Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Man On A Mission With A Message

Upendra Yadav is a man on a mission. Over the weekend, the former foreign minister described India as the main obstacle to solution of the two-decade long Bhutanese refugee problem. The chairman of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) also threw in his lot with the Maoists and emphasized the urgency of extending the tenure of United Nations Mission in Nepal.
You have to hand it to the ex-Maoist lawyer. He has come closer than any former foreign minister in identifying the crux of the Bhutanese refugee problem, as far as Nepal is concerned. Citing Bhutanese insincerity, Yadav said, India always chose to remain silent whenever the Nepalese government sought its help in resolving the crisis. “So, Nepal alone cannot do anything to repatriate the refugees,” he said in a conversation with a Bhutanese delegation at his residence.
Yadav told the Bhutanese team that Nepal’s Madhesi people were in a better position than the traditional elite to empathize with the refugees, owing to their “similar suppression” from those in power. He assured the Bhutanese team that he would raise their concerns with caretaker Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and other leaders. What kind of reassurance that must have instilled in his interlocutors in our own tottering times is best left to the imagination. Still, it was an act of boldness on the part of the MJF leader.
He was no less audacious in directing his attention to UNMIN. The mission’s role was still relevant, Yadav averred, as the country was not yet free from the danger of conflict. Though reborn as a republic, some anti-republic forces were actively working to fulfill their motives, he claimed. Considering his recent own dalliances around that five-star hotel in front of the former palace, Maila Baje is forced to wonder what exactly he has in mind. But, then, you cannot discount the import of that assertion precisely because of Yadav’s motions.
In any case, not everything he said should inspire cynicism. Pointing to the threats of conflict from a number of armed outfits operating especially in the Eastern and the Terai regions, Yadav said UNMIN could play a role in roping these groups into the mainstream of peace.
If you think Yadav exudes the kind of confidence any incumbent foreign minister should, there may be a good reason. He probably rues the fact that by this time he would have returned to the job under a Pushpa Kamal Dahal government, were it not for Indian obstructionism. So even if you think his comments on Bhutan and UNMIN sounded more like they were meant for audiences across the southern border, at least try not to tune them out. Not just yet.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Refuge Of Affectations

The sullen demeanor Shyam Saran wore on his departure from Kathmandu should not obscure us to the success he believes he achieved during his three-day sojourn as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy. Notwithstanding the secrecy with which the former foreign secretary conducted himself, as far as the substance of his confabulations went, Saran succeeded in widening the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-Baburam Bhattarai rift – conceding nothing – in keeping with the original intent of the 12-point accord.
Contrary to expectations in many quarters, the former ambassador to Nepal was not on a mission to handpick the next prime minister. He wanted to throw down the dice once again in an effort to force the other two principal players, China and the United States, to make their next move. In a sense, he was on a mission to salvage his personal credibility. And to understand the mission, it becomes to understand the man.
Saran represents that face of India’s Nepal policy that has taken the hardest hit. The Sitaram Yechuris and S.D. Munis could have hollered at the top of their lungs forever on the wisdom of abandoning the monarchy. Without the pulling the Indian External Affairs Ministry firmly in their camp, Messrs. Y&M wouldn’t have stood a chance. Predilection and circumstances made Saran the perfect medium.
Emulating the perfect babu, Saran rose in the Ministry of External Affairs by playing all sides. He succeeded in wooing opposite personalities like A.P. Venkateshwaran and Muchkund Dubey with equal gusto, keeping his true self to himself. Working the media, he even succeeded in turning an upsetting appointment as ambassador to Myanmar into an act of energetic altruism.
Returned to power in 2004, the Congress-led government of Manmohan Singh merely confirmed its Bharatiya Janata Party-led predecessor’s decision to catapult Saran to the position of foreign secretary. His admirers on left, however, never lost faith in his ideological moorings. The Maoists on both sides of the border had to be stopped before they eroded the space of the mainstream communists.
Despite his own predilections against the monarchy as an historical anachronism, Saran as foreign secretary could not have pushed the MEA to make a final break and press the Maoist-Seven Party Alliance 12-point agreement. But External Affairs Minister Kunwar Natwar Singh’s disgraceful exit from the ministry on allegations of complicity in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal in Iraq, left the field open for Saran. After King Gyanendra helped shift South Asia’s geopolitical locus at the Dhaka summit in November 2005, Saran won over many skeptics.
The Manmohan Singh government, despite its reliance on the Indian left, needed more prodding. Governments come and go but the Indian nation would have to live with the consequences of any precipitous move, especially one entailing the abolition of an entire institution. With Singh having assumed direct charge over the MEA, Saran was well placed to present his case personally to the top man. King Gyanendra, familiar with Saran’s antecedents and antics as ambassador and after, excluded him from joining the palace deliberations with Karan Singh. Saran, who considered himself nothing less than a co-equal on that mission, was understandably irked. Once back home, he almost singlehandedly pulled India away from the twin-pillar policy by presenting to his government as a fait accompli the “mood” on Kathmandu’s streets.
Like some of his predecessors who had become foreign secretary after ambassadorial or No.2 stints at Lainchour, Saran was already seeing himself in larger-than-life hues. He had the added disadvantage of assuming charge of the MEA bureaucracy after the viceroyalty in Nepal. Exacerbating the megalomania was the fact that he worked directly under the prime minister until October 2006. Once Pranab Mukherjee became foreign minister, Saran’s glory days ended.
The Indian Administrative Service, eager to ensure its primacy over all things bureaucratic, rose up against Prime Minister Singh’s effort to get Saran a year-long extension. So he won appointment as the Prime Minister’s Office as a special representative. His media buddies lavished him with praise for the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and prophesied better things in his new brief: climate-change envoy.
Meanwhile, the new foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon – who like Saran superseded more experienced officers – gave a candid admission of how difficult his job had become as the MEA pulled in different directions under his predecessor. On Nepal, New Delhi’s tentativeness had become clearer. Every move in Nepal’s republican set-up was now a work in progress measurable against the Saran roadmap. By the time Menon became National Security Adviser, Saran had sunk deeper in conflict with State Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. There was little he could do but head for the PMO exit door.
With the prospect of irrelevance looming larger, Saran could no longer see his judgment questioned so widely. So he contrived the pretense that the centrality of the 12-point agreement – the weakening of the Nepalese Maoists – remained as workable as ever. The Nepal mission, Maila Baje understands, was largely drawn up at Saran’s own initiative.
So what’s the deal here? By appearing to prop up Dr. Bhattarai, Saran believes he can restrain Dahal from hobnobbing any further with royalists as well as Beijing. Should Dr. Bhattarai get the premiership, his own pro-Indian image would be an albatross around the Maoists’ neck making the prospect of a party split untenable. That way, the Americans, forced to deal with the Maoists as a single organization, would be less emboldened to play off the Indians and Chinese against one other.
The secret meetings that really counted for Saran were the ones with Dahal and Dr. Bhattarai. While reminding each of the commitments he had made during the 12-point agreement negotiations, Saran must have been explicit in spelling out his expectations as well as the cost of non-compliance. Dr. Bhattarai himself has added his voice – albeit still muffled – to the chorus against foreign interference, hasn’t he?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled

“Nepal royals & Maoists making common cause worries India,” the top Nepal watcher for venerable Times of India intimated us the other day. Quoting unnamed sources that the former king’s son-in-law was lobbying for Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s bid to become prime minister by “trying to buy off some constituent assembly members particularly from the smaller parties,” the correspondent went on to speculate on the motives for the “bizarre development … that is certain to upset India”. (Whether Dahal’s improved tally in the third round of voting had anything to do to royal patronage might be worthy of a follow-up.)
After professing the perfunctory proviso that it was not clear whether the son-in-law was actually on behalf of the ex-king, the reporter went on to blur the distinction. Why would Gyanendra Shah embark on such a venture? “Certainly there is absolutely no chance of the Maoists reinstalling the monarchy.”
Probably not. But who knows what the Chinese are up to? It would be relevant to note that a long-time royal associate turned critic reminded us recently that Dahal had pledged to support the monarchy if Beijing expressly asked him to do so. You could argue that Dahal chose not to challenge that assertion because he had made the purported undertaking at a time the monarchy was an established – and perhaps eternal – fact. But, then, you are also forced to reflect on the Maoist leader’s innate ability not to foreclose any option.
There is a constituency across the southern border that believes the Maoists could win the largest number of seats in constituent assembly elections because King Gyanendra lobbied on the ex-rebels behalf. By urging the Nepalese people to vote in the interest of the nation, the monarch was sending a thinly veiled instruction to his silent supporters to vote for the Maoists. The royalist vote, no matter how minuscule, tipped the balance for the Maoists in many constituencies, according to this version.
Whether the ex-monarch’s apparent rehabilitation among sections of constituencies that campaigned to “teach him a lesson” during 2005-2006 was rooted in that realization remains a strand the TOI reporter chose not to pursue. It would also be germane not to ignore the publication’s penchant for subterfuge. During the height of the Seven-Party Alliance-Maoist engagement in New Delhi, the TOI wrote about how India’s left hand was in the dark about what the right hand was doing. As we all know, both had been firmly clasped together.
In the search for answers, the journo also speculated that, like India’s former royalty, Gyanendra Shah may be searching for some political relevance by aligning his family with the biggest political player in Nepal. Or the former royal family, knowing India’s discomfort with the Maoists, could be looking for something from New Delhi. “Either way, this is not a welcome development so far as India is concerned.”
Judging from other reports, New Delhi sought to make its displeasure known before the publication of the report in what has long been considered the government’s unofficial mouthpiece. Under strict instructions from the Madhav Kumar Nepal government, security officers deployed during the former king’s latest temple sojourn went on the offensive against journalists seeking to ask him a few questions.
The effort to malign the ex-king sputtered. Days after Mr. Shah promptly apologized for the untoward incident, former crown prince Paras drew another impressive crowd (for him) in the Terai, a region throughout monarchy years we were led to believe was the most virulently republican.
There have been further developments that should confound the TOI reporter. Royalist foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey suddenly meets President Ram Baran Yadav at a time when the maligned home minister of the time, Kamal Thapa, days after asserting that even the Maoists have started feeling the absence of the monarchy, sets off on a visit to Europe.
Or maybe the TOI reporter, in the grand tradition of the publication, is faking it. Like much of the rest of anti-monarchy constituency that has realized its miscalculation, the journo perhaps wants to make it look like the Chinese alone are writing the script for the next act.