Monday, April 26, 2010

A Premier In His Prime

For a man who came to office with an image as a consensus builder, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal has surely evolved over the months. Or is he really stuck in the groove? In some ways, after all, Nepal still behaves like the leader of the opposition during much of the 1990-2002 phase of democracy, when the CPN-UML tried to decide who the ruling Nepali Congress should name premier.
Nepal announced the other day he would not resign until a consensus candidate emerged to succeed him – and, yes, that someone better not be named Pushpa Kamal Dahal. That sentiment was far from gracious, especially in view of the Maoist leader’s latest olive branch. At least Dahal promised to disband the Young Communist League in exchange for a return to Baluwatar. (The Maoist chairman, of course, seems to have realized that his promise to extend the term of the constituent assembly in exchange for the premiership has raised more cackles than confidence.)
But look at matters from Nepal’s vantage point. Having toiled so much for the high office, he could hardly be expected to let go so easily. And especially not in favor of Dahal. Forget that the Maoist leader is responsible for much of the current rancor for having foisted onto the constituent assembly a man voters had doubly denied direct access. But that was not the only way Dahal demeaned democracy. As if his failure to sack an army chief he so boisterously accused of insubordination was not bad enough, Dahal resigned the premiership last year without anyone having demanded he do so. And what kind of politician threatens to capture state power and then dangles all these goodies to wriggle in?
For Nepal, it is not about playing favorites between Dahal and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. There are far too many claimants to his job. Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala has dubbed her boss a failure and wants her Nepali Congress to form the next government. That is her way of saying how badly she wants the top job. Try convincing the Nepali Congress about her suitability, especially now that papa is not around to preach. That would set off Sher Bahadur Deuba, Ram Chandra Poudel and Sushil Koirala in another orgy over the order of precedence in the party.
Nepal’s other deputy, Madhesi Janadhikar Forum leader Bijay Kumar Gachhadar, has already projected himself as the next premier. He may have the traits and temperament, but can he rally the MJF, much less the nation, on this one? The three top jobs of the nation going to men from the eastern Terai would make even the most historically aggrieved among us to pause for a chuckle.
Within his own party, Nepal can continue pitting contenders against one another. Chairman Jhal Nath Khanal seems to want to choke on his words each time he attempts to open his mouth lately. Perennial malcontent Bam Dev Gautam, who seemed to relish the royalist tag in the bad old days, does not seem to mind being called a Maoist in all but name these days.
With all the political capital Defense Minister Bidya Bhandari has invested in the army, could she be counted out? Even if that meeting between leaders of the UML-allied Youth Force and the generals was merely a rumor, we know who the generals’ favorite comrades are. Let’s say K.P. Oli, with his external patronage and internal belligerence, emerges as the frontrunner. Can we really be sure he is healthier than Bhandari and hence in a better position not to fly out of the country for medical treatment/consultations?
The machine readable passport fiasco may have undermined Prime Minister Nepal’s standing down south. But what else can the Indians do if they still can’t quit sulking? And the Chinese? Somebody seems to have an answer. Consider this gem from the Zimbabwe Herald of April 20, 2010 in a story extolling Harare’s ties with Beijing: “Zimbabwe supports the One China Policy on Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Nepal.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

Freakishness Of Feeding Off The Dead

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s insistence that the tenure of the constituent assembly could be extended only by a government led by his party sounds pretty devious. But it still falls short of the duplicity of his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who claimed a couple of weeks ago that the late Girija Prasad Koirala had concluded it was time for Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to go.
The temptation to milk the dead has cut across party lines with particular sharpness in recent times. No sooner did we hear from a section of the Nepali Congress that Koirala had presided over a secret decision to extend the assembly than the CPN-UML made a formal decision in favor of such a move. Yet the more pertinent perplexity pertains to why Dahal would want to lead the government during these spooky times. (But, then, who really has figured out why he was so anxious to resign last year?)
Prime Minister Nepal should have been the first to jump for joy. In death, Koirala so easily evaded responsibility for his failure to lead the peace process to its logical conclusion. By letting the Maoists return to Singh Durbar, Nepal would have lived to fight another day.
But the decision is not the premier’s alone. The non-Maoist parties know that a cop-out is a luxury they can’t afford. Were the Maoists to take over and extend the constituent assembly, what’s to say that that would not amount to an extension in perpetuity? Leaders on the right and the left might yet find it easy to live without a permanent constitution. What scares them is prospect of being crammed into something akin to a People’s Consultative Assembly only to rubber-stamp Maoist decisions.
That trepidation has grown after Koirala’s death. Remember how the Maoists used to be ridiculed for contemplating capture of state power. Who in their right mind in the comity of nations would let such egregiousness stand in such a geopolitically sensitive region? Well, few people seem to be laughing now.
What else can the world do when it has run out of options? If the Americans could support the Taleban and the Khmer Rouge for a while, why should they be reticent about our far more elegantly malleable and ductile Maoists?
Recognition of a Maoist takeover of Nepal would not be an indictment of the international community’s cold pragmatism. It would amount to a repudiation of the other political parties and civil society that arrogated to itself the moral right to lead our leaders.
And the real nightmare of the non-Maoists? Dahal & Co. just might declare Koirala the father of the people’s republic. He’s not exactly in a position to decline, is he?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nepali Congress: Relevance Inelegance

The Nepali Congress’ struggle for relevance has become particularly heartrending in the aftermath of Girija Prasad Koirala’s death. Look at the seniormost leader the party affirmed the other day. Forget that Krishna Prasad Bhattarai advocates the restoration of the monarchy and the 1990 constitution. He isn’t even a member of the party.
Although the plunge into republicanism pushed the Nepali Congress toward oblivion, the party could maintain its preeminent position because of the stature of Koirala. A sizeable section of the lower-rung leadership was said to have opposed his abandoning the party’s traditional adherence to constitutional monarchy. They kept quiet perhaps out of recognition that Koirala’s main priority for the times – and the 12-point agreement’s principal premise – was to tether the Maoists to the peace process as tightly as possible.
India’s antipathy for King Gyanendra’s independence did not diminish the value it placed on the monarchy. Sikkimization and Bhutanization may have become policy prescriptions through audacious moves, but Nepalization assumed ad-hocism. Hence, the ‘baby king’ card. But Gyanendra Shah wasn’t about to acquiesce in the retention of a monarchy wherein others got to chose who sat on the throne. Instead, he chose to redefine the debate as whether the monarchy needed Nepal more or vice versa.
In the meantime, the Nepali Congress glimpsed the real reason for B.P. Koirala’s affinity for the monarchy: self-preservation. Republicanism has come in all hues on the left. With the UML increasingly taking on a centrist ground all but in name, the Nepali Congress’ turf is surely shrinking. Now, the party abhors the notion that republicanism in Nepal is somehow colored red. Nepali Congress leaders periodically like to remind us that members had introduced a formal resolution against kingship at the celebrated Bairganiya conference. But perceptions have overtaken facts here, just as they have on the issue of the constituent assembly.
As part of the 1950 Delhi Compromise, the Nepali Congress owned that commitment as much as the Ranas and the Shahs – and Jawaharlal Nehru – did. B.P. Koirala ceded the party’s longstanding demand for an assembly because he thought parliamentary elections had a better chance of institutionalizing democracy. Or he may have calculated how his party stood to gain that way. It was in the seventies that he recognized where his party’s principal challenge lay. The first time India pressured the NC exiles to stop their anti-palace insurgency, B.P. clearly saw China from behind his Sundarijal bars. The second insurgency fell flat on B.P.’s watch when he was forced to divert his meager resources to the campaign to liberate Bangladesh. National reconciliation germinated in B.P.’s mind long before his stifling incarceration during Indira Gandhi’s emergency.
Even as the past rings anew, the Nepali Congress cannot avoid an ideological resilience that is forward looking. Without doubt, the intrinsic value of democracy will resonate forever as an ideal. But an ideal, by definition, allows anyone to grasp it. In terms of sustenance, the practical past, too, is unreliable. The Nepali Congress can justifiably proclaim its centrality in our perpetual democratic struggle. But almost seven constitutions later, its role in our democratic malaise is apt to be questioned by more and more people. And that would allow other parties to articulate democracy in their own terms, as the Maoists have.
With democratic socialism having become almost a contradiction in terms, the Koirala brand name could still work some wonders for the Nepali Congress. Sujata Koirala probably has the best shot at wresting the dynastic mantle her father held high for two decades. But for what purpose, considering how, as the party’s leader in government, out of whack with the rest of us she has proved to be on that key symbol of new Nepal: machine readable passports?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Too Lame, Wouldn’t You Say?

A former prime minister and a former foreign minister who share little else in common now clamor in unison that the Americans and the Indians eliminated King Birendra and most of his family. The only way that indictment could get louder is if the incumbent premier were to open his mouth in exactly the same way. (Which he might, should he be removed from office. He was, after all, the man who so vociferously demanded the massacre probe commission and then refused to serve on it.)
This is not quite the situation the country had expected after King Gyanendra vacated Narayanhity Palace. From the rhetoric blaring throughout his five-year reign, you would have thought the new leaders would haul him to the Tudhikhel pavilion, extract a full confession and drag him to Bhadrakali for you know what. But no. Not one leader has dared respond to the challenge newly assertive citizen Gyanendra Shah laid out during his valedictory speech from the palace.
So the story line changed. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Chakra Prasad Bastola and the others who are now likely to speak believe King Birendra’s nationalism did him in. That the “foreign hand” could become handy for everyone in its own way was made amply clear early on when Dr. Baburam Bhattarai penned that imploration on not legitimizing the new kot parba. Dahal used the Birendra-the-nationalist wrap for, among other things, personal effect. Should he be silenced – even by a loony disgruntled cadre – his supposed patriotism should not.
In that sense, Bastola is in a different league. Although he later fell out with his illustrious in-law, his family loyalty seems to have persisted. After Girija Prasad Koirala’s death, he pushes the preposterous line that the then-premier was supposed to have attended what everyone knows had always been a strictly royal family affair. Moreover, Bastola expects us to forget that Birendra and Koirala were barely on speaking terms.
After the tragedy, Koirala often told us that the palace massacre was part of a ‘grand design’. But over the preceding months, the king and his premier had drifted far apart on a variety of national and international issues, including mobilizing the military against the Maoists, the bill granting millions of Indians citizenship and relations with China, to name a few.
Koirala had described the Hrithik Roshan riots as actually being an outburst of popular sentiment against the monarchy. Birendra had taken the unprecedented step of convening a cabinet meeting in the palace. And in the run-up to that fateful Friday, didn’t Koirala gush more than once at how he was finally about to feel like a truly popularly elected premier. If Bastola wanted to absolve Koirala of any role in the massacre – which seems to be his prime motive – he should have paid more attention to concocting a more believable story.
The Americans and Indians don’t seem terribly perturbed by these recent allegations. And why should they. The international left and the right has always castigated U.S. intelligence’s dirty tricks in Asia, Africa and Latin America knowing full well that the agencies concerned never respond to such allegations. As for the Indian intel guys and gals, they are no less impervious than their American counterparts. But they have an added reason for indifference. Dahal couldn’t have maintained his celebrated subterranean existence all those years without their assistance. Nor could Bastola have emerged as one of the central figures in the Forbesgunj hijacking and cashed it in politically for so long.