claimed. Only the constituent assembly and the Supreme Court could provide an unequivocal definition.
Predictably, that infuriated the Maoists and the Unified Marxists-Leninists, who have hogged the panel. They began talking about impeachment proceedings. Instead of shutting up under duress, Jha accused his critics of being worthy of impeachment. This time, he accused the parties of trying to infringe upon the people’s fundamental rights by trying to impose the whip system.
By this time, Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, whose Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) had put up Jha as its candidate, saw the vice-president’s comments as unconstitutional. “The interim constitution does not clearly define the role of the president and the vice-president,” Yadav said. “I advise them both to remain quiet until new constitution is drafted and their role clearly written.”
Now the MJF chief may hold a law degree but Jha, a former Supreme Court justice, has little patience for a crash course on constitutionalism. The veep insists he is duty bound to vent his feelings because his job – as well as that of the president – is to protect the constitution. (Obviously, the interim as well as the prospective – and hopefully permanent? – one.)
Unapologetic over his use of Hindi while taking the oath of deputy head of state earlier this year, which triggered massive public protests, Jha seems to have lost none of his defiance. The fact that he stepped up his public utterances after an extended meeting with Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood has fuelled speculation of all variety, especially among those who saw the Hindi oath as part of New Delhi’s design. (With the Chinese having made significant inroads into the parties in power under his watch, Sood’s options were certainly narrowing.)
If Jha persists with his candor in the way he has, our nascent republic could find itself in grave institutional turmoil. The constituent assembly has finally stepped into the process of drafting the basic law. But the adoption of rules of procedure alone cannot guarantee that the document would come into force by May 2010 as scheduled.
President Yadav, as supreme commander of the army, could use a drawn-out integration controversy to order the generals and their lieutenants out on the streets to preserve the interim statute. Where would Jha turn? Or does he consider himself the deputy supreme commander of the army, too?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Shedding Light After Blood

True to his nom de guerre, Maoist leader Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’ has been shedding light on burning national issues. “There is nothing special about Nepal-India relations,” the man widely considered the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said at a public function the other day.
That affirmation, to be sure, lacked the teeth of Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista’s response four decades ago to Indian Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh’s declaration of “special” bilateral relations. Bista’s statement was the precursor to the withdrawal of Indian military checkpoints along the Nepal-China border and the Indian military liaison team in Kathmandu.
Baidya’s comment followed Dahal’s assertion that Nepal had reached a place akin to the post-interval phase of a Hindi movie. But Baidya’s sights probably went back to the premier’s touting of bilateral relations as special all but in name during his last visit to India.
Having positioned himself firmly at the helm of Maoist hardliners, Baidya has gradually emerged as the real leader of the opposition. Ordinarily, that role should have gone to Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala. But the same internal wrangling that forestalled the election of a legislative leader, allowing Koirala to retain his preeminent position, would undercut his performance.
Baidya, on the other hand, appears to have used his party’s internal rifts to bolster its ideological regimentation. He stepped down as a member of the Constituent Assembly to put pressure on the Maoists in power. He then became the principal critic of the view that the Maoists drop their formal ties to the Great Helmsman by changing the party name. For now, Dahal, Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ may seem perched on the same precarious branch. Baidya’s calculated campaign to widen their rifts is all too apparent.
Certainly, the nationalist plank has come in handy for the Baidya faction. Yet the man’s politics have guided his pronouncements for quite some time. Picked up by Indian authorities from an eye clinic in Silguri in early 2004, Baidya’s disillusionment with New Delhi is understandable. He was not, say, a Chandra Prakash Gajurel who was trying to board a flight to London from Madras on a forged passport months earlier. If humanitarianism had any place in Indian asylum policy, Baidya could only have seen himself as the perfect candidate.
At the operational level, the arrests of Baidya and Gajurel robbed Dahal of two allies. The Maoists’ nationalist wing, rumored to be close to an alliance with the palace to safeguard nationalism, eventually had to go along with the pragmatist (read: pro-Indian) faction, a confluence that led to the November 2005 12-point accord with the mainstream parties signed in New Delhi.
After Dahal began sounding conciliatory – often obsequious – overtures to Delhi as the peace process unfolded, he had to mollify his party. Dahal claimed that without his ‘pragmatism’, Delhi would never have freed Baidya and Gajurel. The irony there was that Baidya had become the most vocal critic of Dahal’s India policy.
And that has continued in full force since the premier wooed and wowed Indians during his Delhi trip. So much so that wider public curiosity has been building in advance of Dahal’s upcoming second visit to India. (Ironically, this has centered on more stringent extradition provisions, the absence of which allowed Dahal & Co. to survive subterraneously, mostly on the other side of the border, for so long.)
Baidya’s call for nationalists and communists to join hands to safeguard Nepalese independence has acquired greater resonance amid recent calls for a referendum on the integration of the two armies should political parties fail to build consensus. Would it be wide of the mark to expect a longer checklist of issues pertaining to Nepali sovereignty, territorial integrity and independent identity on any such ballot initiative?