Monday, June 27, 2011

A Ruse Or Real?

Is United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal battling for his political life or is the public war of words within the party merely a clever ruse?
The facts on the ground seem to point to the former. Vice-chairmen Mohan Baidya and Baburam Bhattarai, who can barely agree on anything, have mounted a joint challenge to Dahal. Together, the duo represents two-thirds of the parliamentary party. The former prime minister, who is now said to be in the minority on all party fronts, can no longer hope to pull ahead by pitting his two deputies against each other.
This is a sordid twist to a political saga woven with elements of suspense, intrigue and drama. From someone who was once thought not even to really exist, Dahal managed to meet the Chinese President, Indian prime minister and American president (albeit briefly in a wider gathering) within his first 100 days as premier.
His powers of evasion and prevarication were so masterful that flexibility and firmness became interchangeable terms on the negotiating table and on the battlefield. The country couldn’t figure out whether Dahal was really a republican or not until that vote during the first session of the constituent assembly in 2008. (Rumor has it that he was, until the last moment, still cautioning then-prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala that putting the issue to a vote might not be the right way forward.) Maila Baje has a nagging sense that Nepalis in general still do not seem to really know, given the number of escape clauses he has constructed over the years.
Even when he was caught on tape treading at the height of dishonesty on the number of Maoist combatants, he found admirers flabbergasted at his skills in juxtaposing time and context. For a while, he seemed to enjoy a personality cult reminiscent of the Great Helmsman that was largely devoid of the fear and coercion that characterized the phase up north.
Yet today, people on the lower rungs of the Maoist leadership have stuck their necks wide out to criticize the party chairman’s imperious ways. The fear of being turned into another ‘Alok’ has simply evaporated. Reports of Dahal’s alleged cowardice under fire are percolating from precisely those who were in the battlefield with them.
Charges of nepotism, favoritism, financial vice – the pervasiveness of which led Dahal to transform an organization based in four mid-western districts into a national party and the largest force in the last election – have come to hobble him. Although he chuckled them off on hearing them, rumors of a Sri Lanka-like crackdown under a prime minister K.P. Oli after the latest three-month extension of the constituent assembly expires are said to be haunting him these days.
Dahal has milked the Birendra-Madan-Bhandari-and-me defense to its fullest that is going to be of little help now. Even if he compromises with the foreign masters he accused of forcing him out as premier, will he have any way of knowing that they have shed their core inhibitions?
Will his persona and predilections allow him to concede the party leadership to Baidya and the premiership to Bhattarai? Will he be able to extricate himself from the special interests that have come to surround him and his family?
These are crucial questions. Yet it is hard to believe that Dahal has lost his ability to amaze us. That is why we must return to the original question. By keeping us guessing on the real-versus-ruse deal, Dahal could yet pull ahead of his detractors.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Politics In An Age Of Elitism

A conspicuous sense of elitism has been creeping into the body politic for a while, culminating in the recent utterances of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. No, the Maoist vice-chairman insists, he doesn’t want to become prime minister just to add one more portrait on that wall at Singha Darbar.
But he doesn’t restrain his minions from claiming that India, China, the United States and the European Union would all like to have him in the top job. (Thank goodness, he is popular with Nepalis, too. Imagine what it would be like to be in his party if he were less so.)
Dr. Bhattarai concedes that the Maoists, too, have been consumed by the factionalism and rivalries that have been the bane of other Nepalese parties. But that is only because of the former rebels’ increasing contacts with those same other parties.
Granted, without Dr. Bhattarai’s specialness, the Maoists would not have been the success story among the international revolutionary left despite their lack of a complete victory. You can go beyond that. Many a person who has topped his or her batch’s SLC list has soon lost the rush to excellence.
If Dr. Bhattarai had been cowered by the heavy police batons in the vicinity of Nepal Electricity Corporation during his relatively obscure days in the early nineties, he probably wouldn’t have become a serious contender for the premiership. Today his persona is such that his wife can become a minister just because of whom she is married to. (Although one must acknowledge the suffering she endured while joining her husband in that reform camp in the months preceding the 12-Point Agreement.)
But you can’t help notice the ludicrous levels the I-know-better-than-you air has taken. Dr. Bhattarai recently claimed that Nepal could fall victim to overt foreign interference within the next decade if we are not collectively careful. Aren’t we already there yet?
At another place, he decried the King Mahendra-style of foreign policy of playing one neighbor off against the other as thoroughly unworkable. But didn’t Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi visit the airport transit lounge for talks with King Mahendra whenever he was en route to a third country?
And didn’t Mao Zedong pay the much-maligned monarch that rare return visit to his residence in Beijing? If it was a game King Mahendra was playing, then New Delhi and Beijing were willful participants, weren’t they?
A senior Chinese leader not too long ago described Dr. Bhattarai as being Nepal’s Deng Xiaoping. (The more diehard Chinese communists and their Nepali cousins would probably see him more in Khrushchev’s mold.) Maila Baje feels the honorific may have also resulted from the Chinese belief that they could help Dr. Bhattarai save himself from becoming someone else.
In the aftermath of the Narayanity Carnage, Dr. Bhattarai had labeled King Gyanendra as Nepal’s equivalent of Lhendup Dorje – the Sikkimese quisling – an assertion he virtually said he stood by a decade later. That Dr. Bhattarai today should be battling to ward off the same epithet from within his own party – not to speak from a section of the country – says less about the country’s political craziness than about the corrosiveness of the careless talk by people certifiably smarter than the rest of us.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Help Us See Better, Doctor

Having extended the tenure of the constituent assembly for a second time, our political parties seemed to be moving in the right direction. But that does not seem to have impressed many within the fraternity.
One skeptic is Nepali Congress central committee member Sashank Koirala. Speaking in Okhaldhunga last week, Dr. Koirala claimed that even a preliminary draft of the constitution would not be ready by the August 28 deadline. Then he added with a tinge of morbid resignation, “Nepalis even do not have the pen and a paper to draft their own charter.” In his estimation, our fluid political situation would continue.
Before you jump to accuse Dr. Koirala of the gleeful indifference that has characterized some in his increasingly fractious party, check what he said at another speech in Chitwan. “Political complexity will result in the country if the peace process does not get full shape within three months.”
Even if the constitution is not drafted in time, Dr. Koirala seemed to suggest, a modicum of progress in the peace process would be required to save the nation. Now, just what might that entail? (Who better than a trained ophthalmologist to see the writing on the wall? Just because President Bashar Assad in Syria seems to have lost some of that vision doesn’t mean all hope is lost in eternity.)
Dr. Koirala may or may not volunteer a solution in the days ahead. As for the complexity he predicted, we might have already reached that point. Mohan Baidya has inherited from Dr. Baburam Bhattarai the dissenter-in-chief title within the Maoists. A Maoist minister has been able to muster over 150 lawyers on his side in a case brought by human rights activists. Youths allied with the CPN-UML have reached deep into their legacy radicalism to go after the fourth estate – life and limb.
Madhesi parties outside of power have been consulting with representatives of the ancien regime we were led to believe had discriminated against them for nearly three centuries. Christian and gay groups are concerned that the freedoms that seemed to emanate from Nepal’s once heady march into a nebulous newness are under threat from the criminal statutes. And lest we be accused of distraction from real bread-and-butter issues, female actors are complaining their male counterparts are being paid much more.
Much as he admires Dr. Koirala’s candor, Maila Baje has a quibble with the man. Shortly after being elected to the constituent assembly, Dr. Koirala, in a conversation with his constituents in Nawalparasi, claimed that the interim constitution was based largely on a document that had arrived from the Indian capital. But he didn’t stop there. He said he had reliable information from political friends in New Delhi that Maoist leaders, including Dr. Bhattarai, were involved in preparing a tentative draft of the new constitution in New Delhi.
Of course, that assertion was viewed within the context of growing Indian interference in the immediate aftermath of the 12-point agreement. Has Nepal ventured too far since those days for that draft to be foisted on the country as a consensus document? If so, how then is Dr. Bhattarai’s stock as a consensus prime minister soaring at this precise moment?
C’mon, Doctor, we’re seeing so many things in our collective peripheral vision that are so hard to explain.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

How About Mohan Baidya For Premier?

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal doesn’t want to become prime minister again, a loyalist said the other day. Everyone that matters – India, China, US, UK, and EU – wants his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, in the top job, according to one of his key supporters.
In the Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel both want the premiership so bad they are working hard to keep each other out. And it gets better. Jay Prakash Prasad Gupta of the breakaway Madhesi Janadhikar Forum has staked his claim. If for no other reason than the fact that his is only party that has a republican suffix to it. And, meanwhile, even the fiercest critics of Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal in his CPN-UML don’t want him to step down right away.
But let not your hearts be troubled. On the constitution-drafting front – the real job before the nation, in case you missed it – things are moving, if spasmodically. So much so that the otherwise downbeat Nilambar Acharya, who heads the drafting panel, believes it may be possible to have a rudimentary text ready within schedule. (Maila Baje feels Acharya bears watching. He always tends to be the first to sound the bells of doom, for understandable reasons.)
In another spur to the process, if not exactly to peace, Dahal has decided to remove his PLA guards. The decision is based on the recent decision of the Army Integration Special Committee, which decided to send all combatants deployed for security of Maoist leaders to their respective cantonments within a week.
Realizing the importance of their presence at home, four members of the special committee – Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat, Barshaman Pun, Ishwor Pokharel and Jay Prakash Prasad Gupta – cancelled a long scheduled trip to the US. Their ardor was not shared by Madhav Kumar Nepal, Sujata Koirala and Hisila Yami, who left on a trip to Bangladesh. They probably thought they could cover the distance in time, should things come to that. In any case, the attacks on the Facebook fraternity as good-for-nothing do-gooders has somewhat abated.
The latest word is that the Maoists, if they cannot get Bhattarai, would put up Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ for the premiership. Considering all that has happened since Dahal stepped down, the peace process would probably need a Maoist premier to get anywhere approximating a step ahead. For good or ill, Bhattarai’s intellectual firepower and Badal’s military genius has brought Nepal where it is today. So both are worthy contenders.
But since the past is no longer the preponderant issue, how about Mohan Baidya as prime minister? The hardliner seems to be everyone’s problem today. There is a great chance he will refuse and insist on his candidate, Badal. (Baidya even quit his constituent assembly seat after taking all the trouble to get elected.) If Baidya refuses, he will have committed himself a little more staunchly to the old-style Maoist communism he keeps threatening us with. But what if he agrees? Wouldn’t that be progress?