Sunday, August 30, 2009

Protean Proxy War In The UML

If the proxy war between our two fretful neighbors is evident in one single arena, it surely within the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML). Party chairman Jhal Nath Khanal and senior leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli have been embroiled in a fiery exchange of words that threatens to outlast the widely expected split in the organization.
Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal must be beaming at the secure middle ground he has staked in the short term. But, then, he must be mortified by what has become of a party he believes he has nurtured far more than did the late Madan Bhandari.
Ideology was never quite the adhesive it was made out to be in the UML. When Bhandari came out with his program of People’s Multiparty Democracy (PMD) at the 1993 convention, there was no shortage of critics who dubbed it a repackaging of glasnost and perestroika. This effort to establish relevance in a changing world did not help Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet communists. Their one-time ideological soulmates in the Eastern European satellites succeeded because they had formally reinvented themselves as social democrats.
As a policy, the makeover did help the UML, which became largest check on the Nepali Congress. This distribution of the popular mandate helped Nepal’s second democratic experience last as long as it did. Khanal was never reconciled to PMD line, Bhandari’s widow, Bidya – our current defense minister – told us in a recent forthright interview. She implied that Khanal has been scheming against Madhav Nepal’s government since the moment he was denied the premiership he felt entitled to as the leader of the senior coalition partner.
Even if personal, his sentiments against Bhandari and his legacy must run deeper. Impositions in the garb of ideology by upstarts was not something Khanal, who built the forerunner of the UML during the partyless years, was going to tolerate. Khanal, moreover, was the top-most comrade in the interim government (in terms of influence if not rank) that brought about the transition from the partyless regime to the multiparty system. He personally considered himself the only thing that stood between the country and that constitution drafted by the palace.
The response from the other side was swift. J.N. Comrade found himself in the company of Balaram Upadhyaya and Siddhi Lal Singh in that he was dropped from the post-convention standing committee.
If anything, Bhandari’s tragic death thrust the party further away from Khanal. The man did not find a place in the nine-month UML minority government. Nepal and Oli, the leading party beneficiaries in the post-Bhandari era, gradually pushed their own competing lines of sorts. When the country jeered how Khanal had brought in internal decorations from Europe for his new home, the UML establishment joined in the derision. In March 1997, Khanal flexed his muscles by forcing a rearrangement of the order of precedence after he discovered that he was ranked ninth in the Lokendra Bahadur Chand-led cabinet – after the Rastriya Prajatantra Party’s Prakash Chandra Lohani – instead of fifth in line with the party’s decision.
As Nepal and Oli vied with one another to tilt the deepest to the south, Khanal seemed like a has-been. It looked like he was enjoying his ride to the sunset. The man to watch was Bam Dev Gautam. He was impetuous enough to believe that his nationalism card would see him through the UML split, losing sight of the countless hands his rivals had to trump him. Once Madhav Nepal began slipping among the wider populace because of his unpredictable contortions, Oli and Gautam stepped up their moves. Khanal was biding his time. The Oli versus Khanal round became a must-see show only when it became part of the north-south rivalry, leading up to the party convention.
Oli’s illness allows him to visit India often. That frequency gives him an aura of power that he uses. The Indians know they can use him to the hilt. The Chinese, in their quest to project their soft power, recognized that their policy of building ties with all political parties had to go a step further. They began competing patronage in all the parties, including the Terai-based ones.
That Khanal was forced to cut short a visit to China to attend to the growing row over the dismissal of then army chief Rookmangad Katuwal perhaps reflected the setback the north received in its Maoist misadventure. But it was a metaphor for the geopolitical lines drawn in our national polity.
And Gautam? Well he sure sees an opportunity where it presents itself. His bold appeal to China to mediate the Kalapani row with India did not amuse Beijing. Yet he brought the issue to the table. Between Khanal and Oli, Gautam has grasped an incongruity. The Maoists own the agenda of a constitution drafted by the constitutent assembly. Yet they are no part of it today.
Madhav Nepal, a member of the panel that drafted the ill-fated 1990 basic law, and Nilambar Acharya, the law minister who supervised the process, are leading the charge. Gautam has added his voice to the Maoists’ call for a people’s revolt to ensure popular supremacy. Is the man once disciplined by the UML for being a royalist now itching to join the Maoists? Perhaps he wants to stay in the UML as its edifice of equidistance.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bouquets Of Boondoggle

The purveyors of perfidy are prospering. Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala declared the other day in a television interview that the controversy sparked by her decision to pull out of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s official entourage to New Delhi was actually a boon to her Nepali Congress.
Without the media linking the abrupt move to her apparent dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s failure to promote her to deputy premier, told the interviewer, the Nepali Congress wouldn’t have recognized how incommensurate its place in the cabinet was with its numerical presence in the constituent assembly. If anything, the country’s second-largest party could now claim the deputy premiership with greater credibility and conviction.
Sujata, of course, carefully stuck to her official line that ill health prevented her from joining her boss in his most important diplomatic foray. And a significant section of her own party isn’t buying that story. The foreign minister is infuriated by the persistence with which she is being asked to explain the obvious.
The B-word was not far off Sujata’s immediate predecessor’s mind, either. Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) leader Upendra Yadav told supporters that the split the party recently suffered was actually a boon. The Madhesi movement, Yadav asserted, was now cleansed of opportunists. But his ebullience didn’t end there. Yadav likened the situation to the blessing World War II turned out to be for Japan. (How fortunate for us that Yadav was no longer foreign minister when he drew that parallel, especially during the solemn month of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki carnage commemorations!)
United Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal hasn’t described his resignation from the premiership as a godsend to the party in such graphic terms. But his bravado certainly points to such belief. It was impossible for Dahal to unleash the raucous rank and file onto the streets in the form of the Young Communist League while he was trying to govern, for a change. It was becoming harder still to keep them quiet any longer, especially with his failure to sack the army chief.
Having resorted to the easy way out, the perpetual agitator in Dahal has flourish to the point where he has widened his sights. The upholding-civilian-supremacy crusade may have failed to impress many in the country. But he sees in it the Maoists’ international salvation, after having braved the opprobrium of key allies of those crucial subterranean years.
If Dahal has really made a bid for the leadership of the international revolutionary movement, then his experience in power must be a central part of his campaign. “We joined the peace process in earnestness to emancipate the people, but were being forced to abandon our core ideals every step of the way once we won the largest number of seats,” he must have told the faithful during the secret conclave he supposedly attended during his recent European trip. “Let this be a cautionary tale to revolutionaries the world over and an impetus for permanent revolution.” Peace is, after all, war by other means.
In reality, Sujata’s antics may be part of a grand design to destabilize Prime Minister Nepal’s government and precipitate its fall. Yadav, for his part, wants to undermine the Unified Marxist-Leninists – the prime instigators of the MJF, in his view – without letting the rival faction led by Deputy Prime Minister Bijay Kumar Gachchadar reap the most benefits. Oddly enough, Dahal’s motives are the clearest: a keen desire to obfuscate his true purpose of the moment.
The national boondoggle can be expected to continue because Nepalis aren’t terribly interested in counting their blessings right now. They are too busy trying to evade new blights.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Right Message, Wrong Messenger

As the Indian Embassy was in the midst of Independence Day fervor over the weekend, a group of Nepalis demonstrated right outside demanding their own country’s freedom from its southern neighbor. All this came against the background of the incessant pleas by the ruling Unified Marxist-Leninists and the opposition United Maoists to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal not to sign any agreements prejudicial to Nepal during his upcoming visit down south.
With the southern sojourns of his defense and foreign ministers – both, like Nepal, lacking popular mandate – having precipitated all manner of conjecture and innuendo, the premier was explicit about his intentions. His mandate for the most audacious diplomatic venture of his political life, we are led to believe, has been defined by his surname.
So when Deputy Prime Minister Bijay Kumar Gachchadar took a different tack on wider subject of India, it was rather refreshing. “Don’t blame India for our own failures,” the strongman of the new Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Loktantrik) said. Chastising Nepalese leaders for their inability to defend the 1990 constitution, thereby precipitating our deepening crisis, Gachchadar said neither Girija Prasad Koirala nor Pushpa Kamal Dahal had been able to provide the steady hand the country needed on its path to newness.
The expansiveness of the Constituent Assembly may have facilitated the election by appeasing disparate groups, the DPM suggested, but now that very size has become an obstacle to the constitution drafting process.
The cynic in Maila Baje immediately sprung up on multiple levels. Isn’t this akin to the pot calling the kettle black? If Koirala has been so odious, how could Gachchadar as a principal collaborator be immune from his own criticism? Once his relations with Koirala soured, Gachchadar helped Sher Bahadur Deuba split the Nepali Congress and create the Democratic parallel. All for what?
He may have tried to patch things up with Koirala after the collapse of the monarchy, but the grand old man didn’t need him that much. That alone couldn’t explain Gachchadar’s decision to break away from the reunited Nepali Congress to join the new MJF, merely days after he denied having any such plans.
Moreover, wasn’t the emergence of the MJF one of the reasons why the assembly had to become so bloated? Granted, the man gave an eye to the commies in defense of democracy during his student days. But what kind of vision allows him to believe that he can wipe the slate clean merely by forming a new party?
The Maoists’ upset electoral win redefined the political parameters. Who can forget Koirala’s tap on Gachchadar’s shoulder in the assembly chamber following his resignation speech, which set off the post-monarchy bedlam that delayed Dahal’s immaculation for weeks? The Maoists’ overreach galvanized Gachchadar once more. But the prospect of getting the deputy premiership in a post-Maoist government alone is unlikely to have goaded him to split the party.
The venue of Gachchadar’s latest pontificating – the Nepal-India Friendship Association celebrations of India’s Independence Day – raises questions as well. As the leader of the fourth largest party and a heartbeat away from the premiership, Gachchadar must have his own ambitions for the top job. (Fueled in no small measure by filling in for his boss during Nepal’s trip to the non-aligned summit in Egypt.) In the current scenario, that entails carefully calibrating his move amid Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala ostensible offensive and Premier Nepal’s widely anticipated stumble.
All this posturing does not detract from the validity of Gachchadar’s core claim. Blaming India for everything under the sun erodes our ability to hold it accountable for things it has been plotting in the dark all these years. But, then, the dissonance between the message and the messenger rings too deep into the soul of our nation.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

For The Maoists, A World To Win Back

Did or didn’t they? From the way United Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal first put it, he averted a putative world war by stepping down as premier earlier this year. Who knows who else – state as well as non-state belligerents – might have stepped into actual hostilities involving the world’s sole superpower and its two most populous nations?
But Dahal hurriedly denied having made such a comment. The newly reinstated supreme commander of the People’s Liberation Army characterized the phony attribution as part of a conspiracy to spoil his party’s relations with the countries involved.
Had the newspaper really peddled a fictitious story? Or had Dahal assumed he was still outside the pale of the media? Or was he simply playing to the base without having anticipated the reaction the comment ended up provoking? (Not exactly a novel hazard, when it comes to our Fierce One, heh?)
The Indians came out with a flat denial. The Americans generally do not comment on such matters for obvious concerns about alerting the target. The Chinese have probably been planning for such an eventuality from the founding of the People’s Republic. So the senior Indian professor Dahal quoted as having intimated the sensational plan may have the answer. And whoever that is, is unlikely to share it.
The trouble with Dahal is that he shoots from all sides of his mouth. When he later eats his words, he doesn’t want us staring at the mastication. Now, the ploy worked extremely well during his years underground. Amid the public glare, the boomerang effect becomes deadlier because of the multiplier effect. It was, after all, one newspaper report the media around the world that quoted him on this one.
Still, this episode has underscored the geopolitical origin of Dahal’s exit. It turned out his press adviser leaked the controversial Chinese draft treaty of peace and friendship, suggesting the premier did not want to cross the Rubicon. After he quit, Dahal told an Indian reporter that the succession of Chinese delegations had not arrived in Kathmandu at his specific invitation. (And we thought that used to be the proprietary trademark of the Soviets a la Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.) Then Dahal said he was forced to cancel his visit to China to forestall a military coup.
Before our leading people’s warrior could finally blossom into a global peace-maker, he balked – and in a weird way. Instead of supervising his party’s stepped-up offensive against the “usurpers”, Dahal, joined by wife, Sita, and son, Prakash, landed in London. The timing of his urge to brief Europe-based cadres and loyalists converging on the British capital about the central committee’s fresh decisions confounded many back home.
Yet there may be a scheme to the stupefaction. Dahal’s real urgency at this time is to mend fences with the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia. Those two organizations, along with other fraternal groupings, felt the Nepalese Maoists betrayed the cause of international communism by entering mainstream politics. It was sacrilegious for them to have shared power with the very forces they had originally risen up against. No wonder they could not even sack a hugely insubordinate army chief.
By firing up the streets, for now, Dahal expects to assuage allies that had sustained the insurgency internationally. For them, after Peru and Nepal, funding and finesse all depends on the fig leaf Dahal can provide. The geopolitics of it all can be left for another day.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Convictions Forged Behind Bars

As Chandra Prakash Gajurel was echoing his party’s outrage over the government’s purported appointment of retiring Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal as ambassador to France the other day, news came in that the Maoist leader’s daughter, Shobha, had been arrested in that country for violating its immigration laws. Coincidence?
Perhaps. But one that occasions greater luminosity on Papa. Gajurel, as we all know, shot into prominence when was arrested in Chennai in 2003 while trying boarding a flight to London on a false passport. By his own admission, Gajurel was travelling on a Briton’s passport wherein his slightly crumpled picture stood out as an odd add-on.
Chennai airport authorities happened to find a fellow traveler who also happened to be a senior British diplomat. Gajurel, who had been sufficiently warned by several associates of the risk inherent in identity theft so glaringly obvious, lost his cool amid the diplomat’s interrogation – and his freedom, too.
The Maoist leader was on his way, we understand, to meet King Gyanendra, shortly due in London, to shore up the faltering peace talks. Consider the crucial details. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had appointed a special envoy for Nepal. Gajurel had received a British passport and was quit blasé about having doctored it. Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal was sore that Nepal had not been taking New Delhi into confidence vis-à-vis the peace talks. Talk of means, motive and opportunity.
Lest they be accused of singling out Gajurel, the Indians arrested Mohan Baidya from an eye clinic in Silguri. But, then, these two men were always in a different league because of their views on India and its motives in Nepal. Prachanda, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and other Maoists enjoyed Indian hospitality, while people like Matrika Yadav and Suresh Ale were being handed back to Nepal.
Fast forward to 2006. Shortly after having shed his own subterranean existence, Prachanda traveled to New Delhi and declared how he had declined Pakistani aid to perpetuate his revolution. His bona fides established, the Maoist supremo won the release of Gajurel and Baidya. Once in Kathmandu, the two men incessantly criticized Prachanda for having kowtowing to the Indians, to the point where the supremo had to remind them they were now free men again.
Gajurel’s own crusade was relentless. The top Maoist in charge of international relations was candid about his party’s real intentions during a talk program in New Delhi in February 2007. Addressing Maoist-affiliated students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Gajurel revealed that the Maoists’ foray into mainstream politics was also a part of their “ongoing revolution.”
If parliament failed to achieve results, Gajurel insisted, the Maoists would mount a “city-based revolution.” The refusal by Prachanda, Dr. Bhattarai and other senior leaders to participate in the interim parliament was part of this strategy, Gajurel claimed. Much grief came Gajurel’s way for those comments, which he thought he was making in camera. (As if in vindication, Prachanda just the other day repeated many of those sentiments.)
As for his own decision to stay out of the government, Gajurel suggested that it had enhanced his ability to keep up his tirades against those who sought to infringe upon Nepali sovereignty from across the southern border. Over the subsequent months, he also sought to explain how closer the Chinese were to the notion of good-neighborliness.
To be sure, there is a risk in contending with people whose history of relative obscurity outstrips their years in public life. Madan Bhandari became the preeminent face of Nepalese nationalism during his brief public life. Yet there was something disquieting about his past. It was not for nothing that Bhandari merited a half page interview guised as a news analysis in that virtual Indian government mouthpiece chronicling the country’s times. That gray area has made Bhandari’s death all the more, shall we say, intriguing.
This, by no means, suggests an impending short-circuiting of Gajurel politics. But it would explain partially, at least, why daughter Shobha may have thought she had a case for political asylum abroad, wouldn’t it?