Monday, September 13, 2010

Anxiety Attack, Conventional Conceit

As it prepares for its crucial 12th general convention, the Nepali Congress has notched up some notable successes in its self-rejuvenation campaign. The organization has drawn in some 180,000 new members, with those in the 18-35 age group comprising some 29 percent of the entrants. Regardless of whether this would be enough to reverse what was becoming a gerontocracy, there is a palpable sense of optimism within.
The leadership has been busy projecting the upcoming event as a celebration of unity. This is understandable since it is the first convention after the reunification of the Koirala and Deuba factions. Concerns that the rift remains to be fully healed have pervaded the discourse on both sides.
In spreading the unity message, some of the Nepali Congress’ traditional smugness has returned. Former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba reminded the country the other day that, like it or not, the Nepali Congress is the only democratic party. A few days later, assistant general secretary Arjun Narsingh K.C. went a step further by likening the Maoists and the CPN-UML as kindergarteners when it came to democracy.
Such egotism is bound to unnerve the other major and minor parties that have stood the popular test. But the more relevant dimension of that contention is internal. How could the party that claims to have led all three of Nepal’s democratic upsurges end up contributing the most to squandering the promise of two and imperiling the third?
Did the party really play such a monumental role in, to borrow a favorite line, restoring a king that had escaped to Delhi in 1950? Or did the Nepali Congress leadership peddle that narrative to mask the ignominy of having merely signed the dotted line in the Indian capital? B.P. Koirala’s effort to marginalize the monarchy, while ideologically consistent for a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, reflected a monumental misreading of the geopolitics of the time.
The 1959 election did not mark – to borrow a more recent phrase – the end of history. The admixture of charisma and rigidity glued with impetuosity was bound to come unstuck. Prison and exile did not diminish B.P. Koirala’s sense of righteousness. When he finally acknowledged the paramountcy of external factors in Nepal, B.P. crafted it in the guise of a national reconciliation policy, which was essentially an effort to mask the original letdown.
The Nepali Congress’ retelling of the 1990 story was another self-serving embellishment of what was a new geopolitical turn. Fear of the extremists taking the field nudged the palace and opposition parties, in tandem with the external protagonists, to accelerate what was essentially a work in progress. In the ensuing tussle, the Nepali Congress had time and popular tide on its side.
The arrogance bred by the desire to monopolize the democratic space could only come with its natural corollary: an abiding fear of relegation to the opposition in open and competitive politics. In blaming the palace, the CPN-UML or the Maoists for the October 2002 meltdown, the Nepali Congress establishment simply refused to take responsibility for the sequence events that culminated in the party split earlier in the year.
By forcing the palace to restore the House of Representatives, G.P. Koirala vindicated a stance that some of his closest colleagues had begun to doubt. But to what effect? Compared to 1951 and 1990, the 2006 script had even far little to do with the Nepali Congress. That the Nepalese people had to return to the man most responsible for the last democratic debacle for their supposed salvation was a reflection of the anomaly of the time, something the Maoists played on.
If the former rebels ended up driving the early phase of the peace process, it was because they had entered the mainstream with a firm intent to hammer away the Nepali Congress quest to monopolize the political space, if not necessarily to supplant it. It has become amusing for a far wider audience to see some of the same people in the Nepali Congress who once found it politically chic to hail the Maoists for having raised their weapons in defense of the people to now come out and criticize the former rebels for failing to become full-fledged civilian party.
You did not have to have a tinge of a Marx, Lenin or Maoist to recognize the common political, economic and social cords the Nepali Congress and the monarchy shared. With that link sundered, the party could only be left gasping for air. The death of the patriarch accelerated the sputters.
From the flux, the Nepali Congress may still be able to reinvent itself in accordance with the country’s requirements. And Nepal would be better for it. So when Deuba and his ilk regurgitate how the Nepali Congress is the only democratic party around, their conceit is not the real problem. It is their attempt to palm off an anxiety attack as a burst of confidence.