Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Vetting And Barring Scheme

In the regional power play, Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal’s coalition government has been rudely tossed onto the defensive. The new government formed in early February, according to a section of the Maoists, was the culmination of Nepali genius.
The claim gained wider resonance as the not-quite-secret seven-point accord underpinning the new coalition was reached during President Ram Baran Yadav’s visit to India ostensibly for consultations on breaking the deepening deadlock following Madhav Kumar Nepal’s resignation as premier.
Whether or how deeply the Chinese were involved in building the new alliance is hard to fathom. The most Beijing would publicly assert was the urgency of unifying all patriotic forces to strengthen Nepali sovereignty and territorial integrity. The elasticity of that assertion, Maila Baje feels, served China’s characteristic pragmatism. But the Maoists and, to a lesser degree, the CPN-UML, sought to profit from the perception of a new northern tilt.
So when a new minister of state representing one of the indigenous and marginalized communities our new Nepal was supposed to have advanced turned out to be an alleged confidant of the Dalai Lama, triumphalism collapsed with a raucous thud.
Minister of State for Finance Lharkyal Lama resigned amid allegations that he carried passports of both Nepal and India, apart from a Tibetan refugee ID card. A UML lawmaker from Sindhupalchowk district, nominated under the proportional electoral system, Lama was also accused of involvement in Free Tibet activities in violation of Nepal’s longstanding one-China policy.
While he termed the allegations as ‘imaginary and baseless’, Lama said he had chosen to resign to facilitate the government’s investigation into the charges. But the move seemed to have come after much personal resistance.
The controversy left Khanal with a putrid egg on the face. How lax could the vetting process have been. That, too, on something he would have been expected to exercise particular prudence. Khanal had hardly endeared himself to the mandarins up north when, somewhere on Chinese soil, he took a call from India’s powerful minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and cut short his visit to return home and criticize then-premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s decision to sack the army chief.
The demolition ball this time hit Dahal hard, too. Or maybe he anticipated – if not quite engineered – something like this. The Maoist chief has now veered to the peace camp led by Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. While hardliners like Mohan Baidya will continue to persist in the urgency of a people’s revolt, Dahal has craftily positioned himself for the post-May 28 situation.
Although visiting Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna reportedly gave Dahal an earful about the former rebels’ waywardness vis-à-vis the south, there are indications that New Delhi may be ready to meet Dahal at least quarter of the way.
No longer able to shun him, New Delhi has presented Dahal with blandishments. If he signed the dotted line – on, say, the extradition treaty, allowing Indian security personnel to man sensitive areas, etc – New Delhi could be sympathetic to the Maoist chief’s return as prime minister.
From his subsequent public comments, Dahal does not seem to have been entirely impressed. What he will do on the China front is anyone’s guess. Maybe – just maybe – he might clear the way for Dr. Bhattarai gain the premiership and implement his grand geopolitical vision. Dahal could then just as easily swing back to the Baidya camp to restore the regional equilibrium, regardless of how the Lharkyal Lama episode plays out.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Flashback: A Metaphor For Nepal’s ‘Newness’

Usha Bista has become an apt metaphor for the tentativeness of our trudge toward a new Nepal. A member of the Loktantrik [Democratic] Everest Expedition 2007, Bista was part of a much-hyped endeavor to show the rest of the world how Nepal was advancing toward a post-monarchy pinnacle.
Teammates, firm on setting records of all sorts, ended up abandoning the 22 year old at an altitude of around 8,400 meters. That was after she fell nearly unconscious from swelling in the brain resulting from a scarcity of oxygen.
Earlier this year, expedition members had met with the top leaders of all the eight parties, whose flags they ventured to plant on the summit. As the marginalization of the monarchy proceeded as the one-point national agenda, Bista was at the center of another spin.
She was the first woman from the far-west region, from the Terai as well as from the Chhetri community, to mount an attempt on the world’s tallest mountain. The implication, of course, was that all but one of the Nepali women atop Everest belonged to the Sherpa community.
Discovered beside a path at the so-called “Death Zone” by a member of the Canadian Air Force, Bista was helped down the mountain to the South Col camp. There, British doctors, who had established a laboratory to explore oxygen deficiency in the blood, gave her emergency treatment. They escorted Bista down to a point where she could be picked up by helicopter.
In a nation where platitudes are being peddled as well thought-out plans and policies, Bista’s plight encapsulates the perils of our path. Of course, callousness is not new on our mountains. Two high-profile desertions last year triggered worldwide condemnation, prompting Sir Edmund Hillary to attack the degeneration of a once-lofty adventure into trophy hunting by the wealthy.
This mission was different. Members had an opportunity to prove that loktantra – loosely articulated as democracy without the monarchy – was really anything beyond a slogan epitomizing the Seven Party Alliance’s and the Maoists mutual antipathy for the monarchy.
The fact that climbers continued to tout their own achievements by abandoning a fellow team member in utter distress was bad enough. The reality that the Nepali media was complicit in a cover-up as long as they could is emblematic of loktantra’s manifestation as an exclusive tool for the perpetuation of the SPA-Maoist combine’s monopoly on power.
Surely, those unwilling or unable to go along with the current ground rules are doomed. Anything perceived to stand in the way of a nebulous newness is demonized as feudal, exploitative and antiquated. But when catalysts of change like Bista are abandoned at the first sign of incapacitation, what hope can there be for those outside the establishment perimeter?
There is a more poignant metaphor, though. Nepal is indeed lucky to have foreign friends and well-wishers ready to clean up the debris from our free fall. Surely their patience for platitudes cannot outlast ours.

Originally posted on Monday, May 28, 2007

Monday, April 11, 2011

Diplomacy And Politics of Estrangement

The road to Delhi begins from Lainchour – and Rakesh Sood seems intent on keeping things that way. The soon-to-depart Indian ambassador scuttled a fence-mending meeting between Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Sharad Yadav of India’s Janata Dal (United) party was said to have arranged such a meeting after much behind-the-scenes jockeying. He and his Maoist-friendly colleagues have long pressed the fact that India cannot afford to snub the leader of the largest party in the legislature, regardless of Dahal’s ideology or idiosyncrasies.
But Sood and an influential section of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) reportedly saw matters differently. They advised New Delhi to first invite Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal to sound out the intentions of the new government.
It’s easy to see the shadows of all those black flags running amok in the Indian ambassador’s behavior. Yet Sood & Co. must have bolstered their resistance through their conclusion that the Maoists are, at best, running out of steam.
Earlier this month, Yadav voiced his frustration with Sood by publicly accusing the ambassador of “crossing all  limits.” Sood, for his part, is no amnesiac. Yadav has not exactly been credible as a go-between. After all, he had failed to persuade then-Prime Minister Dahal to shelve plans to make Beijing his first foreign port of call. And that, too, after candidly claiming in the full glare of the media that doing so would only antagonize India.
In fairness, Dahal wants to uphold Nepal’s freedom to make the decisions it deems vital to its national interests. That conflicts with New Delhi’s basic psychology. In a recent BBC Nepali Service interview, retired general Ashok K. Mehta seemed to concede Nepal’s aspirations on every specific instance the questioner and his co-panelist, former Nepali ambassador to China, Rajeshwar Acharya, raised. Yet, on a philosophical level, Mehta, in his inimitable Nepali, insisted on India’s paramountcy, citing Nepal’s anatomical import as the head of South Asia.
Dahal, from the outset, probably recognized the difficulty a republican Nepal would face in warding off the dilemma successive monarchs faced vis-à-vis India. He also must have felt he would carry far more credibility in articulating Nepalese concerns as a democratically elected leader.
But Dahal’s obsession has had an echo-chamber effect, muddling the message not only among the intended audience but also among those on whose behalf he is making them. If by orientation and temperament Dahal seems ill suited for diplomacy, those same attributes make him unlikely to stop dragging India into the daily political discourse.
Dahal partisans may jump on RAW’s involvement in the latest ostensible sabotage as part of the effort to project Dr. Baburam Bhattarai as the next leader of the party. The Chinese, too, seem to have become alert to that reality and have therefore begun according greater respect to the vice-chairman.
It is hard to see Dahal making way for Bhattarai. So the Maoist chairman probably has another trick up his sleeve, perhaps even one connected to the latest convention of the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA). At a meeting the Indians believe was held in Nepal, the organization, among other things, resolved, “People all over the world look up to the Maoists in Nepal to break out of conspiracies and advance determinedly towards the completion of new democratic revolution.”
The Dahal plan could go like this. Let the constituent assembly die without its having formed a new constitution. Oppose President Ram Baran Yadav’s inevitable intervention by bringing the capital to a standstill for a few days. Then send out your own men and women on ‘spontaneous’ anti-Maoist demonstrations. Take a deep breath and renew the anti-Indian tirade.
New Delhi must have anticipated as much. The variables beyond are probably what both sides are anxiously weighing.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Veep’s Mischievous Power of Disbelief

Vice President Parmananda Jha believes that ninety percent of the news published in our newspapers these days is simply not true.
Now, why he chose to make that claim, of all places, while inaugurating the second general convention of Nepal Health Workers’ Union is anyone’s guess. Something he read that morning may have ticked him off. Or probably it was a restive thought that could wait no longer to ooze out.
Maila Baje, to be sure, wouldn’t have expected Jha to make such a bold assertion in front of a union of pen pushers. But there could have been a more appropriate forum, perhaps even one known to share his sentiments. Still, the venue should not diminish our quest to probe deeper into the Veep’s observation.
In fairness to Jha, few people in the world today believe everything they read in the papers. In many developing societies – including those we still consider paragons of a free press – the media enjoy some of the lowest public approval ratings of major national institutions.
Objectivity was always a false quest, given that human beings are by definition subjective. Read different news accounts of the same incident and event and you’re more likely to come to wildly different conclusions. What should belong to the opinion pages seeps in to flood that innocuous-sounding preserve called news analysis.
Despite all that hobbles news hunters and gathers these days, surely more than 10 percent of what appears in the papers must be true. Jha may be forgiven for his own prejudice here. The media have not been fair to him.
For instance, he took much heat for his insistence on taking the oath in Hindi. But some of the same critics, according to Jha’s subsequent revelation, had insisted that he hold firm. Few bothered to cover, much less contemplate, that angle.
If Jha seems to feel more aggrieved than the rest of his peers in the political sphere, well, he represents that segment of the Nepalese population that has long felt discriminated against. Part of the problem must be the nature of his office. At a time when President Ram Baran Yadav doesn’t seem to know what he is supposed to do, can you really blame the deputy for being so flummoxed?
Still, one cannot escape the imperative of stacking the Veep up against his standard. During his tenure, he has voiced pessimism at the possibility of the emergence of a new constitution on time, only to become more sanguine in subsequent pronouncements. (In his recent speech, he urged health care workers to put pressure on everyone to bring out the statute on schedule). There is little predictability in the man, although he is not the only one carrying that trait.
At times, it becomes impossible not to view Jha’s comments within the wider context of his prevailing relationship with President Yadav. In other instances, he does appear too beholden to the parochial politics of the force that nominated him to the office.
Jha may be no better or worse than the rest of the political class that has sought to benefit from plausible deniability afforded by an imaginative press. By seeking to confer strict mathematical precision on the veracity of the coverage, he may have exacerbated his own credibility issues.