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.