Monday, December 28, 2009

Try Being An Indian For A Moment

Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna might want to prepone his visit to Nepal.
The normally suave Indian foreign minister was a little sour when he asked a group of visiting Nepali scribes why his country keeps getting a bad press. The journos probably fingered our politicos. So Krishna scheduled a fact-finding mission in the new year. Not so fast, said the folks at the Asian Center for Human Rights. Quit coddling the generals first.
But Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal felt he had to go straight to the heart of the matter. He gave Krishna an earful to take to his bosses. Dahal may have backtracked a day later, but not without some success. The Maoist supremo’s outbursts emboldened people as diverse as Hari Roka and Manmohan Bhattarai to chastise India in their own circuitous ways.
Could Dahal have been a bit diplomatic? Sure. But would he have kicked up the same firestorm? Predictably, the other left-of-the UML reds aren’t impressed by this resurgence of patriotism in the Maoist leader. There could be umpteen ulterior motives. As for Dahal, agent provocateur is not an appellation that exactly bothers him.
Opinion seems to be crystallizing on the opposite end, too. Madhesi Janadhikar Forum leader Upendra Yadav suggested that the quality and content of India’s interest in Nepal is but natural for such a neighbor. Now, Maila Baje can’t figure out whether Yadav has revised his own recent criticism of India for having conceived the Madhav Kumar Nepal government in sin. But, then, Yadav’s real grudge is probably against the rise of his rival, Bijay Kumar Gachchadar.
What separates affable interest from odious intervention when it comes to India? Nepalis have been debating this forever. For quite long, the Indians weren’t terribly perturbed by the creepiest manifestations of our antagonism, either. Sure, in the early days Jawaharlal Nehru used to convey to the two older Koirala brothers his displeasure with Nepalis’ collective ingratitude. But one he realized how far he could get by pitting Matrika Prasad against Bisweswar Prasad, Nehru’s resentment diminished in public.
Over time, you could almost sense a national consensus across the southern border that eternal anti-Indianism was a fair price for perpetual mastery over Nepal. Something seems to have riled the Indians lately. And it’s not just the red lines the Maoists keeping crossing vis-a-vis China. It has something to do with Nepaliness.
Try being an Indian for a moment. When the Chinese beat up Nepalis on the bordering regions, harass traders, surreptitiously foist a draft peace and friendship treaty on the country and haggle over the size of the prime ministerial entourage, it becomes news for five minutes. Kalapani, Susta, Kosi, Gandaki, Mahakali, and the 1950 Treaty, on the other hand, have become diabolic metaphors feeding on each other.
And look at the confidence Nepalis have mustered during what is perhaps their most vulnerable era. Regardless of the facts of history, would today’s Indians living across our eastern and western borders really want to be part of a Greater Nepal? Doesn’t the fact that the westerners have their own state and the easterners are agitating for one count for anything?
Contrast that with the controversy over the northern half of Mount Everest. Even the fiercest critic of the monarchy’s alleged sellout to China does not demand the restoration of that side to Nepali sovereignty.
And the asymmetries over the wider motives of the neighbors? The Indians are always accused of seeking to “Bhutanize” and “Sikkimize” Nepal. On the other hand, the Qing emperors, Chiang Kai-shek and Chairman Mao all claimed Nepal to be part of the Chinese empire based a 1792 treaty that exists nowhere.
The Chinese ditched the Shahs, Ranas, the mainstream parties and the Maoists. Yet Nepalis somehow feel heaven still has a way of conferring its mandate from the north. Maybe that is why they complain of Indian subjugation but are happy to see China subdue Tibet.
Maila Baje doesn’t want to bask in a see-I-told-you-so moment. So coddle the generals or not, Mr. Krishna, but hop on the next flight. See it for yourself.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Status Quo Anti(pathies)

After a 57-year wait, Nepalis finally got an elected constituent assembly last year. And what have we done with it? Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the operative question anymore. What are we going to do without it?
It’s bad enough that the body is likely to perish without having produced that mother of all constitutions. The principal parties can’t agree on what will happen after that. Now, Maila Baje does not mean to discount our innate ability to accept last-minute surprises sprung from elsewhere. (Remember how many agreements were struck just in time to prop up the 12-point agreement and perpetuate the fiction called the peace process?)
For now, though, presidential rule seems to be the favorite option of some. A group of Nepali Congress leaders actually went to Dr. Ram Baran Yadav suggesting that he pursue such a course. Nepal Workers and Peasants Party leader Narayan Man Bijukche, too, has been an avid enthusiast of the option for quite some time. But the only thing he seems to have brought to the table is the fact that Dr. Yadav was once his classmate.
It’s tempting to see the generals as honest brokers considering that they egged on King Gyanendra to seize power as well as encouraged him to relinquish it 15 months later. But, seriously, hasn’t Nepal moved past the point where the military can expect to take care of things? Sure, the generals can expect open support from India this time. But that might not be exactly a kiss of life, considering how flustered Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna seems to be at our collective national antics. Should presidential rule be imposed, moreover, that would open another can of worms. President Yadav already has a hard time planning a trip to India in the absence of a working deputy. He surely wouldn’t want the country to worry every time he went to the bathroom.
The Maoists, being the strict constitutionalists they claim to be, will probably expound on UML leader Bam Dev Gautam’s assertion that the presidency, too, will have lost its legality. (At least King Gyanendra had that much-maligned Article 127.) What happens then? Should things then revert to April 24, 2006, when King Gyanendra restored the House of Representatives elected under the 1990 constitution?
Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal might once again find himself bolstered by popular mandate. But wouldn’t that, in turn, mean a return to May 22, 2002 when Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba recommended the dissolution? How much would that energize Deuba, who has already staked his claim to lead the Nepali Congress despite having lost the parliamentary party election to Ram Chandra Poudel?
And the legislators of that august house? Forget the dead and the dying. Many able-bodied members representing the major parties have fused into rival factions of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum and others. Do they get to keep their seats? And what about MJF leader Upendra Yadav?
Which brings us to the Maoists. Would they be willing to snatch such a monumental defeat from the jaws of victory just because they can’t go back to the jungles in numbers enough to frighten the animals? Not too many might be welcomed back to a life of succor across the southern border. And far too many have become used to the trappings of life in the open. But self-interest hasn’t been a hallmark of the Maoists, especially considering their congenital difficulty in figuring that out. Their propensity to subvert others and reap rewards remains predominant.
So when Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai claim that the declaration of autonomous states is political move aimed at advancing the peace process, they may be on to something. Our two regional behemoths ultimately may be induced to fraternize with the Maoists in the interest of avoiding fissiparous tendencies on their own turf.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Oh! These Appointments With Death

It’s getting a little frustrating, this fixation with death. Not that Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal shouldn’t be thinking about the great beyond every day. (For someone with so much blood on his hands, it probably comes as easily as breathing.)
After decades of shadowy subterranean existence, life in the public glare wasn’t going to be easy for Dahal. But he has had it reasonably good. For every Nepali who thought he really didn’t exist, countless others doubted he would ever emerge to tell his story of secrecy and subterfuge. Yet he continues to enjoy a celebrity status that is rare for his tribe.
The last time he hollered hoarse about how threatened his life had become, Dahal ended up winning the largest number of seats in the constituent assembly. Despite having lowered his sights from the presidency to the premiership, governing wasn’t going to be easy. But the Maoist chief had made a good beginning. Not because he made China his first overseas destination. Because within his honeymoon period, he had managed to hug Hu Jintao, Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush, the trinity mattering the most to us.
That vital balance of power could have been secured had Dahal received an opportunity to rub shoulders with Vladimir Putin. But the parallels with King Mahendra were getting too ominous. So instead of expounding on what transpired during the brief meeting with Bush on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Dahal had to explain to reporters at the airport how much his wife and son had received in government allowances during the visit.
When things went awry after that, it was not because Dahal tried to be all things to all people. His party acted as if it had already captured the state. The Americans had second thoughts about withdrawing the terrorist tag. The Indians weren’t about to get caught in semantics about how Dahal’s first official visit abroad was, in fact, to India. And the Chinese? Well, we’re not quite sure what really happened.
Even if Dahal wasn’t behind the leaking of the draft peace and friendship treaty in some bizarre plot to sabotage his own visit to China, his assertion on Indian television that a string of Chinese military delegations had basically invited themselves to Nepal forced a rethink up north. Beijing realized it should have dealt with Dahal first as the leader of Nepal’s newest communist party. But even that second visit to China had to be preceded by a secret preparatory mission via Hong Kong. While the Singapore confab with Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala is attributed to Indian auspices, can we really conclude there isn’t a Chinese angle there?
Admittedly, for a leader of a party that has come this far through a maze of mendacity, diversionary tactics have a special value. But isn’t it time to grow up, regardless of how convoluted politics has become? Despite all the rancor, Dahal, after all, still heads the country’s most organized party. Or does he?
Factional alliances are constantly shifting among the Maoists to make perpetual revolution an existential imperative. But Dahal just can’t seem to follow the Great Helmsman. If the equivalents of Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao are the problem, how long can he try to pit them against each other?
Dahal probably has more to fear from his ideologically driven foot soldiers who see in this kind of dithering the root of the betrayal of the revolution. But he seems intent on redefining suicide as murder.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

When A Coconut Becomes A Hot Potato

The crescendo of cynicism is getting shriller. The new constitution, the centerpiece of our nebulous quest for newness, may not be drafted within the May 28, 2010 deadline. From the Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel are at the forefront of the naysaying as the grand old man recedes to the background.
The Unified Marxist-Leninists’ Bam Dev Gautam for quite some time now has been equating any delay with the revival of the monarchy. Depending on individual exigencies, politicians from all parties entrusted with the solemn task have been making dire predictions. They Maoists seem to be the exception to this alarmism, at least in public. They see the least problem perhaps because they are the ones most strenuously standing in the way.
Critical as meeting the deadline is, the sky won’t fall just because it is missed. The assembly can extended its life for six months if a state of emergency prevents the drafting of the constitution on time. Granted, an emergency cannot be imposed just to extend the assembly’s term. But, then, there is no shortage of justifications for such a move. Moreover, the strictest constitutionalists tend to be the first to remind us that post-conflict jurisprudence is not the same as everyday rule of law.
As for the wholesomeness of the exercise, well, it was always a mirage. When the mainstream parties used to maintain that a constituent assembly would open a Pandora’s Box, they were not merely distinguishing themselves from the Maoists. President Ram Baran Yadav summed it up the best when he told Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha the other day that while the Maoists had pushed republicanism to the forefront, the rest of the parties went there because the palace shoved them real hard.
Clearly, the Maoists were not expecting the body, either. Or at least they had not anticipated much use for it. Their push for autonomous regions is less a circumvention of the assembly than an acknowledgment of their dependence on permanent revolution for existence.
Being a small nation sandwiched between two giant and mutually competitive neighbors has been bad enough in the best of times. If Nepalis believe a constellation of micro-states would make them fare any better, well, who can stop them? That’s why we’ve become our neighbors’ problem now.
And what are they to do? No amount of public reiterations from across the political spectrum seems to satisfy China’s justified concern for its soft underbelly. The Indians’ exasperation has reached a point where some have begun to broaden the debate and publicly insist that partition is not a settled fact.
If the antics of its principal constituents were not enough to subvert the ultimate democratic exercise, the proliferation of groups – armed and otherwise – outside the assembly has come in handy. That tribe is about to swell after Madhesi Janadhikar Forum leader Upendra Yadav pronounced that the body had outlived its utility, at least from its constituents’ perspective.
Yet no matter how bad things get, a popularly drafted constitution remains a national imperative. Rightly or wrongly, Nepal’s political instability is attributed to the lack of popular participation in charting its fate. Without healing that breach, the hemorrhaging will worsen. But even a resounding declaration in favor of the assembly’s extension in perpetuity might not help here. The recriminations rolling from all sides are too revolting.
President Yadav recently lamented that he would not have entered politics if he knew friends would one day deceive him. What really transpired behind the scenes during the dramatic sacking and subsequent restoration of Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal would probably have to await Yadav’s memoirs. But there’s a woeful pattern here.
The president’s gripe came mere days after his former deputy, Parmanand Jha, revealed he had chosen not to take the vice-presidential oath in Nepali as per the advice of leading politicians. Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal seems to feel sorry for everyone except himself. And who knows whether, deep down, he really doesn’t regret assuming the premiership during, as they say in the vernacular, the ghosts’ teatime?
Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, for his part, is consumed by his own May 4 incident, when he made history by resigning the premiership before anyone had demanded he do so. With leading luminaries from the major parties engrossed in personal introspection, the country can only pause to ponder for itself.
Unlike our primate cousins, human beings are expected to do something creative if they happen to lay hands on a coconut… such as not tossing it around like a hot potato.