Sunday, October 24, 2010

Contemplating The Counteroffensive

It took the Government of India 10 days to summon our Ambassador Rukma Shamsher Rana and lodge a strong protest over the Maoist attack on Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood in Solukhumbu. New Delhi, moreover, allowed Kathmandu to remind itself how the remonstration was the first since 1989, when Nepal bought arms from China, precipitating a crippling trade and transit embargo that produced a deformed democracy.
The contrast Sood’s plight offered with the reception accorded Chinese ambassador Qiu Guhong in Mustang around the same time doubtless aggravated the Indians from the start. But they must have waited to ascertain how the Maoists would behave in the aftermath. The ex-rebels not only seemed unapologetic but almost relished the prospect of repeat performances. Nepalis in general are left pondering the size and scope of India’s likely response to the Maoists’ brazenness.
Opinion seems divided on our end. There are suggestions from some quarters that India has, in the past few years, become more magnanimous toward Nepal. Not out of altruism, though, but out of cool confidence. In the global balance of power, New Delhi believes it is in the best position to maximize its autonomy. From one side of the mouth, the Americans can claim how China has become an equally vital stakeholder in Nepal. From the other, they must acclaim New Delhi as a partner to stabilize South Asia.
Moreover, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s brandishing of the ‘China card’ does not amount to a clear and present danger to India because New Delhi knows the extent of Beijing’s distrust of the Maoists. The other school of thought holds that Dahal may be tilting northward on the express advice of the south to help avoid encroachment of the Indian version of the Monroe Doctrine by the Americans. If you can’t stop the dragon from breathing hard down your neck, the second best thing is to try to lower the temperature. As long as the Indians recognize that the Chinese cannot be a viable economic substitute for Nepal, they feel secure enough. So when Nepal Workers and Peasants Party president Narayan Man Bijukchhe claims that the Indians, being Dahal’s political progenitors, remain unruffled by the northern alliance, he has a point.
But would the Americans countenance a diminution of their influence? So here comes the other twist, pushed by the Rastriya Jana Morcha’s Chitra Bahadur KC. Continued political rivalry could result not only in the reversal of the republican order but the return of the Panchayat system. Before laughing off KC’s remark as a has-been’s quest to maintain relevance, consider this: for all its alleged internal ills, the Panchayat system did absorb the competing external pressures to provide geopolitical equilibrium.
It is no accident that the deadline we are most worried about is the expiry of the current mandate of UNMIN, not the term of the constituent assembly. From Chinese soil, Dahal contended that the end of UN mission would not affect the peace process.
With India set to take up its seat on the Security Council at the beginning of next year, the counteroffensive from the south is likely to carry the payload of all the other directions.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

As Long As It Catches Mice…

It’s becoming harder not to see the acerbity in the tenor of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s observations on India in the light of the appellation emanating from the north.
Honestly, Maila Baje really doesn’t know whether He Yong, the secretariat member of Communist Party of China Central Committee, had actually described Dr. Bhattarai as Nepal’s equivalent of Deng Xiaoping during their meeting in Kathmandu last month. But Beijing as well as the Maoists seem to have sensed the benefits of letting the parallel prevail.
More interesting are the motions gripping our Maoists. When Dr. Bhattarai met separately with Shyam Saran, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy, earlier in the year, the Maoist leader engendered much criticism from within his own party. When Dr. Bhattarai met He, in no less confidential circumstances, the entire party appeared elated. In fact, leading Bhattarai critics seem ready to wear the Dengist badge with pride. (He, whose recent career rested on the campaign against corruption and indiscipline, must have been struck by the Nepalese obsession with his rank as vice-premier.)
Reading deeper into the tea leaves, no member of the Bhattarai faction sought to play up the questions surrounding party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Malaysian sojourn. If the former rebels have embarked on an internal realignment with a pronounced geopolitical tilt, then the postponement of the extended meeting of the politburo has come in handy.
As to the Deng name, it holds particular resonance for Dr. Bhattarai, the preeminent Maoist economic pragmatist this side of the Himalayas. But it connotes many other things. “He can write and he can fight”, Mao Zedong once said of the comrade he called the “little man”. When Mao purged Deng during the Cultural Revolution, he equated Deng and Liu Shaoqi as capitalist roaders. Whereas Li’s fate was almost doomed from the beginning, Mao seemed to hold Deng – in the words of the celebrated China-watcher, Harrison Salisbury – in “special reserve”.
Dr. Bhattarai’s antecedents in the party have been far less tumultuous. But he, like Deng, has been a man in a hurry, one whom his boss has learned not to underestimate.
There are palpable gaps in his record. How seriously Bhattarai questioned Dahal’s leadership and policies during those crucial underground days remains unknown. Everything seemed to have unraveled during his first purge in 2004-2005, which was lifted on account of India’s desire to settle scores with the palace.
Before the constituency assembly election, Bhattarai was projected as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. But, then, Dahal lowered his sights from the presidency, probably because he was not so sure the monarchy would be abolished. Dutifully serving as finance minister, Dr. Bhattarai worked to raise revenue collections and steered clear of the controversies of the Dahal government.
Earlier this year, Dr. Bhattarai’s brinkmanship pushed Dahal toward extending the tenure of the constituent assembly. Despite his growing popularity in the race to succeed Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal – within the party and outside – Dr. Bhattarai remained in fetters. Just as he seemed to have made up his mind to openly challenge Dahal, the Shyam Saran brouhaha erupted.
When the Krishna Bahadur Mahara ‘cash-from-China’ controversy broke out, many a whisper emanating from the aggrieved attributed the leaked tape to someone ostensibly close to the Bhattarai faction.
During all this, the Chinese must have recognized that Dr. Bhattarai was the only Maoist prime minister Nepal could hope to get in the near term. So instead of allowing the Indians to walk away with the trophy, Beijing saw it fit to begin conferring titles in the way the Ming and Qing courts did. In doing so, the Chinese may have hoped to inject some suspicion in the minds of their principal rival for influence. Dr. Bhattarai is too much of pragmatist not to see the benefit of publicly attempting to readjust his geopolitical posture.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Treading Between These Two Thapas

From the extreme ends of the political spectrum, at almost the same time, Nepalis last week heard frantic pleas for preserving the nation’s identity.
Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal President Kamal Thapa, who has become increasingly vociferous in asserting the need to restore both Hinduism and the monarchy officially at the core of nationhood, has come out heavily against foreign egregiousness in this area.
Ideologically opposed to both religion and royalty, the Unified Maoist’s Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal, too, has acknowledged the urgency of strengthening Nepal’s ‘glorious’ identity in the face of sustained external onslaughts. What he didn’t say merits no less scrutiny. Contrary to what might have been expected from someone of his persuasion, Badal hasn’t explained how both institutions might have subverted that glory.
Nor has he expounded on how an identity he presumably believes had once stood out in the comity of nations might regain its position without them. That’s why it becomes prudent to anticipate some point of convergence between the opposite camps without the cynicism that customarily surrounds the subject.
Internally, there has been growing recognition – from votaries themselves – that the political changes ushered in since April 2006 to the detriment of the monarchy have failed to supplant the crucial pivot it had provided to the nation.
Indeed, through sheer legacy and character, Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala regained the leadership the assorted crew of activists and organizers had become tempted to arrogate to themselves in the post-uprising period. Flawed as his leadership was in terms of stemming the slide, Koirala’s departure only revealed the threat of tentativeness on holding the center. True, it may still be impolitic to equate the country’s fate with the crown and religion. Amid the inability of the successor elite to create a new anchor, howls of derision become barely distinguishable from those of despair.
The principal foreign powers have secured their ground sufficiently to acknowledge the perils of prolonged rivalry. During the last phases of the active monarchy, the United States managed to build a huge embassy largely bypassing what would have been close parliamentary scrutiny. The Indians dug in deeper by installing their long-awaited consulate in Birgunj and forcing their way directly into the northern reaches of Nepal with economic largesse. The Chinese secured a clampdown on their Tibetan challengers and much more. At this stage of republican Nepal, all three powers have reached a point unrestrained by the logic of the strategic triangle. The European Union, Japan, Pakistan and Russia all feel they have a stake in the region. Non-state advocacy groups consider themselves no less important stakeholders.
A sense of mortification prevents the architects from repudiating their blueprint. So U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake recently cited ‘progress’ in Nepal whereas the International Crisis Group described the country as not being exactly gripped by ‘chaos’. As a psychological palliative, neither assertion is comforting on the ground because of the obvious disconnect.
Conversations in private reveal the depths of the foreigners’ amazement at Nepal’s ability to rile them. Haunted from the outset by the prospect of an open-ended commitment, they have been assiduously attempting to build internal capacities to hasten an exit strategy. Every ostensible breakthrough has sowed the seeds of the next confrontation. The four-month extension of UNMIN has bought the international community time – but for what? Precipitate action would require the courage of convictions, something you know is sorely lacking when all the external players are busy scratching their heads.
The convergence between the statements of the two Thapas may have been entirely coincidental. In terms of the imperative of internally driven peace, the possibilities are too good not to cherish.