Monday, March 07, 2011

Medium, Message And... Mahara

Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s elevation to senior deputy premier after much haggling within his UCPN (Maoist) and outside raises interesting questions. Let’s begin with the most general one.
Why has Mahara returned to the information and communication ministry after what was arguably a huge promotion? No offense to the men and women in that realm, but the No.2 person in the cabinet leading the contingent of the No. 1 party in the legislature would have been expected to get something far more potent symbolically and in substance.
With the CPN-UML’s Bharat Mohan Adhikari already having bagged his virtual preserve –finance – at the outset, the foreign ministry could have gone to Mahara. He is, after all, the chief of his party’s international department. But, then, that’s probably what Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal is dangling before the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum’s Upendra Yadav. (Or is it Sujata Koirala her Nepali Congress?)
Defense might have sounded more dignified for Mahara. But, like the home portfolio, it was too sensitive for the Maoists. Even minister without portfolio would have been more DPM-like, in this case.
Not that Mahara is unqualified for the job. During the height of the insurgency, he was the public face of the Maoists. He led the rebel delegation in the first round of talks with the government. When that fell through, he emerged from hiding to appear on CNN, discharging himself well before an inquisitive international audience.
During his last stint in the ministry… well, top officials there welcomed him back last week saying they had fond memories of his working style. And that says something even after discounting the sweet talk built into the bureaucracy.
During last year’s cash-for-votes telephone scam, Mahara acquitted himself quite well. First he directed his purported Chinese interlocutor to his boss on such a lucrative offer. In the follow-up conversation, Mahara quizzed the caller on whether he had already opened other channels to the party. Once satisfied that he wasn’t being bypassed, he quickly regained his customary cool. And when the conversation was made public, threatening to tarnish Mahara’s personal reputation, he wiggled out with skill.
Far from issuing a flat denial, Mahara conceded that the voice heard on the recording might have been his. He went on to accuse his detractors of creating a montage of disparate innocuous conversations only the sum of which would suggest a scandal. The perfect technology defense.
As a leading lieutenant of party chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Mahara seems to have won enough support from the Mohan Baidya and Baburam Bhattarai factions in returning to the cabinet. (He didn’t seem to be on the original list the top comrades had been skirmishing over.) And this brings Maila Baje back to the information and communication conundrum.
Or maybe it’s not really one. With so much at stake for everybody, the former rebels seem to have settled on controlling the medium and the message. Prime Minister Khanal has exhibited an incredible ability to define reality distinct from what those around him see and feel. Now that’s dangerous for a party that once considered it had Khanal on its side and went ahead and sacked the army chief. Little did it anticipate that mysterious phone call (to quote the Chinese) that forced the CPN-UML chief to cut short his visit up north and return home to criticize the move.
So the Maoists now expect Mahara to define whatever comes out of cabinet meetings to dominate the national conversation. Khanal can complain but even he knows how his No.2 would cushion him from an increasingly resentful UML.
In its disarray, the Nepali Congress might take comfort in the thought that Mahara represents that rare Maoist today who had actually begun as a student activist adhering to B.P. Koirala Thought. And within the Maoist fold, Baidya and Bhattarai are probably counting on Mahara’s ebullience to trip Dahal some way somewhere down the line.
Maybe all that public squabbling over the home ministry was actually aimed at getting Mahara in high and close enough to rein in the premier. He may yet get the home ministry. But from next time, our parties might even start fighting over who gets to hold the information and communication portfolio.