Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sizing Up Squirts From This Side

Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal is ready to tolerate any criticism from the opposition parties for the sake of political consensus and cooperation. The country, he selflessly claims, is at a very critical juncture of history. And geography, one might add.
The new premier will swallow every squirt of venom the Maoists clearly intend to spew, and instead try to be a cultured and civil leader. Quite the sentiment you would expect from a man who rose to office on with a halo of a consensus-builder.
But circumstances have been less than kind to the man. The helicopter taking Nepal to his home district of Rautahat for the first time since his belated ascension to the premiership caused a freak accident. Given Nepal’s deeply religious extended family background, the portent was gripping. But we didn’t need such a sign to grasp the scale of the challenges his government faces.
The Maoists have gone on the warpath after Speaker Subash Nembang refused to allow their resolution against President Dr Ram Baran Yadav for discussion in the assembly. A teachers’ union called a strike in around 6,000 schools in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, demanding better pay and working conditions. And the Maoist-affiliated Newa Mukti Morcha is agitating for an autonomous state for the Newar community.
Consensus, therefore, is key. Nepal claims the 12-point agreement reached between then Seven Party Alliance and Maoists hasn’t lost its relevance. Except that Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal – the two prime signatories – don’t seem to think so. If they badly want a new understanding, then Premier Conciliator must deliver, here or on foreign soil. The devil, as always, will be in the details.
But need we venture so far? Nepal knows that there will come a time – sooner rather than later – when the Nepali Congress will seek to exact its price for its current magnanimity. Koirala didn’t forgo his party’s claim to lead the government, as the second largest group in the assembly, because he felt the responsibility too onerous.
In acknowledging the crucial role of the Maoists in drafting of the new constitution, Nepal has zeroed in on his real job. But he must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. The Nepali Congress is struggling to name its team to the government. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) is accusing the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) of trying to split the party.
If both MJF factions have decided to join the government, it is because they want to carry the fight on to another day. And the UML? Well, who has ever been able to keep up with the shifting alliances within?
Forget the opposition. The question really is, how tolerant can Nepal afford to be of criticism that his allies are almost certainly going to start spewing?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prophylactic, Actually

A poisoned plant? What did Pushpa Kamal Dahal expect from Madhav Kumar Nepal? A lot of things, it turns out.
When then-premier Dahal catapulted Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader Nepal into the Constituent Assembly voters had doubly barred him from, the Maoist chief clearly wanted to preserve his flank in his wider battle. Getting Jhal Nath Khanal elected as the head of the UML was at the center of the grand realignment.
If Nepal could be weaned away from Oli, then things would be fine. Of course, Nepal could easily have declined Dahal’s magnanimity, if not by pointing to the mockery of the moment than by pondering the betrayal he endured in the presidential election.
But Nepal had that historical rectification to complete. Madan Comrade had been haunting him for far too long. Nepal had positioned the UML into power, mainstreamed the party, and credibly checked the Nepali Congress, yet people couldn’t quit seeing the halo of Madan Bhandari all around.
So Nepal accepted Dahal’s CA overture saying he couldn’t keep shirking responsibility at such a critical juncture in the nation’s life. If he lost the elections from two constituencies, well, he had paid his dues by resigning the leadership of the UML, which he wasn’t required to. If Dahal considered him worthy of CA membership over the wisdom of the people, then that was the premier’s problem.
The same logic allowed Nepal to assume the chair of the constitutional committee. The man was the principal communist architect of the doomed 1990 constitution. And, yes, the Maoists considered him appropriate enough to lead the drafting of the document that is to make the cleanest break with the past.
Of course, Dahal thought he had found a clever way of blaming the Nepali Congress for the 1990 fiasco. But with the Nepali Congress as divided as the rest of the parties ideologically and geopolitically, it was hard for Dahal to keep up with the shifting alliances in our wider political firmament.
With the resignation ploy having boomeranged on him, Dahal probably hopes India’s native embrace of Nepal to compensate for the dud the civilian-supremacy jingle has become. For a fleeting moment, though, one wondered whether Nepal would actually decline the premiership. But then Madan Comrade remains such a fixture in his mind that he probably wouldn’t have let him do so.
And nor would Krishna Venkatesh Rajan, the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu with whom then deputy premier Nepal had struck such a personal friendship during the first half of 1995. (Can we ever forget the glee with which Nepal, attending the 23rd wedding anniversary of the Rajans fourteen years ago today, cut that piece of cake and offered it to Mrs. Rajan?)
Former ambassador Rajan’s arrival in Kathmandu precisely at this moment could certainly not have focused merely on telling us that New Delhi had no role in the ousting of the Maoists. Dahal, for his part, gets to proclaim that Nepal is still something of an Indian colony and rouse his cadres for the next phase of the revolution. This poison is much more of a prophylactic.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Message In A Battle

Nepal’s preeminent democrat the other day sought on behalf of the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) the support of someone reviled as one of the most despicable faces of the discredited royal regime. Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal president Kamal Thapa must have been amused by Girija Prasad Koirala’s plea.
As the see-I-told-you-so moment unfolded its full glory, Thapa probably wondered what it was that had impelled the grand old man. Age-induced magnanimity toward a party that has tormented him so much? An act of contrition for having agonized UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal with the premier-in-waiting appellation for far too long?
As one of the fiercest critics of the Nepali Congress-led mainstream’s alliance with the Maoist rebels in 2005, then-Home Minister Thapa often heard Koirala lead the charge: the Maoists, at least, were murdering and marauding for the people.
Koirala’s similar plea to Chinese ambassador Qiu Guohong on behalf of the UML merits less scrutiny here because His Excellency had something bigger to say to the Nepali Congress president. Qiu essentially notified our political patriarch that any government that sought to marginalize the Maoists would not survive.
Although Qiu was careful not to name names, he was not so cryptic as to leave us in any doubt about his government’s disdain for the remote-control wielders so comfortably ensconced across the southern border. What’s more, Qiu cautioned Koirala that playing out an artificial game of numbers could prove disastrous for Nepal.
The Chinese ambassador probably felt entitled to let off some of his steam in Maharajgunj. His predecessor, Zheng Xiangling, was the first ambassador to present credentials to officiating head of state Koirala, thereby formally severing Beijing’s traditional links with the palace. There must have been some quid pro quo for such potent symbolism.
Subsequently, Koirala did blame New Delhi for fomenting unrest in the Terai. Fed up with India’s penchant for using oil as a political weapon, Koirala also urged China to supply petroleum products. If he ignored the economics of it all, it was to prove his political point. At the SAARC summit in New Delhi in 2007, Koirala outdid former king Gyanendra by calling for China’s inclusion in the organization as a full-fledged member.
Koirala aides have been understandably tightlipped about any specifics Ambassador Qiu might have volunteered during the meeting. Although other Chinese officials have been no less enigmatic, they have been indicating how vigilant they have become on our affairs. Beijing’s response to any perceived diminution of its influence will Nepal will eventually stun the other foreign stakeholders, one source has let it be known. (Certainly something to take seriously given the stunner the draft of the new Peace and Friendship Treaty was.)
Among the many peculiar things Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal told Indian reporters after his resignation was that the succession of Chinese delegations that had descended on Nepal during his tenure had not done so at the Maoists’ invitation. At first, that sounded like Dahal’s desperate attempt to contain the damage done by the Indian media’s obsession with one part of his televised resignation speech. On closer reflection, however, the comment sounded like the precise message Beijing wanted our caretaker premier to deliver.
Dahal’s speech at the “anti-foreign interference rally” in Kathmandu, we are told, bore considerable resemblance to the message Ambassador Qiu has been carrying to Koirala and other leaders. – a missive and mind-set with which Kamal Thapa, given his political past, certainly has had a far longer history of familiarity.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Slugging It Out

The Indians and Chinese seem determined to slug it out in Nepal. Of course, Beijing’s pugilism has not been that palpable on the Maoist-Nepal Army bad blood. Recent political developments are an internal affair of Nepal, a Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated in Beijing the other day, maintaining a traditional public façade of non-interventionism.
Yet China’s sense of detachment resonates with its underlying admonition to India to lay its hands off. The first indication of Beijing’s regional rancor came when it clubbed the crisis in Nepal with that in Sri Lanka. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson supported Colombo’s military offensive against the Tamil Tigers and the Maoists’ campaign against Army chief Gen. Rookmangud Katuwal in keeping with Beijing’s traditional friendship with both South Asian nations.
In the aftermath of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s defiance and resignation, New Delhi is swirling with reports on how the Chinese sought to take advantage of the world’s largest democracy’s preoccupation with the elections. In its estimation, the Chinese actually egged on Dahal to fire Gen. Katuwal in a carefully calibrated campaign to eventually install Maoist commander Nanda Kishore Pun as the chief of an integrated national army. (Translation: How dare Beijing try to intervene on matters military without having named the Nepali army chief an honorary general of the People’s Liberation Army!)
Not that the Chinese were terribly enthralled by Dahal’s fealty. Beijing, we are told, are enraged at the way in which Dahal kept putting off his visit. The grudge, moreover, runs deeper. The Chinese had rolled out the red carpet to Dahal during the closing ceremonies of the Olympics last summer. Yet our premier returned to Kathmandu claiming that his visit up north was not exactly his first foreign trip in the way his upcoming southern sojourn was going to be.
To cover its bases, the Chinese purportedly had a draft of the joint communiqué ready well before Dahal had begun packing his bags for the flight up north. Many suspect our premier leaked the draft of the friendship treaty Beijing had proposal to deflect some of the pressure from the south on the extradition treaty. As an insurance policy, Beijing summoned UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal for discussions on ways of widening its options. But events in Kathmandu careened out of control, forcing Khanal to cut short his mission. Then-Chinese ambassador Zheng Xiangling was caught napping in Kathmandu during the Tibet protests. His successor, Qiu Guohong, may not have been that wide awake either.
Dahal, for now, is angered by the release of the videotape strictly meant for internal viewing. He’s not disputing the content, i.e., how the former rebels were merely using the peace process to consummate the full capture of the state. What really seems to be bothering Dahal is the lack of appreciation of what he has put into keeping his restive fighters in line. The prince of prevarication he is, Dahal has used his resignation as a strategic ploy. It is a missile, in his words, against regressive elements and their foreign agents. President Ram Baran Yadav is already talking about herding cows should the Supreme Court rule against him.
The anti-Indianism Dahal and his cronies have been spewing has hurt the Indians. The wider international community is worried about the future of the peace process they had hyped. Ian Martin, who never looked back at the mess he left behind in East Timor, has returned on a “private” visit. Having invested so much in our peace process, the United Nations seems intent on some accountability here.
US President Barack Obama has given no indication that he mulls slipping Nepal into the Af-Pak satchel of Richard Holbrooke. But by maintaining the Maoists on the US terror list, Obama has given enough indication that he believes some enemies of America are more unequal than others. Washington, it turns out, considers our Maoists worse than the Ortegas and the Chavezes of the world.
Nepalis, for their part, find themselves on familiar turf. Constitutional organs are pitted against each other. Civil society is split wide open depending on each constituent’s personal preferences – or, more appropriately, animosities. The communists are up in arms in the legislature and the on streets. A broader democratic alliance is being promoted by the Nepali Congress and former panchas. A party commanding less than a tenth of the legislature’s strength considers itself the leading contender for the premiership.
It looks like Madhav Kumar Nepal will finally break out of his perennial premier-in-waiting status. New Delhi has already embraced him as an ethnic Indian in way it never has any Nepali politician. What are we waiting for? The Chinese hugging Matrika Prasad Yadav as a descendant of a member of Tang Dynasty envoy Wang Xuan-ce’s entourage to the Licchavi court?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Principle Of Most Privilege

So here’s how it goes. The Nepali Congress supports Nepal’s most assertive army chief who also happens to be the adopted son of the king it hates the most, in the name of upholding democracy. The popularly elected Maoists who claimed to have singlehandedly abolished the monarchy can’t assert their prerogative of establishing civilian supremacy over the military.
Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal, who throughout the week was rumored to be plotting a coup, decides to accept his discharge order and seek judicial remedy. His boss, supreme commander Ram Baran Yadav, preempts things by ordering the general to stay put.
Maoist chief ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai describes the president’s move as a “constitutional coup”. This, hours after declaring that the army is behind its new chief, General Kul Bahadur Khadka. Except that Khadka wasn’t quite sure whether to accept the appointment.
The peace process faces its worst threat over a man who is going to retire in a couple of months anyway. It’s worth it, considering the principles involved, each side claims. Insubordination cannot be tolerated in a new Nepal, the Maoists claim. (Especially when it blocks the restive Maoist commanders from the career-enhancement opportunities that drove them to the peace process.) Better to issue the sack order unilaterally and fall than to look for a pretext to quit.
The Nepali Congress can claim it looked past the grievous injuries it suffered at the hands of the military to establish the rule of law. (Never mind that from B.P. Koirala’s prison diaries, it looks like his 1960-1968 detention was his best eight years in terms of culinary choice.)
With a leading party member having replaced the monarch as supreme commander, it was incumbent upon the Nepali Congress to defend the status quo. If Sujata Koirala wanted Katuwal out because he had failed to invite her to the army’s New Year’s bash, well, that was her problem. Our president cannot be held back by the recognition that his ethnicity remains the least represented in the national army.
The Unified Marxist-Leninists promptly withdrew from the coalition claiming the Maoists violated the principle of consensus governing governance. By putting forth a proposal to oust Katuwal, Khadka and Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal together, the UML sought to inject some clarity in its traditional cloudiness, which ended up muddling things more. At least, Jhal Nath Khanal and K.P. Oli could bury their differences and bolster the prospect of resurrecting a UML-led they felt had fallen victim to a constitutional coup 14 years ago.
The promise of regaining power with the help of the Nepali Congress, which had plotted its downfall in 1995, is rivaled by the hope of regaining the communist center. (Imagine how hard it must have been for our mainstream comrades to be taking orders from people who were living on UML’s crumbs of a few safe seats in the 1991 and 1994 elections.)
Nepal Sadbhavana Party quit the coalition to tighten the screws on the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF). With the Chinese infuriated by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s decision to call off his China visit at the last minute, who knows what tug of war must be going on between the northern and southern wings of the MJF?
The most telling part of the entire saga was the least reported – and not just because it preceded denouement. The three principal parties of the former panchas have decided to back a Nepali Congress-led broader democratic alliance. With Surya Bahadur Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana both having been placed under detention after the February 1, 2005 royal takeover, it has become a bit harder to dispute the democratic credentials of the parties they lead.
But the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal of Kamal Thapa? Wasn’t he the most controversial member of the royal government after the chairman himself? And not the slightest murmur of indignation from the Nepali Congress. Is the nation’s self-designated sole democratic party ceding so much ground to put the finishing touches to a formal demand for a referendum on the monarchy? It’s all in the neck.