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.