Sunday, January 25, 2009

Not Quite A Slur

Newly christened Nepal’s Hugo Chavez, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is struggling to wash off the slur. Ever since three powerful western ambassadors went into a joint session with Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala to convey the epithet, Dahal has been cozying up with his wily predecessor.
Unable to ferret out what else the trio might have volunteered to Koirala, Dahal took to the nation’s airwaves. True, the ban on dowry, outlawing of untouchability and strictures against government extravagance were irrelevant to his immediate purpose. But the announcement could buy time for the premier.
Koirala was reportedly befuddled by the request for a joint meeting. The ambassadors of the United States (Nancy J. Powell), France (Henry Gilles Garault) and the United Kingdom (Andrew Hall) might have sought such a setting to assure Koirala that they weren’t up to their own games.
The Chavez slur emanates directly from the Venezuelan president’s Bolivarian Revolution, an admixture of democratic socialism and Latin American integration resting on opposition to neo-liberalism, globalization, and American foreign policy.
The closest Dahal ever came to espousing such a grand cause was during an interview with Time magazine a couple of years ago claiming he would turn Nepal into a launching pad for a global revolution. We thought George W. Bush put that all behind him after he briefly met with Dahal last September at reception he held for leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly. (A party, one might add, Chavez has been excluded from.)
But when Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher cancelled his visit to Nepal late last year – during which he was expected by some to announce the withdrawal of Washington’s terror tag on Nepal’s former rebels – it was hard not to connect it with the arrival in quick succession of two Chinese military delegations.
Now Dahal doesn’t have Chavez’s oil wealth to distribute among New York’s and London’s poor. Good gracious, he hasn’t even sought a meeting with Cuba’s ailing Fidel Castro, the man Chavez hopes to succeed as the world’s Leftist in Chief. So doesn’t the threat perception sounded in the final week of the Bush administration sound a bit exaggerated, even Iraqi WMDish?
There is a more important question here. How willing would President Barack Hussein Obama be to taming the global left? Sure, he has moved to center since emerging from the far left of the Democratic Party to win the presidency. His cabinet appointments portend a moderate Clintonesque foreign policy. There is one hole. He has named a lightweight Chicagoan to head the Department of Education.
This man, who ran the city’s public school system (not quite a resume enhancer), could be fronting for one of Obama’s mentors, William Ayers – former Weather Underground bomber turned professor of education. Ayers has been an enthusiastic supporter of Chavez’s education plan.
Would Britain and France be able to nudge Washington toward a harder line against Chavez? The Maoists aren’t about to wait until the new American ambassador arrives. Rumors of a military coup backed by the Nepali Congress and former king Gyanendra Shah are swirling too fast.
Privately, though, Dahal probably relishes the Chavez comparison in his own way. The former paratrooper has survived countless US-backed democratic and disruptive attempts to dislodge him. Yet he keeps stacking up allies in the neighborhood who have won democratic elections.
Dahal knows he can savor the epithet at leisure later. There are more pressing matters at hand, like, say, the Nepali Congress unveiling a model constitution the day before Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood urged Nepalis to learn from his country about forming an inclusive statute.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Knowing Me, Knowing You

It turns out we have an Indian citizen in our cabinet and 17 others in the constituent assembly. Across the border, Udit Narayan Jha is battling allegations that he is not an Indian. And Indian author Aravind Adiga’s Booker-prize winning debut novel “The White Tiger” is accused of belittling Nepalis.
The UML has vigorously denied that Local Development Minister Ram Chandra Jha is not a Nepali. How does it know? Because the Election Commission validated his papers before last year’s elections. Nice way of passing the buck, especially when it’s a Maoist making the allegation in court.
The cases against the legislators may be on flimsier ground than it seems. Of the 17 CA members, some received their citizenship after getting married to Nepali nationals. Others acquired Nepali nationality on the basis of family linkages. We can’t as Nepalis really disown them unless we are ready to disown Girija Prasad Koirala, right? (A quick question: how many of them got their papers after People’s Movement II?)
Across the border, things seem stuck harder. Critics contend they have conclusively proven that Congress I legislator Mani Kumar Subba is not an Indian, but he doesn’t think so. Surely, Subba knows himself better than anyone else does. He insists this is a case of mistaken identity. He is an Indian whose forefathers hailed from Sikkim. (When it was still a country, if you really want to stretch the point.)
Indian Idol Prashant Tamang has had a hard time drawing crowds overseas because far too many NRIs consider him a Nepali. Udit Narayan blames the controversy over his citizenship to jealous zealots who want to scuttle his chances of winning the prestigious Padmashri award. Critics claim Udit was born in Saptari district in southern Nepal, while the singer insists he was born in Supaul village in Bihar. Guess fame comes with the territory, or, to be exact, the open border. There must be a way in the statute books for President Patil to clear the way for the investiture ceremony.
For a while, we claimed Tenzing Sherpa was a Nepali. The legendary mountaineer, who at the age of 18 left Nepal for Darjeeling where he hoped to be able to join one of the British expeditions to Everest, was fed up with the feuding. “I was born in the womb of Nepal and raised in the lap of India,” he once told a reporter. He went on to head a mountaineering institute in Darjeeling. But that didn’t stop another author from claiming he was born in Tibet.
If we really wanted to be celebrity snatchers, we would have pounced on V.S. Naipaul’s claim a few years ago while accepting the Nobel prize for literature that his ancestors had come from Nepal – and proved that by their surname. Deadpan silence.
Considering our identity crisis, we are a pretty hardy bunch. Prithvi Narayan Shah forged the nation in blood, tears and sweat – in that order, detractors say – but couldn’t emotionally unify the petty principalities. So his statues are considered worthy of destruction. It took UML leader Modnath Prashrit to vouch for Nepal’s founder’s eternal relevance. He doesn’t seem to have impressed too many people around him, much less Ram Chandra Jha.
So when Adiga’s novel is criticized for perpetuating a distorted view of Nepalis among Indians, it is tempting to chuckle. At first glance, Diamond Shamsher Rana’s attorneys might have a stronger case for suing for copyright infringement.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Time To Say Yes, But…

In the end, he couldn’t resist the call of duty. Madhav Kumar Nepal has not only entered the Constituent Assembly the people in two separate constituencies voted to keep him out of last year but is also poised to drive the drafting of the new constitution.
Don’t expect his triumphant Maoist rivals Jhakku Subedi of Kathmandu-2 and Devendra Prasad Patel of Rautahat-6 to resign in disgust. The sovereign voters may not have trusted Nepal but the votaries of a new Nepal certainly do. As for popular mandate alone, if Bam Dev Gautam’s drubbing couldn’t keep him away from the deputy premiership, why should Nepal be deprived of offering his services to the nation?
C’mon, the man has been dying for a chance to midwife the rebirth of the nation. And that, in his view, is possible only through some official position. “Why should people listen to me if I don’t hold any official position?” Nepal asked an interviewer from an English weekly last year. “You cannot play a political role without having a position.” And it got better. “If I reject [every] offer, people will [say] that I ran away from responsibility.”
Indeed, Nepal set a new trend in defeat. He resigned as general secretary of the Unified Marxist Leninists on moral grounds. He didn’t get the presidency the Maoists had promised him. (Not that he is unaccustomed to betrayal. How many times, after all, was he touted as the opposition alliance’s consensus candidate for premier during the first phase of royal rule?) Late last year, Nepal refused to head the constitutional committee or the political coordination committee. He had to say yes this time.
Nepal would be a great presence in the greatest political deliberations of our times. He is not in the league of his predecessor as UML chief, Madan Bhandari, in terms of eloquence. But Nepal has a down-to-earth style complete with curvy cadences that make you want to listen.
As leader of the opposition during much of the 1990-2002 democratic era, Nepal incessantly attacked Nepali Congress prime ministers. At times, he sounded as if he really believed he had the right to name the head of government. Yet Nepal was equally consistent in refusing to offer constructive suggestions to the government. He insisted he would show by doing once he became premier.
Nepal was a member of the panel that drafted the doomed 1990 constitution. It would be unfair to blame him for that. In fact, he may have been among the better prepared members, although he lacked a background in law. Nepal regularly convened unofficial evening breakout sessions at his residence where co-panelists Bharat Mohan Adhikary and Nirmal Lama would join Madan Bhandari and other comrades.
But since Nepal is the only member of the 1990 panel entrusted with producing the new constitution, he comes with a heavy baggage. The fact that he lost in both of his constituencies only adds to the weight – and could imperil the future.
The first session of the parliament elected in 1991 failed to ratify the constitution, which gave critics a chance to claim that it lacked popular support. What was once the preserve of the fringes became a mainstream grudge. Imagine the pretext Nepal would give to those who may be opposed – violently or otherwise – to the new constitution. (With hijackers, headhunters and homicidal hit men and women having eventually prospered in the political mainstream, it is doubtful that would-be public servants would seek sustenance in peaceful methods.)
A constitution drafted and endorsed by the people’s representatives would finally fulfill a 60-year-old national commitment. But one overseen by someone doubly blemished? Jhakku’s phone number, anyone?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

High Priests Of Parody

The tragicomedy at Pashupati should not obscure the wider wackiness of the week. The prime minister complains that Nepal’s two giant neighbors are stepping back from their commitments of full support to his government. The vice-president of the republic’s largest democratic party vows to take to the streets to defend the incumbent army chief. And the leader of the sole monarchist party represented in the constituent assembly insists there can be no alternative to the current Maoist-led government.
Having confronted the complexity of his equidistance/equiproximity rigmarole, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal could do little else than blame India and China for his abysmal record in power. (Apart from, of course, accusing the Unified Marxist-Leninists of playing the role of ruling as well as opposition party.) Could the premier be at fault here? Did he pledge, while in Beijing last year, to create a fully integrated nationalist army mindful of northern sensitivities, only to assure his hosts in Delhi that the former rebels were never raised to be in the national army?
Dahal’s own lieutenant, Chandra Prakash Gajurel, lambasted the Maoist-led government’s non-performance, saying it had hardly done 10 things during its first 100 days in power. Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, trying his best to unseat Chief of Army Staff General Rukmangad Katuwal, finally claimed that domestic and foreign power centers were driving a wedge between the government and the Nepal Army.
Nepali Congress Vice-President Ram Chandra Poudel sustained defense of Gen. Katuwal really doesn’t amount to much, operationally. His threat of full retaliation should the government replace the army chief is empty bluster. That the vice-president of the Nepali Congress should make such a vigorous defense of the chief ideologue of the maligned royal regime says something. Many of us familiar with Gen. (Ajaya P. Nath) Katuwal’s pre-CoAS penmanship agreed with his claim that the monarchy was only cleaning up the mess created by the mainstream parties and the Maoists.
The Nepali Congress may have been overcome by a bout of institutional amnesia here. Poudel, at least, should have recalled the excruciating periodontal/endodontic pain while under detention of the army-backed royal regime. Or perhaps Poudel, like many other leaders of his party, envisages himself as a potential chief of an army-backed Nepali Congress government should things get out of hand.
It takes supernatural political courage to mount full-throttle support of the Maoists during these fluid times. And much more so for Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal president Kamal Thapa, who sees the inevitability of the restoration of the monarchy almost everywhere he turns.
Could Thapa’s assertion be an indication that the Maoists might be the first ones to demand that the issue of the monarchy be put to a referendum? Even during the viciousness of the insurgency, the Maoists had said they would accept any verdict the people gave, hadn’t they? Or should we be worrying about a mass boycott of Shivaratri festivities by Indians?