Monday, February 28, 2011

No Soft Spot To Land On

China and Pakistan are planning to invade Nepal, if you believe the leader of India’s Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav. There is a strong case for taking him seriously. Yadav is a former federal defense minister. And he made the remark in a speech at the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, a venue targeting a multiplicity of audiences.
During his February 22 speech, Mulayam Singh also asked Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh why India’s relations with Nepal and Sri Lanka had deteriorated in recent years. But Maila Baje would like to leave that for another day.
The palpable desire on the part of some Indian “hyperrealists” to precipitate a showdown with China has been recounted in these pages in the past. Quite conspicuous also is the determination of some Chinese hardliners, including those in the People’s Liberation Army, to “refresh” the lesson they had imparted to the Indians half a century ago.
That Tibet has become the principal fault line is amply underscored by the reality that it encompasses most of the bilateral issues of contention. Beijing has not been persuaded by New Delhi’s protestations of good faith. India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile is merely symptomatic of the deeper issue: India’s deeply held sentiment that it always has had deeper affinities with Tibetan than have the Chinese. Beijing’s sustained efforts to integrate Tibet with the mainland have solidified New Delhi’s resentment.
If the continual discovery of mineral resources in Tibet has exacerbated India’s traditional soreness against the background of their economic rivalry, the military dimensions of Chinese infrastructural development in Tibet have intensified New Delhi national-security sensitivities. In this equation, the likelihood of Pakistan opening a second front in the event of another Sino-Indian war remains more than academic.
Whatever the legitimacy and authenticity of the Free Tibet movement elsewhere, the campaign represents a clear and present danger to Nepal. When Wikileaks recently revealed a conversation between foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey and U.S. ambassador James F. Moriarty during the royal regime, the response was one of outrage and derision at how the palace could try to trade off Tibetan refugees for American support. Yet today’s leadership has few qualms over inflicting on Tibetans refugees the treatment they accused the royal regime of perpetrating on the Nepali democratic movement.
The post-monarchy turmoil has turned Nepal into a far more lucrative center for the Free Tibet movement, which enjoys the patronage of a motley mixture of governments, churches, philanthropists and activists often working for their own specific purposes. Ordinarily, any government would be expected to exploit the inherent contradictions to further the nation’s interest. How far Nepal’s position has diminished can be discerned from the simple fact that the older non-fictional Buddha’s Warriors continues to trump the fictional albeit more recent Buddha’s Orphans in the international book publishing discourse.
The challenge for Nepal to maintain its longstanding policy that Tibet is an integral part of China persists. If anything, Beijing’s post-monarchy assertiveness has underscored the extent of its determination to make Kathmandu to live up to its commitment.
The last time the India-meets-China-in-Nepal thesis resonated so loudly, in the Sixties, the Chinese were thought to be capable of air landing up to one lightly equipped infantry division within five to seven days, provided they could seize the Kathmandu airfield. By extensive utilization of pack animals and porters, the Chinese could then expect to support attacks by one infantry regiment through each of the Naralagna Pass to Bajang; through Kore pass to Dana; through Kyirong Pass to Nuwakot; through Kodari Pass to Dhulikhel; and through Rakha Pass to Dingla.
The viability of even limited Chinese forces in northern Nepal was deemed largely dependent on stockpiling and their ability to sustain porterage operations through the northern passes in winter. India, for its part, had direct military involvement in Nepal through a full-fledged mission and communication personnel along our border with China.
Technology has changed the dynamics. This time, the Chinese have advanced missile capabilities in place in Tibet clearly targeting India. The logistics for rapid deployment of PLA troops are well entrenched. The Indians, on the other hand, confidently proclaim that their armed forces are no longer the ill-equipped band trounced in 1962.
India plans to deploy two mountain divisions in the northeastern border area with China by the middle of this year to plug gaps in along the Arunachal Pradesh frontier. The two divisions consist of 20,000 soldiers, a squadron of T-90 tanks and a regiment of artillery. The Indian Air Force, which deployed 36 Su-30MKI fighters, its most advanced multi-role fighters, to the north-east in 2009, is set to upgrade and expand the fleet.
The refurbishment of the airfield at Surkhet and elsewhere is expected to give the Indians an advantage. But no less important for the putative belligerents will be the hearts and minds of Nepalis. For us, though, soft power or hard, the squeeze is likely to persist all the way to breaking point. As the yam has withered and dried, its brittleness has grown. The softness evoked by Mulayam Singh’s first name might have cushioned us a bit, even if briefly.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Democracy, Discontinuity And Deceit

In the cacophony gripping the latest commemoration of our quintessential February ritualism, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s voice seemed to make the most sense. “With the country already having been declared a republic,” our national dissenter in chief observed, “celebrating Democracy Day is irrelevant.”
Come to think of it, it’s far worse than irrelevant. If you pursue the vision of the votaries of New Nepal all the way through, it’s outright hypocritical. The prevailing storyline today is that the democracy that dawned on that February morning in 1951 was merely a restoration of an autocratic monarchy.
Every popular struggle since has been against successive monarchs’ refusal to announce elections to the constituent assembly – the cornerstone of the promise of the heady morn – according to the fable so assiduously constructed after the April Uprising. Today, if Nepalis finally find themselves saddled interminably with such an assembly, it is only after they had vanquished the monarchy.
But history, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, has many cunning passages, corridors and issues, making sense of which involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past but of its presence.
If mere intentions were worthy of commemoration, Maila Baje feels going back to Padma Shamsher Rana’s still-born reformist constitution – a response to the contagious freedom movement of the times – might have been more sincere. Celebrating the National Movement of 1842, in which the army-backed nobility pushed King Rajendra to restrain Crown Prince Surendra, would have better illustrated the depths of the Nepali quest for change.
There were those who pronounced the Delhi Compromise – the heart of Democracy Day – a betrayal. These people included members of the Nepali Congress, which supposedly spearheaded the democracy movement. Together with the communists, these dissidents might have been able at least to mount a symbolic resistance aimed at redirecting history. But the dominant political class driving the preponderant party chose to memorialize its own version of history.
Even there, the scale with which compromise has prevailed over conviction has been striking. The Nepali Congress has always claimed how it brought back a king that had fled to Delhi. That assertion has not been able to hide its pain at having had to sign the dotted line in New Delhi and to serve under the very prime minister it purportedly overthrew.
The communists were locally too miniscule to challenge the Delhi Compromise. Their newly ascendant Chinese ideological soul mates might have stepped to help in. But, then, that was precisely what pressed the advocates of compromise. Amid the political and military pressure to maintain the Delhi Compromise, the communists’ torpor led them to produce some of the strongest royalist collaborators.
But why have the Maoists – hitherto the loudest advocates of collective national discontinuities – acceded to Democracy Day? They could have taken a stand against public observations. Better still, they might have energetically disrupted celebrations to bolster their credentials. Revolt or peace, after all, the vision of each Maoist camp is aimed at correcting the ills of traditional democracy.
But, then, who better knows the promise inherent in compromises? Didn’t Dr. Bhattarai, in the aftermath of the Narayahity carnage, write how Nepalis would always highly rate the contributions of King Birendra and all of his predecessors – all in an effort to isolate and illegitimize the new monarch? And more germane to our times, didn’t he advocate a cultural monarchy as King Gyanendra had pretty much made up his mind to pack his bags?
Nikita Khrushchev is a name Dr. Bhattarai would probably not want to hear, considering the parallels the late comrade has evoked within the Maoist party. But it would be instructive here to recall what Jawaharlal Nehru had once conveyed to the Soviet leader. Because, deep down, Dr. Bhattarai, like most current drivers of change, know that you don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Taking In The Tibet Tangle

In terms of damage control, the past week was hectic if not exactly hysterical. The taming of the Jhal Nath Khanal government required the denial of the home and defense portfolios to his Maoist patrons. Infuriated, the ex-rebels vowed not to join the government, a posture that served to expose both the peace and revolt camps within the party. But since the Maoists initially didn’t fully comprehend the Nepali Congress’ ability or willingness to step in and save Khanal, if so required, they started having second thoughts.
As for Khanal, the fact that the Maoists – and not he – characterized his government as anti-Indian gained traction. Once in power, there was little else the prime minister could do but seek New Delhi’s goodwill and support. In his first extensive interview with an Indian newspaper, Khanal seemed to make the right noises about respecting India’s security interests.
By envisaging Cambodia as his first foreign destination, the prime minister sought to maintain symbolic adherence to the image of Nepali ingenuity the Maoists created for him – and perhaps more, given our extended parallels with that South East Asian nation.
Nepalis, however, Maila Baje feels, must brace for a larger fight looming on the horizon, which has little to do with the new constitution. Although everyone is tiptoeing around the Tibet issue, Nepal is likely to face far greater convulsions than those created by the Khampa Rebellion over a generation ago.
The Achilles’ heel of a rising and assertive China, Tibet has entered the crosshairs of hardliners in India who are seeking a showdown in pursuit of other aspects of the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship. Predictions of war in 2012 made by a leading Indian strategic analyst continue to roil Beijing amid the approaching 50th anniversary of the ‘lesson’ it believed it taught New Delhi.
New Delhi, which never reconciled itself to Beijing’s incorporation of Tibet, is sensitized by continuing revelations of vast mineral wealth in the region and China’s drive to harness it for military as well as economic purposes. The Chinese, for their part, recognize how fast the Naxalites insurgency has flared across regions of India that are rich in mineral resources. Could the Indian Maoists be stopped from the turbulent and resource-rich northeast, home to myriad other uprisings?
As they seek to preempt an escalation of the threat from Nepal to Tibet, the Chinese have been dropping off hints on how an unstable Nepal could inflame insurgencies in India, not necessarily limited to the Maoist variant.
For the Americans, the abandonment of the Khampas was not universally popular. If anything, much of the original justification for backing the Tibetan resistance retains its relevance. One group of veterans made a public display of their enduring fealty by commemorating the site at Camp Hale in Colorado where the original Khampa warriors were trained.
Still, the Chinese and Indians see stark incongruities. As President Barack Hussein Obama’s administration all but welcomed the military coup in Egypt as a democratic alternative to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime, parts of the world saw the triumphalism as emblematic of declining American power. Weeks earlier, Obama hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao at a White House state dinner with much fanfare, during which a key attraction was an anti-American anthem going back to the Korean War.
In the eyes of Rush Limbaugh, the leading conservative American radio commentator, the toasting of Hu represented a far vulgar display. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner (Obama) feted the jailer of this year’s laureate (Liu Xiaobo) in the presence of another former laureate (Jimmy Carter).
Beijing, which funds the massive American deficit spending, saw how Obama, on the eve of his visit to China in 2009, refused to meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington. When U.S.-Chinese tensions escalated the following year, Obama did receive the Dalai Lama at the White House but made the Tibetan spiritual leader leave from the backdoor, sidestepping bulky trash bags.
Indian hardliners itching for a fight with China acknowledge they cannot count on the Americans. Nor do they seem to want to. Standing up to China on Tibet as an equal will have a palliative effect on the 1962 psyche. It would force the Chinese to understand the power and potential the Indians have accumulated over half a century.
In one sense, both putative belligerents could benefit from the Americans hedging their bets, with Beijing relishing it as an endorsement of its comprehensive national power and New Delhi as a justification of its pursuit of strategic autonomy. Does all this sound convoluted? Who ever said our geopolitics were any simpler than our politics?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Buoyancy In The Boundlessness Of Betrayal

It must have been quite a moment to savor for Jhal Nath Khanal on the night of his election as premier last Thursday. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made two frantic attempts to contact Khanal before finally getting through to congratulate him.
During a visit to New Delhi last year, a visibly snubbed Khanal was on his way to the airport for the flight back home when he finally got word from Dr. Singh’s aides that he would get a meeting with the top man. That last-minute advance was not enough to perk up Khanal’s facial expressions at Tribhuvan International Airport, although he was careful not to use words conveying the sentiments inside.
He has not had to spell things out this time around, either. Prime Minister Khanal’s parameters have been defined by Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who took pains to describe the new government as being a product of indigenous genius. But as the sting from Devi Prasad Regmi’s slap now throbs on countless cheeks across the southern border, the Indians can be expected to gear up for action. How the Maoists managed to return to power by proxy was the refrain of the Indian commentariat well before the purported seven-point secret agreement revealed that the new government would be led by turns by the CPN-UML and the former rebels.
Dissenter-in-chief Dr. Baburam Bhattarai will prove useful in preventing Dahal’s return to the premiership. If New Delhi was in no mood to see the Maoist chairman back in the top job, Dr. Bhattarai was more than acceptable, a point the vice-chairman himself pushed with thinly disguised lament in recent days.
But more important for the anti-Dahal brigade in general may be the hardliners in his party. Mohan Baidya, who had joined Dr. Bhattarai in opposing Dahal’s decision withdraw from the race and support Khanal, has kept his powders dry.
For the hardliners, the Maoists’ participation in power would now leave the revolt option – that great propellant for melancholy cadres– in limbo. The party’s official documents – in spirit, if not necessarily in letter – stands against the Maoists’new ascendancy.
Then there remains that major stumbling block in the peace process: the fate of the Maoist army. Though the formal transfer of the PLA combatants to the special committee of the government was achieved with great fanfare, the Maoists were already expected to resist all further moves for a variety of reasons. Now, according to the secret deal, the combatants will be either put together as a new security force on its own or form a new unit along with the same number of state security forces. Both options have triggered opposition from the principal parties, and not only on the merit or otherwise of the issue alone.
As the beneficiary of so many layers of betrayals all around, Prime Minister Khanal probably recognized the ridiculousness of his undertaking well before the votes came in last Thursday. But Maila Baje feels Khanal can easily afford to sit back and relax. The Maoists, the Nepali Congress, and the CPN-UML, as well as the Terai-based parties, will need time to sort out their internal woes festering since the election.
The Indian premier was quick to sense that Khanal remained the only man standing between Baluwatar and Dahal. Our new prime minister has coveted the job for far too long not to know how to put that emotion to great personal use.