Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ruse Behind The Rants?

Given the assortment of angles from which Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai continues to appraise the motives and methods of our Delhi sojourners, it’s clear the architect in him is very much alive.
The enigma surrounding Girija Prasad Koirala’s presence in the Indian capital has no doubt energized Dr. Bhattarai into plotting hugely revealing sectional views every other day. The Nepali Congress chief, who supposedly was part of a design to crown a kid, returned without holding his scheduled meetings with Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (Some now believe the grand old man really went on that trip in preparation for the enthronement of daughter Sujata as chief of the Koirala clan – and, by definition, the Nepali Congress.)
Dr. Bhattarai was in no position to elaborate on the activities of Gyanendra Shah, since the former king has largely stuck to his pre-departure itinerary. The “political” meetings were not unanticipated. You can’t expect him to lose longtime acquaintances just because he lost his crown. As if to make up for the normally garrulous Indian media’s lack of specificity, Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood has asked us not to read too much into Mr. Shah’s visit. (As if Sood would tell us if any serious moves on a Grand Restoration were really afoot.)
Koirala may now use the Delhi visit to ease his party’s way into the cabinet in the interest of ensuring that the new constitution comes out on time. If Sujata were to join as deputy premier, the Maoists would make the obligatory noises. Most, however, would recognize it an insurance policy. No wonder Dr. Bhattarai has zeroed in on the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML). The party has changed its tune since the Delhi visit, the finance minister said the other day.
Obviously, he wasn’t talking about Bam Dev Gautam, who must have raised some hackles down south by urging China to step into the Kalapani dispute. (If, indeed, Gautam wasn’t actually testing the waters for South Block.) Granted, Dr. Bhattarai’s own relations with Gautam remain disagreeable since the protocol row and the cultural funding brouhaha of last year. But the Maoist leader is too experienced a wordsmith not to recognize the futility of assailing Gautam on this one.
Dr. Bhattarai has trained his guns on Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, the man who lost the election for UML chief but purportedly controls much of the party apparatus. Amid the impressive showing by the UML’s student wing during the university elections, the finance minister can be expected to raise the level of intra-Red vitriol.
In this entire affair, though, it’s Dr. Bhattarai’s own antecedents that have made matters interesting. It took then king Gyanendra’s takeover in February 2005 for Maoist supremo Prachanda to de-purge Dr. Bhattarai and depute him to negotiate with the seven parties on an anti-palace alliance. Dr. Bhattarai insists the 12-point agreement was the Maoists’ brainchild. Maybe so. Or perhaps the Manmohan Singh government considered it prudent enough to pay lip service to his allies on the left and really expect to tame the Naxals by tarnishing our Maoists in the mainstream? A leading Maoist sympathizer, Gen. Ashok K. Mehta, suggested just the other day that India didn’t have the wildest dream of a Maoist-led government assuming office. (Chinese cooption of the one-time “anti-government bandits” must have been the farthest thing from the general’s rapid eye movements.)
Dr. Bhattarai has probably calculated that New Delhi couldn’t afford to upset the Maoist apple cart at this juncture. The former rebels may have lost much of their appeal during their years in the public eye. What our finance minister knows is that Delhi doesn’t know how the Chinese might react. If the Maoists happen to go down without a fight, the episode would be more of a commentary on China’s staying power than that of the former rebels.
But why this sudden urge on the part of Dr. Bhattarai to distance himself from India? To be fair, he started off his ministerial duties by blaming the open border with India as a key reason for Nepal’s eternal backwardness. Narayan Kaji Shrestha’s arrival may have expanded the Maoist tent but it seems to have crowded out Dr. Bhattarai from the southern lobby’s turf. Any way, if that other illustrious doctor-politico, K.I. Singh, could return from self-exile in China reinventing himself as pro-Indian, why should Dr. Bhattarai’s conversion seem unnatural? (As senior vice-chairman of the royal regime, Dr. Tulsi Giri’s prior self-exile in Bangalore didn’t seem to have reshaped his views on India, one might add.)
But there’s still that other nagging question. Could Dr. Bhattarai’s rants really be a ruse to deflect attention from that cabinet letter Deputy Premier Gautam supposedly carried to Delhi? Who are the two men, one wonders, enjoying the most plausible deniability here?