Sunday, January 30, 2011

Contingency, Irony And The Presidency

It must have been somewhat uneasy for President Ram Baran Yadav to have to leave on a visit to India on January 27. Wouldn’t he have loved to reach the Indian capital in time for the Republic Day Parade as the chief guest the previous morning?
And what could have provided India’s clearest imprimatur on the most conspicuous novelty of a new Nepal. But others cannot be expected to be guided by uninhibited definitiveness when we are pinching ourselves all over to see if things are happening for real. Conversely, did the timing of Yadav’s departure contain any subtle meaning? 
With Nepali parties still struggling to form a government, Yadav might have stayed back to supervise things. The Maoists, according to party chief and prime ministerial contender Pushpa Kamal Dahal, are wedged between reactionaries and revisionists.
Another aspirant, CPN-UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal sees Nepal itself caught between local and foreign reactionaries. The factional realignments in the UML are more than matched by those in the Nepali Congress.
Caretaker Premier Madhav Kumar Nepal indicts so-called ‘tail’ leaders – i.e., those willing to be led by other parties – as the problem. But his deputy, Bijay Kumar Gachchadar sees the Big Three as principal barriers.
Notwithstanding the reunions and reminiscences in Kolkata and Chandigarh, Yadav is certainly not abdicating his responsibility. Hastily given partial official status, the presidential visit is expected to feature deliberations on Nepal’s checkered peace process.
The departure of a Nepal Army team to India around at the same time could not be entirely unrelated to the Yadav agenda. The inputs provided by a low-key military delegation, regardless of the venue and mode, could provide an inkling of a presidential regime’s ability to handle any new situation.
No, Maila Baje doesn’t think the overriding concern relates to an inability to promulgate the new constitution. The Indians seem to believe that can be taken care of, one way or the other. The specter of Chinese-inspired subversion deep inside India through Nepal it what has taken precedence. The arrest of three alleged Chinese spies who slipped over from Nepal continues to fuel media speculation. Photographs in the possession of a Chinese lady presenting herself as a journalist seem to link Nepal to Indian insurgencies.
And now the Indians have begun boldly declaring that Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the man we know for his daring escape from Tibet to India via Nepal in the winter of 2000-2001, may not be the 14th Karmapa Lama, but a Chinese plant. Although that line of reasoning persisted from the outset, New Delhi was hitherto unwilling to ascribe to Beijing the wisdom of effecting such perfect deception.
In retrospect, that war-in-2012 drumbeat we heard over a year ago was sounded by those who were itching for one. The 50th anniversary of India’s humiliating defeat at the hands of China would be a fitting occasion to exact revenge. And, since Nepal knows how taking no sides would be perceived as taking one by one of the putative belligerents, it would matter if the war is hot or cold.
As for the Republic Day celebrations, the foreign guest invited the greatest number of times from the neighborhood remains the king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorje in 1955, and his son, Jigme Singye, in 1984, and 2005. Regardless of how fact that makes President Yadav feel, it surely does make a lot of Nepalis feel much better.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lest We Slip Into a Slap Fest…

CPN-UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal was stoic about the slap heard across the state, but the political class is drawing all manner of lessons. The people, for their part, are lionizing Devi Prasad Regmi for giving such force to their frustrations. In detention on a public-offense charge, he has seen a surge in moral and material support.
Khanal and his fellow politicos made Nepalis believe that they were the best people to take care of us. Or, at least, better than the rest. Enough people took to the streets in the spring of 2006 inspired by a nebulous vision of newness.
King Gyanendra had wanted a little over a year and half more to complete his agenda of handing over power to an elected government capable of building peace and stability. How many of the far more numerous Nepalis who had stayed home during those tumultuous 19 days did so because they refused to buy into a palpably contrived alliance between the mainstream parties and the Maoist rebels will never be known. But the people who did come out led their leaders, who had seemed ready to accept the first royal overture.
In a sense, our politicos are mere reflections of us, equipped with the same fantasies, fears and foibles. But there seems to be something more. For all the arrogance and indifference so famously attributed to them, it is hard not to admire the vicissitudes these individuals are capable of bearing. (Between Singha Darbar and Nakkhu, UML leader Pradeep Nepal once described his tribe as being precariously perched.)
It is hard to believe that even the seemingly most abominable specimen really entered public life with a malignant motive. Are they prone to aggrandizing themselves before others? More likely than not. But deliberately destroy the nation? Come on.
As any sovereign people, Nepalis are free to harbor expectations. But if a politician – to use that worn adage – promises to build a bridge where there is no river, the people cannot be expected to go far with a gullibility defense. When leaders who had long insisted that a constituent assembly would only open a Pandora ’s Box came around to supporting the Maoists on that count just because of the assertiveness of one monarch, we surely could have asked them for at least two more good reasons.
Today the box continues to spew all kinds of things, with control slipping away from the ruling class. For them, prolonging the day of reckoning has become the measure of progress. Nepal Workers and Peasants Party chief Narayan Man Bijukchhe, who sees presidential rule as the only way out, insists the leadership does not want to say so openly for fear of admitting their collective failure. Surely even Bijukchhe – and his college pal, President Ram Baran Yadav –knows we cannot keep going on knocking the head of state’s doors every few years without expecting to inaugurate a new blame game.
As an individual, Devi Prasad had every right to be angry at this hopelessness. Not everybody has it in him or her to smack the leader of a major political party. But the cheerleading is getting scary. The national putrefaction is systemic, only feeding on the individual predilections and prejudices of leaders. In their collective wisdom, the people are expected to redeem them.
If the minister who slapped that government official or the legislator who slugged the finance minister is moving scot-free, the outrage should not be allowed to inaugurate an all-round slap fest, therapeutic though it might seem. There are enough of those outside our borders who want prove how failed we have become as a state. The least we could do is to avoid becoming a collective failure in spirit.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Loitering Around The Premier League

In terms of sheer effrontery, India’s public triumphalism in having evicted UNMIN from its purported backyard is rivaled by a palpable surge in prime ministerial ambitions in Nepal. Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, CPN-UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal and the Nepali Congress’ Sher Bahadur Deuba are among front-runners who each seem prepared to countenance either of the other two if only to keep the other aspirants out.
Yet the field is wide. Ram Chandra Poudel, the Nepali Congress leader who withdrew his candidacy after becoming the uncomfortable sole contestant for most of the 16 unsuccessful legislative legerdemain, remains very much in the fray, if you ask a section of his party members.
One section of the UML has floated the candidacy of Bharat Mohan Adhikary in the interest of maintaining factional balance. Not one to shy away from his newfound prowess as a power broker, Maoist leader Mohan Baidya has pushed Ram Bahadur Thapa for the top job.
Whom do the Indians envisage? After bolstering Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s credentials for the high office, New Delhi insists that it would be comfortable with anyone who it believes it could work with. Quite a standard, that. But even the lame affirmation of detachment has not been able to stand for long. Through familiar representatives, New Delhi has made its preferences clear.
Nepal is the head of India, retired general Ashok K. Mehta said in a recent interview with a Nepali weekly. In that magnanimous vein, any imbalance at the top is bound to rattle the rest of the body. Pressed to name names, Mehta insisted that Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic leader Bijay Kumar Gachchadar may be best suited for the premiership, a candidate Maila Baje has endorsed in the past, albeit for different reasons.
How gullible might Gachchadar be to this intimation? He is hardly unfamiliar with the resume enhancement Dr. Bhattarai achieved through two successive visits to India in the past fortnight. The Maoist leader, it is understood, conducted more substantive discussions with his putative patrons during the Mumbai sojourn, emboldening him to proclaim his readiness to assume any responsibility.
Yet how might Dr. Bhattarai actually rate his chances, notwithstanding his impressive standing in Nepali public opinion polls. He was not blind to the shabbiness with which the CPN-UML’s Khadga Prasad Oli was treated in official circles in the vicinity of the Vivekananda International Foundation conference. Ram Chandra Poudel, who felt he had earned New Delhi’s appreciation, if not the premiership, by merely continuing his losing candidacy for so long, was not even invited to the conclave. One Indian daily, known for conveying New Delhi’s official views on Nepalese affairs, even characterized that legislative process farcical.
In issuing a joint statement pledging post-UNMIN support to Nepal, the heads of diplomatic missions of Australia, Canada, Denmark, EU, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States have established themselves in a lesser league of their own. India, in other words, is set to be in the driver’s seat.
But, clearly, New Delhi also seems to appreciate how the Chinese, Russians, Pakistanis and all other stakeholders will chart their own course in the ambiguity of the post-UNMIN milieu. All roads may lead to Delhi, but, in India’s estimation, no Nepali traveler must be allowed to take anything for granted.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Enduring Earthly Relevance Of Divine Counsel

Prithvi Narayan Shah is riding a new wave of recognition in republican Nepal. From across the political spectrum, a growing number of leaders are voicing reverence for the founder of the nation, as opposed to the progenitor of Nepal’s last royal dynasty.
Such acknowledgment of our roots was never antithetical to our march to newness. The belatedness of the sentiment surely does not detract from its relevance, especially with the imminent withdrawal of the United Nations peace mission, or UNMIN, and the regionalization of Nepal’s search for peace and stability.
UNMIN chief Karin Landgren vented her frustration with Nepal’s knottiness by stating that the nation stood between presidential rule or an outright military takeover and a Maoist revolt. Although Landgren phrased her remarks in a way suggesting she was merely regurgitating popular sentiment, they prompted much outrage. Yet much sympathy was also available from sources as disparate as Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai and Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Kamal Thapa.
At U.N. headquarters, Indian diplomats could barely conceal their glee at having mounted a hugely successful start at the Security Council in evicting the United Nations from India’s backyard. As New Delhi unleashed its much-touted seminar diplomacy, the broadly participated event turned out to be merely a sideshow to Dr. Bhattarai’s confabulations with top Indian figures associated with that country’s Nepal policy.
If Nepalis back home sought to see Dr. Bhattarai as the next prime minister, the man was in no eagerness to dispel that notion. The Chinese, of course, already labeled him as our version of Deng Xiaoping, which was interpreted to mean anything. In the current context, Beijing’s appellation does not appear to stand in the way of Dr. Bhattarai’s ascendancy.
His boss, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, finds himself in the pre-12-point agreement phase, when he had to lift the punitive action against Dr. Bhattarai and dispatch him to New Delhi to forge an anti-palace alliance with the mainstream parties. This time, Dahal desisted from fresh action with a screech that battered his own reputation. Even the man he deputed to escort Dr. Bhattarai to the Indian capital chose to make news by sparring with former army chief Rookmangad Katuwal, to little effect.
After a meeting with President Ram Baran Yadav, Dahal ruled out the possibility of presidential rule or a Maoist revolt, at least not immediately in the case of the latter. (Maila Baje found his silence on the possibility of an army takeover rather intriguing.) Relegated to essentially a leader of a faction – albeit the dominant one – from his grand pedestal of supremo, Dahal may have little choice but to accept Bhattarai as prime minister. Even if were to succeed in regaining the premiership, Dahal will have to confront a rejuvenated Bhattarai. Fighting his battles from within the party and government would seem to be his safest bet.
Despite India’s conspicuous delight, the withdrawal of UNMIN has come at a time when it faces a palpable erosion of its tradition influence. During Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent visit, New Delhi exhibited the dominance of the ‘hyperrealists’ hawks by not reiterating that it considered Tibet a part of China. Juxtaposed with India’s decision to send its representative to the Nobel peace prize award ceremony to Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo, the trends point to continuing political tensions between the Asian giants. Yet Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen spared time to discuss the fragility in Nepal, while we were regaled by the Paras Shah-Rubel Chaudhary ruckus.
After Wen’s visit, the hot line between New Delhi and Beijing has already seen prime ministerial consultations on Nepal at least one more time. Beijing seems anxious to restore stability through the military and other tools still available, while New Delhi is eager for a democratic fa├žade to any changeover. In that seemingly narrow space lies much potential peril for Nepalis.
Prithvi Narayan Shah wanted posterity to maintain friendship with both neighbors. A closer reading of his most celebrated divine counsel suggests that he considered the danger from the south more serious. It would be worthwhile to extrapolate that assertion into our times and draw our lessons. The Chinese regularly give out messages in support of Nepal’s independence and integrity, but in a way that is barely audible to themselves. The Indians, for their part, speak from all sides of their mouth for everyone to hear.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Straight To The Heart

Stung by Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s uncharacteristically blistering harangue on the telephone the other day, Unified Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal accused the CPN-UML and the Nepali Congress of plotting with ‘outside’ forces to subvert the peace process.
But Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) chairman Kamal Thapa apparently was not impressed by the rationale for Dahal’s invective. The following day, he clubbed the Maoists with the other two big parties as part of a foreign-funded conspiracy against something even priceless, the nation.
Though Maila Baje was tempted to ruminate on the latest twirl in the love-hate relationship between Thapa and the Maoists, the somberness of the moment was too stark. India’s entrance into the United Nations Security Council with the advent of the new year has left Dahal with little else than moving our Supreme Court in a last-ditch bid to stop UNMIN’s withdrawal.
The Maoists’ hopes of regaining Indian patronage, on the other hand, have improved with Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s very public defiance of Dahal. Yet Chinese benefaction could easily have been on Kamal Thapa’s mind. An increasing number of Nepalis who had welcomed Beijing’s post-April Uprising assertiveness today have grown wary of how that might ultimately imperil the nation. The regionalization of Nepal’s conflict-resolution initiatives may or may not prove to be a greater incentive. It would certainly limit our room for maneuver, so to speak.
The ‘constrictionists’ have benefited from the upsurge of the issue of Nepali money. The longer the organizers of the upcoming Bryan Adams concert take to figure out how many thousands they want to charge for each ticket, the more it is going to roil public opinion. As the son of a Canadian diplomat, Adams has an internationalist perspective rooted in childhood, something rare for rock stars. But it is hard to imagine that he somehow sees Nepal as revenue enhancer.
Given his involvement in Georgia, another country seeking to gain its footing against the shadow of a powerful and meddlesome neighbor, Adams’ eagerness to sing at Dasarath Stadium perhaps acquires additional significance. Conversely, with the departure of the United Nations mission having become such a pressing imperative for many, this new internationalist had to be properly discolored at the outset, irrespective of his motives.
The bright side here is the growing appreciation among Nepalis of the character and contours of foreign influence. Granted, there still are powerful voices within who want to portray concerns of international skullduggery as hubris, history and geography confirm that such apathy plays into the hands of the meddlers. No matter how distasteful Nepali politicos may sound in depicting the foreign hands that sway their rivals, collectively they go – apologies to Bryan Adams – straight to the heart.