Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lord Of The Left

Madhav Kumar Nepal was elevated to the premiership to split Nepal’s communists, if you believe Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader Bam Dev Gautam. If you trust Gautam’s critics within his own party, on the other hand, he is a Maoist in all but name.
Given its sordid history of fission and fusion, Nepal’s premier centrist communists could have done without this latest burst of vitriol. But the deep factionalism in Nepal’s communist movement is something we must learn to live with more and more.
Part of the factionalism is understandable. The organization, despite its strong anti-Indian orientation from the outset, originated as a virtual offshoot from across the southern border. As such, it ignored Nepal’s peculiar class formation. Railing against feudalism had its limits, given the wide connotation the term acquired. So Nepali communist leaders thought they could mechanically apply prevailing international dogmas to local realities. Caught deeper between the monarchy and the Nepali Congress, the communists put their faith in the people. Having won a mere four seats in parliament, our comrades were left in a funk.
When King Mahendra took power in December 1960, the strains had to spill over. The royalist and communist wings came into prominence. Yet the Nepali Congress, especially B.P. Koirala and his coterie, remained a repellent. Following the Sino-Soviet split, the Indian communists could clearly part ways on ideological grounds. Not our comrades. Nepal’s geographical location between China and India, fast resembling a Soviet satellite in region, introduced strategic considerations.
Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution up north and the Naxalite movement out east inspired our young and restless. But the Jhapa Movement crumbled under the palace’s effective counterinsurgency strategy. In prison and on the run alike, the pro-Chinese faction indulged in soul-searching. The new Marxist-Leninists (M-L) sought to construct an indigenous road to socialism.
The M-L edged out the pro-Soviet groups, but the pro-Chinese camp was still in a churning process. People like Mohan Bikram Singh and Nirmal Lama emerged in the form of the Fourth Convention, only to confront the fallout from the overthrow of the Gang of Four.
While the M-L actively boycotted the referendum in 1980 by encouraging support for the partyless system and began expanding its cells across the country, the rival pro-Chinese camp sought to spread its wings. In 1984, the Mashal – as this group was now known – became a member of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement. Since only one faction would adopt the line that would extend into today’s Maoists, the bad blood continued.
For a while, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it seemed the pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions – or at least segments of them – would bury the hatchet. Those who expected the United Left Front-Nepali Congress alliance to collapse with the Panchayat system were not to be disappointed. The radicals were left sulking that their exertions in front of the palace had actually brought about the limited gains in the form of the midnight compromise legalizing political parties.
The emergence of the UML was supposed to have addressed the fragmentation of the left. An amalgam of disparate factions, the new party believed the Nepali communist movement had been severely weakened by both internal and external factors. The more revolutionary comrades had their own interpretation. They attributed the factionalism to the internal contradictions between the revolutionary teachings of the communist ideology and the lack of consciousness and commitment in the communist organizations. Simply put, the People’s Multiparty Democrats and the People’s Warriors and had to go their separate ways.
As the radicals went to the jungles, the UML started heading in all directions. C.P. Mainali, whose views were discredited as the M-L became the UML, was edged out. Bam Dev Gautam became deputy general secretary but only as long as his boss, Madhav Nepal, remained deputy premier. The Mahakali Treaty pushed the party to the brink. Gautam, Mainali and others broke away to revive the M-L, which soon projected itself as the nationalist communists.
The war of words between the UML and M-L camps, which took turns collaborating with Girija Prasad Koirala in power, escalated. But it soon centered on which was more corrupt than which. With the Nepali Congress and UML finally holding parliamentary elections, the M-L wipe-out was perhaps to be expected. But since Koirala contrived his own unity with rival Krishna Prasad Bhattarai to win a majority for the Nepali Congress, the UML took on the role of chief agitator.
If you cannot beat them, you join them. So Gautam returned to the UML, soon to be branded a royalist.
With so many royalists now officially having become Maoists, Gautam probably does not mind his latest critics in the UML. As for his point on our current premier and factionalism on the left, does he really think we needed Madhav Kumar Nepal for that?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Maddening Machinations & Muddy Moderation

Anxious to regain the initiative, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal warned the other day that the constituent assembly could be dissolved. But the parliament that the elected body doubles as wouldn’t be, he was quick to clarify. If the prime conciliator was expected to attempt a middle way out of our deepening deadlock, he did not disappoint. Especially since he passed the buck to President Ram Baran Yadav.
Amid the roughness of our road, Prime Minister Nepal has remained relatively unruffled. Banter, somberness, nonchalance and fretfulness have all been hallmarks of his public persona. But there have been unmistakable traces of serenity at the core. The pressure has inevitably caught up with him.
Just when he thought he was beginning to exercise a semblance of control, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala sealed a deal in Singapore. The details are murky, allowing for a range of speculation that varies wildly with one’s prejudices more than predilections. Instead of trying to grasp the disparate tea leaves, the premier has upped the stakes.
Indeed, what choice does Nepal really have when his own party has deserted him but does not seem to know for what? Unified Marxist-Leninist chairman Jhal Nath Khanal laments the tendency of the political class to reach out to Singapore and Hastinapur, mere days after his own return from New Delhi. The first thing Maoist-critic Khadga Oli does after alighting from his flight from Delhi is to urge the ex-rebels to join the government.
And Bam Dev Gautam asks the premier to sacrifice for the nation by, yes, resigning, as if the reiteration of that plea from him is entirely painless for us to hear. If consistency is visible anywhere in the UML, it is surely in the sturdiness of the shield Defense Minister Bidya Bhandari has provided the army.
Nepal’s brief bonhomie with Barack Obama wasn’t going to push him too far. Before that, the Indians certainly gave him a boost during his sojourn there. When Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood nicknamed Nepal panditji, our premier knew he was no Jawaharlal Nehru. But he must have thought he could use the backslapping to get the north on his side. But Chinese support – at least the palpable kind that translates into political strength these days – has been sorely lacking.
The itinerary for Nepal’s China visit was supposed to be announced the day after he returned from the U.N. General Assembly. Whether Beijing actually distrusts Nepal or his durability in office is becoming immaterial. Our prime minister simply could not fathom how sordid Sood’s appellation might turn out to be.
The broader picture is not all too bad. NatGeo heralds Nepal’s rebirth as the origin of adventure tourism. KFC and Pizza Hut are about make their grand entry to soak up Nepalis’ disposable income. Yet Nepal finds himself submerged atop a seemingly rudderless ship. So it becomes easy for him to sentimentalize a bit. Sure, Dahal may have almost wept to bring him into the constituent assembly. But that was then. Just like when Koirala proposed him for premier only to renege it in front of the then king. Like when Dahal invited him for talks in Lucknow and Silguri during the subterranean days, only to castigate him as a neo-Rayamajhi when the genuine article was very much around.
As for Nepal’s middle way, it might be able to maintain a semblance of continuity of the peace process, while allowing the protagonists to fight it out even harder. But here’s the rub. The people voted for the constituent assembly. The parliament part was an afterthought. The two should go out together, if they must. Even a moderate like our premier must surely see the virtue of radicalism on this one.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Great Sinners Serving The Great Savior

For a raucous group seemingly inured to all manner of criticism, this one must have really stung. Radio Vatican the other day accused the Maoists and their supporters of effectively blocking the process of democratization in Nepal. Well, it was actually the Apostolic Vicar of Nepal, Bishop Anthony Sharma, who made that charge in an interview with the Pope’s mouthpiece.
Look at it this way. If the Maoists feel they deserve the eternal gratitude of any particular quarter, it is surely from the church. Without our ex-rebels, Nepal would still be the world’s only Hindu kingdom and one of the six countries so impenetrable for the Lord’s word.
At a minimum, the Capuchin friars, whom Prithvi Narayan Shah expelled from his nascent kingdom, have been avenged. The poor souls tried hard to portray the Gorkhali conquest of Kathmandu valley as an unmitigated genocide and their exodus the upshot. What they left unsaid was that Prithvi Narayan was guided by the same religious sensitivities that had led Lhasa to expel the members of the Catholic order to the realm of the Mallas years earlier.
And what a struggle it had been to get back in. After the advent of modernity in 1951, the palace let men of the cloth educate and alleviate Nepalis. But the soul was a no-go area. Any progress towards that area was so easily construed as an unwarranted quest for unnatural intimacy. (The implications were clear long before the pedophilia scandal rocked sections of the clergy elsewhere.)
The countless students who graduated over the decades spread across the walks of life but never got close to making policy or decisions. Those few who end up in the inner palace circle actually helped tighten the lid.
All that was supposed to have changed with the 1990 democratization. But new leadership deftly placed a comma in the right place in the constitution and kept the heathens going with greater gusto. With the Reds on the rise, it was easy for successive governments to turn a blind eye to conversion. But how far could that go when the new king wore his religion so prominently on his sleeve? You could not inspire an uprising against a depraved state by evoking the Good Lord. In Nepal’s case, Mao had to become the savior.
We don’t know for sure why the Maoist leaders chose Switzerland for their only collective visit abroad (not counting India, of course) after the fall of the monarchy. Rumors that it was payback time for the final offensive against the Hindu state and the king – yes, in that order – refuse to die. In fairness, the church wasn’t the only purported contributor to such a kitty. But it was certainly among those who should have had a long-term interest in a secular Nepal regardless of how it progressed towards sustainable statehood.
Instead, the church talks of democracy. Pope Benedict XVI’s record shows that he is an opponent of certain types of liberation theology. But can the salvation wrought by Christ really be examined outside the aspirations of oppressed peoples and social classes? Sure, the Maoists’ agitation has inconvenienced most Nepalis, both the faithful and faithless. But what is the point of speaking out, especially when forthrightness has not always been the church’s forte.
Vatican Radio may have been among the first to publicize how Jews and others were being rounded up in ghettos under Hitler. But silence stood out as the most prominent feature when an entire group of people was actually being eliminated.
Some people jailed for proselytizing during the Panchayat years have become strategic thinkers They should know how a sprightly a springboard Nepal could become in a vast swathe in such an expansive neighborhood. In Tashilhumpo, Scotsman George Bogle was struck by the affinity between Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, while Prithvi Narayan was admonishing the Panchen Lama against hobnobbing with the feringhies. A free Tibet might open the opportunity to liberate so many more souls.
In India, the northeastern tribes have been a success story. But there are millions more, backward and oppressed, anxious for the Good News. The Maoists, to be sure, will not let anyone lead their flock astray. But can that reality alone diminish their redeeming value?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Hovering On Meddle Ground

When it comes to our peace process, Nepalis aren’t the only ones who are dwelling in the past. Why did Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal resign as premier earlier this year? Chinese President Hu Jintao wanted to know from the horse’s mouth last month. But Dahal either was not the horse or had too many mouths.
Did the then-premier manufacture the standoff with General Rookmangad Katuwal to avoid having to fly to Beijing to sign that harsh Peace and Friendship Treaty? (As a quid quo pro, the Chinese could have saved Dahal’s politics. But would the Indians have been so generous with his life or limbs?)
Or did the Indians actually egg Dahal on before using Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) chairman Jhal Nath Khanal to pull the plug? (That would be entirely in keeping with the Indian playbook. Moreover, it was the Chinese who recently outed Khanal.) Maybe Dahal was under unbearable pressure from the party base to show something revolutionary for his months in power. (What could have been more revolutionary in Nepali politics than to resign before anyone actually demanded you do so?)
Hu probably remains as flustered as he was before meeting with Dahal. But given the way the Maoists have been behaving ever since, it seems Dahal never believed he would really have to vacate the Baluwatar residence. The Maoists have been trying to get back in through every door, window, nook, cranny or pore.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered a helping hand. He stated that a national government was desirable to pull Nepal out of its morass. The original word, we are told, was the more unambiguous “necessary.” But the ruling parties and their allies ended up accusing Ban of interfering on behalf of the Maoists any way. UN spokesperson Michele Montas rebutted that charge after UNMIN chief Karin Landgren avoided the media.
Both ladies had to do what they did. The UN is less interested in salvaging the Maoists. It needs to save its face. The Indians and the Chinese want to bloody the world body’s nose so red that it would never think of returning to the region in any shape or form. Clearly, New Delhi’s and Beijing’s original joint effort was to keep extra-regional forces out of Nepal by giving them just enough space to stand still. But certainly they have been outsmarted.
Even before the pre-Olympics Free Tibet protests last year, the Chinese saw the UN missionaries as partners with the Indians in an effort to upset their soft underbelly. The Indians feel the UN is trying to position scoping missions on their soil well before New Delhi gets a veto on an expanded Security Council.
Beijing, moreover, is anxious to see New Delhi mount a full-blown offensive on the world organization for the wider fallout: scuttling India’s permanent membership bid. The Indians, who feel Nepal has slipped out of their hands – to borrow Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s words the other day – aren’t about to abandon their quest for great power status by appearing to take on Nepal and the international community at the same time.
Those closest to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal seem to have the clearest view of the opening here. Ever wondered why the premier’s official advisers are the most vociferous in their opposition to the continuation of UN Mission in Nepal? UNMIN chief Landgren, too, knows a thing or two about politics in conflict zones. (Her stints in Eritrea and Bosnia and Herzegovina must have come in particularly handy here.) She wants the parties to define the president’s powers, the widely acknowledged root of the current woes. But her advice comes at a time when some of those parties want the president to dissolve the constituent assembly and impose direct rule.
The Maoists reject the interference accusation, claiming the government’s opposition to Ban’s call is aimed at pleasing India. But at the corridors of UN headquarters in New York, we hear, the Indians are the most vocal in asserting Nepal’s sovereign rights. No matter how counterintuitive and convoluted things seem to be getting, you are forced to wonder this much. Having invested so much in Nepal, shouldn’t Ban be able to proffer a word or two without prompting the I insinuation?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Flashback: Ceremonialism By Executive Order

President Ram Baran Yadav remains in a state of volatility on matters ranging from official abode to administrative assistance. The way he appears to be redefining the role and reach of the highest office of the land thus becomes all the more remarkable.
Contrary to the purely ceremonial role envisaged by most architects of New Nepal, Yadav seems set to acquire executive influence. His high-profile political consultations in connection with the formation of the new government have angered sections of the Maoists.
The president’s direct participation in the activities of the Nepal Army has alienated some quarters on the other end of the ideological spectrum. In conveying best wishes to soldiers heading for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and expressing hope that they would carry out their duties with discipline, Yadav hardly departed from the tradition established by his predecessors as supreme commander. The president’s physical presence at Panchkhal sparked a queasiness among some that remains unmitigated by the realization that he would, in all probability, never don the uniform.
Overall, this overt exhibition of republicanism has set off speculation of an emergence of a political co-habitation practiced by that other former monarchy, France. Former king Gyanendra Shah’s overtures to Yadav have put in new perspective the possibility of a broad nationalist platform.
As such, geopolitics has lost little time in entering the debate. President Yadav’s understandable preoccupation with the construction of the long overdue post-election government forced him to cancel a visit to China to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Scribes across the southern border scurried to put on a sinister spin. Yadav knows he did not snub the Chinese, at least not deliberately. Deep down, the mandarins up north must have known he was in no position to break with tradition and pay them a visit first.
Indian ebullience on this count came after the media there went gaga over Yadav’s supposed Indian roots. Admittedly, the physician turned politician shares fewer such links than, say, his former boss Girija Prasad Koirala, who was born in India. But that piece of reality did not fit the operative narrative of the reporters and editors – and the officialdom patronizing them – down south.
Yadav’s 11th-hour ascension to the top job has evidently satisfied the Nepal Army, whose reluctance to take orders from a presumptive Maoist protégé fueled rumors of an imminent political accident. Yet talk of a military coup has acquired greater resonance since Yadav took his oath. And not only because of his deputy’s choice of language at the swearing-in ceremony.
Should Sujata Koirala win the by-election through the active support of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum’s Upendra Yadav, who vacated one of last April’s keenly contested seats, the non-communist bloc will have gained significant ground.
Efforts to marginalize the Maoists from monopolizing the state would see President Yadav’s active participation. Endeavors to tame the former rebels, too, can be expected to feature Yadav in the central role.
With Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah and current president Pervez Musharraf having entered the core of Nepal’s political lexicon, the non-left cluster would do well to examine another analogy.
In the early 1990s, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party named one of its senior leaders, Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari, as candidate for president. Ensconced in office, Leghari ended up dismissing Benazir and her government in 1996 (while, one might add, our own star-crossed Sher Bahadur Deuba was paying an official visit as premier). The head of state is, after all, expected to rise above the party. A sobering thought indeed for the Nepali Congress.

Originally posted on Monday, August 04, 2008