Sunday, January 31, 2010

Summoning Words To Swear By

After all he has put us through, Paramand Jha now may be ready to take his oath in Nepali. The man must be a wreck.
For long, our former-and-future vice-president was demonized as a fifth columnist. His insistence on not taking the vice-presidential oath in Nepali was the first intimation of Nepal’s impending political absorption to the south. The best-case scenario held that Hindi was about to become our second official language. If Jha were to use his Hindi anywhere along the outer fringes of any of our bordering states, the locals would not lose too many seconds identifying his precise domicile.
But that did not matter in the political climate prevailing then. Nor did the constitutionalism of it all. After all, Farsi was our language of official communication when it proved useful to make the Chinese, Tibetans and British all understand how isolated we needed to be.
In invoking Hindi as his mother tongue, Jha went a bit too far. In fairness, his knowledge of Nepali might have been insufficient to dignify the office in a new Nepal. How, then, did he serve as a Supreme Court justice? Newness was too precarious to cover the irrelevance of that question. That he might have faked his knowledge to get the job was certainly not outside the realm of possibility. But, for Jha, the damage was done to his reputation. Forget Nepal. Being branded such a stickler for Hindi is bad politics in India.
Now that national political exigencies have vindicated Jha, Urdu-speakers felt they had shot at our top jobs. But Jha is toying with taking the oath in Nepali. Considering all has gone through – death threats, creepy looks from neighbors and perhaps even friendships destroyed – Maila Baje can’t begrudge his desire to score a few more points.
Last year, he revealed how certain politicians had instigated him into skipping the scheduled oath-in-Nepal ceremony at the last minute. Jha may not have named names, but it was pretty clear that many of those leaders were the ones who later joined in criticizing him.
For those with persistence, time has a way of exacting vengeance. If, in furtherance of Operation Chaos, Jha may have found himself singled out for opprobrium, today he is needed for a higher cause. Even in the slight chance that someone else becomes vice-president, the mother-tongue mechanism will have to work. Even native Nepali speakers might be tempted to use their local dialect, cadences and intonations in the interest of identity politics.
The overriding imperative is not local. With the clock ticking louder toward May 28, President Ram Baran Yadav is fast becoming the focus of our national salvation. The Indians have not been able to host him in a befitting manner. Without a vice-president to officiate for him, how can Dr. Yadav board that flight?
It certainly says a lot about our state that few among us have been terribly worried by the lack of a designated successor ready to take over should – God forbid – anything happen to the president at home. But Jha does not consider himself merely someone a heartbeat away from the presidency. He wants his pound of flesh, warm, pulsating and dripping red.
So, ultimately, it may not matter which language Jha uses. Didn’t someone say language always keeps pace with the social development of its users?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thinking Outside The (Pandora’s) Box

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal insists the new constitution must be brought out on schedule to preserve Nepali sovereignty. His deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, says that can’t happen without the former rebels at the head of a national consensus government. Maoist lawmaker Khim Lal Devkota goes on to propose amending the drafting calendar a ninth time, which the relevant folks heartily endorse. Patriotism is the first refuge of procrastinators.
Even before finalizing its terms of reference, the High Level Political Mechanism seems to have worked wonders. Look at the way it has rejuvenated Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala. He reminded Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal that, eight months into office, he has not done enough toward drafting the constitution. Specifically, he admonished the premier for his failure to properly plan the integration of former Maoist combatants.
That was enough for Nepali Congress vice-president Ram Chandra Poudel. Staking a middle ground where none seemed to exist, he revealed that Koirala and Dahal had already reached a secret understanding on the integration of about 5,000 former rebels. Suddenly we know who the extremists are. Is peace about to break out?
Granted, the Madhesi parties are against the model of 14 provinces that has come into fashion. But at least one faction has gone ahead and declared a single Madhes region comprising 22 districts. The Chure Bhawar wants its own place under the sun and moon (which still seem likely to remain the defining features of the national flag).
Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala still wants a referendum on federalism (and whatever more a plebiscite can accommodate). Defense Minister Bidya Bhandari stands by her utterances against nationalizing the heavily indoctrinated former People’s Liberation Army. Although the Maoists have withdrawn their indefinite strike for national sovereignty, one of the organization’s preeminent hardliners, Chandra Prakash Gajurel, is still warning of impending Bhutanization/Sikkimization.
If you are looking for the Pandora’s Box our leaders were characterizing the constituent assembly as until about five years ago, you have a whole carton to go through. It won’t really matter how much more the storage space grows. The true action is going to be on the outside.
At least during the decade of destruction, we knew who didn’t want the status quo and why. How many malcontents do we have today? And the demands? The problem is not that they are mounting. Consider how fast they can change.
Take as the metaphor for our times the man they arrested for setting off all those bombs in favor of restoring Nepal’s Hindu-state status. Reading the international Christian press these days, it looks like he has undergone a full-blown conversion. What changed his heart? Nope, not the Good News. It was, by his own admission, the failure of any Hindu of repute to visit him in the gaol.
If this tormented soul should ever walk free, what would stop him from embarking on another religious transformation in another direction? Fear of what might happen if the constitution were actually to come out on schedule, perhaps?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Just Trying To Have A Conversation

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna left it to his ministry mandarins to release the details of his talks with Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The upshot: the ex-rebels must back off from their patriotic fervor if they want to preserve their friendship down south.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Dahal didn’t take it quite lying down. The Maoist chief would probably let out his version of what transpired in bits and piece over the next phases of his campaign to save the nation. In the meantime, here’s what Maila Baje could conjure up from the picture:

Krishna: It’s been quite a couple of weeks, hasn’t it?

Dahal: Sure it has. But, come on, let’s get straight to the point.

Krishna: What is it that really peeves you folks? You’re all the same. We do everything to help you out and all we get is escalating ingratitude.

Dahal: Help who? If you’re talking about us, let’s get the facts straight. You wanted us to help your lackeys in the Nepali Congress and UML to clobber the king. Could they have done that on their own? But you weren’t about to fool us either. Sure, we needed a safe landing. And, boy, didn’t we get it on our terms.

Krishna: But what about us? Don’t you owe your life and limbs to us? If we could get your two key comrades from a nursing home and the airport, don’t you think we could have used your own people to rat you out?

Dahal: Well you didn’t, did you? And just in case you have any crazy ideas, I’ve raked up the Birendra-Madan Bhandari canard. Here I am today, so live with it.

Krishna: We could if you hadn’t been cozying up too closely with the Chinese. And that Mahara chap? Didn’t we help establish his global cred by connecting him with CNN’s Bindra a couple of years ago? Now he lectures us about how the Maoists’ current campaign is not anti-Indian?

Dahal: Quit complaining about the kid. He would have become communication minister in February 2005, if you guys hadn’t thwarted our deal with the palace. What did you tell Gyanendra that he ended up becoming his own prime minister while I was still waiting for the ride to Narayanhity to be sworn in?

Krishna: So you kowtow to the Chinese to get back at us – just like that?

Dahal: Kowtow, my foot. Do you know how hot and fast that dragon breathes down our necks? We, too, thought Gyanendra – and his brother and father before him – had this congenital streak that always wanted to tweak you. But, no, sir. Here I was trying to revise our reviled peace and friendship treaty with you folks. And the guys up north foist their own draft.

Krishna: So you expect us to believe the Chinese are calling the shots as far as you are concerned?

Dahal: It’s your call. But consider the timeline. Remember when I said at that conference in Delhi how I had refused Pakistani aid during the height of the insurgency? Everyone thought I was trying to appease you by bartering away friendship with a third country. Actually I was talking about a fourth. Do you think this whole Pakistani infiltration that you have been complaining about could have been possible without the Chinese. They ditched Birendra in 1990 only after they saw the ISI as a proxy. After I extended that olive branch in Delhi, you freed Mohan Baidya and C.P. Gajurel but then tried to subvert us every step of the way. What else could we have done?

Krishna: So what are you going to do about your latest crusade against us?

Dahal: You should sort it out with the Chinese. You do have some kind of strategic dialogue on Nepal, don’t you?

Krishna: But surely you could do something on your own, considering your fight for ‘national independence’.

Dahal: In exchange for what?

Krishna: Well, what do you want?

Dahal: Okay, here’s the deal. We are here today largely because we promised so much to so many of those who fought for us. The field commanders had already chosen their favorite rooms in Narayanhity. What else did we have going for them? Now the foot soldiers are growing restive. There will never be enough of anything to go around.

Krishna: Don’t beat around the bush…

Dahal: Pledge us your full and unconditional support in perpetuity and we will announce the final capture of state power. That way, I can cover my flank. And what have you got to lose? The Nepali Congress is on its deathbed, anyway. And the UML? It’s become the army’s party. When the army becomes ours, we’ll have the leaders and the cadres. We’ll let Baburam’s faction live and maybe even take turns in power.

Krishna: And the Chinese?

Dahal: Who else will they have?

Krishna: But support the Maoists in perpetuity? The world’s largest democracy can’t do that.

Dahal: But you did that with the 1950 treaty, didn’t you.

Krishna: That was because Chinese communists seized power in Beijing and said they would invade and occupy Tibet.

Dahal: Well they did that long ago and have come far closer since, haven’t they?

Krishna: I hear you. Let me fly home and talk it over. We’ll keep in touch.

Dahal: You gotta hurry up, though. My next trip to Hong Kong could come up any moment. Maybe even before your army chief lands. And, just to recap, should I fall to a disaffected ex-loyalist or anyone else, the blood is still going to be on your hands.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

How Deviously Some Envy The Departed

Madan Bhandari lives on spotlessly in the national consciousness not just because he was an eloquent public speaker and avowed nationalist who was cut down in his prime. Part of the reason is that he never wielded real power and patronage, at least not of the kind that so easily taints. So when Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal decided to dip into Bhandari’s legacy the other day, it was hard to avoid that tinge of covetousness.
Dahal’s declarations and denials don’t matter here. We know that Bhandari was killed shortly after he held extensive consultations with King Birendra and unequivocally acknowledged the palace as a major force. We also know that the UML general secretary was scheduled to meet Nepali Congress’ Ganesh Man Singh over the country’s perilous southward drift. We learned last week that Dahal himself was supposed to have met Bhandari to stanch the widely felt erosion of Nepaliness.
In arrogating to himself the Birendra-Bhandari pedestal, Dahal raises an important question. Who exactly was the future rebel-in-chief then? Bhandari, as we know, was not terribly impressed by what known radicals like Mohan Bikram Singh and Nirmal Lama still had to say. But, then, who remembered Bhandari’s own antecedents during those edgy days? No leader had ever gotten a break in Nepali politics through a half-page interview in the leading Indian daily newspaper of the day. For many Nepalis, it was as if Bhandari simply jumped out of the Times of India to claim part of the post-Panchayat province.
When payback time came, something changed somewhere. The Marxist-Leninists became the fiercest proponents of the two-thirds-vote-ratification provision in the constitution on key treaties. Leading the charge against Girija Prasad Koirala’s Tanakpur sleight of hand, Bhandari had already earned the enmity of India. He raised the threat to his personal security a couple of notches by hobnobbing with the West Bengal lefties. Basking in the appellation of a modern-day Marx bestowed by an American newsmagazine celebrating the end of history was one thing. But trying to export Calcutta-style left-wing control to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh was unpardonable.
Bhandari’s end must have infuriated Dahal to no end. The Maoists put the agenda of anti-Indianism higher than anti-monarchism in the declaration of war against the old state. King Birendra, by this time, was already voicing skepticism over the intentions of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, not to speak of the two major mainstream parties. For the Indians, another imperative was at play. If radical commies could help cut the UML down to size, the tirade was worth bearing.
Bhandari’s successors seemed to have learned their lesson well. But others in the party proved that nationalism was not a personality quirk of the departed soul. The party suffered a split over the Mahakali Treaty, no doubt a UML-driven extension of the Tanakpur immorality. The nationalism mantle soon exhibited its power to energize the Reds in a variety of ways. Every comrade with an ego could not be accommodated in power. Among those who were, discontent brewed over protocol and portfolio. Across the political spectrum, patriotism became the first refuge of would-be potentates. You couldn’t really blame them. Nepalis may not know who they are. But they do know who they are not.
Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal knows that as well as anyone else. Reading the popular pulse, he came out with unusually warm words for the monarchy the other day. Nepalis must learn to appreciate important roles played by former kings in protecting our flora and fauna, he said. The prime minister was careful not to name names. But look at it this way. Although Nepal’s premier conservation agency was named for King Mahendra, the royal most associated with the color green was his second son who would go on to become the last king.
In one pithy comment, Premier Nepal praised the two most reviled kings. Was he truly overcome by that visceral approbation of the two men even the most rabid republicans cannot really conceal anymore? Or was the ghost of Madan Comrade swirling around our prime minister?
It’s not clear whether Dahal might volunteer anything more specific on the conspiracy angle of Madan Bhandari’s death. But Maila Baje has this nagging feeling that Premier Nepal and his party rival K.P. Sharma Oli are working fast and furiously somewhere to patch up their differences.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Great Republican’s Greatest Reproach

Fake republicans are dominating national politics by sidelining the real ones, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai lamented the other day. Speaking at the launch of Ram Raja Prasad Singh’s biography, the Maoist leader said his party had proposed making the Great Republican Nepal’s first president for a greater cause.
At the inauguration of the Narayanhity Museum in 2008, Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood had all but congratulated Singh in advance, saying heavy responsibilities would be coming his way. But higher powers willed otherwise. This was to be another Ram’s burden to bear.
Whether Ram Raja might have been a better post-monarchist than he was an anarchist can be debated forever. At a more mundane level, the fact that ill health prevented him from attending the launch of his own biography forces us to wonder whether we should have saddled him with such onerous responsibilities. But ponder we must on why he did not get the job.
The presidency was something Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal realized he did not want. It was not because his critics had branded him the “wall president”. (And let us not forget that Dahal was the chief executive of first organized republican movement that succeeded.) As campaigning for the constituent assembly elections advanced, Dahal lowered his sights to the premiership.
You could argue that part of the reason was that the Maoists wanted to dangle the presidency in front of Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala to wean him away from any residual support within the party for any kind of monarchy. The Maoist rank and file agreed that the Koiralas who built the Nepali Congress on the back of the monarchy could eventually bury the party with the crown.
Even if they had genuinely wanted Koirala at the helm, the presidency was not something the Maoists’ alone to bestow. For one thing, not everyone was impressed by Sood’s public validation of Ram Raja. After all, there was the case of that other Singh, Ganesh Man. The supreme leader of People’s Movement I was good enough for the Indians only until he formally declared that the Zone of peace proposal would find no place in the new constitution. After that, he could only be a liability. Ganesh Man had to be hounded from the Nepali Congress.
The other political parties had other ideas about Ram Raja. His claim to republicanism was the graduate constituency election campaign during King Mahendra’s Panchayat years. In fairness, that was not small undertaking. But after the palace tided over that challenge, Singh’s grenades-on-mango-trees speeches did not carry him much further. He had to make a cameo and set off real bombs in the mid-eighties. The Nepali Congress and key mainstream communists still believe the palace had engineered those blasts in an effort to subvert the satyagraha that was gaining momentum. The royals had merely paid off Ram Raja to claim credit for the attacks.
Key communists believed Ram Raja deprived them of their first real chance of ousting the panchas. B.P. Koirala, whose “inexplicable-but-true” endorsement of the referendum result strengthened the partyless regime, had departed to meet his maker. Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai were less ideologically inclined to oppose an alliance with the communist. So if Ram Raja had any role at all in the mid-1980s, it was to have ensured the Panchayat regime’s survival for another half-decade.
But those with a stronger sense of parallel history would surely remember that the nature of Nepal’s political system was not the defining geopolitical issue. Kathmandu had begun to strengthen ties with Beijing. In 1984, Li Xiannian had become the first Chinese president to visit Nepal. Shortly after that, China signed an agreement with Nepal – as with Pakistan – to bring regular trading caravans into its western regions, marking the first relaxation of border controls in more than 30 years.
Two months before the bomb blasts, Nepal and China had reached agreement permitting foreigners to travel to Tibet through the Himalayan mountain passes. This potential boost to our tourism industry would have lessened our economic dependence on you know which neighbor. Boom, the blasts went off. Who would want to transit in a country that couldn’t even protect its top hotel, not to speak of the palace and national legislature?
As for the Great Republican, surely, there is a more basic issue here than age and antecedents. The name Ram Baran sounds jarring enough for the first president of a secular Nepal. Wouldn’t Ram Raja have been doubly weird?