Sunday, February 28, 2010

Quiet Diplomacy Getting A Little Louder

The fight for civilian supremacy, democracy and rule of law, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal reminded us the other day, is the common challenge in all Asian countries. Glancing through the list of nations attending the conference he was inaugurating, our prime minister seemed half-right. What intrigued Maila Baje was his hope that the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) would be developed into an Asian parliament that would issue a common currency.
Nepal’s speech recognized how the ICAPP was developed as a common forum to strengthen relations, build trust and extend mutual help among Asian countries through political exchanges. But contemplating another European Union? Just because Nepali political parties seem to have an innate ability to define any grand vision as democratic does not mean all others in the region should. (Not that the ICAPP is really up to speed on our head of government. A member of the standing committee, Nepal is still listed as the CPN-UML general secretary and leader of the parliamentary party.)
Another eye-catching nugget in the premier’s speech was his assertion that the abolition of Nepal’s 240- year-old monarchy was possible because of the historic People’s Movement in 2006 that was backed by the international community. How this highest-level public admission of a foreign hand in the contravention of the public version of the 12-point agreement would impinge on the penultimate stretch of the peace process remains to be seen.
More relevant was the meeting between Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala and Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jieyi, the star delegate at the conference. Our grand old man sought Beijing’s cooperation and support for the peace process, which Liu, we are told, generously pledged. What was fascinating was Liu’s expectation that the High Level Political Mechanism (HLPM) would play a vital role in building political consensus to bring out the constitution on schedule.
As someone who has spent most of his career on issues relating to North America, international organizations and arms control, Liu might be forgiven for having missed the controversy the HLPM has kicked up. But, then, as a star student and teacher at the top foreign language institute in the capital and an interpreter at the UN office in Geneva, he is not one to stumble on words. Nor is he a stranger to Nepal. Liu was one of the three men who had landed here in quick succession last year when Beijing handed over the draft of the new peace and friendship treaty. That was supposed to have been the centerpiece of then-prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s planned visit to China before it tightened into a geopolitical noose.
On the face of it, Liu’s view on the HLPM acquires importance because the body is perceived as a mechanism with a pronounced northern tilt. Even more significant is the fact that Liu is the Deputy Director of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. In the words of the prominent American China expert David Shambaugh, “no ruling party or government in the world mounts anywhere near as extensive an effort to maintain links with domestic political parties groups and personages as does the CCP”. And the International Department does so quietly, he adds, as its activities and exchanges remain out of the media and scholarly spotlight.
This does not mean this is a covert organization. As Shambaugh points out, it is one of the few Central Committee organs that maintain a public website. Moreover, the department has a modern 14-storey office building in a prominent location in central Beijing with its name screaming out from a neon sign on the top.
So what are the Chinese up to here? A couple of years ago, some Indian analysts were suggesting that our Maoists were receiving clandestine backing from this very organization amid Chinese protestations that it had nothing to do with the Great Helmsman’s southern acolytes. Maila Baje recalls that Beijing recently elevated its ambassador in New Delhi to the level of vice-minister. Could that be the price the quiet diplomats up north have paid to raise their voice in Nepal?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hindu Selves In A Saucy State

When the reinstated legislature declared Nepal a secular state in May 2006, the Indian ambassador was said to have gone into urgent consultations with the increasingly sidelined king. How could the play depart so drastically from the script? Both men, operating on a need-to-know basis from the driving forces on their respective sides, apparently had little to discuss.
Those who knew how an assembly that lacked the political gumption to go after the monarchy could so snootily secularize the nation kept quiet. It was not politically correct to defend Hinduism lest it imply support for the discredited monarchy. The Maoists, the storyline went, had to be brought into the mainstream at all costs. (The rebels, for their part, had long recognized that international funding was most copious for restructuring the religious character of the state.)
Nearly four years after that simulated peace, it has become fashionable to break the silence. A republican Nepal might be better able to anchor its unique identity as a Hindu state, after all. President Ram Baran Yadav and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal have purportedly conceded that the secularization of the state was a mistake. Granted, they made the admission during private meetings with Hindu men of robes. But that goaded Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala toward pushing the envelope. She wants a referendum on whether Nepal should return to state Hinduism.
Religion, to borrow W.R. Inge’s words, is what an individual may do in his or her solitude. But in its cosmic form, as G.K. Chesterton wondered, can religion acquire a private identity? Wouldn’t such a quest be akin to a search for, say, a private sun or moon? Let’s say our nation, after all that has happened, is genuinely groping for that collective Freudian wish world, built through our own biological and psychological necessities. How do we square that with our status as a country of minorities, where each group is still very much intent on proving how the state has shafted it the worst? (With Chhetris already on the warpath, how long before kumai and purbiya bahuns slug it out over who is more aggrieved than whom?)
Then there are the political fault lines. Of the three major parties, two are officially atheist. The third continues to be led by a dynasty that has not shied away from disdaining religious mores as a way of burnishing its democratic core.
When Nepal projected itself as a predominantly Hindu nation, many Buddhist complained they were being counted in too egregiously. Christians had a sympathetic international environment to sound their complaints of repression. Yet how could they account for the fact that two future kings and queens had been their wards? Muslims had a hard time fighting off the terrorist slur from across the southern border long before racial profiling had become chic for civil libertarians in the west. Hinduism on this side was a hindrance. Animists and agnostics alike saw their space infringed. So when the last monarch wore his religion on his forehead, the kingdom was projected as a putative theocracy.
Today when the country is falling apart, everyone is out to cover their behinds. It is tempting therefore to see Hinduism as a glue. With the massive surge in Nepali citizenship from across the southern border, Hindus may turn out to be far more numerous than anytime before. But a popular mandate of anything less than a Saddam-Hussein-threshold 97.3 percent would be hard-pressed to address the minority sentiments and hold the country together. What then? A referendum on a return to Panchayat or – better still – Rana rule?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Statute Of Limitations

From the way the latest political shenanigans are heating up, it does look like we won’t be getting the new constitution on schedule. The signs were there a few weeks ago when Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala chastised Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal for incompetence on that count and inaugurated the highest level blame game. Now the entire Nepali Congress is sore at the UML-ization of the government.
The rest of the country is clueless about which UML our self-professed sole democrats are talking about. The pro-military, anti-Maoist or the traditional have-it-both-ways wing? Having played their part in fomenting many of those divisions, the Maoists have no time for such hair-splitting. They insist on heading the government for the constitution to come out on time. If they don’t get top job anytime soon, the constitution will still come out. But it will be a “people’s” version that will usher in the “new democracy” they increasingly remind us the People’s War was also about.
All eyes are on what President Ram Baran Yadav will hear in India and do after returning home. Amid the Maoists’ surging patriotic fervor, Yadav’s presence in New Delhi became so crucial that Vice-President Parmanand Jha had to be brought back to stand in for him. Since Jha decided to take the oath in Nepali as well this time, Yadav probably doesn’t feel entirely at ease leaving him in charge.
But the president is already on shakier ground. Once the constitution deadline is missed, it would unravel the understanding behind the peace process, the Maoists warn. So Yadav himself would be out of work. (Unless he gets back his Nepali Congress general secretaryship.) In that case, who will the generals – our supposed last line of defense – take orders from? The directory, cabal or whatever you call the High-Level Political Mechanism?
Maybe. What makes us think the military, which couldn’t do much during the king’s supreme commandership, would fare any better this time? International support, perhaps. But could that alone compensate for all that has gone wrong in the force since the spring of 2006?
Still things may not get so out of hand. A couple of different final versions of the constitution are probably already floating around somewhere. If getting the Constituent Assembly to endorse any one of those becomes a problem, the body could enact a partial statute. If federalism could be held in abeyance pending a special study commission, other contentious issues could also be easily thrown aside. And should the country have a hard time accepting another gesture of gradualism, we can always elect a new constituent assembly. (It’s not for nothing that France takes pride in the fifth republic.)
From all that has happened, you have to marvel how easy things were the last time. How could Bishwanath Upadhyaya bring out what was hailed as the world’s best constitution – all the way until its death gasps – in a matter of months? The bogey of a palace takeover? Probably not, since the Maoists’ avowed opposition to traditional democracy has not unified the mainstream parties in any way.
By dismissing all those linguistic and ethnic grievances – which formed 90 percent of the suggestions the commission received – as a distraction, some might snap back. Say what you will, except that Upadhyaya didn’t have a point, especially considering the doom and gloom already surrounding this enterprise.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Ex-Panchas In All Their Colors

Upholding the Perpetual Fusion-Fission Theory of Political Theatrics, two groups of former panchas have once again united. Surya Bahadur Thapa’s Rastriya Janashakti Party and Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party have come under one flag as – what else? – Rastriya Shakti Prajatantra Party. Who is going to lead the new outfit? They are going to take turns, pending further arrangements.
In a statement, Rana and Thapa declared that unification was necessary to strengthen democratic forces and preserve nationalism in the country. How amusing. (Kamal Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal sounded more credible when he explained how ‘ideological’ differences prevented him from joining his former colleagues.)
But Maila Baje is forced to muffle his chuckles and go back to the summer of 1997. King Birendra had just publicly celebrated the 25th anniversary of his accession to the throne amid great public jubilation. Several hours later, as we lay asleep, an earthquake shook the capital. Some foretellers were stunned by the bad omen but chose to keep quiet. The monarchy had become the arbiter of the political process. Even those infuriated by the king’s strict adherence to the constitution – because it harmed their politics – still praised him as the model monarch.
A few days later, an interviewer was granted a long-awaited audience with the king. Citing the monarchy’s surging popularity, the questioner sought to know whether the king could contemplate direct and drastic political intervention. The political shenanigans at the center and the Maoist insurgency in the hinterland were feeding off each other and pushing the country to the brink. Pressing the hypothetical, the monarch asked the interviewer how he thought the parties might react. Judging from the public mood, the questioner proffered, might they not welcome it even if grudgingly?
The monarch was far from sanguine. The adulation from the politicos, he continued, was politically expedient for the moment. Were the palace to step in, the Nepali Congress, UML, RPP and Sadbhavana parties would scarcely spare the king the appellation of an autocrat. Clearly, the monarch’s equation of the RPP with the other three groups was stunning. So the interviewer sought the monarch’s general opinion of the party of the former panchas. Avoiding a direct answer, he said there were far more people in the other parties who loved both democracy and the nation – and not just because those organizations were bigger than the RPP. He did not exactly say the RPP was sorely lacking on both elements of its name, but the impression was hard to resist.
Fast forward to February 1, 2005. When King Gyanendra took direct control of the state, Maila Baje was less struck by the audacity of his move. Key RPP leaders found themselves under house arrest along with the rest of the political crowd. Constituents of the putative Seven Party Alliance were unimpressed, which doubly galled the ex-panchas. What did Surya Bahadur Thapa think? How he had been hounded from the premiership in 1983 by the ‘underground cabal’ allegedly led by then-Prince Gyanendra? Sure. But he must also have been pushed back to the time he spent in prison in the early 1970s for agitating against the ‘diarchy’ that had supposedly crept in under the newly enthroned King Birendra. (The wily Thapa, of course, bounced back by demanding the execution of B.P. Koirala after the Nepali Congress leader returned home with his national reconciliation plea. But that episode must have been the farthest from his mind.)
Under royal incarceration, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, that helpless shadow of the underground cabal catapulted to the premiership, must have found it hard to maintain his mild-mannered temperament. He ended up not only voting for the abolition of the monarchy but continues to list the litany of mistakes the last king made which his late brother would have easily avoided. Pashupati Shamsher Rana had his own grudges, some resulting from the violation of his certain inalienable birthrights by the 1950 Delhi Compromise. As water resources minister during the controversial ratification of the Mahakali Treaty, he waxed eloquent on how the sun would henceforth rise from the west.
Under King Gyanendra’s rule, Rana did not reflect too much on how, as the father of the would-be bride at the center of the royal palace massacre, he and his daughter could escape with the least scrutiny from the country. What Rana seemed to remember was how King Birendra had sacked him as joint secretary in the early years of his reign.
Rajeshwar Devkota, at one point, made common cause with the Maoists against the 1990 constitution, albeit for entirely different motives. With the advent of a republic, he apparently remembered how the palace politely rejected his claim for the premiership during the Panchayat years, citing certain ‘personality’ issues. Biswabandhu Thapa must have been irked by the way Tulsi Giri found his way back at the helm under King Gyanendra. Doubly injurious to him was the fact that Dr. Giri had managed to place Kirti Nidhi Bista as his deputy.
This is not to tar the ex-panchas with a broad brush. Take Dirgha Raj Prasai, a former Rastriya Panchayat member nominated by King Birendra. Maila Baje remembers the forceful defense of the partyless system Prasai consistently mounted during the 1979-1980 campaign for the referendum. After King Gyanendra’s takeover, Prasai was one of the first royalists to criticize the monarch. Not because of the philosophy behind the takeover but because of some of the people the king enlisted.
His core belief in the centrality of the monarchy to Nepal’s resilience remains undiminished regardless of what others think. Efforts to muffle his voice have been undermined by technology. Today Prasai soldiers on as a prolific messenger in cyberspace. Maila Baje, for one, can’t wait for Prasai’s take on the Thapa-Rana unity.