Sunday, December 25, 2011

Maybe Communism Has Defamed Dr. Bhattarai

CPN-UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal has accused Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai of defaming Nepal’s communist movement by, among other things, forming the largest cabinet in the country’s history and packing it with sleazebags.
Addressing a gathering of the party activists in Dharan last week, the former prime minister also accused the Maoist-led government of deviating from its major assignments, such as sending home those Maoist combatants who opted for voluntary discharge. All this, in Khanal’s view, has raised questions about the Maoists’ sincerity in concluding the peace and promulgating the new constitution.
At one level, Maila Baje feels sorry for Khanal, for the kind of inanities he has been reduced to uttering. Communism has been so thoroughly discredited universally that there is little one man – even of Dr. Bhattarai’s caliber – could add. But, then, you have to empathize with the UML chief. In the last test of popular strength, after all, communists in Nepal won nearly two-thirds of the votes cast.
The only way of understanding the contradiction is by recognizing that our heavily splintered communist movement survives in the debris of the ideology’s progressive decay, deepening agony and irrelevance to the human condition. Where it seems to be thriving, it is because of its external label, which is devoid of its internal substance.
In our own context, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the CPN-UML had to repackage itself into a deceptive People’s Multiparty Democracy. It retained a left-of-centre personality that helped all the second- and third-tier besieged commies in Eastern Europe to reinvent themselves as social democrats. The CPN-UML’s first chairman, Manmohan Adhikary, conceded as prime minister that “communism” merely provided a label.
The Maoists had to pander to ethnic, linguistic, regional and other forces to muster collective grievances and magnify them several fold. Sure, the “People’s War” was modeled after the Great Helmsman’s strategy and tactics. But the principal external drivers did not have as their objective the creation of a one-party workers and peasants’ paradise. In the end, the Maoists could not prevail in their principal quest – the abolition of the monarchy – without following the parliamentary parties they had once opposed with equal vigor.
Mao Zedong was too much of a territorially defined mortal to canonize his life and times into any form of a universal ism. In Nepal, Maoism merely became a convenient tool for a motley demolition crew. To remain in power, our Maoists today have had to embody such diverse tendencies as corporatism, Christianity and homosexuality and fuse them into big-tent tolerance while at the same time peddling promises of that ultimate utopia.
True, there are statists today even in the land of the free and the home of the brave who have not given up. In their view, the comrades of yore simply did not do things right. Through several layers of analyses, the drivers of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the czars of Obamaville seek to lure shlubs and sophisticates alike by proffering a sense of direction and moral justification.
The media spinmeisters sanitize what is happening with the ChiComs, almost glorifying the system as a paragon of efficiency in contrast to the gridlock those dead white men bequeathed all those years ago. The Soviet Union is such a distant memory that the free health and education and lifetime employment beckon without a trace of their logical shakiness and practical shoddiness.
Dr. Bhattarai has been at the forefront of peddling precisely that kind of mendacity for so long that sometimes you wonder whether he really still believes what he professes are his beliefs. One is tempted to ask whether it is really communism that has defamed Dr. Bhattarai.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kicking The Can (Of Worms) Down The Road

Seeking to paper over its chronic internal woes, the CPN-UML wants to bring Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, together with Bam Dev Gautam and Amrit Kumar Bohara, into the constituent assembly.
The precedent certainly exists. The party brought in Madhav Kumar Nepal, someone who lost in both constituencies from which he had contested the 2008 elections, who rose to the premiership. Admittedly, that move was engineered more by the Maoists, whose chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal would subsequently come to rue. Yet, Maila Baje feels, we must not forget that Madhav Nepal’s ‘undemocratic’ entry came at a time when the assembly had a clear degree of legitimacy and embodied much hope and expectation.
Oli, like Gautam, was defeated in the election. Bohara, nominated by CPN-UML under the proportional representation system, refused to take a seat, citing his party’s poor performance in the polls. Today, all of the members are staying on beyond the two years the people had hired them for. It should be less of a blow to democracy should Oli and Co. eventually enter the assembly.
Yet a section of the party is opting for a go-slow approach. These members are more keen on giving Oli greater respectability in the party before sending him to the assembly.  Members want Oli – who currently ranks 10th in the party hierarchy – to get the third position after Khanal and Madhav Kumar Nepal, with the title ‘senior leader’.
It might be useful to consider Nepal’s own contribution in the aftermath of Dahal’s resignation in 2009. What could have been a truly catastrophic succession struggle came to an easy denoument because of Madhav Nepal’s easy availability.
Now that the one the nation was waiting for – Dr. Baburam Bhattarai – has proved no different from his predecessors, Oli might be emboldened to seek the office that Madhav Nepal so assiduously denied him (and Gautam, for that matter) during the first phase of royal rule in 2002-2004.
Make no mistake. Jhal Nath Khanal is not acting out of any sense of altruism. And it’s not as if Oli allowed Khanal an easy time as premier. The UML chief needs to restore control in the party and rejuvenate the base. He sees an opening in the reality the CPN-UML has become more disciplined than either the Maoists or the Nepali Congress. Moreover, the UML chairman must have learned something from the dividends Dahal has reaped from his ‘magnanimity’ in allowing Dr. Bhattarai to take the top job.
Oli, too, has the benefit of wisdom. Instead of flaunting his external support – which we understand is considerable – he can hope to rely on either the Sher Bahadur Deuba or Ram Chandra Poudel faction, depending on the case. By pushing Dr. Bhattarai back into the swamp of the party, he could hope to benefit from the process of another realignment within the Maoists. The fact that the former rebels would be able to evade the full spotlight on their responsibility for the sordid state of affairs should give Oli some breathing space.
The smaller parties inside the assembly and those outside could still rail against the monopoly of the ‘big-party syndicate’. Our venerable civil society notables could continue pretending they have nothing to do to with the mess. (They were the ones, weren’t they, who believed they could lead the leaders before and after the April 2006 Uprising?)
The peace process will remain in good shape as long as we can kick the can down the road.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wen Jiabao: A Tale Of Two Trips

As the nation prepares to welcome Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, we cannot but ponder how spectacularly things have changed on the geo-strategic front. Seven years ago, Wen studiously left Nepal out of his South Asian itinerary in deference to India’s sensitivities. This time, he is scheduled to arrive as part of his country’s sustained drive to challenge India’s traditional predominance in Nepal.
After chiding the Nepali government for prematurely announcing Wen’s visit in violation of accepted diplomatic practice, Beijing subsequently has been leaking bits and pieces of information that are clearly aimed more at arousing the interest of audiences in India. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Nepal was never really a blip on the regional radar screen whose importance successive monarchs exaggerated for their vile ends. What is certainly new is that the Chinese have come forth in acknowledging Nepal’s importance with ever-greater candor after the country became a republic.
In February 2005, when King Gyanendra seized full executive control, China stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the world by calling it an internal matter. The royal regime, if not the monarch himself, sought to portray the stand as Beijing’s support for the takeover.  The Nepalese opposition and key sections in India sought assiduously to reject the notion that the Chinese were in fact supporting the king.
In a flush of revisionist history, some Chinese experts, too, contended that the royal regime was needlessly reading too much into China’s traditional tenet of non-interference in foreign policy. But lest we forget, two months after the royal takeover, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei told a news briefing in Beijing that his government supported the king and the government of Nepal to ensure national stability and reconciliation and for economic development. But Wu did not stop there. “The international community should respect the choice made by the Nepali people,” he counseled.
Wu’s forthrightness, however, could scarcely mask Beijing’s wider ambivalence. This was a time when the Chinese were miffed by the growing Indian and American involvement in the Tibet issue through the exile community in Nepal. Keeping quiet posed a problem for China. But openly backing the monarchy while New Delhi and Washington were both opposed to the royal intervention risked bringing the two largest democracies closer.
If the Indians could countenance greater American involvement in a country they jealously considered their exclusive sphere of influence, in the Chinese perspective, then that could only bode well for the evolving partnership between Washington and New Delhi to contain Beijing.
Anxious to keep the Indians away from the Americans, Wen decided to skip Nepal. But Beijing sent Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Nepal on a stand-alone mission, whose utterances backed the royal regime.
Since the real fight in Nepal was not over democracy, but a contest among disparate external players to deepen their foothold in a strategically sensitive region of the world, it formed weird alliances. India and the West were pitted against the Chinese, Pakistanis and Russians. Democracy gave a veneer of legitimacy for intervention for one set of players. Suddenly, the Maoists gained greater acceptability as responsible partners while still branded terrorists (assisted no doubt by their shrewd assurances on a wide range of often-contradictory “international” issues as Christianity and homosexuality.)
Washington and New Delhi, to be sure, were still not on the same page. But they felt it would be far easier to compare notes this way than having the Chinese to spoil things. The Americans and the Chinese continued to hold bilateral consultations on Nepal within the framework of their strategic dialogue. New Delhi, ever mindful of maintaining its strategic autonomy, kept Nepal on its formal consultations with Beijing.
Despite the growing warmth in relations between the Asian giants, China believed India was not being reciprocal. Less than three months after Wen’s much-touted visit to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Washington and signed a document that established New Delhi on a path towards military and security partnership with the Americans.
The suave Shyam Saran, former Indian ambassador in Kathmandu turned foreign secretary, flew in to Beijing in early 2006 with assurances that New Delhi was not out in a grand campaign to contain China. The Indians shrewdly fed the Chinese information on Nepal that aroused some alarm in Beijing. The quid pro quo was a go-slow on the US-India nuclear deal, which the Chinese anyhow believed their Indian surrogates in the Indian political left would be able to derail. State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan gave the first intimation of a rethink of his government’s Nepal policy by postponing his visit to Kathmandu.
To Beijing’s disappointment, during a March 2006 visit to India, US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Singh signed a nuclear cooperation agreement dramatically reversing long-standing US policy punishing India for its nuclear programs and its non-membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Worse, from Beijing’s perspective, the agreement allowed India to strengthen its civilian nuclear capabilities even while building a credible minimum nuclear deterrent aimed in large part at China.
When Tang did arrive in Kathmandu, it was too late for Beijing to walk back. Tang seemed to equate the royal regime with the alliance protesting it (by which time the palace had revitalized channels with Washington, which was queasy about the New Delhi-brokered 12-point alliance between the opposition parties and the Maoist rebels).
 New Delhi, for its part, had hoped to pressure Beijing into settling the long-standing territorial dispute and failed. The Indians who pushed that approach today are openly calling for the deployment of the Tibet and Taiwan issues for that precise purpose. The game continues. Those political forces who railed against the monarchy for playing one neighbor off against the other in order to secure itself in power today find themselves able to do little else as a matter of daily survival.
It would seem audacious to some that an already weakened Nepalese monarchy was somehow a chip in the larger strategic rivalry of the times. Yet Maila Baje thinks it is within this framework that we can comprehend our current plight with a plausible degree of sanity.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Dahal’s Faith In The Tripartite Bargaining Model

United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal wants Nepal to engage in some still nebulous mode of trilateral cooperation with India and China in the interest of boosting regional stability. Interestingly, his latest reiteration of this comes at a time when relations between the Asian giants, by both sides’ reckoning, have grown frosty.
Then almost in the same breath, Dahal says his party has not given up on the idea of a full-blown revolt to capture the state. In fact, he believes the Maoists may be closer than ever to achieving that underlying goal. These two assertions, Maila Baje feels, might not be as contradictory as they sound.
Dahal’s leadership of the drive to develop Lumbini into a Buddhist mecca has not impressed our local Buddhists. A large chunk of the otherwise placid community is in a confrontational mood. You can’t blame them. To have the world’s major officially atheist state patronize what ranks among the five largest religions is bad enough. Now the man associated with the worst killing spree in Nepal’s history is trying to reinvent himself as an advocate – if not exactly an acolyte – of the Light of Asia.
For the best part of a year, the Indians have been as candid as they could be as far as the geopolitical dimensions of the Dahal-China dalliance are concerned. Almost conceding their apparent failure to disprove that Siddhartha Gautam was born in what is modern-day Nepal, New Delhi is intent on building a rival movement of international Buddhism.
Having stripped Dr. Baburam Bhattarai of his self-righteous claim to singularity at this juncture of Nepali history, Dahal is now eager to return to the premiership on his terms. No, he doesn’t want to do so to complete the peace process and produce the constitution – processes that seem superficially to have progressed remarkably under Bhattarai. The Maoist chief wants to be able to lead the country to new elections to a body that could craft the constitution to the Maoists’ liking.
In this aspiration, Dahal is closer to Baidya. The duo believes – and many think Dr. Bhattarai, too, agrees – that the Maoists have at least three factors going for them: their ability to claim leadership of the Nepal’s splintered communist movement, the disarray in the Nepali Congress and Madhes-based parties, and the sheer financial resources at the disposal of the former rebels.
With some 65 percent of the vote having gone to the communists in the last test of popular popularity, the Maoists believe they can unite the fraternity in terms of influence. The C.P. Mainali wannabes can stay out and conduct home-based politics in the absence of organization and people.
The mess in the Nepali Congress is too obvious, while the disarray in the Madhesi parties provides an opportunity to the Maoists – in their view – to return to their pre-Gaur Massacre glory. As for financial heft, let’s not forget that, according to one Asian newsmagazine, the Maoists, while in the jungles, were the richest rebels in the continent.
Having demonstrated their flexibility on the democratic path, the Maoists believe they can blame their rivals to show the utter hopelessness of that quest. On the face of it, a violent capture of state power may lack international legitimacy. But what alternative would the rest of the world have? Dahal is said to have been particularly elated by the views expressed by some members of the Chinese media delegation that recently visited Nepal, who praised him as the man of the future.
We can’t be sure the delegates were speaking for their government – as much as we can’t be that they weren’t. The speculator in Dahal probably feels that by roping in the Indians in a tripartite partnership, he could force the West and the rest to fall in line. Certainly nothing to squander time on what constitute the principal and non-principal contradictions.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Call All You Want, But There’s No One Home…

The Nepali Congress seems destined to live with the Koirala-Deuba hostilities. Party president Sushil Koirala has come to the point of publicly complaining that senior leader Sher Bahadur Deuba is not responding to his telephone calls. “Let us solve our differences through dialogue,” Koirala urged Deuba through the press the other day.
What began as a confrontation sparked by Koirala’s dissolution of four sister wings of the Nepali Congress – led by Deuba loyalists – remains rooted in the contrived reunification of the party in 2007 ahead of the constituency assembly elections.
While it has always made sense for Deuba to portray his dissidence as opposition to the arbitrariness of the leadership, the fact that the leader today happens to be surnamed Koirala helps him immensely. Nepali Congress members come from such diverse backgrounds that the party simply has too many fault-lines to cover. But who in the country’s largest democratic party could oppose a clarion call to free the organization from the clutches of a clan if it could cover the sundry motives they have?
Deuba himself has often conceded that, despite his bold public criticisms of Girija Prasad Koirala, he could not muster enough courage to put his grievances across directly to the grand old man. With Girijababu’s departure, Deuba no longer feels so constrained.
His crusade has changed in other ways. Prakash Man Singh, party general secretary and onetime loyalist, today warns Deuba of disciplinary action. (With Girijababu’s own departure from this mortal world, Prakash probably no longer sees the anti-Koirala campaign an extension of the travails of his late father, Ganesh Man Singh.)
Even among onetime loyalists in the Nepali Congress-friendly media, the mood has soured. Editors and columnists who once hailed his courage easily dismiss him today as a relic of the old Nepal.
None of this appears to have dissuaded Deuba. The other members of the Koirala clan are quiet. Sujata is laying low lest the controversy surrounding her son-in-law, Rubel, climb up the family ladder. As one of the original promoters of his party’s alliance with the Maoists, Shekhar is still crossing his fingers on where the 12-point experiment would lead.
The once-promising Shashank has been reduced to lamenting how Nepal has forgotten the national-reconciliation policy his father had propounded when there was actually a king to kick around.
Yet just as Deuba felt he had tamed the tribe, Sushil has shown a sudden itch to enter Baluwatar. The seeds of that ambition, sown during his visit to India earlier in the year, have been nurtured by the succeeding political shenanigans. If Girija Prasad Koirala could become prime minister without having ever served in a lower ministerial rung, what should stop Sushil?
As the notion of a national unity government animates the Nepali Congress, Deuba feels he is most qualified man to head it. You can’t blame him. The negatives associated with Deuba’s record have paled in comparison to what is going on today.
The Maoists have proved that the 40-point charter Deuba had rebuffed in 1996 was not the actual propellant of their decade-long insurgency. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has outdone  Deuba in terms of bloating the cabinet. The ‘Pajero’ culture has turned viler both as a tool and outcome of political skulduggery.
Agreements far more toxic than the one on the Mahakali River have become commonplace. (At least during those days you could expect the principal opposition party to make a pretense of having split on account of anti-national agreements.)
As to the allegation that Deuba could not save democracy during his last two tenures as premier, isn’t it an article of faith among the current political class that true democracy ever existed in Nepal?
Looking ahead, maybe Deuba wants a new term to demonstrate that he is capable of something different, now that things have come full circle.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reaffirming The Status Quo

It seems Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is intent on proving that he is no better than his predecessors were. The populism that began with the Mustang grandstanding persists in the Hello Sarkar ruse. But Dr. Bhattarai appears to recognize the limits of pretense. The supposedly most qualified contender ever for the premiership has a demonstrable capacity for abjuring any desire for excellence.
That Dr. Bhattarai prefers the company of criminals and other unsavory elements within his ranks of loyalists should not be surprising considering where he is coming from. That he can be so energetic in flouting his much-vaunted pledge of financial austerity bespeaks of an abiding and unsurpassable satisfaction with his record as finance minister. The size of his cabinet and army of advisers and aides is matched by the lavishness of his government’s expenditure on entertainment.
When the prime minister candidly concedes that he does not recognize all of his own ministers, claiming that a bloated cabinet was a political compulsion, you get a feeling that he is still out to expose the iniquities of the democratic process he has accepted for now. After all, the Maoists had taken up arms against both the monarchy and the parliamentary system.
In any other context, that would have been a shrewd way of Dr. Bhattarai underscoring his ideological steeliness. But it is becoming increasingly hard for him to prove that, while he might differ with Mohan Baidya and Pushpa Kamal Dahal on tactics, he still intends to build that Maoist utopia. All Dahal had to do was to silence his guns. The web Dr. Bhattarai has built through his words is too tangled to permit an easy exit.
After disfiguring the domestic ambience with his dour haughtiness, Dr. Bhattarai has disrupted the precarious geopolitical equation. While embracing the Indians with the flamboyant contortions of a proud supplicant, the prime minister has proceeded to alienate the Chinese with equally abhorrent intensity.
Indeed, the prime minister may have sought to deflect attention from those domestic woes by announcing Premier Wen Jiabao’s impending visit to the muddled republic. It was taken in such bad form from those up north that it did not matter whether they registered their dissatisfaction in writing.
Whether that premature announcement would be enough to sabotage the visit – if it were indeed in that stage of finalization – remains unclear. Regardless, Dr. Bhattarai seems to have sought primarily to bolster his credentials within his principal external constituency down south. Whether that fealty would hold him in good stead is a different matter. After all, when Girija Prasad Koirala sunk deeper into the Tanakpur morass in the early 1990s, one of the first Indians to counsel his government to dissociate itself from the man was the venerable Sukh Deo Muni.
Even after all this, Dr. Bhattarai’s wife, Hisila Yami, insists that he remains the best person to complete the peace process. Hard as it may be to acknowledge, Maila Baje feels she may have a point.
With the incumbent faring no better or worse than his predecessors, why upset the applecart? Such status-quoism may be something even the rabid revolutionary in Dr. Bhattarai might be prepared to embrace.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Amnesty Of Disgrace

For a ceremonial head of state, President Ram Baran Yadav sure has an aversion to the rubber stamp. As the optimism generated by the Seven-Point Agreement dissipates faster than it bubbled up, it looks like the president is about to restrain a second Maoist prime minister.
Yadav is said to have been troubled by last week’s recommendation by the cabinet that he pardon Maoist legislator Balakrishna Dhungel, who was convicted by the Supreme Court in a murder case.
In an apparent effort to pre-empt the president, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, accompanied by the attorney general – a Maoist activist – met Yadav last week to press Dhungel’s case. The prime minister’s visit reportedly infuriated the president, who, Maila Baje understands, took it as an act of executive brazenness.
Arguing that the murder took place during the Maoist insurgency – ostensibly when abuses of the ultimate nature were carried out by both sides – the cabinet said Dhungel case was ‘political’ in nature. Accordingly, the Bhattarai government claims, the case falls within the purview of the presidential pardon the interim constitution stipulates.
A section of the Maoists maintains that the pardon stems from the framework of the peace agreement. But that claim cuts little ice. Dr. Bhattarai was roundly criticized by the United Nations, opposition parties, and human rights organizations, among others. Maoist secretary C.P. Gajurel, who belongs to the rival Mohan Baidya faction, wants the government to withdraw the decision forthwith (although his argument is that all conflict-era cases should be resolved together.)
In a statement laced more with mischief than anything else, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal claimed that the decision to grant amnesty to Dhungel was taken through consensus when CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal was prime minister. Then the Supreme Court stepped in over the weekend, ordering a stay on the amnesty move, in response to a petition by the sister of the murder victim.
Upon arrival from the Maldives after attending the SAARC summit, Dr. Bhattarai trained his guns – for now – on ‘dollar-spinning’ human rights organizations for creating needless controversy. As the prime minister maintained that the cabinet decision was irrevocable, President Yadav has begun consultations with experts and advisers. He is expected to make a decision in two or three weeks.
It is unclear whether the prime minister would retreat or confront the president. If he had his way, Dr. Bhattarai would be disinclined to do another Dahal. Yet he is far more constrained than Dahal was during the controversy surrounding the sacking and subsequent reinstatement of then army chief Rookmangad Katuwal.
The Maoists no longer carry novelty as agents of change. Dr. Bhattarai has squandered much of his political capital through personal gimmicks and haughtiness. Moreover, Deputy Prime Minister Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar, the pivot of his coalition, has virtually challenged the pardon agenda.
All this has prompted Minister for Culture Gopal Kiranti to warn of a conspiracy to have the term of the constituent assembly lapse and revert executive power to the president.
That is a lame ploy. Considering all the experiments that have taken place over the last five years in the name of creating a New Nepal and where they have led, Nepalis might be willing to endure that option.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Peace Muddle

Count on Comrade Narayan Man Bijukchhe to make sense of the peace muddle.
“Unless the internal dispute in the Maoist party is resolved, conclusion of the peace process as outlined in the seven-point deal is impossible,” the chairman of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party presaged the other day.
Lest the country castigate him as a spoiler, the comrade barely paused for thought. The majority of the points incorporated in the new deal are ones the parties had agreed upon two years ago, Bijukchhe continued. He’s a little suspicious that the parties have suddenly decided to give it formal shape after Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s visit to India.
Bijukchhe was far from charitable about the overall political process. Claiming the seven-point deal was unconstitutional and against democratic practice, he accused the three principal parties of hobbling the legislature.
But let’s focus on the Maoists, since they are in the driver’s seat. Whether authentic or contrived, Maila Baje feels the Maoists’ internal rift is unlikely to be healed soon. This is so for a variety of reasons but predominantly because of a traditional one: the rift fits into the traditional Indian playbook.
The principal success New Delhi achieved during Prime Minister Bhattarai’s high-profile visit lay in tightening the pro-India tag around his neck. Dr. Bhattarai probably thought that if he could only be seen as taking on in earnest the fallout from the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA), he might shore up his personal position in his primary external constituency. But that was never the objective of his hosts.
Back home, in the intervening weeks, even sympathetic quarters have begun to question the way the prime minister has been going about defending the deal. For someone who long railed against the pernicious legacy of unequal treaties to go and sign a controversial one – regardless of the merits – was audacious enough. Seeking to defend the deal with every shield he can pick up has had a demeaning effect. Suddenly, Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal have been resurrected as paragons of patriotism for their refusal to sign the agreement during their visits to India.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, having succeeded in sullying Dr. Bhattarai’s reputation after having conceded to him the premiership, has turned his attention to the Lumbini project, that other geopolitical fixture of our times.
Hardliner Mohan Baidya knows that he has little choice but to go along with the rest of the party and the political flow, be it the four-point deal with the Madhesis or BIPPA. But he also knows there is an opening here. If his faction could get the support of the traditional demolition derby across the southern border – which seems increasingly likely – he can hope to deflect any criticism of hypocrisy by projecting his group’s perceived northern tilt.
The mandarins up north, for their part, could be expected to relish that ruse. If perpetual political conflict is where India’s Nepal policy thrives, the Chinese have perfected ambiguity as the core of their pragmatism here.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Which Lhendup Does Our PM See?

It seems the specter of Kazi Lhendup Dorji is going to haunt us ever more haughtily after Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s visit to India. When people ordinarily as far apart as Ram Chandra Paudel of the Nepali Congress and Ram Bahadur Thapa of the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist join in revulsion at the centerpiece of the bilateral agreements signed during the visit, the departed Sikkimese leader has a ghost of a chance at salvation.
Since Lhendup Dorji has become much more than a metaphor in our national consciousness, Maila Baje feels we need to look at the apparition squarely in the visage – or whatever we can find of it. As he performed stylishly during different acts of Sikkim’s national stage, did Lhendup Dorji ever recognize how all that would culminate in the phenomenon that would live on as his singular legacy? Or was Sikkim’s merger into the Indian union in 1975 an amalgam of decisions, traits and attitudes whose denouement the leading protagonist could scarcely have been aware of at each step?
To be sure, Lhendup did not have boisterous detractors warning of the impending degeneration of his name into the kind of infamy it has sunk to in Nepal. (And, yes, Nepal, we must emphasize, until we learn of an outbreak of any serious independence movement in Sikkim itself). How much of the kazi’s animus towards the monarchy was personal? Even if it were significant enough, could it by itself have so blinded Lhendup to the possibility of the loss of his country’s independence? In the grand geopolitical scheme of things, how much were the wives at fault, the queen being an American and the kazini a European?
Or was Lhendup mindful of his moves all along? Perhaps, like the chogyal, he saw Sikkim’s status as an Indian protectorate an anomaly that needed to be rectified. Full independence – the chogyal’s choice – was perhaps impractical in the prime minister’s view. If so, Sikkim’s full merger into the Indian union would have been the only road left.
Yet, in his later years, after serving as Sikkim’s first chief minister, Lhendup left his state as if for good. Decades later, warning Nepal’s leaders of the perils of a prolonged democracy-monarchy fight, Lhendup cited his own statelessness as the ultimate eventuality. When the Indian government awarded him the Padma Vibhushan – the second highest civilian award – euphemistically for ‘public service’ in 2003, it listed him as a resident of West Bengal.
For all his ostensible penitence aimed at audiences in Nepal, Lhendup did not reject Indian honors flowing in his direction. When he died in Kalimpong in 2007, the Indian government paid fulsome tributes to Lhendup as the father Sikkim’s democracy. Indians unconstrained by official propriety were even more effusive in recalling how without Lhendup, Sikkim would never have become a part of India.
In Nepal, over the years, there have been numerous contenders for the Lhendup epithet. The current prime minister, who labeled several predecessors as such, has now come under the most rigorous suspicion. Rarely has the Indian media gushed over the arrival, presence and departure of a Nepali prime minister. Yet Nepalis feel they have little to feel good about.
When Dr. Bhattarai said he would not have become who he is without Jawaharlal Nehru University, it may have been a sincere expression of his appreciation. For a man with a definite way with words, he must have recognized the connotations the remark would acquire back home.
If the opposition parties and the Maoists are to be believed, Dr. Bhattarai signed the bilateral investment promotion and protect agreement against the explicit wishes of fellow politicians. If so, he took a risk and will have to live with it politically. The Indian media will no doubt continue praising his contributions to the development of bilateral relations.
Coming back to Lhendup Dorji, since our prime minister had the opportunity to study the man in detail in his quest to project the epithet on his rivals, maybe he understands Sikkim’s first chief minister better than most of us will ever. As someone who long rued Nepal’s post-Sugauli Treaty status as a semi-colonial and semi-feudal entity, which Lhendup does he recognize today? More specifically, does the prime minister even consider Lhendup a pejorative now that he is in the driver’s seat?

Monday, October 17, 2011

All Fired Up And Ready – For What?

Who knew CPN-UML Chairman Jhal Nath Khanal had all this in him? He’s up in arms, stomping his feet and lashing out his tongue – all at his successor as prime minister. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai has no right to continue in office, Khanal declared the other day, describing the incumbent government as packed with criminals and the corrupt.
In fact, he was being charitable. Earlier in the month, Khanal virtually called Dr. Bhattarai a liar. “What has the government done so far to bring peace and the constitutional process to its positive end?” he asked. Before anyone could answer, Khanal growled: “Bhattarai has begun deceiving people in broad daylight.”
The sailing was never going to be smooth for our first Ph.D. prime minister. He may be the most educated head of government Nepal has had, but Dr. Bhattarai had to amend state regulations to appoint several members of his advisory and personal staff because they did not have the requisite academic qualifications.
While the people at large seem sympathetic to Dr. Bhattarai’s public gestures ever since he hopped onto that moving thing called the Mustang, they are growing restless about his ability – even willingness – to deliver. Dr. Bhattarai had begun by saying he would conclude the peace process within 45 days of taking office, only to clarify upon his return from New York that all he meant was the clock would start ticking after the parties reached consensus on key issues.
Fed up with Dr. Bhattarai’s trademark linguistic legerdemain, Khanal began accusing the premier of something more sinister: personal involvement in the murder case engulfing a member of his cabinet, Prabhu Sah. It is unclear whether Sah’s resignation was in any way linked to Khanal’s grand allegation, but Maila Baje is still compelled to think. Just a day or two earlier, Local Development Minister Top Bahadur Rayamahi, a key Bhattarai confidant, vowed that controversial ministers would not resign because that would distract from the peace process.
Khanal has vowed to obstruct parliamentary proceeding until Dr. Bhattarai sacks Defense Minister Sharad Singh Bhandari for his recent secessionist remarks. After Sah’s exit, pressure is mounting on the prime minister to show Bhandari the door, too.
It’s not just Khanal’s tone that’s gaining traction by the day. Consider some of the content. “Those hardest hit by the Tanakpur, Koshi and Gandaki [water agreements with India] and the [Indian] land invasion in Susta are the Madhesi population,” Khanal pointedly said at a recent session of the legislature. “What are the Madhes-centric parties … doing while the defense minister is making secessionist remarks?”
“The Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Maoists hold a greater stake in the Madhes than the Madhesi parties,” he went on. “Do we want separate military battalions for Himal, Pahad and Tarai or do we want a National Army?” You can’t really quibble with his questions just because he never raised them while he was premier, can you?
Khanal’s defiance was hardly dull. “Look here, I am criticizing [the four-point deal underpinning the Bhattarai coalition], can you cut my fingers?” That came in response to Health Minister Rajendra Mahato’s pronouncement a few days earlier that anyone who raised a finger against the four- point deal should be prepared to have it chopped off.
Even if Bhandari is recalled, Khanal is unlikely to cease his tirades against Dr. Bhattarai. The former prime minister may not blame Dr. Bhattarai personally for having brought down his government. But he’s the man who now has his job.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In The Name Of The Father

In death, Muktiram Dahal was deprived of that ultimate privilege a father of his generation would ordinarily expect. Although his eldest son, Pushpa Kamal, did light the funeral pyre, he chose not to perform the full rites traditionally deemed necessary to ensure that the departed soul attained ultimate salvation.
Yet Muktiram was fortunate in knowing ahead of time that he might not be destined for full adherence to tradition from his first offspring. Mother Bhawani Devi, who died in 1994, was deprived of Pushpa Kamal’s participation in her final journey altogether. The funeral rites were performed by the younger son, Ganga Ram, as the underground revolutionary had barely evaded arrest at the hospital where his mother was being treated.
In his tribute, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai described Muktiram Dahal as a leading figure of Nepal’s agricultural revolution. “The Maoists have lost a guardian,” Dr. Bhattarai continued as cadres draped the corpse in the party flag.
While this posthumous revelation must have been the first time many Nepalis heard of the extent of Muktiram Dahal’s links to the party his son created and led, the country will not know how he viewed Pushpa Kamal’s trials, tribulations and triumphs.
It could not have been easy being father of someone blamed for over 12,000 deaths, billions in devastation and immeasurable fraying of the national fabric. Or perhaps Muktiram shared the feeling that civil war, as a nation’s collective tragedy, is incapable of apportioning blame to one side or individual.  But, again, it must have been hard for a father to recognize that he was central to the radicalization of his son.
On several occasions, Pushpa Kamal has credited his revolutionary fervor to the injustices meted out to his father right in front of him by feudals and reactionaries. As that personal injury morphed into ideological inferno in his son, Muktiram Dahal must have struggled to reconcile his role in it all. Early on, Muktiram tried to dissuade his son from politics, arguing it was not something for the poor. But Pushpa Kamal was adamant and the father simply stepped aside.
During the height of the insurgency, Muktiram had urged his son to abandon violence and join peaceful politics. Pushpa Kamal did so several years later in radically altered political conditions. Muktiram knew his son would go far in life, he told a reporter in August 2008, but not as high as the premiership.
The fact that most Nepalis were prepared to put the decade-long spree of death and destruction in the interest of a new beginning must have eased Muktiram’s dilemma. When traditional political shenanigans returned to eviscerate the national spirit, the father could not have remained unaffected. The fact that the Maoists would be mired in the same malaise they had mocked in the other major parties must have exacerbated Muktiram’s anguish.
Describing his father as an honest man, Pushpa Kamal pledged to continue to work toward fulfilling his dreams. There is no way of knowing how the Maoist chairman feels about his father’s overall sentiments towards his political methods. During many moments of reflection, Pushpa Kamal must have grappled with the question valiantly. Lingering doubts – if indeed there are any – should not distract him from the task ahead. The virtuousness of Muktiram Dahal’s hopes and aspirations for the nation he left behind is powerful enough to guide his eldest son.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Who Really Needs A Maoist Split?

With the Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Mohan Baidya factions engaged in a full-throttled war of words, talk of a split in the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) has become louder. Despite the growing acrimony in their public references to each other, Dahal and Baidya both claim the Maoists will defy Nepalese political convention by remaining united.
Still, the escalating duel has sent reverberations at multiple levels. The cynical school still maintains that the wily Maoists have manufactured another crisis for public consumption while aiming to gain further ground. Regardless of how the infighting ultimately affects the future of the Baburam Bhattarai government, the prime minister will still be complicit in putting the party above everything else.
Let’s take the realist school next. The decision to hand over the keys to the Maoist weapons containers and the four-point pact with the Madhesi alliance to cobble together the ruling coalition are the two things that has infuriated the Baidya faction. It is hard to believe that Dahal and Bhattarai could have pushed through either by keeping the hardliners in the dark. So any bad blood today would have to take account not only grievances accumulating over time but also the shifting alliances of the recent past.
What specific commitments did each faction make and who double-crossed whom? Here, too, the Maoists have only deferred to the personality and patronage-based debilities that are intrinsic to the system they have entered (which, again they had originally vowed to overthrow).
The more disturbing element of the discussion of the latest intra-party rivalry is the one that is being pursued with the greatest seriousness – superficially, though. The fighters in the camps do not support Baidya and his bluster of an armed revolt, we were told right after the keys row erupted. The Maoists have invested too much in the political process – and have become too dependent on its patronage – to do anything but struggle along through peaceful competition.
That narrative seemed to lose its luster pretty quick. Now we are told – including by expatriate conflict experts – that there is a real chance of at least a faction of the Maoists reverting to armed insurgency. Should they do so, one expert warned the other day, all of us should be prepared to bear responsibility.
Maila Baje, as usual, believes that alien hands are getting off too easily here. The external dimensions will define much of the international deliberations on the Maoists. Just consider the following:

* The Indians, who nurtured the Maoists the most during their most lethal years, are having the toughest time dealing with them in their ostensibly defanged form.

* The Chinese, who not only publicly repudiated the local adherents of the Great Helmsman as a stain on his memory but also continued to arm the royal regime until the very end to suppress the rebels, are today seen as the primary beneficiaries of the political rise of the Nepalese Maoists.

* In a span of three years, two American presidents – representing sharply polarized political parties – spared time for Nepalese Maoist prime ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly while still keeping the organization on the terrorism list.

And we’re not even talking about the Europeans who have collectively and individually deployed the Maoists as a tool of autonomous assertiveness. (The international non-government sector has only picked up from where officialdom has chosen to restrain itself.)
So, who really needs our Maoists to split? Given the current goings-on in the party, the one-party Nepali Maoist state that everybody seems to dread might not be so all-round asphyxiating after all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Relevance Of Being Deuba

“They took four years to hand over the keys of the containers with their weapons; how long will
they take to hand over the actual weapons,” Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba mused the other day. Some took that as an intelligent inquiry from a former prime minister widely dismissed as dreary.
The three-time premier has had much calumny heaped on him primarily because of his purported lack of acumen. Shortly after he took the oath for the first time in 1995, someone happened to mention casually that he was Nepal’s first western-trained head of government. The howls of derision erupted all at once.
Sure, Deuba had a brief stint at the London School of Economics, once critic conceded, but he spent most of his time out of academic circles. Others recounted the number of unskilled and tedious jobs he had held in and around the British capital all the while presuming to be a student. Still others claimed that the Nepali Congress had merely exiled him away to prevent him from joining the Panchayat system and that London – with or without the School of Economics – simply happened to be the first opportunity available.
Deuba managed to keep his coalition afloat through a variety of underhand means. Today, he can count some of the key beneficiaries of his patronage among those who continue rail the loudest against the vileness of his politics. Yet it has become easy to forget that his government was brought down through the foulest of means. Deuba was egged on by his party leader Girija Prasad Koirala to hold a vote of confidence he was not constitutionally obliged to seek, only to have Koirala prevent two ruling party MPs from voting, thereby depriving him of the crucial votes.
Deuba’s second stint, as the head of a majority government, proved more tumultuous. He held peace talks with the Maoists and, once they failed, mobilized the military against the rebels. He met the sitting U.S. president in the Oval Office and became the first Nepalese head of government to organize a regional summit. Besieged, he split the party and pressed ahead with his plan to hold elections, all the while reviled as a tool of the palace. The fact that he ultimately fell victim to the palace did little to rehabilitate his image. He tried to shame the leaders who pushed him to postpone the elections and resist resigning, but it proved futile.
Shunned by the fraternity, he became a palace-appointed prime minister of a multiparty coalition. At this point, he began losing some of his steadfast supporters. But Deuba knew they were with him primarily because they either opposed or had been shunned by Koirala. Again, Deuba sought elections above everything else, while his deputy prime minister, Bharat Mohan Adhikary, pressed for peace.
When the palace sacked Deuba a second time, he didn’t say much because it wasn’t too hard for him to accept that he had been a royal appointee serving at the pleasure of the monarch. He did end up on the receiving end of a high-profile corruption case.  Buried in the recent dump of Wikileaks cables Maila Baje found an interesting nugget.
Shortly after his release from detention in the twilight of the royal regime, Deuba was quoted as telling US Ambassador James F. Moriarty that five years down the road, people would stop blaming the king for the affairs of state, regardless of how things unfolded. Amid the general jubilation over the sidelining and eventual ousting of the monarchy, Deuba rued the absence of proper mechanisms to contend with the Maoist steamroller. In their comments, embassy diplomats seemed to discount his sentiments as the grandeur of someone struggling to retain his relevance.
Deuba never exuded exclusivity. When party colleagues cited his poor command of the English language as host of the SAARC summit, he conceded that he had a hard time with Nepali as such. Deflected by his self-deprecation, critics continue to cite his elite matrimonial relations, his general geopolitical orientation and a host of far less pertinent tidbits to denigrate his relevance. But to little effect.
Deuba may have lost his bid to become a consensus prime minister, but not without forcing his principal rival, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, to step down from his self-constructed pedestal and become a mere mortal majority premier.
In the larger scheme of things, Deuba may have dismissed Dr. Bhattarai’s 40-point charter because of the exigencies of the Mahakali Treaty. Yet unlike most in his fraternity, Deuba is still is willing give the Maoist leader a chance to implement the vision that document championed. That may not necessarily be smart politics, but it is by no means irrelevant.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Unholy Or Not, It Sure Is Full Of Holes

Barely two weeks in office, is Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai already so firmly entrenched on the defensive side of the field? No one has the power to bring down his government, Bhattarai is said to retort every time someone of any consequence broaches the oddity of the alliance he sits atop.
Bhattarai’s defiance, to be sure, contains a stronger tinge of displeasure than determination. After all, no less a personage than Communications Minister Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) insists that the government is already heading down the path to failure.
In the midst of this brouhaha, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Bhattarai’s staunchest ally – at least in public – goes ‘missing’ for almost 48 hours. Gupta, the most outspoken critic of the government from within, may be embittered by Bhattarai’s failure to grant him one of the deputy premierships. But let’s not forget that Gupta has become quite close to Dahal in recent weeks.
Critics of all colors are finding enough dirt to tar the ruling alliance. And the muck seems likely to stick the hardest on the man on the top. Most of the UDMF ministers bring a distinct reputation, for better or worse, to their latest jobs. The Maoist ministers, too, have become sort of known quantities. The cleanest slate belongs to Bhattarai. Unfortunately for him, it’s also the easiest to blemish.
The legislative numbers game apart, what make the motions of this alliance interesting is its interlocking antagonisms. If the Dahal-Bhattarai decision to hand over the keys to the Maoists’ arms containers has made Mohan Baidya livid, Gupta blames the Maoist squabbling for non-compliance with the four-point pact that sealed the coalition.
Baidya, however, sees the commitments as reflected on paper as an unmitigated threat to the nation. Specifically, he has disdain for the manner in which his party rivals agreed to establish a separate group for Madhesis in the national army while virtually surrendering away the right of wholesale entry of former Maoist soldiers into the state force. (You can quibble with the way Baidya seeks to establish equivalence between rebels and regular folks, but one point cannot be missed: the Maoist fighters have already proved their mettle).
Asked by a reporter for a leading daily whether the peculiarity of the ruling alliance would ultimately help him to revive his party’s nationalist plank, Baidya dodged. Yet his chuckles (which the interviewer made a point of inserting in the published piece) said it all. Anticipating irreparable rifts within the Maoists, some Nepali Congress and CPN-UML leaders have spoken of their readiness to prop up the Bhattarai government. At the same time, rival factions in each of the two principal opposition parties are becoming more candid in calling the Maoist-UDMF pact unholy.
The Gaur massacre brought out our north-south divide in gory vividness. A coalition that could have stood as a symbol of a much-needed healing process has brought back spasms of that pain – with the complicity of those who complain about it.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

‘Less Risky But Still Dangerous’

That’s how Nepal has been described in a survey of 198 states. Well, actually we share the category with the likes of Turkey, Mauritania, Morocco and Myanmar. While the Terrorism Risk Index – compiled by the British firm Maplecroft – ranks the world’s most dangerous countries, it also reflects the investment image there.
The first group on the list includes the 20 most dangerous countries, with Somalia at the top. Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan are among the other countries in the group. The two categories behind us are “moderately risky” and “safest” countries. In the region, we’re better off than Pakistan and India, but worse than Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (which, by the way, fares better than Britain). Globally, we outdo Russia and Israel.
Professor Bishwambher Pyakuryel, however, does not seem terribly impressed. “Nepal, though named less risky, has not been able to retain minimum growth and failed to attract any big multinational investment,” he said in a conversation with a leading daily. The prominent economist added that there is a systemic error in the country’s governance. “Without identifying the systemic error, it will be difficult for policy intervention.”
Experts insist that lack of internal capacity building, infrastructure bottlenecks, the energy crisis and militant labor unions, among other things, have hindered foreign direct investment. Yet according to published figures quoting the central bank, Nepal attracted FDI worth Rs 6.06 billion in the first 11 months of fiscal 2010/2011, compared to Rs 2.41 billion in the corresponding period the previous year.
With the country officially in peace – albeit a tenuous one – and foreign investment having more than doubled in a year, you might have expected to find Nepal in a different league. We may be the subject of intensifying Sino-Indian rivalry, but we are not as internationally isolated as Myanmar is. Nor do we have a religion-versus-secularism conflict at the state-level that is as searing as Turkey’s.
As our once-armed Maoists were poised to lead the government after their electoral success in August 2008, the military in Mauritania stage a coup against an elected government. Unlike Morocco, we tend to be in undisputed possession of the territory under our sovereign control. (Or at least an overwhelming part of it).
Now, Maila Baje recognizes that the risks are becoming ever more obvious. Even in our state of secular ecstasy, Christians are worried by the criminalization of proselytization. Deep down, homosexuals see the recent manifestations of our liberalism as the tolerance of a populace in transition. Civil society and their external enablers are so obsessed with addressing the impunities of the past that they are blinded to those of the present. (Maybe that’s their investment in the future.)
Yet look at it this way. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried by the systemic error in governance that Prof. Pyakuryel alerts us to.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be worried by our place on the Global Terrorism Index or its implications for our economy. With all our ills, FDI did – and can – grow because the Indians who do most of the investing themselves fare worse on the index than we do. And let’s not even talk about the indirect inflows that make unholy alliances and break existing unfaithful ones. The Chinese, on the other hand, don’t even need to make public what kind of money they deal in – direct or indirect – because they know no one’s going to believe them anyway. As for the rest of the crowd, they know the kind of security risk and danger affords.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Who Had the Harder Part To Play?

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s election as prime minister on Sunday brought a rare sense of anticipation across the board. Consider some of the storylines. Nepal finally gets its first Ph.D. head of government (the other two ‘Doctors’ who served in that capacity were medical ones – or so we are told). The chief ideologue of an armed insurgency that neither won nor lost on the battlefield becomes the scholar-premier. Bhattarai finally emerges from the long shadow of the Fierce One. And so on.
Bhattarai’s academic accomplishments, his ‘clean’ image and his successful tenure as finance minister all worked to his advantage – until now. Even before being sworn in, his penchant for speaking from all sides of the mouth and his established skills at obfuscation and evasion have come to the limelight.
One Nepali luminary conferred on him the potential to become a Khieu Samphan or a Robert Mugabe and published a 10-point plan to avert that descent. At least one lay observer across the southern border didn’t relish the “kumkum and garland” that adorned the premier-elect’s neck and face and wondered how far Lord Pashupati could be from his sights.
The challenges ahead remain formidable and it is to our credit that we haven’t collectively descended into the ‘yes-we-can’ frenzy on lowering the seas and healing the planet. Yet Bhattarai may have raised the bar for himself a bit by uniting the perpetually divided Madhesi parties behind his candidacy through that last-minute pact. Thus the new premier might have to revert to the late-Panchayat-era practice of splitting the Supplies Ministry into food and textiles, considering the pronounced preferences of some his supporters.
On the geopolitical front, things are not cut and dried. Long considered friendly to India, Bhattarai was recently dubbed Nepal’s Deng Xiaoping by the Chinese. So he will have to cross the rivers by feeling the stones. More so at a time when the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, both finding themselves in the opposition at the same time, would be tempted to bury their inter rifts fan the first flames they detect within the Maoists.
Which brings Maila Baje to, shall we say, the principal contradiction. Just before the legislative vote, Dahal described Bhattarai as an A-1 candidate, whose intellectual and revolutionary credentials were proven nationally and internationally. “He is not only popular among the middle class, but has also proven himself as the leader of the workers and peasants,” the Maoist supremo told the assembled members. For a second, it seemed like Dahal had never purged Bhattarai or that Bhattarai had never schemed against Dahal.
Ahead of the constituent assembly elections in 2008, Dahal took a demotion from presidential candidate to supplant Bhattarai in the vying for the premiership. You could say that it was simply because he knew the country was going to have a ceremonial president. But don’t say you wouldn’t have a hard time believing yourself.
Before Jhal Nath Khanal’s surprising rise to the premiership, Dahal was as clear as he could be in his opposition to Bhattarai’s candidacy. (Dahal loyalists were even said to have given death threats to their vice-chairman.) He came around to supporting Bhattarai’s candidacy only to keep Mohan Baidya off his back. Should the party ever split, Dahal could probably live quite well without Bhattarai. But he drinks from the same trough as Baidya.
It may be hard to put a finger on precisely how and to what effect the power play within the Maoists might evolve. For a general sense, consider this: What looked like the harder part to play? Bhattarai digesting Dahal’s fulsome praise ahead or Dahal bringing out those words?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Last Hope Of Our Republic?

The time may have come to rally around Baburam Bhattarai as premier. And no, it’s not because he remains by far the most popular among the leading contenders.
Over the past three years, Dr. Bhattarai has remained unabashed in claiming personal credit for turning Nepal into a republic. To the extent that any single person could claim ownership over that endeavor, Dr. Bhattarai may even have a point. But the self-assertion has lost none of its arrogant ring.
Yet you have to acknowledge that the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist vice-chairman might be able to give a semblance of sanity to this whole peace process precisely because of the personal stake he presumably sees involved here.
Then there’s that other reason. Dr. Bhattarai insists that he doesn’t want to become prime minister just to add one more portrait on that illustrious wall inside Singha Darbar. This means he comes to the job with a sense of purpose, regardless of how hazy that might sound to the rest of us.
A few months ago, he claimed to have started the process of developing a new model for Nepal, equating the country’s precariousness to that which Bhimsen Thapa had faced. He can’t be forced to show his hand unless he becomes prime minister, can he?
Our most favorite Maoist across the southern border is not anathema to the north. A visiting Chinese dignitary had bestowed on Dr. Bhattarai the title of Nepal’s Deng Xiaoping. Forget the layers of disparate meanings associated with the Great Mandarin’s pronouncement because there is a more important message. To the best of Maila Baje’s knowledge, the Chinese epithet has not provoked the slightest trace of derision from the Indians.
Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal will have to work the hardest to swallow his pride. Without the arsenal of Dr.  Baburam Bhattarai’s vocabulary, Dahal knows he would have had long lost his war on the battlefield. Mohan Baidya, too, crossed the rubicon when he joined hands with Dr. Bhattarai against Dahal. He can just as easily begin collaborating with Dahal in undermining Bhattarai once again, but not before the latter takes the oath of office and secrecy.
By blaming the Nepali Congress’ “recklessness” for King Mahendra’s takeover in December 1960, Dr. Bhattarai seemed to have imperiled his position within our top democratic party. His lament that fake republicans were dominating national politics by sidelining the real ones, too, was a thinly disguised attack on the Nepali Congress.
The CPN-UML, too, will be hard-pressed to go along. Bringing Madhav Kumar Nepal into the Constituent Assembly, overruling the people’s mandate, was the greatest mistake of the Maoists, Dr. Bhattarai once lamented. He also had called the CPN-UML under Jhal Nath Khanal as a band of eunuchs.
Yet this is a time for the other parties to show magnanimity. If Dr. Bhattarai were to seek another extension of the constituent assembly, the people might actually turn out to be more sympathetic. If things are really so hopeless as to defy even Dr. Bhattarai, then Nepalis might be more inclined to look for reasons not necessarily related to the political class.
It would perhaps be too much to expect Dr. Bhattarai to acknowledge failure in formal words, should it come to that. His resignation would say it all. But would it hurt to expect him to succeed?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Political Destiny & Curse By Stealth

Regardless of how things turn out after the resignation of Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal over the weekend, this much is clear. Politicians can keep their word.
Okay, Khanal broke his self-imposed deadline by a day. Against the general record of our politicos, does that really count against him?
If you think so, look at the element of the story. This was the first time – at least in Maila Baje’s recollection – that a significant segment of the political establishment had implored a prime minister not to resign.
Our quest to national newness has opened up political novelties. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal resigned as premier in 2009 without anyone of consequence ever having demanded it. Madhav Kumar Nepal became the longest-serving caretaker premier in Nepal (and almost in the world) despite having extended the constituent assembly in exchange for what everyone had  understood was his immediate resignation.
Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel, that valiant soldier who claimed to have contested all those ridiculous rounds of balloting just to save democracy, is battling to keep his seat as parliamentary party leader of the Nepali Congress.
With the big and small parties all mired in internal conflict – some at multiple levels – the constituent assembly has become the proverbial tiger that everyone needs to keep riding. So Nepalis must brace for another extension to keep the chasing the dream of … nobody knows what.
But, then, are we really in charge? We keep hearing advice from certain foreign corners about the need for new elections. Successive elections for an assembly to write a new constitution were something proposed in these columns in the past – but only to the extent of emphasizing the absurdity with the absurd. That serious stakeholders could contemplate such a thing is scary, so say the least.
Yet other foreign quarters – including those who vociferously pressed the idea of radical change in the not too distant past – have become votaries of the status quo. Some worry that any vacuum might let Nepal regain its Hindu character and thus check the spread of the Good News. Others fear for the gains in sexuality a deeply conservative society has achieved.
When a Nepali starts talking seriously about the possibility of the existence of water on Mars – and is taken seriously – you can be pretty sure how badly those who have been using Nepal as a laboratory for far too long are going nuts.
Each day we discover that on the other side of the Himalayas lays a richer treasure trove of resources. (Actually that’s what Tibet in Chinese signifies.) But on this side, we are supposed to believe we are barren just because a guy called Toni Hagen said so many, many years ago. Elsewhere technology has helped to trace what was hitherto deemed untraceable. Yet we are expected to forget Hagen’s time and context and mull deeper into that sati’s-curse line. (Who exactly was the hapless lady and what were here precise words, anyone?)
Pardon the rambling, but it seemed like a good way to spend time before we discover the true story behind Prime Minister Khanal’s resignation – as well as appointment.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Dahal Charts A Middle Path

Pushpa Kamal Dahal the geopolitician has consistently made far greater sense than he has as a politician. Look at how he sought to brush aside the stubbornly sticking pro-Chinese tag the other day.
“If you recall, when I was prime minister, I had mooted the idea of an east-west railway,” Dahal said in remarks to a daily newspaper before his departure for Kuala Lumpur. “That process is still on. Does that give me a pro-India tag?”
Dahal’s comments came in response to his increasingly active involvement in the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), an organization widely projected by the Indians and their Nepalese protégés as a front for the Chinese government.
In the past, when Dahal left to attend APECF sessions, he sparked fierce speculation on which ranking Chinese official he was actually meeting with and what new twist he would then give our hopelessly contorted politics.
When APECF proposed a $3 billion project to boost Lumbini as the equivalent of Mecca for the world’s Buddhists, Dahal’s involvement became even more headline grabbing. Then when it emerged that former crown prince Paras Shah, like Dahal, is a co-chairman of the foundation along with eight other individuals, heads started spinning faster. (Dahal never said he would pick and choose his associations with Nepalese commoners, so Maila Baje thinks he owed no explanation there.)
The announcement in Beijing last month that Hu Yuandong, head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization’s China Investment and Technology Promotion Office, and Xiao Wunan, Executive Vice-Chairman of the APECF, had signed a formal agreement pertaining to the Lumbini project split our republican establishment right across the middle.
It took several weeks for an official response to come. The configuration of the ruling political alliance must have deterred an immediate response. One civil society luminary, flustered by China’s assertive intentions in post-monarchy Nepal, urged Beijing not to trust the Maoists. He coupled that assertion by explaining to us that the Chinese were only looking out for themselves in Nepal.
As the din of the collective ‘duh’ permeated the Nepalese ambience, the government secretary responsible for Lumbini’s development criticized the agreement, saying Nepal had not been consulted. Ordinarily, such a caustic remark would have sounded the death knell for the project. But in these extraordinary times, this bureaucratic appeal to our patriotism fell flat and the hapless official was forced to resign.
If news of Dahal’s departure to Kuala Lumpur gave a gripping headache to opponents of the Lumbini plan, just imagine how they must be feeling that he is scheduled to return home accompanying a senior delegation to discuss the details of the project. The team, led by senior Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang, serving as special envoy of Chinese president Hu Jintao, will hold discussion on conducting a feasibility study for developing Lumbini – and not just as a pilgrimage but a much broader special development zone.
“The birthplace of Lord Buddha is important for Nepal with regard to our economic prosperity and cultural development,” Dahal said in his newspaper interview. Officially still a confirmed atheist, Dahal would have a hard time peddling the four-fold noble truths in defense of the project. So the commercial aspect has come to the forefront. Yet there is more than a whiff of the spiritual in Dahal’s espousal of the middle path between our two neighbors.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Uncivil Thoughts, Unintentional Outcomes

Our squabbling political class has had its hands full protecting itself from the people’s indignation. Now a leading Indian minister has the temerity to accuse them of imperiling the security of his country – well sort of.
Speaking to editors of some Nepali newspapers and magazines in New Delhi last week,
Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the lack of a stable elected government in Nepal has increased the security vulnerability of India.
Bewailing that the governments in Nepal have been of caretaker nature for long time, Chidambaram said a strong and stable administration that cannot focus on day-to-day tasks creates a lot of collateral damage. In the minister’s estimation, it allows Pakistani extremists to use Nepal as a transit point, enables the flow of fake Indian currency notes and perpetuates weak security mechanisms at the Tribhuvan International Airport.
As for a growing concern for his government, Chidambaram suggested he had no information of Chinese involvement in anti-Indian activities in Nepal. (Leave that to the flourishing industry in his midst peddling the line that Beijing is fanning India’s Maoist insurgency through their Nepali cousins.)
Lest Nepalis rise up against Chidambaram’s insinuations, Indian ambassador-designate Jayant Prasad Srivastav stepped in to proffer his governing philosophy. India never intended to interfere in Nepal’s political matters, suggested the man who is expected to begin mending the fences his predecessor, Rakesh Sood, breached. His implication was that if anything did happen to hurt Nepali sentiments, it was all unintentional.
Men like Maoist leader Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplav’ are simply not impressed. India is plotting to derail the current left government, dissolve the Constituent Assembly and install a rightist government in Nepal by shunning the Maoists, he believes.
India has played the good cop-bad cop routine with great élan. By enduring an acceptable level of criticism from an assortment of Nepali constituencies, New Delhi has been able to reap far greater benefits. Of late, the cost-benefit analysis has skewed the other way. Accordingly, the Indians have been turning up the heat on those who were most energetic in promoting the 2006 realignment – within and outside – on the plea that it would work to New Delhi’s advantage.
Our political class remains too worn out to betray any further signs of discomfort. Their abettors in the garb of civil society are the ones that are cracking up inside. Some do not want Pushpa Kamal Dahal to cede control of the party in any way. (This comes from the same direction that described former king Gyanendra’s decision to sack prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in October 2002 as constitutional but his appointment of Lokendra Bahadur Chand a few days later as illegitimate.)
Others are doing their best to persuade the Chinese that the Maoists and the monarchists are both Indian minions. (This, again, from quarters that were the first to count Nepalis fortunate to have had Prince Gyanendra Shah’s safe pair of hands intact after the palace carnage before they mocked him as Asia’s most humiliated man. This same constituency lauded the Maoists for having raised arms in defense of the people, unlike the king’s plundering and pillaging soldiers.)
Imagine the pain of these hitherto unaccountable men and women at not being able to vent their sentiments against their handlers. Special consideration for tax arrears have helped to muffle the more affluent, free medical treatment has helped to frighten the infirm of mind and soul, and old-fashioned financial prodding has enticed the worldly wise. For the rest, outright intimidation has worked well. Not a bad record for unintentional outcomes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Landing As Safe As It Could Be

The leaders of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) seem to have settled their internal rifts with remarkable geniality – for now. The central committee meeting of the party Monday passed chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s political paper dividing organizational duties among the key protagonists flexing their muscles.
While the latest rejigging might not be enough to allow the party to focus on peace and the constitution – which Dahal’s document has called its main agenda – Maila Baje thinks it does allow the Maoists to deflect some of the blame for missing the next crucial national deadline on August 28.
According to Dahal’s proposal, senior vice-chairman Mohan Baidya will head the party’s organization department along with the disciplinary body while vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai will chair the parliamentary board and will be the prime minister candidate for the future government. Similarly, another vice-chairman Narayan Kaji Shrestha will lead the party’s team in the current government complete with home portfolio until Bhattarai can take the top job at some unspecified future date. General secretary Ram Bahadur Thapa will oversee the military commission.
In the end, the much-ballyhooed Bhattarai-Baidya alliance, which saw Shrestha and Badal jump into the fray from their own vantage points, has ended up with Dahal staying put. Appearing to deconcentrate authority, he has in fact created an opportunity to play each rival off against the others.
Dahal knew his gambit would rile Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal and the Nepali Congress even before he got his rivals’ nods over the weekend. Both have not taken kindly to the Maoists’ effort at invoking extraterritorialism especially vis-à-vis the council of ministers.
Still, the settlement suits the other Maoist leaders just fine. Baidya and Bhattarai could rise above their ideological differences to challenge Dahal because they had other overriding imperatives. Baidya, in light of the all-round mockery Dahal’s pronouncements seem to be evoking within the nation, perceived the Chinese as being no less miffed.
Ever the man to publicly shun responsibility outside the party, Baidya sought to project Bhattarai as an alternative to Dahal. But only after ensuring a monumental geopolitical transformation behind the scenes. Baidya, we are told, has been instrumental in Bhattarai’s growing contacts with the Chinese. (Whether our hardest-line Maoist had any role in conferring the ‘Nepalese Deng Xiaoping’ title from a visiting Chinese dignitary remains unclear, though.)
Bhattarai, on the other hand, has grown disenchanted by how his gulf with Baidya has served to strengthen Dahal. Regardless of the genuineness of a Bhattarai tilt northward, the posture itself, Baidya knows, would be enough to rattle Dahal and sow a few seeds of distrust in Delhi. Baidya, unsure of the depths of Bhattarai’s southern grounding, was, however, happy to see him named prime ministerial candidate only to be checked by Dahal, who continues as leader of the parliamentary party.
Shrestha’s 11th hour posturing must have been viewed with some suspicious by both Baidya and Bhattarai, perhaps even as something sponsored by the wily Dahal. Badal’s movements may have been aimed at maintaining his own relevance in the affair, but it did have the added effect of diluting the opposition to Dahal. So the protagonists realized the folly of continued brinkmanship and sought a safe landing.
Given the goings-on in the other political parties left, right and center, the Maoists’ landing was the safest it could have been. So does it really matter whether the affair was a ruse all along or was for real?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Feel Ashamed, But Do Stay On!

Gokarna Bista tells us he is ashamed of calling himself a minister because of the dishonest assurances political parties are peddling to the people. What makes Bista’s lament less of a laughing matter is the fact that he holds a portfolio that most politicians can only dream of clutching.
But our energy minister, who belongs to the CPN-UML, sees the Nepalese people mired in poverty, lacking enough to eat and deprived of education. Then he sees leaders, who instead of concentrating on the plight of the population, go on making eloquent speeches. Riding a car fluttering the national flag embarrasses him.
Exasperation sounds like a more accurate word. One of the first things Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal pledged after taking office was that he would take on the ‘water mafia’ and clear what has long been touted as Nepal’s only road to riches. Accordingly, he named a key loyalist, Bista, to pursue that objective.
At a public function not long ago, Bista accused ‘mafia elements’ of stuffing all those project licenses in their pockets all the while helping to plunge the country deeper into darkness and inertia.
Vowing to do everything possible to end – not merely reduce – the inexorable spate of load-shedding, Bista also ordered a crackdown on pilferage and other forms of leakage. He has also challenged the conventional wisdom that the crisis cannot be addressed without raising the power tariff.
Bista was recently quoted as saying that if the Nepal Electricity Authority could reduce leakage by a mere six percentage points, that would generate about 2.5 billion rupees of additional revenue. In other words, that would almost offset the annual loss incurred by the organization. That piece of information has energized the people to urge Bista to go after the big fish faster.
While remaining upbeat about the prospects of foreign investment in the hydropower sector, Bista says he refuses to wait for others to solve our energy crisis and seeks domestic investment to the extent possible. He wants to encourage local companies to invest in the hydropower through low-interest loans and other incentives.
The energy minister won plaudits from the media across the spectrum for such thinking. Yet his laudable effort to appoint a managing director for the NEA through competition, as opposed to direct political appointment, did not get off to an entirely propitious start.
Then Bista was blamed from within the UML party for acquiescing in the use of the term “people’s war” in the government’s annual policies and programs, which has allowed everybody to divert their attention further away from the task of drafting the new constitution. The upshot: Bista is seething to the point short of self-flagellation.
Maila Baje acknowledges how tempting it is in this situation to demand Bista’s resignation, especially if he continues pressing the humiliation horn any further. But maybe we should let Bista stay in his job and feel sorry for himself.
If his predicament is real, perhaps the pain would go some way toward inflicting collective shame on the government. If Bista is just faking it, he still does have that extra reason to be caustic about himself. After all, how many people are stabbed outside their house a few hours after being appointed minister?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why Deuba Throws Caution To The Stars

Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba says he sees no reason why he cannot be the next prime minister. For a man who allegedly failed to defend democracy twice during two previous terms as prime minister, Maila Baje would have expected Deuba to be more circumspect in his public comments regardless of the comfort level.
Yet things have turned around too fast for someone so addicted to the job to stay still. The Nepali Congress is no longer in the grip of the people who had pushed the alliance with the Maoists, insisting they could make it work. The external quarters that nodded with them are now left perusing their palms in remorse.
With Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Sujata Koirala struggling to wash off any stains from the Sudan scam, all Deuba needed was to push aside Ram Chandra Poudel. (Yes, the same man who once upon a time egged him on to split the party, promising to accept the chairmanship before coming out in a full embrace of Girija Prasad Koirala.)
During those interminable rounds of legislative voting to find a successor to caretaker premier Madhav Kumar Nepal, Poudel may have considered himself the only thing standing between democracy and a full Maoist takeover. For Deuba, Poudel’s endurance was an illustration of his aching for power without purpose – or was at least a perception that could be advanced some way.
It turns out that Sushil Koirala, someone who never has had to take decisions and live with them, entered into a secret deal with Deuba as a last-ditch attempt to reorganize the post-Girija party. If Deuba is today intent on cashing the check, it is because circumstances have turned favorable in more directions than he can behold. (As that Turkish psychic said a couple of years ago about Deuba, the stars can get better only in a rare few other Nepali pols.)
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal may relish the prospect of Deuba’s return to center stage at a time when his rival Dr. Baburam Bhattarai is using his ostensible international acceptability to become prime minister. Even if he would want to forget the precise circumstances, Dahal probably remembers that Deuba remains the only Nepalese prime minister to have a full Oval Office meeting with the U.S. president.
Yet the prospect of a Deuba candidacy has engendered a flicker of hope within the Maoist chairman. Eyeing their opportunity, Poudel and key CPN-UML leaders have asked Dahal to reenter the race for the simple reason that he heads the largest party in the legislature, without whose leadership the peace process cannot progress. Whether this is a belated recognition of reality or a shrewd move to shift responsibility to the Maoists for the inevitable failure to draw up the new constitution within the current extension period, it has certainly left Dahal searching deep within.
New Delhi is likely to seek a full-fledged public gesture from Dahal – something the wily Maoist cannot wiggle out of easily – before granting any imprimatur on his candidacy. If Dahal does a K.I. Singh anytime soon, the surprise will lay less in his return to the premiership than in the swiftness of his consolidation of authority inside the party. (Faster in case the current crisis is all a ruse). By temperament and trait, Dahal is in a better position to deal with the aftermath should there occur a full and formal affirmation of the failure of the latest experimentation in reinventing a nation. If Dahal were to deem the price too high for his personal peace and security, then Deuba may be the one to watch for. Or maybe Deuba, who was prime minister when Dahal first marched out leading that ragtag band of marauders, knows something crucial the rest of us don’t.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Lest We Get Caught Up In The Rapture

Sooner or later Nepalis will have to break out of the rapture over the elevation China has accorded its ambassadorship to Nepal and recognize that Yang Houlan is here primarily to further his own country’s interests.
That we are tripping over ourselves to discover what the appointment of such a senior diplomat might mean shouldn’t be a cause for concern so long as we keep things in perspective. Nepalis have lived long enough as a nation, state or whatever it is to recognize that regardless of the intensity of China’s interest, our fragility is our own to worry about.
Historically, Nepal has made a virtue out of exaggerating its proximity to China to the point of irritating the Chinese. In the days of yore, emperors and ambans were quite direct in conveying their displeasure. We were worse than barbarians – we were even addressed as robbers and bandits in official communication.
To remain independent, Nepalis have had to develop an uncanny way of keeping the British guessing about the true nature of our relationship with China. During the Anglo-Nepalese war, Lord Moira actually had planned for the possibility of Chinese military intervention on our behalf when Beijing was daring us to join the feringhis. Even after imposing the Sugauli Treaty on us, the governor-general was prepared to withdraw the residency before receiving assurances of Chinese acquiescence. The British had to defeat the Chinese in the First Opium War to discover that the Middle Kingdom was incapable of helping even if they wanted to. (And that was a big if.)
But the mandate of heaven weighed so heavily on imperial shoulders that Nepali tribute missions served to massage the imperial ego. Our crafty Rana rulers slipped in enough consignments of opium to ensure that commercially we came out on top from the pangs of political subordination. That so infuriated the Manchus that they formally claimed suzerainty over Nepal at the precise time the ground right around them was slipping away the fastest.
The Nepal-China peace and friendship treaty abrogated all previous treaties, allowing Nepalis to believe that Tibet was Beijing’s last stop. Chinese acerbity in official correspondence has ceased in modern times, barring that phase in 1967 during the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. But in private Chinese diplomats and academics are known to seethe in the same way at the Maoists as they did at the monarchs.
While Mao seemed to have forgotten his assertion that Nepal was among territories lost to the imperialists during the century of humiliation (a sentiment Sun Yat-sen shared), the Great Helmsman and his acolytes also perfected the traditional Chinese practice of proffering high-sounding but ambiguous statements of support contingent upon quid pro quos, something that has stood out sharper in the splendor of our newness.
China’s ambassador became the first foreign envoy to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in 2007 only after Koirala had made a full-throated pitch for China’s inclusion as a full member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The prospect of that train being brought from Lhasa to the Nepalese border has energized four governments since the April 2006 Uprising, but who can really be sure about when to expect it to arrive? (Maila Baje recalls that the Qinghai-Lhasa portion was completed ahead of schedule.)
So when the next time a Chinese leader says his or her country will not sit idly by if anyone threatens Nepalese independence and sovereignty, by all means let’s not disbelieve those words. But even if Chinese soldiers happen to shed blood to defend Nepal’s territorial integrity, let’s be able to recognize – in full gratitude – that they would be doing so ultimately because they deemed it was in their national interest.