Monday, June 28, 2010

Chicken Soup For The Meddling Soul

At times, the comparisons must be getting too uncomfortable for Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood. He enjoys nowhere near the power of his legendary predecessor, Chandreshwar Prasad Narayan Singh.
Okay, maybe he does. It’s just that Sood doesn’t monopolize matters the same way. For one thing, the Great Meddler didn’t have to contend with the Americans, Europeans or the Chinese.
Today politicians in power do everything to woo Sood to stay there. Those outside castigate him eternally. And those who want back in are more liable to see attacks on Sood and his establishment as the surest path to success.
The newspapers have been after him all along. Even supposedly friendly ones are at it now. The Indian government’s federal-state administrative rigmarole makes for a weird inspection procedures on newsprint and pretty much everything, but our aggrieved media house goes public – and gains sympathetic amplification
Sood is Nepal’s new king, the Wall Street Journal blog, "India Real Time", suggested the other day, quoting the sentiment of some journalists. “[Sood] can meet the prime minister anytime he wants and call the ministers and give directions,” one scribe from the affected newspaper was quoted as saying. “That’s far beyond what any normal diplomatic protocols allow.” As if that’s a privilege only the Indian ambassador enjoys these days.
The media house thinks India is paying back for having leaked Sood’s letter demanding that Nepal grant India the contract to print the machine-readable passports both for security and financial reasons. (What about the payback India expects for the 12-point agreement?)
It was reported that the Indian Embassy had had a hand in forcing a change of ownership in the said media house a couple of years ago. Perhaps the beneficiaries have been enticed and emboldened by far more powerful patrons? Again, all this may be a red herring for some real scoop in the days and weeks ahead. But the media, here, is merely a footnote in the larger story.
When news came in that Sood was being sent to Nepal instead of Jayant Prasad, the son of former ambassador Bimal Prasad, there was an air of anticipation. In Afghanistan, he was credited with ensuring the turnaround from an incorrigibly pro-Pakistan nation to one more conducive to India. An expert on disarmament, Sood’s tenure could have had special relevance in Nepal. He is among the few Indian deputy chiefs of mission who continue to be talked about in Washington.
Yet during his tenure, Nepal has slipped significantly – and certifiably – away from India’s orbit. Every time the American ambassador acknowledges China as an equal stakeholder in Nepal, Sood’s superiors must seethe at their man on the ground.
But His Excellency may draw some comfort from history. Some of his predecessors have risen to become foreign secretary, while others are still consulted for their expertise on the country. Given Sood’s uneasy ties with Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, it might be helpful to review C.P.N. Singh’s brush with B.P. Koirala.
“It is said openly in Katmandu that the ‘real ruler of Nepal today’ is Indian Ambassador Sir C. P. N. Singh,” The New York Times had reported on December 16, 1952. Indeed, B.P. Koirala was so upset about Singh’s behavior that he demanded his recall as a precondition to improved Nepal-India relations. B.P., of course, had a personal grudge. First, he saw Singh catapult an obscure man called Bhadrakali Mishra as a Nepali Congress member in the coalition cabinet led by Mohan Shamsher Rana.
Mishra instigated B.P. to quit the cabinet en masse on the ground that he would automatically be invited to lead a ‘homogenous” Nepali Congress government. Instead, King Tribhuvan asked Matrika Prasad Koirala. B.P. never forgave Singh for preventing him from becoming Nepal’s first post-Rana premier.
When the Nepali Congress won the first general election and King Mahendra showed no sign of inviting him to form the new government, B.P. had learned his lesson well. While seeking Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention with the palace, B.P. was careful to display due deference to the then Indian ambassador. It worked.
When the Indians tried reminding B.P. of that “favor”, especially during his talks on his way to and from Israel, Koirala ascribed his position purely to the people’s mandate. (How Nepal’s political history may have evolved had Subarna Shamsher Rana become Nepal’s first elected premier, as many in the Nepali Congress had desired, is worthy of deeper analysis.)
C.P.N. Singh found that the exertions of office would not go unrewarded. Back home, he became governor of Punjab. As B.P. prepared to assume the premiership, Singh was serving as ambassador to Japan. Amid B.P.’s incarceration, exile and infirmity, Singh would go on to head the Reserve Bank of India and serve as governor of Uttar Pradesh.
As for the legacy of interference, Singh lives on through his daughter-in-law’s television broadcasts into Nepal. The odds are Sood will have his payback – with interest.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Goings-On In Their Neck Of The Woods

You would have thought the Sher Bahadur Deuba-Ram Chandra Poudel contest would place Kul Bahadur Gurung closer to the premiership. However, the Nepali Congress may be veering toward another janjati, Amik Sherchan. A Maoist, former deputy premier and partner of the anti-palace Seven Party Alliance-Maoist combine, Sherchan has the right credentials to break the stalemate. But the idea still sounds a little warped.
Within the Nepali Congress, Poudel seems have the edge over Deuba, now that that sections of Deuba’s NC (Democratic) have joined hands with Sushil Koirala’s centrist faction. Sushil’s support helped Poudel gain the parliamentary party leadership over favorite Deuba last year and the alliance seems to be intact.
Still, the three-time former premier is not about to concede defeat. The fact that Deuba was sacked twice – failing to hold elections the first time and inability to bring in the Maoists for talks the second – does not seem to be a disqualification. Deuba supporters insist the party and country must consider his international standing. His Oval Office meeting with President George W. Bush and tenure as SAARC chief seem to be the primary considerations.
But the personal has gone deep into the political. Deuba can’t forget that Poudel as speaker had some knowledge of the machinations of Girija Prasad Koirala when he forced Deuba to seek that vote of confidence he was not obliged to in 1996. Nor does Deuba seem to be able to get past how Poudel egged him on to break away from Koirala, promising to assume the presidency of the new outfit, only to stick with the grand old man.
Deuba’s acquiescence in Sujata Koirala’s elevation to the deputy premiership was partly a way of his getting back at Poudel. By aligning himself with Khum Bahadur Khadka’s Hindutva brigade, Deuba has proceeded to undercut Poudel’s Sanskrit background. Back from talks in New Delhi, Sujata, too, has carefully claimed that all the Indians are interested is in consensus.
Poudel has little beyond the party’s history to peddle. The Nepali Congress cannot get any more democratic or socialist than it already claims it has. Many still blame Deuba for sullying the party’s image through public perceptions of corruption, cronyism and outright clumsiness.
But then he seems to have won some new adherents. Ram Sharan Mahat, Deuba’s finance minister who had refused to side with him during the party split, now seems to be in favor of the Tarun Dasta. Or, at least, he wants to bring the issue within the party for discussion amid the Maoist onslaught. (Indeed, the armed force appears to be one of few issues Ram Mahat agrees with his brother, Prakash.)
If Sherchan were to get the job, it would only be to let the Nepali Congress factions to continue examining their necks for knottiness of the post-monarchy lumps.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Be Of Good Cheer, Little Guy!

Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) chief Pashupati Shamsher Rana asserts the nation’s smaller parties would be forced to take a “harsh” decision if the Big Three persisted with their waywardness. Since Rana did not shed any light on scale of severity they might be contemplating, Maila Baje was forced to scratch his head.
Rana’s threat came after Nepal Workers and Peasants Party (NWPP) withdrew its support from Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s government. So it was tempting to probe a link. But, then, NWPP chief Narayan Man Bijukchhe clarified that his party’s decision did not mean he had sought the resignation of the prime minister. And that was before he claimed that a new government would be formed in a week. (So does that mean Nepal is going to lead the new government, too?)
With this feverishly spinning head, one was forced to turn to Nepal’s oldest hand on such matters, Rana’s one-time boss and current party colleague, Surya Bahadur Thapa. The former prime minister stated the whole imbroglio stemmed from the rise of extreme leftist forces. As one of our earliest Maoists, Bijukchhe would thus fall into Thapa’s exclusionary zone. So you have to veer toward the prospect that the ex-panchas may be up to something on their own.
Are they about to withdraw the votes they cast two years ago in favor of declaring Nepal a republic? Honestly speaking, when Lokendra Bahadur Chand ended up voting with the majority, it became infinitely harder to view the moment with a complete sense of finality. The ex-panchas never said their vote was not conditional, say, on the constituent assembly’s being able to write a constitution within its stipulated schedule.
Even if they were to take back their votes, the ex-panchas would hardly make a dent in that resounding verdict. Thapa rubbishes such talk. Instead, he believes a new force would emerge from any vacuum. It’s hard to fathom that. But, then, who thought K.P. Oli, who was not a member of the assembly, would emerge to oversee a gentleman’s agreement with the Maoists on extending the assembly’s tenure in exchange for Premier Nepal’s resignation. (Let’s not even consider how the Maoists took his word based on a three-point undertaking neither Oli nor Nepal cared to sign.)
Yet that agreement seems to go to the heart of the matter. Therefore, Rana hastened to accuse the big three parties of forcibly extending the assembly despite the fact that his own organization was complicit in the act. At least RPP-Nepal’s Kamal Thapa, considering the way his party voted, can assert with credibility that the elected members have turned themselves into self-appointed custodians of the nation.
We don’t know whether Rana and Surya Bahadur Thapa will ever be on the same page. Stung by the past, their party is still in a drawn-out process of unification, which makes consistency an even more elusive commodity. In their dissonance, they might have just provided the divided Nepali Congress a chance to stroke its neck and revisit that first vote in the constituent assembly.

Monday, June 07, 2010

A Rivalry Entrenched In Eternity

Their epic rivalry seems destined to go on forever. Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala refused the Republic Day honor her government bestowed on her late father because it ranked him below Ganesh Man Singh. It was reassuring to know that she didn’t take umbrage at Girija Prasad Koirala being equated posthumously with Man Mohan Adhikary.
But Sujata is being needlessly insecure. Juxtapose the records, even at the risk of dreariness. Girija Prasad was elected premier five times and appointed once. King Birendra – and presumably the Nepalese people – wanted Ganesh Man to take the top job once. But he declined.
When Singh was making his early sacrifices for democracy, Girija Prasad was learning the ropes from his brothers. Democracy gave Ganesh Man his moments in power, something that eluded Girija Prasad for quite long. But the youngest Koirala brother continued to sharpen his skills. B.P. and Matrika were busy bickering, and Tarini and Keshab were maneuvering around in other ways. So G.P. got the most of all worlds he was to put into great use later.
While Singh was mastering homeopathy in Sundarijal, with B.P. reading, writing and reflecting, Girija Prasad was trying to negotiate their release, but failed. During Singh’s exile and incarceration, Koirala was building the party by, among other things, masterminding a hijacking and weeding out undesirables.
During the relatively liberal post-referendum Panchayat years, Ganesh Man rode around on that rickety Mercedes. Koirala had his wobbly jeep. A top palace official revealed the other day how B.P. had asked King Birendra not to engage with other Nepali Congress leaders. Imagine the aggravation of each when Ganesh Man and Girija Prasad took turns trying to impress upon the monarch the urgency of post-B.P. reforms.
In the end, the king exasperated both. Singh failed to comprehend what he considered the palace’s almost desperate recalcitrance and Koirala was vexed by its refusal to dangle anything better than a Panchayati deputy premiership. And that impelled both to further action. Ganesh Man commanded People’s Movement I, which Girija Prasad initially opposed. Koirala reaped the largest reward, while Singh couldn’t keep his place in his party. The outcome of that anomaly had become apparent long before democracy crumbled.
Koirala commanded People’s Movement II, retroactively redefined its mandate and abolished the monarchy. He couldn’t get the presidency. (The Nobel Peace Prize seems equally elusive, now that the committee has begun to award expectations as well as achievement.)
Like Singh’s, Koirala earthly flaws billowed away in the funeral pyre. But that should not obscure the principal contrast. Ganesh Man refused to take on the responsibility of completing the movement he commanded. (Considering how Koirala ran the premiership during his appointed tenure – complete with oxygen masks – one wonders whether extended bathroom visits alone might have prevented Singh from doing an equally stellar job.) Girija Prasad bit off more than he could chew, leaving the country clenching its jaws perhaps in perpetuity.
In the posthumous honors, Ganesh Man may deserve a notch higher than Girija Prasad for the simple reason that he died first. Still, in what way exactly did Singh contribute to consigning the crown to history? At least Nepal’s only communist prime minister to serve under the monarchy was ideologically a republican. But, then, you can’t ignore the fact that Ganesh Man’s party mounted those two botched attempts at regicide.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Miracle Mongers And Their Methods

In the end, the blatantly bickering Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) contrived that miracle at midnight to prevent a damaging split in the party. United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal, itching for that penultimate showdown with rival Baburam Bhattarai, went along. Maybe we have the story mixed up.
Amid the uncertainty preceding the tripartite consensus, Bhattarai had pledged his support to proponents of extending the Constituent Assembly’s tenure even if that meant his faction would have to cross the floor. A split in the party would have been acceptable to people like Mohan Baidya. But if that had happened during the vote, Bhattarai, for the first time, would have exhibited his preponderance in the party. Better to take a step back and allow Bhattarai to overreach.
The ideologue is no egghead when it comes to the political slugfest. In reality, he has wisened up in direct proportion to the number of times the premiership slip by his grasp. After the assembly was extended, Bhattarai colorfully called the agreement a check that had every chance of bouncing. Were that to happen, Bhattarai warned, he would claim the principal and interest in full measure.
For now, the onus is on him to pressure Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign. Dahal can breathe easier knowing that those who put faith in Bhattarai’s line after the general strike fiasco would not pester him for a while.
Should Bhattarai become premier, it might not turn out to be so bad for Dahal. At the head of an unruly coalition, Bhattarai can expect to dispense patronage to strengthen his grip on the party. By instigating his own loyalists certain to get key ministries and sections of the other coalition partners, Dahal could hope to constrain Bhattarai’s space. Then by citing his inefficiencies, the Maoist chief could try to resurrect his formation.
Bhattarai, of course, would be tempted to tilt southward, seeking to return to the geopolitical intent of the 12-point agreement he virtually rammed down Dahal’s throat in 2005. Both recognize that the slightest whiff of such obsequiousness would be enough to set off the rank and file in all directions.
But by then, Bhattarai knows, the prospect of a grand political realignment will have pushed the UML to another moment of truth. The Nepali Congress, too, groping for that post-Girija Prasad Koirala way of life, will have not ceased to amaze the country by the preposterousness of its paroxysms.
And the constitution? There may still be hope. It shouldn’t take that much of a miracle to reconcile the Maoist and Narahari Acharya versions and put it to a vote.