Sunday, July 26, 2009

Flashback: Rapping Out An Oath

Amid the ruckus over Vice-President Parmananda Jha’s oath-taking, it’s hard to miss the reflection of people like Anil Kumar Jha and Mahesh Chaudhary. These men may differ profoundly on their vision for the future of the Terai, but they can do so in a Nepali so chaste that would shame the Bahun-Chhettri clique that stands accused of imposing it on them.
As far as the genesis of the national language is concerned, the one most closely associated with the dominant power group undoubtedly had a decisive edge. Still, the language Prithvi Narayan Shah spoke and wrote in was markedly different from the Nepali we know today. As the Shahs sought to broaden their Gorkhali identity across their new acquisitions, co-opting the word Nepal became politically expedient.
Over time, people living in and around the capital city, communities that traditionally made up the army, those with the highest level of education and people who controlled the greatest share of the national wealth helped consolidate Nepali. As the language of the ruling castes and classes, not endorsed by the minorities, critics have long stressed that Nepali merely re-enforced a stifling and oppressive system.
The post-1950 nation-building efforts consciously borrowed the “one-nation/one-language” concept from 18th century Europe. The idea that a national language was essential to national unity may seem offensive today, but it underpinned Nepal’s early donor-funded development endeavors.
The Royal Nepal Academy, Radio Nepal and the New Education Plan buttressed the homogeneity literary magazines like Sharada, Roop-Rekha, Madhuparka, Garima and Pragya fostered. Sanskritization permitted enough influences from Urdu, Farsi and Arabic for Nepali to separate itself from, say, Hindi. (Nyayalaya thus became adalat.)
The 22 states of the Arab League share one language with its Maghreb, Levant and Gulf variants as well as other sub-groups. The language pulsates with Egyptian fiction, Iraqi prose and Lebanese poetry. But Nepali was a curse that had to be exorcised.
Even at the height of the pre-election political fragmentation, the Nepali Congress’ Ram Baran Yadav considered himself first and foremost a Nepali. So he took his oath in the language. Vice-President Jha saw regionalism as an essential component of a new Nepal.
His Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) is pressing a One Madhes One Province platform it believes it won through last February’s accord with the government. Despite the opposition of other communities in the Terai to claims of homogeneity, the MJF emerged as the largest regional grouping.
Surely, Jha could have risen above the MJF and taken his oath in Nepali. That would not have been politically prudent. He could have used Maithali, but that would have lent credence to his Terai critics. For him, Hindi best represented the MJF agenda. After all, scores of Nepali politicians have given interviews in Hindi to Indian broadcasters without kicking up a controversy.
As a former Supreme Court judge, Jha understood the oath of office was far more sacred in its intimacy with the nation’s soul. Yet, for him and the MJF, deferring to the finality of constitutionalism in a politically dominant interim arrangement could only be construed as encumbering the possibility of change.
Hindi not only bridged the region’s indigenous diversity but also reached out to the new arrivals from across the southern border. That undoubtedly emboldened Jha to claim that his choice of Hindi was a prelude to establishing it as one of the official languages.
If, like Maila Baje, the big three national parties and their smaller allies on this issue find this offensive, they are too late. They gave up their right to object when they passed into law those abhorrent citizenship provisions to the acclamation of the anti-Nepali crowd outside.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

All Politics Is External

With Egypt having given Nepal some diplomatic wriggle room, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal can now grapple with the country’s priorities as he steps across the southern border next month. Since China is only an observer at the Non-Aligned Movement, Nepal could hold a session with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Sharm El Sheikh summit without any Chinese official higher than vice-foreign minister available to sniff around. This circumstance must have satisfied New Delhi’s us-first credo of hospitality.
Having burned its fingers with the Maoists, New Delhi has carefully desisted from putting its full faith and credit in the Nepal government. By portraying the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader as our first prime minister of Indian heritage, New Delhi took out an early insurance policy. The Indian media has done much injustice to Nepal the man – and to accuracy – by playing up that story line. But, then, Nepal knows better than to complain, even if Girija Prasad Koirala and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai have gotten a pass.
Oddly enough, India’s official and unofficial near-term policies on Nepal seem to be converging. New Delhi’s wants to allow political events in to take their course. As the facilitator of the 12-point agreement between the mainstream parties and the Maoists – and by extension the peace process – India is understandably vexed at the prospect of the crucial constitutional deadline being missed.
Far too many players have arrived in Nepal since April 2006 to spoil the game, but New Delhi retains the ability to come up with creative ways to nudge the process forward. Should all that fail, the possibility of reversing gear persists. Revival of the 1990 constitution – and all that entails – has certainly not entered the realm of impossibility.
What about China? Beijing refused to bail out Nepal in 1814-16 and between 1832-1842 despite clear treaty obligations. King Birendra and Gyanendra personally recognized the limits of Chinese friendship. (Their father, Mahendra, was shrewder in that he roped in the Soviets at the first stirrings of the Moscow-Beijing rupture.) The Maoists had come to inherit a dismal legacy. The Indians initially did not read too much into Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s northern tilt.
But the Chinese as well as the Maoists proved far too unreadable. As former Indian ambassador K.V. Rajan conceded recently, the Indians weren’t worried by the Maoists’ assiduous cuddle of the Chinese. It was Beijing’s embrace of the former rebels that was too stifling for New Delhi. Regardless of whether Beijing actually egged on Dahal to fire Army chief Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal – as the Indians alleged – our former rebels appeared to ready to profit from that perception. Dahal’s protestations that all those Chinese delegations came uninvited came too late. But, then, he couldn’t really have made such a declaration while in power, could he?
The Peace and Friendship Treaty now looks like a dud. But how many of us really saw that coming? The Chinese draft continues to cast a long shadow on that extradition treaty with India. The Koshi High Dam or any other water-resources project – among the bedrock Indian interests in Nepal – would have to overcome China’s own river diversification projects.
Against great odds, they built the Qinghai-Tibet train over permafrost. Diverting precious liquid would seem far more urgent. And perhaps easier, too, when you consider how the Chinese publicize scientific gains on a strictly need-to-know basis.
Nepal’s talks in New Delhi on the peace process, therefore, can be expected to transcend your usual internal-external categorization. Judging by the last minute breakthroughs our peace process has been able to score, the constitution may yet come out in time. But it is more likely to be, in UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal’s recent revealing words, a compromise document. More attuned to the needs of external stakeholders than our own, he might have added.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nepali Congress’ Collective Leadership Cloak

Nepali Congress spokesperson Arjun Narsingh K.C. maintains that his party will now adhere to a system of collective leadership. It looks like the nation’s self-proclaimed premier democratic organization is in for further democratization. K.C.’s assertion comes days after Dr. Narayan Khadka, another third-generation party luminary, made a similar insistence. Khadka’s language, though, made the idea sound more like a supplication than a stricture.
On the surface, the reasoning responds to the tight personal grip party president Girija Prasad Koirala has long been accused of exercising over an ostensibly open organization. By foisting daughter Sujata as leader of the party’s contingent in Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s cabinet over the objections of leading colleagues, Koirala has exposed himself to increasingly strident charges of nepotism. But the patriarch knows all this counts for little.
The Nepali Congress has tried its best to purge itself of “Koiralacracy” only to bring out the worst in it. Oddly enough, a Koirala led the first organized effort against family domination. Upset by the way half-brother B.P. was promoting his siblings Keshav, Tarini and Girija during the anti-Rana movement, Matrika Prasad raised the banner and almost immediately faltered.
The Panchayat-era wilderness forced the Nepali Congress to mount a united front (not counting the almost ceaseless defections to the partyless order.) But the deep resentment with which Koirala women were alleged to have bought bagfuls of saris with the Royal Nepal Airlines hijack booty was never really concealed. Rumors that Girija Koirala was about to bolt to the Panchayat side may or may not have originated at Chaksibari or Kupondole, but those two rival centers certainly whipped them up.
The restoration of multiparty democracy was bound to widen these rifts in full public glare. The platform of anti-Koiralaism was all too enticing and predictable. The theatrics at the Kalbalgudi convention was culmination of decades of bitterness. Ultimately, though, Ganesh Man Singh and – years later – Krishna Prasad Bhattarai were driven out of the party.
As the fuel of dissidence, anti-Koiralaism reached its peak in 2002 when Sher Bahadur Deuba succeeded in walking out with several former Girija Prasad loyalists to form his breakaway party. By failing to do anything beyond that, Deuba underscored the limits of that particular form of energy. After his vicissitudes, Deuba seems to have tied his fate – at least for now – with that of the Koiralas, thereby backing Sujata’s anointment. Koirala expressed his appreciation in public by finally visiting Deuba’s residence at Baluwatar.
For those who believe the Nepali Congress cannot survive without a Koirala at the helm, the choice has mercifully narrowed down to Sujata and Shekhar. Clearly, the daughter has the edge over the nephew, helped in no small part by circumstances outside the party. When a man defeated from both of his constituencies becomes prime minister and appoints another loser as his defense minister, critics cannot avoid squirming at the idea of singling out the foreign minister.
With Ram Chandra Poudel now elected leader of the parliamentary party and Deuba angling for the party presidency, internal NC dynamics may be on the verge of some steadiness. But a lot of things still need to be worked out before the octogenarian walks into the sunset.
Poudel would still probably need the good graces of fellow Tanahunan Govinda Raj Joshi to energize his constituent base. How better off would he be as prime minister than the incumbent? Deuba would require a giant leap of faith to avoid another allegation of ineptitude, which, coming from the people this time, would certainly seem more wrathful.
If Sujata could straddle between the military and the Maoists with the dexterity she has, there surely must be a way she might be able to gain the premiership by letting Poudel keep his position in the parliamentary party, regardless of whether Deuba gets the party presidency. The other movers and shakers – or at least those who think they are – are already contending for influence.
That’s where the concept of collective leadership becomes attractive. A Back-To-Village-National Campaign-style six-monthly stint by turns among the heavyweights may prove unwieldy amid the number of claimants. The Liberal Democratic Party’s model in Japan offers the fa├žade to let factional bosses do their dark-room deals. But since the intent is to smooth the succession, the Soviet and Chinese models of the immediate post-Stalin and post-Mao years may be more relevant.
Come to think of it, the Nepali Congress need look no farther than the triumvirate mechanism B.P. Koirala put in place once he recognized he would not be around too long. How long one among the many would take to edge out his or her rivals would depend on a variety of factors. What can be said with reasonable certainty is that the next round of the nepotism and favoritism fireworks will fly faster and farther.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Principles Of Contradiction

The refrain is getter wackier by the moment. Senior Maoist leaders warn us with ever-increasing stridency of a “soft coup”. In the same breath, they insist on the inevitability of a Maoist-led government sooner rather than later. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya, in particular, are relishing taking turns explaining this contradiction.
“We have credible information that attempts are being made to dissolve the assembly, sack Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and impose presidential rule with the backing of the army,” Dr. Bhattarai said the other day at a function in Tanahun district. The qualifier “credible” has underpinned almost every creepy Maoist accusation of the past, only to succumb the fastest to the next bizarreness.
Toward the fag end of their rule and immediately after stepping down, Maoist leaders warned of a restoration of the monarchy in some form. Not that the government hasn’t been giving them some ground by, for instance, relocating the proposed Republic Monument from the former palace premises to Ratna Park.
Yet the former rebels have largely desisted from personal attacks on the former king. Instead, they have chosen to zero in on the presidential-rule bogey. At the same time, the Maoists have been predicting their return to power as the logical conclusion of a peace process supposedly being subverted.
The universality, absoluteness, particularity and relativity of contradiction, as well as the distinction between the principal contradiction and the non-principal ones, are part of the core teachings Dr. Bhattarai and his associates have been raised on. The distinction between the principal and non-principal aspects of a contradiction may have long ceased to spin the heads of our former people’s warriors. The Great Helmsman’s celebrated essay on the subject perhaps remains required reading in certain circles. But in the average mind, questions keep swirling.
Is this rhetorical rigmarole a Maoist bargaining chip? Or a sinister ploy to delay the constitution to the point where their terms reign supreme? Or perhaps part of a nefarious design to precipitate a political “accident” and thereby position themselves to consummate their revolution without undermining the permanence of the struggle? Just as the country began staring those questions in the face, the Maoists clinched the support of the royalist wing of the Kollywood celebrity circle. Is a real Cultural Revolution in the offing or has a united front between communists and nationalists inched closer to fruition?
For now, Dr. Bhattarai claims Prime Minister Nepal and senior Unified Marxist-Leninist leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli are working on instructions from foreign elements to reverse the peace process. In other words, the prime minister is complicit in his own putative overthrow.
The former finance minister urged the people to be ready for another mass movement – which he christened a “people’s revolt” – to foil such designs. Yet he wondered in the same speech why the Maoists were still being criticized for not renouncing violence even after they signed the peace accord.
Of course, Dr. Bhattarai has the additional burden of assuaging his one-time Indian soulmates, who denounced the Nepali revolutionaries for having betrayed the revolution. So when the Maoists accuse other political forces of trying to push them back to war, they are addressing multiple audiences. Anyone want to try sifting through the principal and non-principal contradictions?