Sunday, February 22, 2009

Uniqueness In Newness

When Girija Prasad Koirala starts advising the Maoists not to ignore Nepal’s uniqueness while striving for newness, you get a feeling that the peace process is in far serious jeopardy than what the International Crisis Group has warned us.
“A new Nepal can’t be realized just by donning a tie and a suit,” the Nepali Congress president admonished Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Not that Koirala never had a passion for that garb. During the post-referendum Panchayat decade, Koirala was hardly ever seen in daura-suruwal on his rickety jeep. When the national dress became part of his wardrobe after People’s Movement I, it looked more like a political statement. The dress-up didn’t exactly help to delink in the national consciousness the Tanakpur hush-hush from the reality that he was born on Indian soil. Nevertheless, Koirala stuck with the national outfit. (Personally speaking, he looks better in it.)
“Wrong values and trends shouldn't be encouraged in the name of building a new Nepal,” Koirala cautioned Dahal the other day. Indeed, the Maoists have been trying to substitute symbolism for substance almost every step of the way. If this imagery is intended to cover the road to the Maoists’ real destination, then a short-cut would work better for everyone. If Year Zero is so ingrained in the ex-rebels’ psyche, why bother with an 11-month calendar? Granted, a great leap forward is out of the question. But we don’t need a hundred flowers blooming either. Instead of sending a floral basket to the North Korean Embassy on Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday, Dahal should denounce the U.N.-backed genocide trials of a handful of junior Khmer Rouge functionaries as a crude diversion from the many modern-day killing fields.
Such boldness would at least energize the rank and file and prepare the nation for a final Maoist triumph. Who knows? Ordinary people may find a complete Maoist takeover more palatable than a return to full-scale conflict. Nepal’s international partners, too, might find it more expedient to co-opt the former rebels in pursuit of their respective interests. Why bother with the messiness of manipulating parties and their blocs when Maoist factions are so anxious for patrons?
That maybe what Koirala is really getting at. Nepali uniqueness, after all, is all that stands between the Nepali Congress and irrelevance. The octogenarian probably won’t deign to head an army-backed Nepali Congress-led government. The way daughter Sujata has been frolicking ever since Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal tabled his reform proposal to the constituent assembly suggests something is brewing on that end. But half a dozen Koiralas are bent on blocking Sujata’s anointment.
No matter what the generals think of Sher Bahadur Deuba, they would have a hard time foisting him on the country again. (Unless, of course, Deuba’s stars are really as bright as that man from Turkey claimed several years ago.) Ram Chandra Poudel can’t keep his Tanahu flock together much less the clutter called the Nepali Congress parliamentary party. So perhaps Koirala will be forced to lead an undemocratically installed government in the name of saving democracy. In suit and tie, maybe?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Matrikas In Our Midst

As the political establishment squabbles over how to restructure the state, Matrika Yadav decided it was time to reconstitute the Maoists. Volatile to the point of self-injury, Matrika has outdone his ministerial antics.
Accusing party supremo and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of promising miracles while pandering to the corrupt, Matrika claimed the Maoists had failed to embrace the aspirations of the “people’s war”. He was particularly scornful of the party’s merger with the Masal faction when there were more pressing matters at hand.
Hardliner Mohan Baidya said Matrika’s departure would not affect the United Maoists. (But, then, Comrade Prakash’s entry has pushed Baidya closer to archrival Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai.) Nevertheless, the party has kept the door open for reconciliation. Should Matrika desire to return and be ready for a bout of self-criticism, the United Maoists would reconsider their decision to expel him.
There’s little incentive for him to do that, since Matrika believes the Maoists have left him. Moreover, the newly floated “Left Revolutionary Wing” is flexing its muscles without letting us in on the extent of its deviation from the mother party. And just the other day, Maoist legislator Jagat Yadav warned Dahal that the People’s Liberation Army could take up arms against him.
More important here may be geopolitics. Matrika made his move after returning from a trip to China. It may be risky to draw conclusions, especially since the last time a disgruntled Maoist returned from such a pilgrimage he joined the Unified Marxist Leninists. (Remember Rabindra Shrestha?) But the other elements of the equation are compelling.
The Chinese, who consider the open Nepal-India border as a threat to their own security, have been voicing serious concern over instability in the Terai. When Beijing sent a delegation to the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum’s recent convention, some MJF leaders were stunned by the seniority of the attendees. Now Matrika has become the highest profile Madhesi leader to espouse the cause of the hillsfolk and the rest of us.
Beijing probably didn’t have a hard time identifying its newest ally. New Delhi, after all, had arrested and extradited Matrika to Nepal during the royal regime while it played gracious host to fellow comrade Upendra Yadav. Given his color, accent and mannerisms, however, few Nepalis expected Matrika to reach out across the northern border.
This experience ties into that of another namesake whose recently published memoirs have forced us reevaluate the first Koirala prime minister. Matrika Prasad Koirala, Ganesh Raj Sharma tells us in the preface, had sent a complete manuscript to his Indian publishers several years ago, who conveniently “lost” it. Before his death, Matrika had managed to reconstruct a partial version.
The first half of the volume, “A Role in a Revolution,” is quite measured in its treatment of India’s role in Nepal in the early 50s. The second half – consisting of correspondence between Jawaharlal Nehru and Matrika Koirala as well as other key documents – casts new light on the author.
Nehru played Matrika and his more charismatic brother, B.P., off against each other. At one point, he admonished Matrika Koirala’s government for reaching out to the Americans for aid. (Nehru quite strongly opposed the visit of former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.) Amid the rising tide of anti-Indianism in Nepal, Nehru seemed to see Nepalis as collectively incapable of appreciating India’s generosity. All this with Nehru’s proviso that he was writing as a friend and well-wisher. And Matrika Koirala lived on in infamy, for many Nepalis, as one of the first stooges of independent India.
Maybe he was recruited for that purpose, especially since most Nepalis had expected B.P. to succeed Mohan Shamsher Rana. If so, what did Matrika do – or, more appropriately, not do – that New Delhi suddenly found him so dispensable? (A question that is associated with Matrika’s illustrious brother as well.) The pro-Indian slur stuck on the elder Koirala, which suited New Delhi just fine.
Despite enjoying close ties with Kings Mahendra and Birendra, Matrika never saw his political fortunes soar again. (The ambassadorship to the United States was a demotion never seen before or since in Nepali politics, something Matrika accepted with poise.) In the national consciousness, he could never claim the place he deserved as our first commoner prime minister.
We don’t know whether Matrika Yadav has read his namesake’s memoirs. But surely he must have confronted similar anguish inside his Indian (and Nepali) prison walls as well as a free man.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Change He Can Believe In

Is Radha Krishna Mainali about to join the Maoists? Or is Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal merely seeking wisdom from one of the towering figures of Nepali communist movement?
A man who went to the palace on that momentous April night in 1990 to press for the dismantling of the Panchayat system and dilution of monarchical powers ended up joining the royal cabinet 15 years later. The man’s evolution is as gripping as his early unsavory reputation.
One of the leaders of the Jhapali movement, Mainali saw violence as the only option amid the exploitation by feudal elements. A personage no less than Pushpa Lal Shrestha derided his path, saying that assassination of individuals would not topple the Panchayat system.
The Panchayat government, which imprisoned Mainali in 1973, freed him over a decade and a half later and tried to strike a deal. But, then, it did not know how far he and his Marxist-Leninist buddies had gone in forging an alliance with the Nepali Congress against the palace. To prove his point, Mainali became a cosignatory to an appeal to the Nepal Aid Group and other donors asking them to stop aid to the Panchayat government.
When King Birendra, under massive popular pressure, sought a meeting with the Nepali Congress-United Left Front (ULF) combine, Mainali wasn’t considered for a slot on the delegation. (Sahana Pradhan, as the leader of the ULF, was one of the communist representatives.)
Younger members of the ML, the driving force behind the ULF, were apprehensive of the old guard’s ability to negotiate a full dismantling of the Panchayat system in the presence of the monarch. When Mainali became the second rep, he had a predicament of his own. The ML leaders – Madan Bhandari, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Ishwar Pokharel et al – weren’t terribly excited about the Nepali Congress hogging the limelight. Mainali had a hunch that they might ask him to withdraw from the palace confab at the last minute. So he simply went incommunicado.
In front of King Birendra, Mainali pressed for the full and complete dissolution of the Rastriya Panchayat as a confidence-building measure. The monarch evidently envisaged a multiparty Panchayat system. The lifting of the ban on political parties was hardly the triumph Messrs Bhandari, Nepal and Pokharel had in mind. By the time he walked to the television cameras, Mainali sounded the most categorical in announcing that the People’s Movement had lost its relevance.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala tagged Mainali along to Beijing after the UML complained it was being left in the dark on foreign-policy matters. After the 1994 election, Mainali became Minister for Agriculture, Land Reforms and Management under Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari. He returned as health minister in Lokendra Bahadur Chand-led government in 1997. After the UML split the following year, Mainali became a politburo member of the new CPN (ML) led by Bam Dev Gautam.
When the UML and ML reunited in 2002, Mainali became a member of the party’s standing committee. However, in July 2003 the UML suspended his membership for advocating a rapprochement with King Gyanendra. Six months later, the UML expelled Mainali, saying his presence in the party could belittle democracy and the entire communist movement.
Mainali was handed the expulsion letter while he was attending a function at the Russian Cultural Center and to this day bemoans his erstwhile allies’ refusal to let him fully and formally clarify matters. If anything, the move pushed him closer to the palace.
After King Gyanendra’s February 2005 takeover, Mainali became minister for education and sports. His proposal for a nationalist education system proved controversial. But many believed his real job on the cabinet was to serve as a link between the palace and the mainstream parties.
Following the collapse of the royal regime, Mainali became an early critic of King Gyanendra’s mismanagement of the opportunity. Yet he was measured, claiming that critics exaggerated the foibles of the king. “If King Gyanendra had succeeded in ending the Maoist insurgency, he would have been the most revered monarch after Prithvi Narayan Shah,” Mainali told one interviewer.
Prime Minister Dahal, who regularly consults with former royal ministers Ramesh Nath Pandey and Kamal Thapa, seems to retain ideological affinity with Mainali. Just the other day, Dahal extolled Mainali’s contributions to Nepal’s revolutionary movement. Given the scale of his own challenges, Dahal probably does see Mainali as a transformational figure.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A World To Win

If India thought it could woo the Maoists by freeing Mohan Baidya and Chandra Prakash Gajurel in 2006, then the wait is proving excruciatingly long.
Baidya accused New Delhi the other day of trying to split Nepal. His allegation came days after Gajurel stated that the Maoists are prepared to unleash yet another “massive” struggle to “institutionalize” Nepal’s new republic. Which, coupled with Maoist chief and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s eagerness to replace the 12-point agreement with a new understanding, takes a decidedly anti-Indian tone.
Days after their homecoming, Baidya and Gajurel established themselves as chief critics of Dahal’s ensuing pro-Indian tilt. (Remember his obsequiousness at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit?) Dahal was forced to remind the two men that they would still be in Indian prisons had he not dragged Pakistan’s ISI before extending the olive branch.
Whether the duo, one-time allies of Dahal in seeking an alliance with the palace in tunnel warfare against India, has brought the Maoist supremo back to the fold remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that the anti-Indian tirade has begun to energize influential Indians. It’s not for nothing that an assembly of Nepal hands in New Delhi late last year wondered aloud how best they could defeat the Maoists in a post-constitution election. The options ranged from rigging the elections to deploying Gurkhas – retired and serving – against the former rebels.
The Maoists seem prepared for such an eventuality. (Remember Dahal’s contention during the debate in the late 1990s over whether to deploy the military against the insurgents that the Maoists’ ultimate goal was to fight the Indian army on Nepali soil?)
The creation of the Unified Communist Party Nepal-Maoist through the merger with the CPN-Unity Center last month was touted as the first step toward the consolidation of a communist front. The international climate, in the aftermath of the global financial collapse, seems propitious. When Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai told the neo-conservative Washington Times last year that the Maoists were moving toward capitalism just as the United States was turning socialist by virtually nationalizing the banking sector, he wasn’t speaking about his group’s ideological conversion. It was his way of saying how a new Communist International was an idea whose time had come.
Domestically, the Maoists are making the most out of their rifts – if they are at all real. The hard-line-moderate struggle lets them bolster both flanks. Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa may be locked in a public war of words with Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal, but his party is fully capable of offering him the ambassadorship in London in exchange for a graceful exit.
By portraying Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala’s proposal for a “democratic alliance” as a coalition of the rich and powerful aimed at overthrowing the Dahal government, the Maoists can undermine the preeminent democratic party’s credentials and widen class cleavages that would harm it the most. All the while, Dahal can plead for sympathy and patience for his unenviable task of truly mainstreaming the Maoists.
Should the going get really tough, Dahal can go on national radio and television and tender his resignation to the Nepali people. And Baidya and Gajurel can claim to have been vindicated regardless of whether India really plans to split the Terai from the rest of the country.