Sunday, March 28, 2010

Of Day-Dreaming And Nightmares

The interviewer captured the moment the best. Asking former king Gyanendra Shah how he felt to be living as a commoner, Suman Giri used the mundane tapai and brought considerable poignancy on the television screen. By Giri soon couldn’t help adding the hajur honorific.
Shah answered each question patiently and reflectively, almost weighing every word. The intonation and cadence were strikingly similar to his late brother’s and father’s. And it scared the wits out of the political class.
If the former monarch were daydreaming about the possibility of a restored crown, as the political class continues to claim, President Ram Baran Yadav, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and the entire pack down the line of wouldn’t have gone nuts. The nightmares before that interview must have been frightening.
Their collective castigation couldn’t obscure the wider message. The last king had no problem acknowledging how he had learned a lesson from his people. Ouch. The collective slap on the post-April 2006 political class was stinging. Leaders generally blame their defeat on rigged elections. They rarely see it as popular reprimand. And the Maoists? Well, the ex-king suggested that he found life in the jungle could be productive, too.
Shah underscored not only the interim nature of the current transformation but its entire premise. The politicians thought they could do a better job, so Shah left the palace. Those who denied the king his three years to complete his roadmap are about to enter the fifth of theirs. But look at the bravado. The president, who was saying the constitution didn’t envisage presidential rule, still asserts his duty to preserve the republic.
The political class is not the only ones shamed here. Remember the doctors, engineers, lawyers and journalists who believed they were far better than the politicians were? Since they led the leaders four springs ago, the change would be real. Yet today, Asia’s most humiliated man – as one civil society leader was impatient to claim Shah had become – shows not the slightest trace of mortification. The February 1, 2005 coup (yes the reporter used that word and Shah did not dispute it) turned out to be a mistake, but, in view of the preceding circumstances, appropriate. And our politicos thought they could evade their responsibility.
As the day of judgment looms, the dissonance is becoming starker. The politicians believe merely the constitution is at stake here. A deadline missed here or there might not have mattered much if the people could really believe in the class’s ability to deliver. The ex-king spoke of the need to clear misconceptions about the monarchy. Nepalese are already doing so about their collective identity. With Brahmins and Chhettris in agitation mode on the urgency of inclusiveness, unity in diversity has shed at least some of its pejorative ring.
There is still a long way to go. Indian guru Ram Dev emphatically asserted Buddha was born in Nepal at a time when an American television network was close to airing a documentary claiming the contrary. There was no Nepal or India in Buddha’s time. Does that give the Indians the right to claim what’s not theirs? No. But it certainly doesn’t stop the rest of the world from seeing the incongruence of Nepal being so selective in reclaiming its past.
What alarms the political class the most is the prospect this time of the international community rallying the other way. Our two giant neighbors are both worried by the deepening crisis but neither is in a position to intervene drastically. The international community – regardless of the UNMIN fiasco – has no appetite for an open-ended commitment that would make Afghanistan look like a picnic. When the world stood behind the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists, it was not interference but friendly interest, we were told. What would that amount to now?
In the end, Gyanendra Shah put his faith in the people. Let them decide what they want. During the constituent assembly elections, the parties crafted a republican agenda and won a resounding victory. All but four members, including the mild-mannered hard-line ex-pancha Lokendra Bahadur Chand, voted for the abolition of the monarchy. So why the controversy over the finality of that decision?
The flimsiness of that exercise was always apparent to the most ardent republicanism. The assembly elections were held in a climate in which the monarchists weren’t simply allowed to function. At least the Maoists would appreciate that, especially since one of their earliest complaints against the 1990 order related to how the Nepali Congress and UML were monopolizing the political center and edging out other voices. If republicanism were the true will of the people, then that would represent the end of the story.
If not, history will have been vindicated. Nothing shows that the April 2006 uprising was against the monarchy. Sure, millions took to the streets and raised slogans against the monarchy. But far too many millions stayed home for whatever reason. An adverse referendum verdict – on the monarchy, secularism, federalism – would allow the political class to admit failure. That shouldn’t be so hard, now that it didn’t seem so for the only person who supposedly could do no wrong.

Monday, March 22, 2010

How Yesterday Tells Of Tomorrow

Four years after that spring of discontent propelled us into supposed newness, it’s becoming harder to ignore the fallacy of the entire premise. By dumping all our ills on the monarchy, did the people really expect to evade our responsibility for our being? The agents of change continue to wear brave faces. But they cannot conceal their utter bewilderment over where republicanism, federalism and do-what-ever-you-will-ism will land everyone. It’s harder when there’s no one else to blame, isn’t it?
Nepal’s emergence in its modern, unitary form was not a fluke of history. Before that, we were a confederation of confederations. Like people who ran petty principalities elsewhere in the world, ambitious and ruthless rulers sought unity for further conquest. When the ruler of one undistinguished state bequeathed a legacy of overrunning territory after territory in a web of ambitious, intrigue and bloodshed, his heirs confronted no less zealous votaries of empire on the north and south.
But, then, the king only sat atop courtiers, commanders and soldiers. Those who did the heavy lifting came from all backgrounds and classes. When they shed blood, no drop was redder than the other. The Brahmins so vilified for having monopolized the subsequent state structure were the ones who bore the brunt of exile and anguish. The equally reviled Chhettris lost their heads because treachery and loyalty was defined by the power equations of the moment. True, the vast majority of the people remained marginalized and continued to lead a life of toil and want. That reality cannot obscure the risks of death and disbarment proximity to power carried. Neither kings nor courtiers were spared the tumult. For good or ill, that’s how we got where we are.
One king’s determination to enthrone his offspring from a Mathil Brahmin widow he had wed destabilized the country. This is not to suggest that madhesis can somehow be held collectively and perpetually responsible. Nor can the hillsfolk. King Rana Bahadur Shah could not have done much without willful collaborators among his courtiers. Everyone was convulsed by the aftermath. The point here is not the abundance of blame to go around. It is merely that without any of its disparate groups, the Nepal of yore cannot be conceived. And without that past, there will be nothing to measure the newness of tomorrow. To put it differently, no one has a greater claim to Nepaliness than anyone else.
The Qing and the Company didn’t choose not to conquer Nepal because we were not worth it, as they have led us to believe. If that were the case, their successors wouldn’t still be fighting their own larger battles on our turf. Forget water, our location was always our greatest resource and will always be so. The opportunity will lie in grasping the context. The Licchavis and Mallas used that for commercial and cultural advantage in the past. King Mahendra employed it to internationalize our national identity and aspirations to far greater effect than in drawing assistance for basic infrastructure. Just because King Gyanendra happened to be the man who so vociferously emphasized the advantages Nepal stood to gain as a transit state doesn’t diminish the intrinsic worth of that enterprise. Was all that worth it? The debate will never end. Can we change it? Try on.
This blast from the past would have been irrelevant had reason found a place in the midst of our rage four years ago. After all, it takes a group like the Khmer Rouge whose ideological repulsiveness was matched by a collective ruthlessness to begin anew at Year Zero. Notwithstanding their successes in exposing our fissures, Nepal’s Maoists thrived on the contradictions of their rivals – a finite commodity once they get toward being the only ones around. Capture state power they might in the impending vacuum, but what will they do without the courage of their convictions, no matter how craven they might have been in the first place? Rants don’t resolve much.
It has been tempting these past four years to portray the loudest critics of change as those who stand to lose the most. But let’s stop pretending that those who stand to gain the most aren’t constantly consumed by doubts over whether change can be sustained geopolitically more than internally. History may be harsh but it is hard to undo. That is why the Indians can still seek the counsel of the ex-king or the Chinese can contemplate inviting him on a visit despite the fact that it was their representative who ended the practice of ambassadors’ presenting letters of credence at the palace while we still had the monarchy.
Even after elected representatives abolished the monarchy, the ex-king continues to focus on his national role. Ceremony was always part of the crown and that aspect of it could never go away as long as Nepalese held tight to their traditions. Politically, too, how many of us really refuse to take comfort in the realization that the king and the army are still around to pick up the pieces and clean up should all hell break loose faster?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Going Through The (Democratic) Motions

Though they still believe in the centrality of insurrection to their existence, you must admit the Maoists have picked some democratic habits along the way. Much as they might warn us against an impending return to the 1990-statute-era bad old days, the ex-rebels’ espousal of the integral tool of the time suggests their readiness to lurch backward and keep up with their rivals.
Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s nervousness with the Maoists’ talk of a no-confidence motion in the legislature was reflected in his dash to the Bhaktapur residence of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party chief Narayan Man Bijukchhe. Yes, the same guy whose party would never take part in power but determined who would during the 1994-1999 hung parliament.
Things could have been a bit different here. Why should a government full of unelected people worry about the mandate of the house? Even if the legislature were to register its loss of faith in the government, hasn’t the country already lost confidence in its representatives? Sure, the body still has over two months’ life in it. But aren’t the Maoists and the rest supposed to spend that time writing the constitution?
You can’t quibble with the Maoists’ argument that the largest party in legislature can’t be kept out of power without damaging the peace process. Nor can you ignore the fact that they were the ones who made national history by stepping down from power before anyone demanded they do so. What do the Maoists think they can gain by getting back in? A national government won’t let them off the hook. The UML, in particular, has a proven record of always letting the prime minister take the fall. If the Maoists’ intention is to prevent the promulgation of the constitution and subvert a peace process that is slipping out of its grip, why not let Prime Minister Nepal preside over the failure? It would be easier that way to step into the vacuum.
If the abbreviated-constitution trial balloon has alarmed the Maoists, then that is an overreaction. Such a statute may have worked in other places but Nepalis aren’t about to digest any more tentativeness. For many, a full step back would be preferable to half of one forward.
There may be another dynamic at play here. Foreigners who advocated mainstreaming our rebels would not have done so without having extracted assurances from the signatories of the 12-point agreement that the Maoists would live up to their commitments. In India, at least, those advocates appear to have been marginalized. People like M.K. Narayanan and Shyam Saran have exited the scene. Pranab Mukherji was always a fishy character. Sitaram Yechuri’s latest mission to Kathmandu looked more like an exercise to save his credibility.
Amresh Kumar Singh, having grasped the full meaning of media attention on his marital woes, too, has come around. He was among the first to concede the likelihood of a restoration of the monarchy. If anything, his contention that that would be a direct result of the inefficiency of the political parties than of a palpable shift in the popular mood was doubly damning.
Then the Maoists see how easily the Nepali Congress’ Khum Bahadur Khadka can speak of the centrality of the monarchy by claiming he is not a royalist. Hridayesh Tripathi wants a Hindu state within a republic. Days after former army chief Rukmangad Katuwal departed for New Delhi, the incumbent, Gen. Chattra Man Singh Gurung, whom the Maoists once praised as a man of the people, echoed his predecessor’s opposition to bulk recruitment former rebel fighters into the national army. UNMIN may retain special affinity for the Maoists, but it has been reduced to whining about how it might have to pull out of Nepal.
Like the sponsors of previous no-confidence motions, the Maoists must have weighed their chances. If it were to fizzle, what would be the democratic response? Maybe the largest party would then egg the others on to extend the term of the assembly and then challenge the decision at the Supreme Court.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Rawal’s Rakish Recalcitrance And Reticence

No matter how this fight goes down, you have to hand it to Home Minister Bhim Rawal for steadfastness. From the outset, he recognized that, in order to claim his scalp, his critics have to come up with something better than the worst-home-minister-in-history soubriquet. Yes, even amid this egregious breakdown in law and order.
Rawal’s deputy and fellow CPN-UML member, Mohammed Rizwan Ansari, complained that the home minister juggled around top officials for considerations other than their competence. But Ansari’s moans reek far more deleteriously with the UML’s deepening factionalism.
Much was made of former inspector general of police Achyut Krishna Kharel’s reaction. All he said was that unnecessary political interference in the force, political protection to criminals and rising impunity were major contributors to the weakening security situation. Those general observations could have been as much an indictment of Bam Dev Gautam, Khum Bahadur Khadka or Govinda Raj Joshi.
Despite the compelling case of collective responsibility, however, there is something in the man in all this. As a lucid and internationally quoted chronicler of the origin and development of Nepal’s communist movement and a leading overseer of its transformation, Rawal has had rare insights into the personalities, practicalities and perfidies of our nation. So it was surprising that he would describe Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram – tautologically, one might add – a personal friend. The country wasn’t fooled just because Palanisamy managed to squeeze in some time for Rawal at Tribhuvan airport’s VVIP lounge last August while on his way to Bhutan.
But it is to New Delhi we must return to make sense of the present. What is striking is the sequence of events. In January, Rawal took a delegation to the Indian capital with the three security chiefs in tow. Anticipating the pressure he was about to face, Rawal made a pre-departure claim that the signing of an extradition treaty would not figure on his agenda. That was the pardonable part. In his exuberance, Rawal had also told the legislature that if Nepal signed the extradition treaty, “China would approach us the next moment for the same”.
The treaty was not signed – at least not publicly. (An important distinction that must be made when it comes to Nepal-India relations ever since those secret letters were exchanged with the 1950 Treaty.) Shortly thereafter, Rawal left for Beijing along with the same three security officials. Worse, the visit took place after Rawal requested a postponement of a SAARC home ministers’ meeting in Islamabad that would have brought ole pal Palanisamy face to face with his Pakistani counterpart for some straight talk.
The Chinese detailed their assistance for the deployment of the Armed Police Force along the Tibet border. Down south, it looked like Rawal was more attentive to Beijing’s request to place air marshals on Chinese airliners flying to Kathmandu.
Suddenly things got into motion. The script was two decades old. Turn the other way when rivals set out to settle scores. When reality and perception become indistinguishable, it doesn’t matter whether the act is one of commission or omission. In Rawal’s absence, Jamim Shah was eliminated on what was supposed to have been highest-level security zone. Rizwan Ansari mobilized the deputies who all cop out. If violence begat violence – as it so tragically has – then it was Rawal problem. Except he didn’t think so. If his was the only head that had to roll, Rawal wasn’t about to oblige without a rattle.
And it has been a quiet one. Even in the midst of the rising acrimony between the government and UNMIN, Rawal has not joined vociferously in castigating the world body. Part of the reason may be his advocacy of a UN role in the pre-February 2005 months. (Remember Rawal’s vigorous defense of Kul Chandra Gautam’s comparisons between Nepal and Cambodia, which the UML leader insisted was based on his own one-year experience with the UN Transitional Authority there?) But his reticence now seems equally aimed at audiences across the southern border.
Rawal must recognize the easy escape he has from his woes. “Nepal has a bitter experience that the leftist forces have played almost decisive role in every mass movement since 1950 together with other pro-people organizations,” he said in an address to a conference jointly organized by the International Left Forum and the Transform Asia Gender and Labor Institute Inc. in Manila in 2007. “Nevertheless, the rightist forces again control the state power and the country is deprived of transformation according to the will of common masses.” But he knows that, as someone who takes pride in legacy of his words, he cannot pin all this on the regressive right. Maybe that’s what impels him to stay on.