Monday, October 26, 2009

Who Do We Want The Maoists To Be?

India’s Maoists accuse their Nepali brethren of betraying the cause. At the same time, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram believes our ex-rebels may be arming his country’s increasingly lethal insurgents. The truth must lie somewhere in between.
Clearly, our Maoists succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams. The Nepali Congress had democracy on their side. Yet their insurgencies faltered almost from the start. When the Jhapali Reds began hunting heads, skulls should have accumulated across the country. After all, the people who abhorred the partyless government had no other way of articulating their sentiments. Leaders in those two groups came in various shapes and sizes. There must have been a reason beyond ideology, injustices and idiosyncrasies for the Maoists’ triumph.
With that question, Maila Baje slipped into sleep. The probe persisted with every move of the eye, starting from that April midnight in 1990. King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties to checkmate the Indians, who were pressuring him to Bhutanize Nepal. New Delhi was stunned by the monarch’s impudence but it certainly was not out of options. While Nepalis were dancing and singing their way to “one of the world’s best constitutions”, the real fight had entered a more virulent round.
Controlled chaos was always the operational term on India’s Nepal file. In the post-1990 years, it seemed far easier to operationalize. The Chinese, on the other hand, pulled back from their Panchayat-era assertiveness, only after ceding space to their allies, the Pakistanis. As the Nepali Congress squandered opportunity after opportunity, the Unified Marxist-Leninists were getting too big for their boots. Enter the Maoists.
Clearly, the palace saw the Maoist rebellion as a vindication of its disbelief in the Fukuyaman end-of-history exegesis the mainstream parties had been peddling. More important, however, was the dominant Indian and Western view of this ragtag band of extreme Nepali leftists. They could come in handy to show the UML its place. The Nepali Congress, not too soon, was mesmerized by the prospect. Sure, success would swell the Maoists’ head, too. But that was for another day.
By the end of the nineties, Nepalis had a revelation. The world’s only Hindu state’s relations with India had never been as bad as it had during the first few years of the ascension of a Hindu nationalist-led government in New Delhi. Of course, the palace’s ties with prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders remained excellent. But they were Indians first. Across the southern border, the dump-the-monarchy cabal was ready for the final battle King Birendra had apprehended from moment of his enthronement. By the time of the Narayanhity massacre, this group of Indians believed they had an organized group ready to take control.
In the West, the monarchy had more influential allies than adversaries. But that changed after the US Republicans’ White House win in 2000. When the neocons in the wider West discovered that King Birendra and Crown Prince Dipendra were up to something not in conformity with their worldview, the equations shifted. As vital as Nepal was as a geopolitical prize, it was menacing as the world’s only Hindu state. Nepal was among the six most difficult countries to spread the Gospel. The godless Maoists could not be the answer.
The India-West divide became apparent after the carnage when Zee News and Star News were confidently reporting that no one had survived the Narayanhity massacre and that thousands of Maoists were moments away from capturing the palace. CNN was equally certain about that Prince Gyanendra was safe in Pokhara. The Maoists who were supposed to storm Narayanhity simply melded into the crowd of mourners.
The Maoists recognized they were totally in India’s lap now. This was not a source of comfort to the Indian government. But those who botched up had an instant CYA moment. In the eyes of much of the world, the Great Helmsman and his legacy were associated more with the Chinese. Why not paint the new king as pro-Chinese, notwithstanding the fact that his entire business associations had been with the Indians?
The Indians enjoyed plausible deniability. And there were other interests at play. Controlled chaos meant peace as a prelude to more virulent war. Every life lost became a statistic. Every infrastructure blown up was a potential opportunity for reconstruction.
The Maoists’ success rested on their flexibility with alliances. If being branded as palace lackeys helped, that was fine for the time. If allying with India helped perpetuate the myth the Nepal would become a paradise the moment the monarchy was out, that was good, too. War and peace, purity and flexibility all became interchangeable concepts and campaigns. Without the arsenal of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s words, Pushpa Kamal Dahal would have had long lost his war on the battlefield.
The external investment paid off in 2005, when King Gyanendra did what his brother or nephew would have done: adjust Nepal’s geopolitical locus. The see-we-told-you-so grin on the Indians was too wide to measure for the mortified westerners. With the monarchy finally out of the way, the Maoists could be mainstreamed as part of India’s national-security strategy.
To their good fortune, the Maoists joined the mainstream at a time of great geopolitical shift. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited New Delhi but not without instructing his ambassador there to reaffirm claims to Indian-held territory. After using former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to validate their electoral triumph and rise to power, the Maoists looked northward.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s men and women, in the eyes of China’s Nepal pointman, Wang Hong-wei, not only emerged as the largest party. It is also the best placed to unite all nationalist elements. Yet, considering all that has happened, the Chinese, too, must be wondering who they would like the Maoists to be. That was the question Maila Baje woke up to and has been pondering ever since.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Back To The B.P. Balm

Count on the Nepali Congress to bring up B.P. Koirala every time the going gets tough. Party president Girija Prasad Koirala broke down the other day agonizing over how the dreams of his late brother remained unfulfilled these many decades later. Then B.P.’s grand-daughter Manisha visited the Sundarijal Museum, the former site where Nepal’s first elected prime minister was incarcerated for much of the Sixties. All this as BP’s niece, Sujata, lost little time in trying to consolidate her hold in the party after being controversially elevated to the deputy premiership.
Back home from talks in India, former premier Sher Bahadur Deuba said his Nepali Congress was hurt by Sujata’s promotion. But two longtime Deuba loyalists, Bal Krishna Khand and Prakash Sharan Mahat, remain at the frontlines of Sujata’s defense.
The Sundarijal affair was notable not only in terms of Manisha’s possible political plans but also for Nepali Congress acting president Sushil Koirala’s conspicuous presence. Another claimant to the Koirala throne, Dr. Shekhar, has already sought to distinguish himself by blaming both uncle Girija and the Maoists for pushing the country to its sordid plight.
Will the B.P. balm help? Perhaps not. For most of the Fifties, B.P. led more through charisma than intellect. The 1959 election settled the issue of political preponderance by providing the Nepali Congress an absolute majority in parliament. But B.P. had become a polarizing figure in the wider political landscape. When he fell a year and a half later, it was because the non-Congress political class had arrayed firmly against the party and the premier. At least 55 of the 74 Congress MPs would go on to become palace supporters.
B.P. may have been a man ahead of his times but he left little time for the country to catch up. His efforts to maintain equal relations with India and China were arduous enough. When he took issue with Nehru’s assertion in 1959 that any aggression on Nepal or Bhutan would be taken regarded as aggression against India, the Indian prime minister made public for the first time the letters exchanged with the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. That was that.
The following year, during his visit to China, B.P. made thinly veiled criticisms of Beijing’s policies towards India. The Chinese did not seem to mind. That must have emboldened him to assert in Hong Kong, on his way back home, that the Chinese were too preoccupied domestically to glance beyond their borders.
By reaching out to Israel and Pakistan, B.P. could have hardly endeared himself to the Indians. Noble as these efforts were, did B.P. really think he possessed enough credibility where it really mattered to pursue them? He had, after all, sought Nehru’s intercession with King Mahendra to get the premiership, when the monarch had been predisposed toward Subarna Shamsher Rana. There must have been moments during the Sundarijal incarceration when B.P. wondered whether he had simply overreached in his foreign policy intiatives.
Tulsi Giri, Sribhadra Sharma, Parasu Narayan Chaudary and Prakash Koirala, who actively cooperated with three kings, were merely symptomatic of the malaise that had set in Nepal’s largest democratic party. B.P. remained true to his democratic ideals but saw the party as nothing less of a personal fiefdom.
Surya Bahadur Thapa, for obvious political reasons, may have instigated B.P. to take a hard line against the palace and then go into exile. But B.P. was not constrained to act in the way he did. Castigating the monarch alone for perpetuating autocracy was hardly the recipe for reconciliation when the Cold War had forced much of Asia, Africa and Latin America into autocracies of the right or left.
If, in the wake of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, B.P. could warn King Mahendra of a Bangladesh-like armed liberation of Nepal, King Birendra had every reason to suspect Koirala’s national reconciliation initiative five years later as little more than a ruse to rattle Indira Gandhi. The soloist was engrossed in his own tune. Was there a deal between B.P. and the palace that led him not only to not call for a neutral government to hold the referendum but also to rush to accept the Panchayat’s victory?
Under the rubric of democracy, B.P. was a perpetual work in progress. He could be the fiercest opponent of Nepal’s membership of the United Nations, on the ground that the kingdom was merely an administrative unit of India, and then live on in eternity as an ardent nationalist. He could be the head of a party that tried to assassinate two kings yet still claim to be the truest friend the palace could ever hope for.
When the Nepali Congress abandoned its long commitment to constitutional monarchy, it must have realized how for B.P. nothing except democracy was etched in stone. The votaries of newness in the party cannot be selective in their extrapolation of B.P. His contentious politics has turned even more strident, while the Nepali Congress’ economic policy resembles little of what it originally espoused. The rivals the party faces today are no Tanka Prasad Acharyas, K.I. Singhs or Dilli Raman Regmis.
Most importantly, Nepalis have moved far past the point where they could hope to identify priorities and implement policies merely by picking a fistful of soil and consecrating it to the soul.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Are The Turf Warriors Up To?

Clearly, the Chinese have never had it so good here. Supplicants are proliferating left, right and center, lured by the promise of northern pragmatism. Inaugurating the China Festival the other day, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal lavished such praise on Beijing’s altruistic aid policies that for a moment it looked like he forgot he was already in power.
Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala, whose own effusiveness concerning China’s remarkable development has grown in direct proportion to her political ambitions, seemed not to know where to stop.
From Upendra Yadav to Matrika Yadav, Beijing’s benefaction has permeated what not too long ago would have been considered the least likeliest of constituencies. (Come to think of it, if the Indians could actually sponsor the Maoists, blame China and get away with it for a decade, why couldn’t the Chinese contemplate the same in the Terai?)
The prize definitely belonged to Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara. Not exactly for China adulation, though. He vividly articulated his party’s place between the two Asian giants. Only a strong Maoist regime in Nepal could ensure China’s and India’s security interests, Mahara asserted before accompanying his boss on a visit to Beijing.
Perhaps Mahara was merely laying down the line party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal expected to present to President Hu Jintao in Beijing. Or maybe the Maoists’ foreign affairs point man was on to something more profound. The Taleban, in that other landlocked ex-monarchy, enjoyed the support – active and otherwise – of key regional stakeholders and much of the world in the name of stability before the mullahs threw in their lot with Osama bin Laden.
The operative issue here is the most obvious one. How are the Indians going to respond? The usual suspect has conveyed the message. Former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, fresh from top-level consultations in New Delhi, said the Indians were in favor of peace and stability. (Aren’t they always?) Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) chairman Pashupati Shamsher Rana, too, did his share of rounds in the Indian capital, but has been reticent.
While the Maoist supremo confers in Beijing, the Nepali Congress’ Sher Bahadur Deuba will consult with the Indians. This simultaneous engagement in the northern and southern capitals involving competing Nepalese forces is unprecedented. Has regional rivalry reached new heights?
Not necessarily. Ever since they decided to mainstream the Nepalese Maoists, the Indians have been struggling to preserve their influence. In the me-or-them challenge the monarch rolled, the world’s largest democracy could not have abandoned the latter. Of course, New Delhi made allowances for an inevitable Maoist-Beijing alliance. The Indians, needless to say, were in the best position to know the kind of contempt familiarity would breed.
China’s firm hand behind Nepal’s clampdown on the pre-Olympics Tibetan protests did not alienate ordinary Nepalis in the way the Indians had anticipated. Instead, newly emancipated Nepalis demonstrated how you could admire the Dalai Lama’s fortitude and still acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Waiting for the Chinese to falter in Nepal risked becoming an open-ended enterprise for the Indians.
So the second-best option set in. Allowing the Chinese to gain ground became a doubly lucrative investment if it could help keep the Americans and Europeans out. Like any two turf warriors know, keeping the third and fourth parties out is important enough. Absent an ability to maintain total control, sharing the spoils makes great sense.
But the dilemma is deepening, especially for the Indians. The Nepali Congress is imploding. The Unified Marxist-Leninists are ducking behind the Nepal Army that is already beleaguered. Collectively, the parliamentary parties are incapable of replicating their 1990-2002 record.
Letting the palace run the show might have been the prudent option, the Indian Army and sections of the internal security establishment might feel. But that is a thought official New Delhi cannot even afford to contemplate in public. The inscrutable Chinese are not so constrained, either in posture or in perception.
So, in India’s view, the 12-point agreement – or at least some version of it – must stand. And the Maoists must remain the central pillar. By patronizing rival factions in that party and all the others, the Indians and Chinese can hope to reach some accommodation in Nepal. Amid the wider sabre-rattling between the Asian giants, at least, you can’t say that is not a reassuring thought.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Whose Side Is He Really On?

As Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai once again raise the decibels over the imminence of a new revolt, former loyalist Rabindra Shrestha pointedly reminds us that the duo never went to the jungles during the decade-long insurgency. His implication? The Maoists can holler all they want, but the nation need not pay much attention.
Given his stimulating background, there is enough reason not to dismiss the minister of general administration’s retort. When much of the country was consumed with how soon the Royal Nepal Army might be able to defeat the rebels, Shrestha wrote most audaciously about how the Maoists would prevail. The rebels were fighting for their beliefs while the soldiers were fighting for their bread. Shrestha’s further revelation was more breathtaking. By escalating their attacks on the state, the Maoists were actually aiming to draw in the Indian Army and then fight a war of national liberation.
Around this same time, Shrestha was also actively involved in opening a dialogue with the government. In late 2000, he was holding talks in the chambers of then-Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel while another act was unfolding under the aegis of Information and Communication Minister Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta. Ostensibly acting on the instructions of then-Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, Gupta had produced two Maoist detainees – Dinesh Sharma and Dina Nath Gautam – in front of TV cameras to denounce the Maoist “people’s war” before setting them free.
The artlessness of the drama angered Maoist supremo Dahal into slamming the door on any hope of peace talks. A few hours later, the two detainees faxed reporters a statement recanting their denunciation of the Maoist leadership, saying it was extracted through state coercion. To make sense of the absurdity, one must recall that this was a time when Koirala was locked in a bitter power struggle with King Birendra on dealing with the insurgency.
After the Narayanhity carnage, Rabindra Shrestha seemed to have undergone a metamorphosis, at least in the eyes of his superiors. With the breakdown of the first peace talks in November 2001, Shrestha was among the first senior rebel leaders to fall in the grip of the security forces. But he reportedly managed to escape. The Maoists felt there was more to the story. Had Shrestha bolted to the government’s side? The leadership felt that the few Maoist bigwigs the security forces killed or captured were linked, one way or the other, to information Shrestha supposedly volunteered. The fact that he was back in prison only seemed to strengthen those suspicions.
As the second round of peace talks faltered in the summer of 2003, Shrestha went on hunger strike demanding better prison conditions. Having kept their suspicions to themselves, the Maoist negotiating team set the release of Shrestha, along with two other central committee members, as a pre-condition for a third round of talks. The rebels did well to have recognized the risks a public rift would have posed. The government obliged. The peace talks failed and the conflict went on to assume greater lethality.
During the final months of the royal regime, Shrestha joined hands with Mani Thapa to revolt against the leadership. Dahal expelled the duo for, among other things, their pro-monarchist proclivities. Shrestha shot back that Dahal had actually been conspiring with the palace until he discovered that the monarch had appointed himself head of government.
Once the king was sidelined and Dahal emerged in public, Shrestha became a votary of a new cultural revolution. He claimed the Maoists had actually struck a working relationship with then-Prince Gyanendra, not King Birendra as widely claimed, on a broad nationalist platform. In the halo of the newness of Nepal, that revelation carried little relevance. Over time, Shrestha accused Dahal and Dr. Bhattarai of betraying the revolution by overseeing the Maoists’ ‘UML-ization’. Yet, months later, he joined the UML, after returning from a trip to China.
By including Rabindra Shrestha in the cabinet, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal signaled his readiness to play hardball with the Maoists. The minister has taken every opportunity to oblige his boss. Last month, he claimed that the Maoist combatants in the camps were already under the government and, therefore, had ceased to exist as a rebel army. Now he rejects the notion of Koirala or Dahal replacing Prime Minister Nepal in the name of consensus and cooperation. The premier, for his part, has been in the game too long to consider that as a categorical vote of confidence from this colorful man.