Sunday, July 31, 2011

Uncivil Thoughts, Unintentional Outcomes

Our squabbling political class has had its hands full protecting itself from the people’s indignation. Now a leading Indian minister has the temerity to accuse them of imperiling the security of his country – well sort of.
Speaking to editors of some Nepali newspapers and magazines in New Delhi last week,
Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the lack of a stable elected government in Nepal has increased the security vulnerability of India.
Bewailing that the governments in Nepal have been of caretaker nature for long time, Chidambaram said a strong and stable administration that cannot focus on day-to-day tasks creates a lot of collateral damage. In the minister’s estimation, it allows Pakistani extremists to use Nepal as a transit point, enables the flow of fake Indian currency notes and perpetuates weak security mechanisms at the Tribhuvan International Airport.
As for a growing concern for his government, Chidambaram suggested he had no information of Chinese involvement in anti-Indian activities in Nepal. (Leave that to the flourishing industry in his midst peddling the line that Beijing is fanning India’s Maoist insurgency through their Nepali cousins.)
Lest Nepalis rise up against Chidambaram’s insinuations, Indian ambassador-designate Jayant Prasad Srivastav stepped in to proffer his governing philosophy. India never intended to interfere in Nepal’s political matters, suggested the man who is expected to begin mending the fences his predecessor, Rakesh Sood, breached. His implication was that if anything did happen to hurt Nepali sentiments, it was all unintentional.
Men like Maoist leader Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplav’ are simply not impressed. India is plotting to derail the current left government, dissolve the Constituent Assembly and install a rightist government in Nepal by shunning the Maoists, he believes.
India has played the good cop-bad cop routine with great élan. By enduring an acceptable level of criticism from an assortment of Nepali constituencies, New Delhi has been able to reap far greater benefits. Of late, the cost-benefit analysis has skewed the other way. Accordingly, the Indians have been turning up the heat on those who were most energetic in promoting the 2006 realignment – within and outside – on the plea that it would work to New Delhi’s advantage.
Our political class remains too worn out to betray any further signs of discomfort. Their abettors in the garb of civil society are the ones that are cracking up inside. Some do not want Pushpa Kamal Dahal to cede control of the party in any way. (This comes from the same direction that described former king Gyanendra’s decision to sack prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in October 2002 as constitutional but his appointment of Lokendra Bahadur Chand a few days later as illegitimate.)
Others are doing their best to persuade the Chinese that the Maoists and the monarchists are both Indian minions. (This, again, from quarters that were the first to count Nepalis fortunate to have had Prince Gyanendra Shah’s safe pair of hands intact after the palace carnage before they mocked him as Asia’s most humiliated man. This same constituency lauded the Maoists for having raised arms in defense of the people, unlike the king’s plundering and pillaging soldiers.)
Imagine the pain of these hitherto unaccountable men and women at not being able to vent their sentiments against their handlers. Special consideration for tax arrears have helped to muffle the more affluent, free medical treatment has helped to frighten the infirm of mind and soul, and old-fashioned financial prodding has enticed the worldly wise. For the rest, outright intimidation has worked well. Not a bad record for unintentional outcomes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Landing As Safe As It Could Be

The leaders of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) seem to have settled their internal rifts with remarkable geniality – for now. The central committee meeting of the party Monday passed chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s political paper dividing organizational duties among the key protagonists flexing their muscles.
While the latest rejigging might not be enough to allow the party to focus on peace and the constitution – which Dahal’s document has called its main agenda – Maila Baje thinks it does allow the Maoists to deflect some of the blame for missing the next crucial national deadline on August 28.
According to Dahal’s proposal, senior vice-chairman Mohan Baidya will head the party’s organization department along with the disciplinary body while vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai will chair the parliamentary board and will be the prime minister candidate for the future government. Similarly, another vice-chairman Narayan Kaji Shrestha will lead the party’s team in the current government complete with home portfolio until Bhattarai can take the top job at some unspecified future date. General secretary Ram Bahadur Thapa will oversee the military commission.
In the end, the much-ballyhooed Bhattarai-Baidya alliance, which saw Shrestha and Badal jump into the fray from their own vantage points, has ended up with Dahal staying put. Appearing to deconcentrate authority, he has in fact created an opportunity to play each rival off against the others.
Dahal knew his gambit would rile Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal and the Nepali Congress even before he got his rivals’ nods over the weekend. Both have not taken kindly to the Maoists’ effort at invoking extraterritorialism especially vis-à-vis the council of ministers.
Still, the settlement suits the other Maoist leaders just fine. Baidya and Bhattarai could rise above their ideological differences to challenge Dahal because they had other overriding imperatives. Baidya, in light of the all-round mockery Dahal’s pronouncements seem to be evoking within the nation, perceived the Chinese as being no less miffed.
Ever the man to publicly shun responsibility outside the party, Baidya sought to project Bhattarai as an alternative to Dahal. But only after ensuring a monumental geopolitical transformation behind the scenes. Baidya, we are told, has been instrumental in Bhattarai’s growing contacts with the Chinese. (Whether our hardest-line Maoist had any role in conferring the ‘Nepalese Deng Xiaoping’ title from a visiting Chinese dignitary remains unclear, though.)
Bhattarai, on the other hand, has grown disenchanted by how his gulf with Baidya has served to strengthen Dahal. Regardless of the genuineness of a Bhattarai tilt northward, the posture itself, Baidya knows, would be enough to rattle Dahal and sow a few seeds of distrust in Delhi. Baidya, unsure of the depths of Bhattarai’s southern grounding, was, however, happy to see him named prime ministerial candidate only to be checked by Dahal, who continues as leader of the parliamentary party.
Shrestha’s 11th hour posturing must have been viewed with some suspicious by both Baidya and Bhattarai, perhaps even as something sponsored by the wily Dahal. Badal’s movements may have been aimed at maintaining his own relevance in the affair, but it did have the added effect of diluting the opposition to Dahal. So the protagonists realized the folly of continued brinkmanship and sought a safe landing.
Given the goings-on in the other political parties left, right and center, the Maoists’ landing was the safest it could have been. So does it really matter whether the affair was a ruse all along or was for real?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Feel Ashamed, But Do Stay On!

Gokarna Bista tells us he is ashamed of calling himself a minister because of the dishonest assurances political parties are peddling to the people. What makes Bista’s lament less of a laughing matter is the fact that he holds a portfolio that most politicians can only dream of clutching.
But our energy minister, who belongs to the CPN-UML, sees the Nepalese people mired in poverty, lacking enough to eat and deprived of education. Then he sees leaders, who instead of concentrating on the plight of the population, go on making eloquent speeches. Riding a car fluttering the national flag embarrasses him.
Exasperation sounds like a more accurate word. One of the first things Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal pledged after taking office was that he would take on the ‘water mafia’ and clear what has long been touted as Nepal’s only road to riches. Accordingly, he named a key loyalist, Bista, to pursue that objective.
At a public function not long ago, Bista accused ‘mafia elements’ of stuffing all those project licenses in their pockets all the while helping to plunge the country deeper into darkness and inertia.
Vowing to do everything possible to end – not merely reduce – the inexorable spate of load-shedding, Bista also ordered a crackdown on pilferage and other forms of leakage. He has also challenged the conventional wisdom that the crisis cannot be addressed without raising the power tariff.
Bista was recently quoted as saying that if the Nepal Electricity Authority could reduce leakage by a mere six percentage points, that would generate about 2.5 billion rupees of additional revenue. In other words, that would almost offset the annual loss incurred by the organization. That piece of information has energized the people to urge Bista to go after the big fish faster.
While remaining upbeat about the prospects of foreign investment in the hydropower sector, Bista says he refuses to wait for others to solve our energy crisis and seeks domestic investment to the extent possible. He wants to encourage local companies to invest in the hydropower through low-interest loans and other incentives.
The energy minister won plaudits from the media across the spectrum for such thinking. Yet his laudable effort to appoint a managing director for the NEA through competition, as opposed to direct political appointment, did not get off to an entirely propitious start.
Then Bista was blamed from within the UML party for acquiescing in the use of the term “people’s war” in the government’s annual policies and programs, which has allowed everybody to divert their attention further away from the task of drafting the new constitution. The upshot: Bista is seething to the point short of self-flagellation.
Maila Baje acknowledges how tempting it is in this situation to demand Bista’s resignation, especially if he continues pressing the humiliation horn any further. But maybe we should let Bista stay in his job and feel sorry for himself.
If his predicament is real, perhaps the pain would go some way toward inflicting collective shame on the government. If Bista is just faking it, he still does have that extra reason to be caustic about himself. After all, how many people are stabbed outside their house a few hours after being appointed minister?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why Deuba Throws Caution To The Stars

Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba says he sees no reason why he cannot be the next prime minister. For a man who allegedly failed to defend democracy twice during two previous terms as prime minister, Maila Baje would have expected Deuba to be more circumspect in his public comments regardless of the comfort level.
Yet things have turned around too fast for someone so addicted to the job to stay still. The Nepali Congress is no longer in the grip of the people who had pushed the alliance with the Maoists, insisting they could make it work. The external quarters that nodded with them are now left perusing their palms in remorse.
With Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Sujata Koirala struggling to wash off any stains from the Sudan scam, all Deuba needed was to push aside Ram Chandra Poudel. (Yes, the same man who once upon a time egged him on to split the party, promising to accept the chairmanship before coming out in a full embrace of Girija Prasad Koirala.)
During those interminable rounds of legislative voting to find a successor to caretaker premier Madhav Kumar Nepal, Poudel may have considered himself the only thing standing between democracy and a full Maoist takeover. For Deuba, Poudel’s endurance was an illustration of his aching for power without purpose – or was at least a perception that could be advanced some way.
It turns out that Sushil Koirala, someone who never has had to take decisions and live with them, entered into a secret deal with Deuba as a last-ditch attempt to reorganize the post-Girija party. If Deuba is today intent on cashing the check, it is because circumstances have turned favorable in more directions than he can behold. (As that Turkish psychic said a couple of years ago about Deuba, the stars can get better only in a rare few other Nepali pols.)
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal may relish the prospect of Deuba’s return to center stage at a time when his rival Dr. Baburam Bhattarai is using his ostensible international acceptability to become prime minister. Even if he would want to forget the precise circumstances, Dahal probably remembers that Deuba remains the only Nepalese prime minister to have a full Oval Office meeting with the U.S. president.
Yet the prospect of a Deuba candidacy has engendered a flicker of hope within the Maoist chairman. Eyeing their opportunity, Poudel and key CPN-UML leaders have asked Dahal to reenter the race for the simple reason that he heads the largest party in the legislature, without whose leadership the peace process cannot progress. Whether this is a belated recognition of reality or a shrewd move to shift responsibility to the Maoists for the inevitable failure to draw up the new constitution within the current extension period, it has certainly left Dahal searching deep within.
New Delhi is likely to seek a full-fledged public gesture from Dahal – something the wily Maoist cannot wiggle out of easily – before granting any imprimatur on his candidacy. If Dahal does a K.I. Singh anytime soon, the surprise will lay less in his return to the premiership than in the swiftness of his consolidation of authority inside the party. (Faster in case the current crisis is all a ruse). By temperament and trait, Dahal is in a better position to deal with the aftermath should there occur a full and formal affirmation of the failure of the latest experimentation in reinventing a nation. If Dahal were to deem the price too high for his personal peace and security, then Deuba may be the one to watch for. Or maybe Deuba, who was prime minister when Dahal first marched out leading that ragtag band of marauders, knows something crucial the rest of us don’t.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Lest We Get Caught Up In The Rapture

Sooner or later Nepalis will have to break out of the rapture over the elevation China has accorded its ambassadorship to Nepal and recognize that Yang Houlan is here primarily to further his own country’s interests.
That we are tripping over ourselves to discover what the appointment of such a senior diplomat might mean shouldn’t be a cause for concern so long as we keep things in perspective. Nepalis have lived long enough as a nation, state or whatever it is to recognize that regardless of the intensity of China’s interest, our fragility is our own to worry about.
Historically, Nepal has made a virtue out of exaggerating its proximity to China to the point of irritating the Chinese. In the days of yore, emperors and ambans were quite direct in conveying their displeasure. We were worse than barbarians – we were even addressed as robbers and bandits in official communication.
To remain independent, Nepalis have had to develop an uncanny way of keeping the British guessing about the true nature of our relationship with China. During the Anglo-Nepalese war, Lord Moira actually had planned for the possibility of Chinese military intervention on our behalf when Beijing was daring us to join the feringhis. Even after imposing the Sugauli Treaty on us, the governor-general was prepared to withdraw the residency before receiving assurances of Chinese acquiescence. The British had to defeat the Chinese in the First Opium War to discover that the Middle Kingdom was incapable of helping even if they wanted to. (And that was a big if.)
But the mandate of heaven weighed so heavily on imperial shoulders that Nepali tribute missions served to massage the imperial ego. Our crafty Rana rulers slipped in enough consignments of opium to ensure that commercially we came out on top from the pangs of political subordination. That so infuriated the Manchus that they formally claimed suzerainty over Nepal at the precise time the ground right around them was slipping away the fastest.
The Nepal-China peace and friendship treaty abrogated all previous treaties, allowing Nepalis to believe that Tibet was Beijing’s last stop. Chinese acerbity in official correspondence has ceased in modern times, barring that phase in 1967 during the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. But in private Chinese diplomats and academics are known to seethe in the same way at the Maoists as they did at the monarchs.
While Mao seemed to have forgotten his assertion that Nepal was among territories lost to the imperialists during the century of humiliation (a sentiment Sun Yat-sen shared), the Great Helmsman and his acolytes also perfected the traditional Chinese practice of proffering high-sounding but ambiguous statements of support contingent upon quid pro quos, something that has stood out sharper in the splendor of our newness.
China’s ambassador became the first foreign envoy to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in 2007 only after Koirala had made a full-throated pitch for China’s inclusion as a full member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The prospect of that train being brought from Lhasa to the Nepalese border has energized four governments since the April 2006 Uprising, but who can really be sure about when to expect it to arrive? (Maila Baje recalls that the Qinghai-Lhasa portion was completed ahead of schedule.)
So when the next time a Chinese leader says his or her country will not sit idly by if anyone threatens Nepalese independence and sovereignty, by all means let’s not disbelieve those words. But even if Chinese soldiers happen to shed blood to defend Nepal’s territorial integrity, let’s be able to recognize – in full gratitude – that they would be doing so ultimately because they deemed it was in their national interest.