Monday, December 27, 2010

Denial And Deception: Sorry ’Bout That

Just as we thought Sri Lanka’s apology had settled that curious diplomatic fracas, Colombo strenuous denied ever having said sorry to us. So we are back to the old question. Did or didn’t President Ram Baran Yadav ask his Sri Lankan counterpart, Mahinda Rajapakse, to be a peace mediator in Nepal?
Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris repeatedly told his country’s parliament that Yadav had done so during a meeting with Rajapakse in China in late October. Colombo’s latest stance bolsters that position. Peiris, of course, had a vested interest in extolling Rajapakse’s credentials as a peacemaker, especially as an alternative to the regional you know who. As his nation’s top diplomat, Peiris may have easily employed that time-tested tool of his profession in what he considered the pursuit of national interest.
Our own media had reported that Yadav had met Rajapakse in Shanghai, the only foreign counterpart he did so in China, saying they had discussed the peace process. From the local coverage, Yadav had made a bland request for Colombo’s support to the peace process. So when the Sri Lankan media reported Peiris’s far more definitive claim, our president’s press secretary issued a flat denial. Yet Peiris persisted.
When Sri Lanka’s Deputy Foreign Minister Neomal Perera arrived in Kathmandu for a regional conference, few Nepalis seemed to associate him with his boss’s assertions. During a courtesy call on Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, according to section of the Sri Lankan media, Perera offered an apology on behalf of Peiris. The idea ostensibly was to keep things quiet. Once word got out, Colombo issued a flat denial. Clearly, this is much more than a story of who lied.
To Maila Baje, the circumstances in which it gained traction remain far more complex and merit greater scrutiny. When Rajapakse suppressed the once seemingly invincible Tamil Tigers, he sparked easily audible voices of displeasure in India. Although the Tamil Tigers were responsible for the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi did not seem too happy with the suppression of the group. Among other things, the overt backing of Beijing had made Colombo’s enterprise particularly galling for New Delhi.
Through that triumph, Colombo felt it had broken out of the sphere of India’s influence – psychologically if not physically – which New Delhi expected to have formalized even after its ill-fated military expedition two decades ago. Thus, as the Rajapakse government has discovered to its discomfiture, the storyline has now shifted to allegation of Sinhala war crimes against Sri Lankan minority Tamils.
President Yadav, for his part, had hosted Rajapakse as the first head of state to visit Nepal since it became a republic. Yadav thus went into the Shanghai meeting with a high comfort level. Our president, moreover, already had demonstrated his eagerness to gratify his Chinese hosts. In a republic as wobbly as ours, the presidency remains the most vulnerable institution. How far Beijing has reconciled itself to Nepal having become a republic – at least in its current form – remains open to question. Around the time of Yadav’s trip, Beijing had hosted Vice-President Parmananda Jha, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and leading Maoist commanders. And as far as China is concerned, every visit has a remarkable degree of official halo.
So President Yadav tread familiar path on befriending China. He urged Beijing (through its top rep in Lhasa) to accelerate the extension of its railway network up to Nepalese border, sidestepping the abiding obsession of the Indians. Any fallout from the south would be manageable, in Yadav’s estimation, by the sheer orientation of the Nepalese government.
Once in Shanghai, Yadav could have been carried away by his ebullience. It would not be hard to see how he might have sought Rajapakse’s role in Nepal’s peace process as part of his northern charm offensive.
It is easy to be sidetracked by Yadav’s current public persona as ceremonial president. Scratch the veneer a bit and you can see his keenness for a new version of that much-maligned Article 127, notwithstanding his professed desire to return to his village as a farmer. Yadav essentially remains a Nepali Congress stalwart and his partisan role during the recent party convention has been amply chronicled by the aggrieved faction.
While Yadav would indeed emerge stronger in the arena of plausible deniability, why would the Sri Lankan foreign minister lie – if that were indeed what he did – and stand firm? Projecting the smaller South Asian nations’ ability to extricate themselves from their own problems is an objective Colombo shares with Beijing, an aspiration non-official Nepal would easily endorse.
Then there is the fact that Peiris’s claim came after Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Sri Lanka, ostensibly to open consulates in the southern and northernmost parts of the island nation. Krishna travelled to the southern town of Hambantota to open a consulate barely a week after the government launched the first stage of a 1.5-billion-dollar Chinese-funded port there. The other new Indian mission is in northern Jaffna, the former stronghold of the Tamil Tigers and ostensibly the most ideal venue to whip up the war crimes allegations against Colombo.
Who would benefit from a falling out of the two nations on northern and southern ends of South Asia, intent on redefining the region’s strategic balance? That’s where the heart of the matter lies, regardless of who may be lying around the edges.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chitwan Mêlée And The Back Stories

Paras Shah and Rubel Choudhary are probably having a hard time counting the number of people thankful for the Chitwan fracas.
The Nepali Congress has managed to paper over – if temporarily – the rift created by party president Sushil Koirala’s contentious appointments. Sujata Koirala, who was on the verge of striking an alliance with Sher Bahadur Deuba to prise the general secretaryship away from Krishna Prasad Situala, has now been emboldened to go it alone, courtesy of her live-in son-in-law.
Sitaula, it emerged early on, was the man who instigated a hesitant Rubel to file the complaint against the former crown prince. But Maila Baje feels that was aimed more at influencing the Nepal component of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s talks with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in New Delhi. Bringing all those skeletons out of the Mandikhatar closets while Sujata was abroad was secondary to Sitaula’s last-ditch effort to disprove the inherent inanity of the 12-point agreement.
The Maoists, for their part, managed to forge a semblance of unity between Mohan Baidya and Pushpa Kama Dahal factions as well as name India as the principal enemy. Granted, they clubbed “domestic reactionaries” with our southern neighbor. But the ex-rebels’ end-justifies-the-means reaction to the Paras controversy put all that in context. Chief dissident Dr. Baburam Bhattarai did rail against ex-royalty for trying to fish in troubled waters. But when he blamed the current leaders – his rivals within the party included – for emboldening them, Bhattarai sense of glee was unmistakable.
The Chitwan mêlée allowed the CPN-UML to deepen indecision on whether to espouse ideology (Maoists) or expediency (Nepali Congress) in going forward. That is no mean achievement for a party that exacerbated the farce succeeding the resignation of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal. As for the pro-monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, rumors of a rift with the ex-royals seemed to be just that, considering the sustained street action.
The Americans were frantically trying to contain the embarrassment likely to result from the Wikileaks revelations on Nepal. Yet Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood, who faced Maoist black flags in Dhankuta, was the greater beneficiary. The Ministry of External Affairs’ public embrace of the ambassador did little to appease Sood or brighten his prospects in Nepal. With the hands of the law having reached the former crown prince, a public offense case has been filed in Solukhumbu against the local Maoist leader for hurling shoes at Sood over two months ago.
The special treatment police meted out to Rubel must have emboldened the kinsfolk of all the other drivers of new Nepal. Whether the women and children will be off limits, allowing the principals to monopolize the name-calling and finger-pointing, is another matter.
What else might have gone on behind the crescendo is anybody’s guess. If there were unusual arrivals or departures – aircraft as well as individuals – at the airport, someone somewhere must have taken note. Less visible would have been any private deliberations at key venues.
If Nepal were to take a decisive turn in the new year, it would be hard not to see the ambience – if not entirely the essence – of this period as a key spur.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Maoists’ Mendacity Of Hope

So the Maoists have now unequivocally conceded that they had espoused the mainstream opposition’s version of democracy only to uproot the monarchy. The real news for Maila Baje lay not in Maoist leader Dev Gurung’s blatant repudiation of loktantra but in the public exasperation of the Nepali Congress’ Ram Chandra Poudel.
In retrospect, the 12-point agreement was the culmination of a thought prevailing in a section of the Indian establishment from the start. A Pushpa Lal-Bharat Shamsher-B.P. Koirala alliance against the palace was never really outside the realm of possibility. Nor was its corollary of whipping up Nepal’s ethnic, linguistic and religious disparities to demolish the international identity the country saw so essential to its survival. However, the evident risks of pursuing those courses long outweighed the expected benefits. Those files were stacked away somewhere, but certainly were not gathering dust.
When the equations changed toward the end of 2005, the Maoists and the mainstream parties were brought together in an alliance against the palace. The Maoists were no doubt in search of a safe landing. But clearly, in that instance, New Delhi had read them the riot act. Still, in consenting to become the propellant of the anti-palace campaign, the Maoists must have tried to gauge what India’s real objections to the monarchy were.
It was certainly not any sickening displays of opulence. Nor could it have stemmed from any aversion to the feudalistic heritage many ex-royals have injected in their political reincarnations across party lines in India. How only one of the three Himalayan monarchies independent India considered irksome managed to survive was best answered by the content of the relationship Bhutan had developed with New Delhi. Top Maoist leader, for their part, were quite perceptive about this reality in the words they wrote and spoke.
In the 2008 elections, the Maoists managed to avoid the political marginalization the architects of the 12-point agreement had envisaged for them. So when the ex-rebels, once in power, chose to tilt toward China, there was some expectation that they were fully prepared for the fallout in the interrogatory and retaliatory forms. Admittedly, taming an organized political force that had emerged with the largest share of votes in elections certified as free and fair should have been harder for the Indians. But the Maoists chose almost to flaunt how every step aimed at assuaging Beijing was, by extension, one aimed at infuriating New Delhi.
Out of power, the Maoists were still best placed to prove how a nation’s expectation of fortifying itself against the convulsions created by the complicated relations between the two regional giants could not be called hubris. But, as the Palungtar conclave demonstrated, the former rebels were more interested in papering over their internal rifts by identifying principal, secondary and tertiary enemies in a preposterous claim to capture state power.
If Gurung’s claim seemed to sound less a statement of fact than an admission of remorse, there is good reason.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Whose Reputation Is Really On The Line?

Krishna Prasad Sitaula has become the newest emblem of an old malady gripping the Nepali Congress. As a polarizing figure, Sitaula may be non-pareil, but he continues a tradition upheld by men like Bhadrakali Mishra and Surya Prasad Upadhyaya.
While they drew much ire from within the Nepali Congress neither man had enough influence to take over the party like that other polarizer Girija Prasad Koirala eventually would. As long as they lasted, however, Mishra and Upadhyaya had forced the Nepali Congress to learn to live with them.
Critics, including many longtime associates, had called them puppets, whose external masters had devised for them specific roles that could never be clear or conclusive. As politics grew murkier in the 1990s, so did the motives and intentions of the puppeteers. No clear successor to the likes of Mishra or Upadhyaya could thus be established. On specific issues, and during specific contexts, a variety of people came into prominence.
Sitaula, in Maila Baje’s estimation, seemed to do so remarkably swiftly after the royal takeover of February 1, 2005. Safe on Indian territory, a week after the palace struck, Sitaula told Indian reporters that the Nepali Congress was ready to join hands with the Maoists against King Gyanendra. Of course, Sitaula carried the usual proviso that the Maoists must first lay down their arms. But that contention was made redundant in the next paragraph of the Press Trust of India story when Sitaula revealed that Girija Koirala had virtually finalized some kind of a deal with the Maoists, thereby precipitating the royal action.
Regardless, the Sitaula track would have to await the endorsement of the Indian National Congress government, which was still hoping to engage with the royal regime all the while seeking to appease its avowedly republican Marxist allies. When the palace sought to project greater international maneuverability, the Sitaula scheme came to the forefront. His special relations with sections of the Indian Marxists and the intelligence services gave the plan some indigenous cover. The Dhaka SAARC summit, of course, made that line of action inevitable and propelled Sitaula’s politics.
When Sitaula, as Home Minister, escorted Maoist chairman Prachanda to Kathmandu for peace talks, U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty felt compelled to ask Prime Minster Koirala to describe the antecedents and implications of the special ties his newest kid on the block seemed to share with the rebels. Many in the Nepali Congress subsequently branded Sitaula as a Maoist all but in name, while Koirala one more than one occasion wondered aloud whose home minister Sitaula really had become.
Still, it fell upon Sitaula to persuade ex-king Gyanendra to hand over the crown and scepter and vacate the palace in favor of the placidity of Nagarjun. However, by then, the Gaur massacre had alienated the Maoists from Sitaula. As Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal departed from the New Delhi-driven 12-point agreement script, Sitaula, predictably enough, became an acerbic critic of the Maoists.
Girija Koirala’s death was thought to have ended Sitaula’s career. Barely on speaking terms with the new party leader Sushil Koirala, Sitaula secured his space. The issue of extending the constituent assembly, we are told, served as the basis for the grand rapprochement.
Fate was propitious to Sitaula. He happened to walk into a heart clinic to visit Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, only to suffer a bout of chest pains. An immediate angioplasty and “stenting” made him fit as a fiddle – ready to confront the resentment smoldering in the party.
Sushil’s nomination of Ram Chandra Poudel and Sitaula as vice-chairman and general secretary, respectively, as his first official action convulsed a party that was supposed to have emerged united after the post-Girija Koirala convention. Sujata Koirala, Arjun Narsingh K.C. and Ram Sharan Mahat – all claimants to the general secretaryship – have now joined Sher Bahadur Deuba’s faction in criticizing Sushil’s act of brazen unilateralism.
Why would Sushil risk grand dissidence in the first place? With little to go beyond his surname in terms of political credentials, Sushil was no long ago named by India’s intelligence community as a leading benefactor of its Pakistani counterpart. By projecting the two most India-friendly members of his party, Sushil must have felt he could redeem his name while putting the onus of victory on someone else.
Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood has inherited much more than the interventionist traits of a renowned predecessor, C.P.N. Singh. He shares the stodgy Singh’s outspokenness in deriding anti-Indianism as an inherent affliction of the Nepali political class. If the overt external prop these two men supposedly enjoy – and have at times unabashedly flaunted – failed to see them through, then, Sushil knows, that would be more of Sood’s problem.