Monday, May 30, 2011

The Difference The Maoists Have Made

You can’t say the Maoists’ arrival in the political mainstream has not changed anything. When needed, the hardest-line political force has been flexible enough to ensure repeated extensions of an assembly long beyond the life its progenitors – the sovereign people – intended.
Contrast that with the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, who during Nepal’s second age of democracy (1990-2002), were congenitally disposed to dissolving parliament, to the point of self-annihilation, midway through its five-year term.
If the intention of the 2005 12-point agreement between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists was to push the former rebels into the democratic process – as Maila Baje felt from the outset – then it has proved a succeeded. Not because democracy per se has prospered in Nepal by their arrival. But because of the Maoists’ progressive emaciation.
The signal lesson, however, pertains to the evolution and growth of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. There are still those who romanticize the former Nepalese rebels, mostly ensconced in the West and South. Guilt-ridden faculty-lounge discussants that refuse to believe that communism as that great balancing force in world affairs collapsed of its own dead weight. Ideological kooks who insist that communism collapsed only because it lacked the right kind of leaders. Those involved in the magnification and outright manufacture of all manner of grievances to secure funding for a career in newly proliferating disciplines.
Yet Nepalis increasingly recognize how the Maoists grew through the direct patronage of domestic – from the right to the left – and international forces that had their own agendas in shaping the post-1990 change.
Those who thought the Terai – that supposed cauldron of ethnic resentment and alienation – would be the first to erupt discounted how the open border would dissuade a key patron. Lighting the spark on the northern border in the guise of an ideology with specific connotations to the Great Helmsman there would give a degree of plausible deniability to the rebels’ real sponsors.
This, of course, is not to denigrate or deny the real grievances that simmered beneath the surface. But how many societies in our times with deeply ingrained political, economic, social and cultural grievances have descended into outright armed insurgency? And grievance is no static sentiment, as the Brahmins and Chhetris have demonstrated in recent weeks.
The leadership must be credited for our Maoists’ success. But the paradoxes here too abound. Supreme commander Prachanda’s ferocity and flexibility are lauded for the building of a ragtag band of malcontents into a formidable fighting force. Yet, according to reports now trickling out of Maoist quarters, Prachanda would start wailing at the first hail of gunfire on either side on the few fronts that he was actually involved in.
The hefty prose Dr. Baburam Bhattarai composed in defense of the insurgency has surely enriched the world of Nepali letters. But, then, a brief perusal of Mao’s own collected works would suffice to indicate how much more his forte lay in art of translation than conception.
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Narayanhity Carnage, the Maoists’ chief ideologue stands by his original story that the surviving members of the royal family had a hand in the massacre against a vast geopolitical conspiracy. That’s laudable, considering the swiftness with which politicians are generally known to change their stories. But when the best Dr. Bhattarai, five years after claiming to have dragged the mainstream parties on the path to New Nepal, can do is emphasize the urgency of forming an inquiry commission, then you have got to think. Are the rest of us really that stupid?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Nepali Congress: Is It For Real?

The general response to the Nepali Congress’ latest public campaigns seems to have exceeded the leadership’s wildest expectations. Although no one had quite ventured to write the party’s epitaph, its progressive emaciation was apparent. The post-Girija Prasad Koirala leadership was both dreary and divided.
The party’s resurgence – if one can call it that – appears to have energized the Indians as well. The venerable Times of India’s Nepal watcher, Indrani Bagchi, in a recent story credited Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee’s massive electoral success in West Bengal against the long-ruling left alliance with giving a new life to the Nepali Congress.
In fairness, the TOI correspondent is less parochial than the story’s headline makes it sound. The writer attributes the Nepali Congress’ success to the diminution of public fear of the Maoists and the dismal performance of Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal’s government. With each of the communist partners mired in deep internal rifts, it would be difficult to expect the government to perform any better. But, Maila Baje feels, our comrades surely know that such arguments, regardless of their validity, cannot win the argument.
Still, there is a place in the TOI story where Nepalis and the Nepali Congress must watch for. The party was on the verge of a rupture on the eve of Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit. “Giving the example of the Indian Congress party and how it had repositioned itself in Indian politics, Krishna reportedly told the NC leaders that they ran the risk of being their own
worst enemy.”
Suddenly things patched up in the party, long delayed appointments/nominations were formalized, and voluble leaders restrained themselves to the point where factionalism saw little, if any, place in the latest rallies. Sher Bahadur Deuba, the chief dissident, at one point even half-gyrated to the music amid the unfolding cultural tapestry.
The sense of rejuvenation reached a level where Nepali Congress cadres in Gorkha ended up thrashing six local activists of UCPN (Maoists).
To be sure, the Nepali Congress has seized the initiative by submitted a 10-point charter of demands to the UML-Maoist government, complete with an ultimatum. Unless the demands were fulfilled, the party insists, it would oppose the extension of the Constituent Assembly on May 28. In the end, the spirit of consensus will probably prevail in the Nepali Congress and the assembly will get a new lease of life.
How long after that can the personality-based rifts in the Nepali Congress be papered over? Power, after all, has always had a way of intoxicating the party to the point of implosion. Perhaps in the interest of its own well-being, the party should commit itself to staying out of the government for a while longer.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Between Elitism and Illusion

Exasperated by the ideological muddle ensnaring his party, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist firebrand Bam Dev Gautam has hit back at his rivals in the leadership. The former deputy prime minister no longer seems in a mood to consider them communists.
Although Gautam was careful not to name names during a speech in Nepalgunj the other day, his targets were clear. “We cannot take those Nepali Congress cohorts as communists, can we?” Gautam asked the audience. The images of Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal must have been swirling around the place in their assorted manifestations.
At one level, Gautam merely articulated something that has been intriguing a far wider section of the populace. Oli’s public remarks have tended to fall at the right end of the political spectrum, on occasion surpassing those of Kamal Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, if you take the monarchy out of the equation.
Unlike Oli, Madhav Nepal has been vituperative in his public references to former king Gyanendra Shah. But on other matters, Nepal has generally positioned himself on the right of many in the Nepali Congress. Although both seem to have trained their guns on the Maoists, deeper down it looks like they are going after a particular mind-set.
Yet other parts of Gautam’s speech were a bit grating. “What a surprise, some of our own senior leaders have been supporting a status-quoist party like Nepali Congress,” he thundered. What status quo, exactly? In  post-April Uprising 2006 Nepal, the term status quo, at least in the political context Gautam refers to, is too amorphous to understand. When Chettris are able to bring significant parts of the country to a halt claiming discrimination, you have to concede how our notions of new and old are changing by moment.
Ideological consistency may not be Gautam’s stronghold. But he persisted nevertheless. “Our ideology is Peoples’ Multiparty Democracy (PMD) [and] the heart of PMD is revolutionary change”, Gautam insisted. That was the kind of language Oli and Nepal have long used to position themselves between radicals and moderates, all the while Gautam was taking turns consorting with the palace and the Maoists.
Still, the larger question pertains to the general direction of our politics. There those outside the arena who tend to dismiss as grossly insulting clear manifestations of popular disenchantment with the political class’ inability to deliver the constitution. Many in this group have a history of magnifying and even manufacturing grievances and institutionalizing an industry while masquerading as dispassionate observers. Now that the change they peddled had started losing some of its luster, it’s the people’s fault.
Then there are those in the political class who believe in the power of national consensus to work wonders when it comes to the crunch. It doesn’t matter a bit that the rest of the year is not so conducive to common cause. Those without similar faith in – or perhaps, more appropriately, fantasies about – the durability of last-minute deals are somehow roadblocks that must be cast aside.
Between this crass elitism and eternal confidence, Gautam’s comments point to the imperative of each one of us fighting our individual battles and reconciling ourselves within before pretending to know what it is that we collectively seek.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Convergence Of Contradictions

Few expected Madhav Kumar Nepal to make life easy for Jhal Nath Khanal. Yet those anticipating a full-blown offensive between the incumbent premier and his immediate predecessor were bound to be disappointed.
Neither tradition nor temperament suggests that Nepal would ever become a boisterous belligerent. So when he claimed the other day that now was not the time to look for an alternative to the Khanal government, the sentiment was merely characteristic of the speaker. But make no mistake. In measured but meaningful cadences, Nepal is hitting back on the man who sought to subvert him from the get go.
Prime Minister Khanal’s principal rival within his CPN-UML, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, has been more vociferous. Even if Oli ever got over his defeat to Khanal in the election for party chairman over two years ago, he seems to see in his adversary enough to get aggravated by.
By timing his allotment of the home ministry to the Maoists at a time when Oli was out of the country, Khanal took a personal swipe at his rival. Cutting short his visit to Malaysia, Oli returned home to describe the move as “a serious conspiracy against the party, country, people and democracy”. Oli seems set to raise the decibels several levels at the upcoming party central committee meetings.
The prime minister, for his part, has been careful to cover his bases. By giving the home portfolio to Krishna Bahadur Mahara, he precipitated the exit of the original claimant, Barsa Man Pun, from the cabinet. Khanal has thus attempted to widen the fissures within the UCPN (Maoist) precipitated by party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s turnaround to embrace the peace camp. To be sure, Oli, Nepal and Co. would like to measure how all this might play out in Maoist ranks before pushing Khanal any further to the wall.
From the other end of the spectrum, the Nepali Congress is nibbling at – if not exactly biting – its nails. Barely able to keep his house in order, Nepali Congress leader Khum Bahadur Khadka insists the UML would split if the Khanal government continued in office. As the self-proclaimed mastermind of the damaging 1998 UML split, Khadka does carry some authority.
Oli and Nepal, Maila Baje feels, might want to pay deference to the likes of Khadka – at least in public. By depicting Khanal as polarizing figure, the UML’s liberal camp could hope to take over the party from the radicals. But what if Khanal were to risk a party split for the sake of retaining power? Oli at least might not be terribly bothered by that prospect.
By aligning his group with the Nepali Congress, Oli could hope to take on both the Maoists and the Khanal-led UML and find resourceful external patrons. The Madhesi parties, congenitally more likely to veer toward the liberal combine, could then fortify the new front.
While grappling with their own grievances, the Maoists can perhaps rest assured on one count. The fact that five years later, the Nepali Congress and the UML are still clamoring for the Maoists to demonstrate their commitment to peace says more about the mainstream parties than about the ex-rebels.
As events crystallize with approaching crucial May 28 deadline, Nepalis can brace for the next grand convergence of contradictions, a process that has long passed for our collective journey to a new Nepal.

Monday, May 02, 2011

‘Recklessness’, Revelation And Revisionism

By blaming the Nepali Congress’ “recklessness” for King Mahendra’s takeover in December 1960, UCPN-Maoist vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai may have imperiled his position as our top democrats’ favorite Maoist.
The politically correct version has long held that King Mahendra’s enormous autocratic ambitions led to the overthrow of Nepal’s first elected government and three-decade proscription on multiparty politics.
In subsequent years, deposed prime minister B.P. Koirala had been willing to factor in other national and international developments that worked to the monarch’s advantage. But Koirala’s party has steadfastly and singularly peddled the line of royal ravenousness.
This version has enjoyed almost universal acceptance in the political mainstream, including within our splintered but strong communist movement, a key beneficiary of the royal takeover. So much so that sections of the post-monarchical community of ex-panchas have articulated that assertion without the slightest trace of awkwardness.
So when someone of the stature of Dr. Bhattarai offers an alternative version of history, it is bound to acquire extraordinary attention. But, then, the man has been quite elastic in his assertions, configuring them in tune with the times.
During the second peace talks he conducted with the royal government, in 2003, Maila Baje recalls, Dr. Bhattarai asserted that peace was achievable precisely because the political parties that had mangled the 12 previous years were finally out of the way. Yet when those talks faltered, Dr. Bhattarai lumped Bhimsen Thapa’s and the Ranas’ rule together with that of the monarchs’ to depict a 240 years of crude kingship.
Still, a few questions are in order. Why would Dr. Bhattarai run against the current at a time when he needs to clear all the hurdles he can on his path to the premiership? Could this be a ploy to secure the Nepali Congress’ support for extending the constituent assembly? Failing that, he could then place responsibility for any post-May 28 “accident” squarely on the largest democratic party.
Because of the proximity of the event, Dr. Bhattarai probably didn’t find it necessary to recall how it was the Nepali Congress which led to then-King Gyanendra’s first takeover on October 4, 2005. Or he simply might not have wanted to humor the last monarch so early in the game. Maybe he wanted to perpetuate the guessing game that has held the Maoists in good stead in times of war and peace alike.
As for the Nepali Congress and Satra Sal, Dr. Bhattarai perhaps felt he was merely underscoring what the party understood all along. The fact that two-thirds of its 74 elected representatives in the lower house eventually joined the Panchayat system may not necessarily connote recklessness, but it is certainly revealing.