Monday, September 27, 2010

New Roads To Yesterday

*The head of government cancels his trip to New York City because the United Nations secretary-general refuses to meet him.

*The Nepali Congress ponders its next move as its dynastic head, an ailing Koirala, is in hospital.

*The chatterati expect politics to take a new turn when the ceremonial head of state returns from visit to China.

If there is any remaining hope of newness in Nepal, it surely seems to be in the refurbishing of the old. But what else can the people do?
How sensible is it to blame an assembly that has outlived its two-year life for failing to produce a prime minister even after the eighth ballot? And how different might any such premier be from the incumbent, whom voters had actually packed off into retirement?
The tentativeness of the peace process is gripped by the tantrums within the major parties. Even before all the results from the much-touted unity convention of the Nepali Congress came in, the Sher Bahadur Deuba faction began complaining of the underhanded tactics Sushil Koirala and his loyalists used to secure victory. Individuals may be free to switch camps with abandon in Nepal’s self-proclaimed most democratic party, but the convention seems to have widened emotional differences.
Within the CPN-UML, the ruling and dissident establishments are busy trying to demolish the other. But the real battle is over whether the party should align with our northern or southern neighbors, with or without the generals.
It is hard not to join in the glee over how the Maoists are now reaping what they had sown vis-à-vis the prime ministerial election process. But the ex-rebels do not seem to have exhausted their ability to amaze. After chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s withdrawal from the contest, his deputy, Mohan Baidya, now insists that the Maoists would even ready to be a part of a CPN-UML or Nepali Congress-led government if it helped toward forging national consensus. Having done so much to set the two mainstream parties apart over the past weeks, the Maoists have shown that they now need to compromise for a new government.
The international community is understandably perplexed. Clearly, UNMIN wants to abandon the field with the same fervor its critics desire to evict it. The whole brouhaha earlier this month was only about the manner. UNMIN now gets to get out on its own terms, by blaming the parties.
Amid the wackiness, hope springs eternal among some. Civil society leaders Daman Nath Dhungana and Padma Ratna Tuladhar want the protagonists to sign a new understanding, urging civil society to play a new role. But can these self-appointed messiahs go scot-free, especially since the ridiculousness of the 12-point agreement and aftermath was purely papered over by civil society’s insistence that the parties could work things out? Just because these men and women are back to donning their lawyers’, doctors’ journalists’ and activists’ hats does not absolve them from complicity in the chaos.
These are indeed remote issues when you see a caretaker government set to stay in office longer than K.I. Singh’s full-fledged administration had. All eyes are on President Ram Baran Yadav, but where is his gaze? The relevance of the question becomes apparent now that Nepal Workers and Peasants Party president Narayan Man Bijukchhe, the most vocal advocate of presidential rule, seems unsure of whether the incumbent is capable of upholding that responsibility.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Death By A Thousand Cuts

The recent troubles of two journalists have put the spotlight on the new pains gripping the profession. Not that the tribe ever really had it easy in Nepal. Under the Ranas, the only place where the dissemination of news and views stood a chance was in exile.
The dawn of democracy promised to bring a new morning for the fourth estate. Publications competed with politicians to capture the public domain. Newspapers became instruments to attain power as well as places to settle scores after the fall.
With the rise of the Panchayat system, the press and the parties fell together. But a new breed of scribes came up. The joie de vivre of the private-sector papers compensated for the staidness of the government press. Many editors masqueraded as critics of the partyless system, while the real crusaders were hurting.
If the palace press secretariat emerged as the chief national editorial board, it did its job with some semblance of order. In the 1960s, one key official was an academic while another had a degree in journalism. The man at the top during much of the 1970s and 1980s at least came to the job with a letter to the editor published in TIME magazine in defense of the crown.
The year of the referendum brought a new spring. Although the Panchayat system got a decade-long extension, the papers, like the still-banned parties, refused to let go of their freedoms. Opposition grew from within the liberal flank of the Panchayat system and was reflected in the weekly press.
When a pancha-cum-turned journalist was shot, the clumsiness of the perpetrator did not diminish the arrival of the new peril. But you still had legions of boisterous men in safari suits raking in their Dasain allowances and government advertisements, while the real opposition was toiling away. So these latter journalists participated as well as covered the movement to restore multiparty democracy in 1990.
The advent of private-sector media houses brought a new breed of young and enterprising people who tended to consider themselves only behind the king, queen and crown prince in the national order of precedence. (Not Maila Baje’s characterization but an actual assertion by a member of that group, made with a tinge of cynicism.)
Times had changed in less assuring ways. A Maoist editor was one of the early high-profile victims of that convulsion. In the aftermath of the Narayanhity carnage, the editor of the largest daily was arrested for printing an opinion piece by a top Maoist. It was perfidious alright but also provided a critical foray into the geopolitical maneuvering preceding the tragedy.
When a tabloid printed that damaging picture that forced the ostensible subject, an aspiring actress, to commit suicide, the editor’s life seemed to hang in the balance. Shortly thereafter, Nepal turned into an internationally certified death zone for journalists.
Sadly, journalists continue to lose their lives. But the increasing danger is one of a death by a thousand cuts. An editor who also happens to be an advisor to the vice-president, who has not endeared him to anyone, is arrested for having printed an advertisement for recruitment in a banned armed outfit.
Another reporter, visible on the increasingly rancorous water resources beat for a leading daily, is prosecuted for sexually harassing a co-worker. There are just too many holes. The story behind the stories is probably already having a chilling effect in the trade.

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.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Techniques Of Recording And Reading Tapes

As the reverberations from latest Maoist audiotape scandal continue to head in all directions, this much is clear. Krishna Bahadur Mahara is having such a hard time denying that it was his voice that we all heard that he has not bothered pursuing that line of defense.
From his contention, it seems the contents of those two conversations were an amalgamation of disparate statements he might have made in different contexts. Once the answers were conveniently compiled, saboteurs easily crafted their questions.
Outlandish perhaps, but Mahara’s assertion is not implausible. The pauses, cadences, ambient noise and gratuitous whispers together with the muffled quality of the second recording raise new questions. The purported Chinese accent could very well belong to anyone sharing a linguistic legacy with the Middle Kingdom.
The first few questions could easily have come from a news reporter, a doctoral student, or a purely personal acquaintance intent on finding out what really ails the world’s newest republic.
The price tag Mahara purportedly quoted could have meant something else, like, say, his estimation of how much the Indians were paying the 50 MPs to stay away from voting for the Maoists. How are we to be sure the “help” the “friend” was offering was the Rs.500 million referred to? Maybe the “friend” had a Sun Tzu-like exhortation for the Maoists that would create uncertainties for rivals through the application of direct and indirect non-financial maneuvers.
Indeed, the haggling over the venue of a meeting between Mahara and the “friend” over the two conversations raises problems. Saying Hong Kong had a large Nepalese community that could spark all manner of speculation, Mahara wants Chengdu. But the interlocutor is reluctant, saying he does not want any impression of government complicity. Singapore is another potential destination for Mahara, but the interlocutor seems to suggest somewhere more accessible without a special permit. In the end, Hong Kong or Singapore emerge as possible venues.
Here, too, the interlocutor might be talking about a “friend” seeking to write an authorized biography of Mahara. How could a man active in Nepali Congress student politics during the referendum period emerge as a leading Maoist? B.P. Koirala sought to veer closer to the palace to ward off what he saw was a growing Indian-Soviet nexus in South Asia. Did that revolt Mahara and goad him toward a radical nationalism that no political force had espoused? Maybe someone from a leading think tank in Beijing was anxious to probe that dimension of China’s regional developments in the past to extrapolate lessons for its peaceful and harmonious rise?
Then there is the question of how the tape was recorded. Mahara insists that Nepal Telecom, his service provider, does not have the technology to do so. Did the U.S. National Security Agency listen in on a series of conversations as part of its job of monitoring terrorism chatter and forward those bits and pieces to India’s Research and Analysis Wing as part of counterterrorism collaboration? Were there willing accomplices within the Maoists, sore over the way Pushpa Kamal Dahal succeeded in keep losing the prime ministerial election for the simple intention of keeping any other rival emerging from the party? If so, were those Nepalese voices heard in between apparently directing which segments to play up?
Of course, Maila Baje concedes the tapes could be what they are. In that case, it only goes on to prove that the Maoists, as their critics contend, have a far way to go to becoming a civilian party. In a place where even walls have ears, you just don’t put money where your mouth is, especially not when you don’t know who the person on the other end really may be.