Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tempting Fate With Every Step

First she blamed Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal for meddling in the affairs of Nepali Congress-held ministries. Then she accused factionalism in her own party for her lackluster performance in power.
Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala will not see it any other way until she gets her due. And it no longer seems the deputy premiership. Her quest began the moment she proclaimed within the earshot of Queen Aishwarya at a Foreign Ministry reception in 1991 how a new empress was about to be crowned.
The coronation has been long in despite her entanglements in all sorts of alliances, within and outside. This week it became clear that by pulling out of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s New Delhi entourage last month, Sujata was sending a message primarily to the Indians.
That slight did not prevent her recent visit to China from descending into a banality, at least initially. But there were tell-tale signs. In a television interview in Beijing, Sujata related how, on her first visit to China in 1990, she had concluded the Chinese dragon would one day swallow the world. The throat-wrenching expression got little more than a chuckle from the Chinese interviewer. He seemed to know more than we did about the real purpose of her visit up north.
Our foreign minister was merely paving the way for Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to China. Frustrated in their design to forge a Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML)-United Maoist front, the Chinese appear to have set their sights on the Nepali Congress. Even party president Girija Prasad Koirala is said to have signaled to visiting Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao his reevaluation of regional priorities. By throwing in the likes of Upendra Yadav and Matrika Yadav into a putative Maoist-Nepali Congress combine, the Chinese may even end up stanching what has been the nation’s inexorable glide into geographical ambiguity.
With almost Newtonian effect, Sujata’s rivals in the Nepali Congress have been energized. Ram Sharan Mahat asserted the other day that Sujata would never become premier. Parliamentary leader Ram Chandra Poudel revealed that he had already declined Dahal’s offer of the premiership, expounding on the extent of the Maoists’ fishing expedition. Reminiscent of his 1999-2000 posturing, Sher Bahadur Deuba is reportedly in consultation with forces on both ends of the political spectrum. A group of senior Nepali Congress leaders met with Prime Minister Nepal pledging support to his government until the next elections.
UML leaders, too, have been full of zip. Chairman Jhalnath Khanal has been warning of a military takeover should consensus continue to elude the Nepal government. Other leaders have been giving subtle hints that a Maoist-led national government could be possible. Prime Minister Nepal dug in his heels the other day by praising how the Nepal Army has always upheld civilian supremacy. The generals, for their part, were envisaging a seminar on civil-military relations.
From the muddle, it looks like Sujata has time on her side. The Nepali Congress is growing increasingly incapable of surviving without a younger Koirala at the helm. Power, pelf and patronage alone were insufficient to catapult Sujata to the top. She wants the crown so bad that even fate now seems tempted to see how it might fit. If it does well, then Beijing Union Medical College Hospital had better make room for an influx of Nepali political patients.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Divide And Don’t Rule

Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal is firing on all cylinders. With each passing day, he is becoming an equal-opportunity aggressor. The Maoists are a bunch of bloodthirsty ingrates, who now risk the fate of the likes of Pol Pot. And his own party? The Unified Marxist-Leninists are in such disunion precisely because they are trying to out-red the Maoists.
The Nepali Congress should have been the beneficiary of the bloodletting. But it has too many people itching for the premiership. Party president Girija Prasad Koirala asked the premier not to believe everything he read in the papers. Once Nepal left the room, Koirala aides began whispering to favorite reporters how the old man had refused to acknowledge the premier from his sick bed.
The Maoists had actually promised the premier their conditional support, Nepal revealed the other day. He hasn’t lost his spirit of reciprocity, though. Pick any number of ministries, he offered the ex-rebels, barring the top job. Bringing the foremost Marxist-Leninist into the Constituent Assembly, overruling the people, was the greatest mistake of the followers of the Great Helmsman, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai shot back.
When Koirala offered the premiership to Nepal earlier this year, there was even less reason to believe the octogenarian was being magnanimous. The treachery with which Koirala backed out from that consensus-candidate pledge in 2004 will resonate forever. Maybe the man this time only wanted Nepal to help elevate his daughter to the top job. Nepal felt he could sit on that, as long as Koirala refused to come out with a public affirmation of such a quid pro quo.
Of course, UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal was out to get him from the start. By pitting Khanal and Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli against each other, Nepal staked out his ground. By propping up Oli as a prime ministerial candidate, Nepal knows he can now checkmate both Khanal and Sujata Koirala. As for Khanal, well, the country has space for only one Mao wanna-be anyway, and Pushpa Kamal Dahal has the better swept-back hair to go with the devious eyes.
Given the deep sting Dahal left behind with his northern tilt, the Indians preempted Nepal with the affirmation that he was born in India. At a time when allegations of foreign birth was bedeviling the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, that was a chance Nepal reckoned he could take. (As additional insurance, he would go on to cite his India visit as the most successful part of his government’s 100 days.)
But how long can the prime minister hope to thrive on the disarray of his opponents? As someone transfixed by halo of his predecessor, Madan Bhandari, surely Nepal must have some thoughts about his own legacy. During his years as opposition leader, especially after the UML decided it had to obstruct Koirala every step of the way, critics used to dare Nepal to offer solutions for a change. Let me get the premiership first, he hardly shied from saying.
But that was when he enjoyed the people’s mandate. When he finally got the long-coveted job, it was only because the parties chose to go against the people. Performance must await times that are more propitious. Don’t count on the ‘doubly defeated’ epithet to go too far. It lost its luster the moment the Maoists and Koirala took turns feigning altruism.
So what lies at the core of Nepal’s confidence that so unnerves his critics? His newfound canon of divide and don’t rule.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Neighbors’ Frenzy, Owners’ Hayride

To: Girija Prasad Koirala and
Pushpa Kamal Dahal

From: Tang Jiaxuan and
Karan Singh

As the principal interlocutors for the governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India, respectively, during the April 2006 uprising, we are jointly writing to convey our profound concern and regret at the manner in which Nepal’s transition to greater representativeness and inclusiveness is progressing. While cognizant of Nepalis’ sovereign and inalienable right to chart their own destiny, we remain deeply troubled by the wider geopolitical ramifications of the volatility of your peace process.
It was with an earnest desire to bolster the strategic engagement between our two ancient civilizations that we had agreed to contribute to a peaceful resolution of the crisis resulting from the breakdown of the constitutional process in Nepal. Although, at the time, our missions seemed separate and unrelated, it was a product of close consultation based on the mutuality of our interests and basic complementarities. As you surely recall, the understanding we had reached during our separate consultations with the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) in Kathmandu in March and April 2006 was premised on your express commitment to bridge the dangerous breach between the monarchy and the anti-government rebels in an effort to allow Nepal to continue on its own course and consolidate regional stability. But things went against our expectations. Today, China and India are locked in one of their worst crises ever, partly resulting from distrust of each other’s motives and intentions in Nepal. There is a dangerous escalation in the rhetoric on each side by the day, which threatens to result in untold catastrophe.
We recognize that things began to worsen in Nepal almost from the outset. The Indian government, in close consultation with Beijing, welcomed King Gyanendra’s decision to restore parliament and invite the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) to form a new government. Our expectation was that the palace and the parties would bring the anti-government rebels to a mutually acceptable settlement in keep with Nepali aspirations as well as the imperatives of regional security. The rebels, who then dominated the streets, took a harder line than the SPA. To prevent further instability, the Indian government appeared to revise its stand. China, in keeping with its traditional foreign policy precepts of non-interference, refused to comment publicly.
Both Beijing and New Delhi understood that the rebels had to conciliate their cadres. This was, after all, no surrender on the part of anyone. The House of Representatives moved to strip the monarchy of the controversial powers it had been exercising since 2002. However, the secularization of the Nepali state was not on the agenda. Yet it became part of the House Proclamation. The Indian ambassador, as you may recall, immediately conveyed his government’s concern at this incongruity to the king and the parties. Beijing, too, used every opportunity to remind the major actors of the urgency of adhering to the agreed framework.
When China and India acquiesced in a United Nations role in the peace process, it served to underscore our commitment to establishing lasting peace and stability in Nepal. Given our own international situations, few in the West expected either of us to set an “unwarranted precedent”. But the Nepali anti-government rebels had made U.N. involvement a precondition to their return to the negotiating table. We recognized that a tightly focused and outcome-specific U.N. mandate would be the best guarantor of a settlement conforming to the desires of the Nepali people and the aspirations of its two friendly neighbors. China’s permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and India’s influential role in the world organization permitted the creation of such an international mission.
Almost immediately, a few other members began using the mission to pursue their narrow objectives unrelated to the basic mandate. Since many of these activities directly impinged on Sino-Indian interest in a strong, stable and prosperous Nepal, we always voiced our firm and unequivocal opposition to such nefarious activities at the appropriate forums. Despite our genuine endeavors, everything represented a serious deviation from the Sino-Indian understanding. But the Nepali leadership, from across the political spectrum, constantly advised us that all this was merely aimed at preserving the peace process.
When the Chinese ambassador became the first foreign representative to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, it represented a powerful symbol from Beijing for reasons widely known. Maintaining stability and tranquility in the region was uppermost in our minds, so the peace process was encouraged to take its course. But western powers fomented the so-called “Free Tibet” protest in advance of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Certain elements in India, particularly in the security services, saw an opportunity to strike hard against the Chinese for perceived and real grievances the two nations were thought to have risen over. In the midst of the coalition configuration in New Delhi, they gained the upper hand. Saner minds in India instantly began warning against the damage accruing from needlessly raising Chinese apprehensions.
It was only after the Chinese government lodged a strong protest to the Koirala government that the “Free Tibet” protesters suspended their activities. This allowed the much-delayed constituent assembly polls to be held, marking a major milestone in Nepal. The monarch willingly vacated the palace in keeping with the popular aspirations for peace. But the elected assembly instantly degenerated into the same venue for political horse-trading as it had been between 1991 and 2002. Only this time, the United Communist Party of Nepal became participants.
Under Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, China saw an important opportunity to modernize its ties with Nepal. Yet many hardliners in China, especially those with longstanding ties to the Communist Party’s Ministry of Foreign Liaison, were waiting for a moment to hit back at the Indians for having abetted the “Free Tibet” protests in Kathmandu. The new friendship treaty we had proposed to Kathmandu was a genuine attempt to update ties in keeping with the new realities. It became a subject of needless politicization, wherein one section of the Nepali prime minister’s office leaked it to the Nepali media.
Unfortunately, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson in Beijing gave the impression that China somehow backed the Dahal government’s decision to sack the Nepali army chief. We noted with regret how elements within the Nepali prime minister’s party sought to convey that impression. The ill will this created in India, which has honored the Nepali army chief as an honorary general of the Indian Army, was understandable to the Chinese.
With the monarchy out of the way, Nepal, in our view, is farther removed from a popularly drafted constitution. For Nepal’s two neighbors, this has been a wider moment for introspection. Under the monarchy, the “Free Tibet” movement never acquired the rowdiness sufficient to imperil Sino-Nepali ties. From the perspective of India, terrorist activities linked one way or the other with Nepal were virtually non-existent during palace rule. The Chinese and Indian people are justified in revisiting these realities. Today Nepali legislators openly meet with the Dalai Lama, the political head of the “government in exile”, in contravention of Kathmandu’s official One-China policy. The Indian government has had no handle on the situation, which has been largely instigated by western-funded non-governmental organizations albeit abetted by recalcitrant elements of Indian officialdom. The newly appointed priests of Pashupatinath Temple are beaten up and paraded ignominiously, with the government relegated to a mute bystander. Hardliners in India suddenly see a Chinese hand in the attack. The total absence of leadership in Nepal is unacceptable. Any false move will play into the hands of Chinese and Indian hardliners, which, needless to say, would be ultimately detrimental to all concerned.
Ordinary Nepalis are today apprehensive of an impending “political accident” when they should have been preparing to welcome a new constitution and witness the rebirth of the nation. At the same time, ethnic and regional fragmentation, growing criminalization and lawlessness, political polarization and the other unhealthy manifestations of change have exacerbated the national-security concerns of both China and India.
In the spring of 2006, we volunteered our time and effort to resolve the constitutional deadlock as men of peace. Today, in the same capacity, we issue this urgent appeal to your wisdom and judgment. The Nepali parties must honor and uphold the commitments you had made during our talks in Kathmandu. In the absence of that, we would have no recourse other than to offer our personal admission of failure in what we considered a solemn endeavor. But that shortcoming would pale into insignificance compared to the consequences for Nepal, an admonition we feel compelled to offer as true friends and well-wishers.