Sunday, April 26, 2009

Soldiery And Statecraft

The Maoist-Nepal Army standoff has exposed fascinating fault lines. Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) leader Jay Prakash Gupta doesn’t seem to have gotten over his transfer several years ago from the communications ministry to agriculture (the portfolio he currently holds), supposedly at the instigation of the generals. Although the police were technically in charge of Gupta’s post-October 4, 2004 detention on corruption charges, his subsequently published jottings pulsate with disgruntlement with the military.
The Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML)’s Ishwar Pokharel sounds similarly stung. When he was held in Rajbiraj after the February 1, 2005 royal takeover, the party almost ditched him for the regression-is-half-corrected skit. (That, too, weeks after Indian security agents detained him in New Delhi just before he was to have boarded a flight back home.)
Nepali Congress leader Sujata Koirala, thought to be close to Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal, walked out of a party meeting claiming that the organization was supporting the army against the people. (Pretender to the greatest democratic throne that she is.) If anything, Sujata was expected to be among the prime beneficiaries of any soft coup mounted by Gen. Katuwal under the parallel peace process that has featured in this Netbook. It looks like Gen. Kul Bahadur Khadka has made a higher bid to the Mandikhatar Madam. (Or has Khum Bahadur Khadka suddenly become the prime contender for the premiership in an army-backed government?)
The episode has also brought out an equally interesting side in the Nepali Congress. Vice-President Ram Chandra Poudel, whose excruciating dental discomforts during his Tanahun detention enraged him against the monarchy, apparently has been sated. With the supreme commander in chief having lost everything barring his dignity, Poudel seems to have developed a soft corner for the generals. It’s immaterial whether Poudel really believes the army is unable to mount a coup or is actually satisfied that such an eventuality wouldn’t hurt the Nepali Congress.
UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, who suffered the most from military PSYOPS during that back and forth from Kakani during the last weeks of the royal regime, has risen above his personal travails. Or at least he wants us to believe he is focused on the constitution. His own party hasn’t shed its proclivity to play both sides of an issue. For now, the UML is split straight down the middle, which has eased some pressure off Katuwal. (Deputy Premier Bam Dev Gautam’s tirades don’t count since he is basically speaking for the Maoists, not the UML.)

Down But Not Out
Forced to put off his China visit, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has taken a drubbing. The Maoists may be down but they are not out. Taming the army has become an even more important priority for the former and perhaps would-be rebels. As every leader throughout Nepali history has recognized, often at great personal peril, keeping the military in line remains at the core of statecraft.
After Prithvi Narayan Shah’s death, his successor, Pratap Singh Shah, could afford to indulge in the arts and the occult because the military was allowed to continue the campaign of territorial expansion. A key factor behind the power struggles between Queen Regent Rajendra Lakshmi and Bahadur Shah was their differences of over the priority continued conquest should receive. Once Bahadur Shah gained the regency, he pushed the national unification campaign all the way to the far west and prosecuted the wars against Tibet in 1788 and 1791. The Chinese closed in on Kathmandu, but were in a stalemate. The British refused to extend the military assistance Kathmandu believed it had been promised while concluding the commercial treaty. The double whammy brought Bahadur Shah political ignominy as his nephew, Rana Bahadur, came of age.
The military loyally bolstered the new king, but the generals once again pondered their future. Damodar Pande, who led our troops into Tibet, engineered Rana Bahadur’s flight into exile after the former king tried to revoke his abdication proclamation in 1799. Pande was late in recognizing the straightjacket Nepal had slipped into. Four years later, Rana Bahadur returned to bolster his son’s throne and the military turned against Damodar Pande.
After Rana Bahadur was assassinated, Bhimsen Thapa took charge of the army without having had battlefield experience. He went on to lose the war with the British some of his top lieutenants had counseled him to avoid. But Thapa kept his job. He did so by professing peace to the British while preparing the soldiers for war. (Helped in no small measure by the succession of minors on the throne.)
The factionalism that followed Thapa’s fall was merely a quest to establish a new balance of forces. Jang Bahadur Rana was fully prepared for the Kot Massacre with his contingent of troops. Once in power, he internalized the top ranks. He clearly laid out the chain of command (commander in chief, generals for the west, east, etc.) within the family. As for the foot soldiers, opportunities were not lacking. Years before he would personally lead thousands of troops to help the British suppress the mutiny, Jang had offered the Chinese emperor 10,000 soldiers to help quell the Taiping rebellion, which the emperor declined.
Rannodip Singh lacked the martial bent of his brother. Yet he alienated Jang Bahadur’s family by taking the Kaski and Lamjung crown as well as the premiership, against the old man’s intentions. Time was running out for the next generation of Ranas. With his 1885 coup, Bir Shamsher empowered and enriched one branch of the family, but it was not a done deal. It took some maneuvering to secure baby king Prithvi Bir Bikram’s formalization of the Shamsher power grab. But Bir and his brothers still feared one of their own. If Khadga Shamsher could pull the trigger (as many believe he did) on his uncle, what would stop him from conspiring against his siblings? He was eventually sent into exile and oblivion in India (before returning for a cameo 114 years later through his great-great-granddaughter Devyani Rana).
Chandra and Juddha Shamsher helped raise additional men for the British during the two world wars, thereby staving off pressure from the growing ranks of the young and restless. After the British withdrew from India, Mohan Shamsher helped Jawaharlal Nehru keep Hyderabad in the new union. But the Chinese entered Tibet, thwarting the Ranas’ expectations of some kind of continuity.

Hereditary Privileges
B.P. Koirala thought the country would be safer with the bijuli garad inside Narayanhity. The palace was no doubt bolstered, but it was not entirely secure. The Indians, after all, were reorganizing Nepal’s military in keeping with their own priorities. Samar Raj Kunwar may have seemed a lowly officer to do the honors of arresting the elected premier in December 1960. But let’s not forget King Mahendra had to use the deputy army chief to mount his takeover, keeping the top man out of the loop. The monarch had to offer civilian duties to ambitious generals like Padma Bahadur Khatri (foreign affairs) and Kshetra Bikram Rana (home). Over time, the Mallas and Thapas became the powers in the palace military secretariat, with almost hereditary privileges.
Under King Birendra, Sharad Chandra Shaha got the rap for having run an underground cabal, but the second-generation Malla and Thapa ADCs held far greater sway. Still Birendra, it turns out, was not as secure as thought. The Chinese alerted him to plots involving senior army officers – or so they now say.
Under the multiparty system, the Nepali Congress snubbed the military and sought to consolidate their grip on the police. The supreme commander in chief stood in silence and some in the force weren’t too happy. When Birendra and his entire family perished in the midst of six thousand soldiers, the army chief claimed palace security wasn’t the military’s job.
Under the new king, the army did not pay attention to the Maoists -- forcing Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to resign – until they were attacked. Sher Bahadur Deuba became the generals’ favorite prime minister, and he somehow started liking that sentiment. Before his ambitions could soar, he was out of the door – with considerable help from Koirala, Nepal and other politicians
Prime Minister Dahal told an audience in Norway recently that was expecting an invitation from the palace when King Gyanendra instead went on television announcing he had taken full control and virtually slamming the Maoists as terrorists. To save his skin, Dahal had to de-purge Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and send him off to negotiate with the Seven Party Alliance (SPA).
For long, constituents of the SPA made much of how they had mainstreamed the Maoists. The Maoists, for their part, never conceded as much. They stepped up their rhetoric about capturing state power. The army stood in the way. The Chinese may have been willing to help Nanda Kishor Pun ‘Pasang’ head an integrated national military. But West Point, Sandhurst and the National Defense Academy didn’t invest so much in our men to let Beijing reap the rewards.
Mindful of how the Free Tibet movement flared in Kathmandu in the run-up to the Olympics, when Beijing’s room for maneuver was thought to have been next to nil, China seems to have gotten into a tit-for-tat mode. But it looks like it read too much into India’s preoccupation with the elections and its exasperation with the Obama administration shift in priorities.
So it all boils down to this. Gen. Katuwal has four months to go. However, Gen. Khadka himself has barely two months’ service left before he is due to retire. The Maoists needs to remove Gen. Katuwal to pave the way for their seat-warmer. If Gen. Katuwal could stay on long enough to prevent Gen. Khadka from taking the top job, that’s victory enough. Then Gen. Katuwal could be made to retire prematurely in a sop to the Maoists.
But, then, the Sri Lankan military intervened. If the generals there could mount what is considered that penultimate blow on the once-feared Tamil Tigers, who’s to say our top brass is really demoralized? Yes, Nepal has careened too far into the abyss of uncertainty and a coup would probably invite foreign forces. But look at the bright side. Haven’t the proxy conflicts gone on for far too long? Maybe it really is time for foreign regulars (and/or irregulars) to directly fight our battles.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

‘Powerless’ Premier’s Real Lament

For Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, this has become a season of lamentations. Despite the constitution having vested executive power in him, our premier bewailed the other day, he feels utterly powerless. He’s been playing that variation for quite a while.
The premiership wasn’t Dahal’s first choice. It was only when he realized he could get an all-powerful presidency that the former rebel-in-chief set his sights a notch lower on the order of precedence. It has been a struggle ever since.
Dahal has sought to place his current predicament at the door of the nature of his regime. A coalition government per se should not have lent itself to this kind of apathy. Moreover, in making such a case, the premier may be implicitly accusing Nepali voters of immaturity. But, then, Dahal sits atop a creepy coalition that leaves little room for common sense.
The Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) have concluded that they need seats in the cabinet to check the Maoist juggernaut. A disloyal opposition is far easier to contend with than an impudent putative ally. As a relatively new entity, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) understandably wants to stake out positions that would set it apart from the flock. This orientation makes it likelier for the third partner to be at odds with the first.
But, then, there are Dahal’s own comrades. If anything, Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa has exposed him to graver dangers from the generals. Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai shoots from his mouth on all sides that donors end up being the first ones running for cover. C.P. Gajurel and Mohan Baidya concede that being out of the government allows them to speak their mind. We know both have their special beef against the Indians. But they don’t have to kow-tow to the Chinese at every turn to prove their point.
The Chinese, for their part, are breathing heavier down Dahal’s neck. A new Treaty of Peace and Friendship with could easily have been a hush-hush affair during Dahal’s visit to China. Beijing could have invoked the secret treaty the next time Mustang really lit up as the launching pad of the Free Tibet movement. (At least Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohan Shamsher Rana jointly share our opprobrium for the secret letters exchanged with the 1950 Treaty.)
But someone leaked the details of the draft when the foreign minister and the foreign secretary were out of the country. The prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser Hira Bahadur Thapa accused the acting foreign secretary, Suresh Pradhan, of doing so. Pradhan blamed the prime minister’s press adviser, Om Sharma, and seems to have impressed legislators enough that they confirmed his nomination as ambassador. So Dahal’s press secretariat is left leaking word that the premier would not sign the treaty in Beijing since the document has not been able to muster a consensus.
That seems to have energized the Chinese, which are increasingly emulating the Indians on Nepal. To ratchet up pressure on Dahal, Beijing not only played host to MJF chief and Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav but bade him farewell with a goodie bag clearly aimed at bolstering his party. Much like the “Himalayan Marshall Plan” India announced during then premier Girija Prasad Koirala’s visit to New Delhi in 2006, the operating word in the Chinese largesse is pledge.
Now UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal is in Beijing. Coinciding with the advent of the New Year, at least one astrologer has bolstered Khanal’s claim to the premiership by insisting that the line-up of his stars augurs well for the entire country. And one of his deputies, Bidya Bhandari, used the opportunity to castigate Dahal’s government as the most incompetent never has ever seen.
What surprise might the Chinese spring next? A formal request to recruit Gurkhas, given its expanding peacekeeping role in the United Nations? A sure-fire way indeed to widen the rift between the Maoist young and the rest of Nepal’s restless.
Prime Minister Dahal can blame for his woes everyone in every direction but the north. What powers must he be putting in to restrain himself?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Triumph Of Truculence

Five out of six. And the by-elections were supposed to be a referendum on the supposedly unpopular Maoist-led government. With the former rebels netting half of the seats up for grabs, some gloating on their part was entirely predictable. There is no alternative to the Maoists, Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai gushed. No monkey business this time.
Although the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) bagged a seat each, it was a teachable moment for both. You’re either with the Maoists or against them. The two coalition partners may find straddling the government and opposition boats audaciously adventurous in these choppy waters, but to what end when the spectators aren’t quite biting their nails. Some Maoists quickly let it be known they didn’t need the UML any longer. And dutifully, the junior partner signed a nine-point agreement with the Maoists.
Nepali Congress spokesman Arjun Narsingh K.C. claimed the results were not a verdict on the opposition. Well, certainly not after the results came in. Heading into the polling booth on election day, his boss, Girija Prasad Koirala, had said the outcome would be revealing. To him, personally, it has been.
With nephew Shekhar now clearly in the succession race, things are bound to deteriorate in the Koirala clan. The military supposedly blocked daughter Sujata’s grand entry into the cabinet by advising the Nepali Congress to stay out in view of future exigencies. Might the Maoists now want Shekhar to lead the Nepali Congress contingent in power? He was a Maoist favorite during the early stages of the peace process. Who knows how deep Shekhar’s roots run in New Delhi after all that nurturing during his extended study tour at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences?
Can Sujata be expected to cede ground after having so successfully weeded out B.P. Koirala’s children from her path? Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel et al are marginal figures in the party. Privately, they must be rooting for internecine bloodletting. Onetime heavyweight Khum Bahadur Khadka has developed his own plan, especially after the meeting he supposedly had with former king Gyanendra in India.
Before the ex-monarch’s departure for India, Maoist sources were telling us how they planned to arrest Mr. Shah upon his arrival at the airport. Instead, security officers had to rough up a couple of reporters anxious for a word from the former king on his political talks in New Delhi. The baby king specter continues to haunt the Maoists at every turn these days. Not because royalists seem so palpably rejuvenated. It’s because diehard critics of the monarchy have become deadlier opponents of the Maoists. The silence of much of our civil society luminaries on the prospect of a restoration of the monarchy has acquired the chilling crescendo of an echo chamber in Maoist circles.
Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal says he won’t be intimidated by Army Chief Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal, although he sounded every bit nervy in Gulmi the other day. He must have been close to some panchas or the generals to know how the military used to intimidate the politicos in the partyless decades. Hearsay couldn’t have brought out such pathos in our defense minister.
The generals don’t seem quite sure of their ability to handle things, either. The February 1, 2005 takeover, after all, was basically a military putsch. The generals thought they had everything sewn up. They should have focused more on international power politics than on ways of blocking the Internet. When things finally unraveled, the top brass succeeded in forcing the supreme commander in chief take the hit. What’s their fallback position this time? President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav doesn’t look like a future chief martial law administrator, does he? Deep down, any way, today’s generals must regard the winter of 2005 as a golden age of governability.
Small wonder, then, that the Maoists have no tolerance for the judiciary. Dr. Bhattarai has challenged the justices either to jail the Maoists leaders for contempt or step out of the way. So it has all come down to the finesse with which the Maoists succeed in juggling the new Peace and Friendship Treaty with the Chinese and the old extradition treaty with the Indians.
A net gain of one seat in the legislature cannot be discounted in a fledgling democracy like ours. But how far can it take the Maoists – democratically, at least – now that the pedal has really hit the metal?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

‘Baby King’: Then And Now

The idea of a ‘baby king’ seems to have grown out of its infancy. Former king Gyanendra, news reports suggest, has begun consultations on how to formalize the restoration of the monarchy. This came days after former crown prince Paras all but renounced his claim to a reinstated throne. Former prince Hridayendra may find the crown thrust on his head long before really having set his heart on it.
If our three formers are so feverishly at the initiative, why did the concept fall so flat when then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala first broached it two years ago? Things are becoming clearer now.
In acceding to the Koirala blueprint, the monarchy would have allowed the real architects to decide who sat on the throne. Suspended the monarch may have been at the time, but it was certainly in full control of his senses. The royals would have been edged out of the regency. A formal declaration of a republic, at least in the palace’s view, was far better than a rollback to the Rana era.
The abolition of the monarchy was not part of the deal that brought about the reinstatement of the House of Representatives in April 2006. Once the protests grew, and the government cracked down harder, the anti-monarchy momentum gained ground. Many bought into what was an exaggerated narrative. American Ambassador James F. Moriarty, fearing, in his own words, a messy abdication, relocated much of his embassy to New Delhi.
Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal may have given his word in New Delhi in November 2005 on retaining a ceremonial monarchy. By the time the rebels figured out that their third-country enablers – that odd admixture of God-fearing and atheist global crusaders – wouldn’t tolerate a callous betrayal of a carefully constructed cause, Dahal already had his rear covered.
While signing on to the 12-point agreement, Dahal carefully avoided affixing his signature in any joint document with the Seven Party Alliance. More importantly, however, he had issued a joint statement with Indian Maoist supremo Ganapathy two months previously vowing “to fight unitedly till the entire conspiracies hatched by the imperialists and reactionaries are crushed and the people’s cause of socialism and communism are established in Nepal, India and all over the world.”
Back home, as the Maoists joined the political process, every step became a repositioning of the goalposts. While promising Koirala the presidency, the Maoists spared little effort in courting the royalist vote. Insignificant as it might have been to make a meaningful presence in the constituent assembly, the bloc was crucial to augmenting the first-past-the-post margins of the Maoists and the subsequent proportional allocation of seats.
The Maoists, as expected, overreached. The Nepali Congress knew its neck would snap once the monarchy was out of the Maoists’ way. The party wasn’t going to outlast Koirala very long, so the grand old man sought his crowning glory. Today, a sizeable section of the UML seems similarly anxious.
This, by itself, doesn’t do much to soar royalist hopes. Prime Minister Dahal reminded us the other day that the baby had been thrown with the bathwater. Yet one must juxtapose that statement with his unremitting warning that the Maoists would seize power to forestall attempts to oust them. Could acceptance of the monarchy be the price of retaining power? Of course, the Maoists would still be free to make the usual noises about consummating a ‘revolution’ that never really was.
How will a restoration be achieved? By referendum? Or, should the political – and geopolitical – rancor persist to the point of blocking a new constitution, by reactivating the 1990 statute? The first may not entirely amuse the monarchists. The second will almost certainly enrage the Maoists, unless a slew of appropriate amendments are put in place in the reactivation order. Either way, there is little chance the regency would be held outside the royal family.