Monday, July 26, 2010

Geography Of Political Thought

As many legislators voted for Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal as cast their ballots against Nepali Congress vice-president Ram Chandra Poudel in the second round of voting for prime minister last week. Unless the frenzied behind-the-scenes jockeying that we all can sense is under way produces something spectacular, Nepal seems set for an extended spell of parliamentary gaucherie.
Yet there seems to be a dark horse lurking behind the shenanigans. Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic) leader and Deputy Prime Minister Bijay Kumar Gachhadar has made no secret of his prime ministerial ambitions. Given the unabashed way in which the Madhes-based parties are bent on extracting their pound of flesh, Gachhadar’s time may have indeed come.
The president and vice-president already represent the region and a premier with roots there is unlikely to resolve the Madhes issue. After all, playing up the discrimination card has proved politically potent for all within the country and geopolitically invaluable for those outside. Nepalis, for their part, have recognized the geographic, ethnic, linguistic and socio-cultural variations in the debate. But non-Madhesis, apparently, are expected to be more of listeners than anything else.
If Girija Prasad Koirala was not considered rooted deeply enough locally to prevent a hemorrhage toward regionalism from the Nepali Congress – including some longtime loyalists – no ethnic hillsman or woman can expect to drive the deliberations. Yet the agenda needs to be advanced in a manner consistent with the aspirations of all Nepalis if a constitution with a modicum of credibility is to emerge.
Gachhadar remains part of the madhesi alliance whose common platform barely disguises its divisions. Still, he wields enough individual and ideological distinctiveness to rise to the occasion. As a Tharu, Gachhadar could refocus attention on the nuances of the Madhes debate. A supporter of restoring the Hindu character of the Nepali state, he could inject relevance into the national picture whose hues have shifted after the heady exhilaration of the spring of 2006.
Now that we have heard rumors of an estimated price tag of 200 million rupees on Nepali secularism, there is some urgency to revisit the haste with which Nepalis had to let go of Hinduism before contemplating casting aside the kingdom. Although Gachhadar has not explicitly endorsed the restoration of the monarchy, he certainly possesses the capacity to press forward that side of the national debate as well.
Then there is Gachhadar’s recent open claim, fresh from consultations in New Delhi, that he enjoys India’s blessings as far as the unfolding political developments are concerned. Considering that assertion, the Chinese can be expected to become more energetic in opposing or coopting him. The Americans would have an easy time playing both sides. On the bright side, you wouldn’t have to be a terminal cynic to appreciate the invigorating candor of it all.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Proportions And Politics Of Prejudice

Vice-President Parmanand Jha certainly spoke for much of the country last week. “Even after the year-long extension of the constituent assembly, the Nepalese people are not at all certain whether they will get their constitution,” he declared.
Seeking to prove the Veep wrong, the major parties have set April 13, 2011 as the date for promulgating the new statute. Seeking to project an element of seriousness to their assertion, they gave a two-month timetable to the state restructuring commission to come up with recommendations on one of the more contentious issues. Yet 22 out of the 25 parties in the assembly registered their disagreement over the decision by the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML and the UCPN-Maoist to form the commission. Not quite a confidence booster.
That’s where Jha’s other assertion gains relevance. In order to build an inclusive society, he said, it is vital to enact inclusive acts and put into practices rather than limiting them into mere words. It would be wrong to view the preceding as a mere reiteration of Jha’s well-known claims of anti-Madhesi discrimination. Things are different this time, something even the Veep appears to acknowledge.
In a statement he made a few days earlier, Jha had the candor to claim that discrimination had been reduced to some extent. The top two – albeit ceremonial – offices have gone to the community. The caretaker premier is associated with the Terai constituency he lost in the last test of popular strength than the Kathmandu neighborhood that spurned him. Moreover, a Madhesi leader is among the men staking their claim to form the next government.
And all this is happening at a time when we still haven’t settled on who is a madhesi or what it take to be one – geography, ethnicity, skin color, verbal intonation, political sympathies, social behaviors, etc.
“Why can’t the state openly accept that there exists discrimination at the state level?” “Is it incorrect to demand equal representation?” When Jha asks such questions, they must be taken as rhetorical ones. Otherwise, the deadliness of the Maoist insurgency and the difficulties of peace process are there for all of us to see.
Stung by the parochialism that marred his last attempt at prominence, the Veep has attempted to rope in the cause of other marginalized groups. But the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) has opted to break its own new ground. It declared a fresh stir to pressurize the political parties to draft the constitution on time. “It is immaterial for us which party leads the government and who is elevated as next prime minister,” Rajkumar Lekhi-Tharu, the chairman of NEFIN, said at a press conference. “We want a constitution that ensures rights to the Janajatis,” he said repeatedly.
Finally, someone seems to have their priorities right. NEFIN has declared economic blockade August 14, 2010 for Kathmandu valley and disruption of vehicle movement throughout the country. If this is not the kind of common cause Jha had hoped to build, then perhaps he should begin wooing other constituencies that now feel dispossessed, such as, say, Brahmins and Chettris.
As to the issue of discrimination in general, someone once said that if we were to wake up some morning and find that everyone was the same race, creed and color, we would find some other causes for prejudice by noon. Another averred that human history is written by the fluid of prejudice. Still another claimed that everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences; no one can eliminate prejudices – they can just recognize them.
What do you do after that? Prejudice, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by argument, we are told. Since it is all in the mind, if you believe that discrimination exists, it will. These nuggets of human wisdom accumulated over experiences good and bad over the centuries have their relevance in our context. But for the international laboratory that we have become, there is that added problem. We can’t really recognize where the highlighting of discrimination ends and the rationalization and legitimization of it begins.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Watching All Those Skeletons Dance

After the abolition of the monarchy, many Nepalis expected a torrent of putrefaction gushing endlessly deep from the bowels of Narayanhity Palace. A few enterprising scribes brought out purported “exposes” they were careful enough to qualify as works of fiction. Beyond that, it has been period of disappointment for thrill seekers.
Two years after the last king vacated the palace, no underground torture chamber has surfaced. There has not been the faintest trace of any grand harem. The elusiveness of the shrines to royal decadence and debauchery is weighing down the most fervent forager. For all its worth, the palace, since it was turned into a museum, has made international news for its monumental drabness – and that, too, for about five minutes. As former royalist minister Prakash Koirala mused the other day, who would have expected the last crown prince to get the kind of public reception he now revels in?
Yet skeletons have been tumbling out of other closets. Nepalis have become more informed of the machinations of the palace bureaucracy, the incivility of the military secretariat and the insecurity posed by a bevy of collateral royals. These days, the Mallas, Thapas and Pandes all have their advocates pushing their own versions of history. Everybody has reputation to destroy. Corrupt parvenus are juxtaposed with ostensibly pedigreed multi-millionaires. Palpalis undermined traditional Gorkhali families. Traitors to the king and country were repeatedly rewarded. The loyal and the honest were continually sidelined. Victim and aggressor alike pose a holier-than-thou pretense that enlivens the narrative.
Perspectives abound from outside as well. Yet they seem to hide more than they reveal. Take the two most gripping examples. The man who helped found the Rastrabadi Swatantra Bidyarthi Mandal continues to tell us of his disenchantment with the Panchayat system. Reborn as a journalist after the referendum, he invited such wrath from the princes that only a clumsy gunman appeared capable of providing the anti-climax. Yet there are elements of Edensque proportions that are missing from the story, especially after our own drug wars got nastier amid the American crackdown in the mid-1970s. Politics alone cannot – and must not be allowed to – explain events that may be actually rooted in the growing exclusivity of economic opportunity.
In another exposition, we learned how King Mahendra’s supposed emissary to Mao Zedong years later got an invite from Indira Gandhi. By that time, the interlocutor, by his own admission, refused the monarch’s advance request for a debriefing. His locus standi does not surface in any appreciable way, given the seriousness of his purported involvement. Nor does it emerge in any way how the man mustered the courage to defy whom conventional wisdom has held to be the most vengeful among our modern monarchs.
Yet the gentleman seems to have possessed rare indispensability. Years ago, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal is said to have assured him that the rebels would accept the monarchy if the Chinese specifically asked them to do so. The gentleman’s failure to facilitate dialogue between the two sides brought another revelation. The Americans and Indians had entrenched themselves too deep on opposite sides of the breach at a time when they were publicly touting the convergence of their views.
Maila Baje tends to find the Newar families that have traditionally served the palace – some over several generations – the most reticent when it comes to giving out even off-the-record royal tid-bits. Should that change, we can expect things to reach a new level of spiciness. Until then, let’s appreciate the skeletons we get to their barest bones – mindful of the ambiguities and obfuscations accompanying the cracks and crevices.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Flashback: Who Do We Want Maoists To Be?

India’s Maoists accuse their Nepali brethren of betraying the cause. At the same time, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram believes our ex-rebels may be arming his country’s increasingly lethal insurgents. The truth must lie somewhere in between.
Clearly, our Maoists succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams. The Nepali Congress had democracy on their side. Yet their insurgencies faltered almost from the start. When the Jhapali Reds began hunting heads, skulls should have accumulated across the country. After all, the people who abhorred the partyless government had no other way of articulating their sentiments. Leaders in those two groups came in various shapes and sizes. There must have been a reason beyond ideology, injustices and idiosyncrasies for the Maoists’ triumph.
With that question, Maila Baje slipped into sleep. The probe persisted with every move of the eye, starting from that April midnight in 1990. King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties to checkmate the Indians, who were pressuring him to Bhutanize Nepal. New Delhi was stunned by the monarch’s impudence but it certainly was not out of options. While Nepalis were dancing and singing their way to “one of the world’s best constitutions”, the real fight had entered a more virulent round.
Controlled chaos was always the operational term on India’s Nepal file. In the post-1990 years, it seemed far easier to operationalize. The Chinese, on the other hand, pulled back from their Panchayat-era assertiveness, only after ceding space to their allies, the Pakistanis. As the Nepali Congress squandered opportunity after opportunity, the Unified Marxist-Leninists were getting too big for their boots. Enter the Maoists.
Clearly, the palace saw the Maoist rebellion as a vindication of its disbelief in the Fukuyaman end-of-history exegesis the mainstream parties had been peddling. More important, however, was the dominant Indian and Western view of this ragtag band of extreme Nepali leftists. They could come in handy to show the UML its place. The Nepali Congress, not too soon, was mesmerized by the prospect. Sure, success would swell the Maoists’ head, too. But that was for another day.
By the end of the nineties, Nepalis had a revelation. The world’s only Hindu state’s relations with India had never been as bad as it had during the first few years of the ascension of a Hindu nationalist-led government in New Delhi. Of course, the palace’s ties with prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders remained excellent. But they were Indians first. Across the southern border, the dump-the-monarchy cabal was ready for the final battle King Birendra had apprehended from moment of his enthronement. By the time of the Narayanhity massacre, this group of Indians believed they had an organized group ready to take control.
In the West, the monarchy had more influential allies than adversaries. But that changed after the US Republicans’ White House win in 2000. When the neocons in the wider West discovered that King Birendra and Crown Prince Dipendra were up to something not in conformity with their worldview, the equations shifted. As vital as Nepal was as a geopolitical prize, it was menacing as the world’s only Hindu state. Nepal was among the six most difficult countries to spread the Gospel. The godless Maoists could not be the answer.
The India-West divide became apparent after the carnage when Zee News and Star News were confidently reporting that no one had survived the Narayanhity massacre and that thousands of Maoists were moments away from capturing the palace. CNN was equally certain about that Prince Gyanendra was safe in Pokhara. The Maoists who were supposed to storm Narayanhity simply melded into the crowd of mourners.
The Maoists recognized they were totally in India’s lap now. This was not a source of comfort to the Indian government. But those who botched up had an instant CYA moment. In the eyes of much of the world, the Great Helmsman and his legacy were associated more with the Chinese. Why not paint the new king as pro-Chinese, notwithstanding the fact that his entire business associations had been with the Indians?
The Indians enjoyed plausible deniability. And there were other interests at play. Controlled chaos meant peace as a prelude to more virulent war. Every life lost became a statistic. Every infrastructure blown up was a potential opportunity for reconstruction.
The Maoists’ success rested on their flexibility with alliances. If being branded as palace lackeys helped, that was fine for the time. If allying with India helped perpetuate the myth the Nepal would become a paradise the moment the monarchy was out, that was good, too. War and peace, purity and flexibility all became interchangeable concepts and campaigns. Without the arsenal of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s words, Pushpa Kamal Dahal would have had long lost his war on the battlefield.
The external investment paid off in 2005, when King Gyanendra did what his brother or nephew would have done: adjust Nepal’s geopolitical locus. The see-we-told-you-so grin on the Indians was too wide to measure for the mortified westerners. With the monarchy finally out of the way, the Maoists could be mainstreamed as part of India’s national-security strategy.
To their good fortune, the Maoists joined the mainstream at a time of great geopolitical shift. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited New Delhi but not without instructing his ambassador there to reaffirm claims to Indian-held territory. After using former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to validate their electoral triumph and rise to power, the Maoists looked northward.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s men and women, in the eyes of China’s Nepal pointman, Wang Hong-wei, not only emerged as the largest party. It is also the best placed to unite all nationalist elements. Yet, considering all that has happened, the Chinese, too, must be wondering who they would like the Maoists to be. That was the question Maila Baje woke up to and has been pondering ever since.

Originally posted on October 26, 2009