Sunday, August 28, 2011

Who Had the Harder Part To Play?

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s election as prime minister on Sunday brought a rare sense of anticipation across the board. Consider some of the storylines. Nepal finally gets its first Ph.D. head of government (the other two ‘Doctors’ who served in that capacity were medical ones – or so we are told). The chief ideologue of an armed insurgency that neither won nor lost on the battlefield becomes the scholar-premier. Bhattarai finally emerges from the long shadow of the Fierce One. And so on.
Bhattarai’s academic accomplishments, his ‘clean’ image and his successful tenure as finance minister all worked to his advantage – until now. Even before being sworn in, his penchant for speaking from all sides of the mouth and his established skills at obfuscation and evasion have come to the limelight.
One Nepali luminary conferred on him the potential to become a Khieu Samphan or a Robert Mugabe and published a 10-point plan to avert that descent. At least one lay observer across the southern border didn’t relish the “kumkum and garland” that adorned the premier-elect’s neck and face and wondered how far Lord Pashupati could be from his sights.
The challenges ahead remain formidable and it is to our credit that we haven’t collectively descended into the ‘yes-we-can’ frenzy on lowering the seas and healing the planet. Yet Bhattarai may have raised the bar for himself a bit by uniting the perpetually divided Madhesi parties behind his candidacy through that last-minute pact. Thus the new premier might have to revert to the late-Panchayat-era practice of splitting the Supplies Ministry into food and textiles, considering the pronounced preferences of some his supporters.
On the geopolitical front, things are not cut and dried. Long considered friendly to India, Bhattarai was recently dubbed Nepal’s Deng Xiaoping by the Chinese. So he will have to cross the rivers by feeling the stones. More so at a time when the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, both finding themselves in the opposition at the same time, would be tempted to bury their inter rifts fan the first flames they detect within the Maoists.
Which brings Maila Baje to, shall we say, the principal contradiction. Just before the legislative vote, Dahal described Bhattarai as an A-1 candidate, whose intellectual and revolutionary credentials were proven nationally and internationally. “He is not only popular among the middle class, but has also proven himself as the leader of the workers and peasants,” the Maoist supremo told the assembled members. For a second, it seemed like Dahal had never purged Bhattarai or that Bhattarai had never schemed against Dahal.
Ahead of the constituent assembly elections in 2008, Dahal took a demotion from presidential candidate to supplant Bhattarai in the vying for the premiership. You could say that it was simply because he knew the country was going to have a ceremonial president. But don’t say you wouldn’t have a hard time believing yourself.
Before Jhal Nath Khanal’s surprising rise to the premiership, Dahal was as clear as he could be in his opposition to Bhattarai’s candidacy. (Dahal loyalists were even said to have given death threats to their vice-chairman.) He came around to supporting Bhattarai’s candidacy only to keep Mohan Baidya off his back. Should the party ever split, Dahal could probably live quite well without Bhattarai. But he drinks from the same trough as Baidya.
It may be hard to put a finger on precisely how and to what effect the power play within the Maoists might evolve. For a general sense, consider this: What looked like the harder part to play? Bhattarai digesting Dahal’s fulsome praise ahead or Dahal bringing out those words?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Last Hope Of Our Republic?

The time may have come to rally around Baburam Bhattarai as premier. And no, it’s not because he remains by far the most popular among the leading contenders.
Over the past three years, Dr. Bhattarai has remained unabashed in claiming personal credit for turning Nepal into a republic. To the extent that any single person could claim ownership over that endeavor, Dr. Bhattarai may even have a point. But the self-assertion has lost none of its arrogant ring.
Yet you have to acknowledge that the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist vice-chairman might be able to give a semblance of sanity to this whole peace process precisely because of the personal stake he presumably sees involved here.
Then there’s that other reason. Dr. Bhattarai insists that he doesn’t want to become prime minister just to add one more portrait on that illustrious wall inside Singha Darbar. This means he comes to the job with a sense of purpose, regardless of how hazy that might sound to the rest of us.
A few months ago, he claimed to have started the process of developing a new model for Nepal, equating the country’s precariousness to that which Bhimsen Thapa had faced. He can’t be forced to show his hand unless he becomes prime minister, can he?
Our most favorite Maoist across the southern border is not anathema to the north. A visiting Chinese dignitary had bestowed on Dr. Bhattarai the title of Nepal’s Deng Xiaoping. Forget the layers of disparate meanings associated with the Great Mandarin’s pronouncement because there is a more important message. To the best of Maila Baje’s knowledge, the Chinese epithet has not provoked the slightest trace of derision from the Indians.
Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal will have to work the hardest to swallow his pride. Without the arsenal of Dr.  Baburam Bhattarai’s vocabulary, Dahal knows he would have had long lost his war on the battlefield. Mohan Baidya, too, crossed the rubicon when he joined hands with Dr. Bhattarai against Dahal. He can just as easily begin collaborating with Dahal in undermining Bhattarai once again, but not before the latter takes the oath of office and secrecy.
By blaming the Nepali Congress’ “recklessness” for King Mahendra’s takeover in December 1960, Dr. Bhattarai seemed to have imperiled his position within our top democratic party. His lament that fake republicans were dominating national politics by sidelining the real ones, too, was a thinly disguised attack on the Nepali Congress.
The CPN-UML, too, will be hard-pressed to go along. Bringing Madhav Kumar Nepal into the Constituent Assembly, overruling the people’s mandate, was the greatest mistake of the Maoists, Dr. Bhattarai once lamented. He also had called the CPN-UML under Jhal Nath Khanal as a band of eunuchs.
Yet this is a time for the other parties to show magnanimity. If Dr. Bhattarai were to seek another extension of the constituent assembly, the people might actually turn out to be more sympathetic. If things are really so hopeless as to defy even Dr. Bhattarai, then Nepalis might be more inclined to look for reasons not necessarily related to the political class.
It would perhaps be too much to expect Dr. Bhattarai to acknowledge failure in formal words, should it come to that. His resignation would say it all. But would it hurt to expect him to succeed?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Political Destiny & Curse By Stealth

Regardless of how things turn out after the resignation of Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal over the weekend, this much is clear. Politicians can keep their word.
Okay, Khanal broke his self-imposed deadline by a day. Against the general record of our politicos, does that really count against him?
If you think so, look at the element of the story. This was the first time – at least in Maila Baje’s recollection – that a significant segment of the political establishment had implored a prime minister not to resign.
Our quest to national newness has opened up political novelties. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal resigned as premier in 2009 without anyone of consequence ever having demanded it. Madhav Kumar Nepal became the longest-serving caretaker premier in Nepal (and almost in the world) despite having extended the constituent assembly in exchange for what everyone had  understood was his immediate resignation.
Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel, that valiant soldier who claimed to have contested all those ridiculous rounds of balloting just to save democracy, is battling to keep his seat as parliamentary party leader of the Nepali Congress.
With the big and small parties all mired in internal conflict – some at multiple levels – the constituent assembly has become the proverbial tiger that everyone needs to keep riding. So Nepalis must brace for another extension to keep the chasing the dream of … nobody knows what.
But, then, are we really in charge? We keep hearing advice from certain foreign corners about the need for new elections. Successive elections for an assembly to write a new constitution were something proposed in these columns in the past – but only to the extent of emphasizing the absurdity with the absurd. That serious stakeholders could contemplate such a thing is scary, so say the least.
Yet other foreign quarters – including those who vociferously pressed the idea of radical change in the not too distant past – have become votaries of the status quo. Some worry that any vacuum might let Nepal regain its Hindu character and thus check the spread of the Good News. Others fear for the gains in sexuality a deeply conservative society has achieved.
When a Nepali starts talking seriously about the possibility of the existence of water on Mars – and is taken seriously – you can be pretty sure how badly those who have been using Nepal as a laboratory for far too long are going nuts.
Each day we discover that on the other side of the Himalayas lays a richer treasure trove of resources. (Actually that’s what Tibet in Chinese signifies.) But on this side, we are supposed to believe we are barren just because a guy called Toni Hagen said so many, many years ago. Elsewhere technology has helped to trace what was hitherto deemed untraceable. Yet we are expected to forget Hagen’s time and context and mull deeper into that sati’s-curse line. (Who exactly was the hapless lady and what were here precise words, anyone?)
Pardon the rambling, but it seemed like a good way to spend time before we discover the true story behind Prime Minister Khanal’s resignation – as well as appointment.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Dahal Charts A Middle Path

Pushpa Kamal Dahal the geopolitician has consistently made far greater sense than he has as a politician. Look at how he sought to brush aside the stubbornly sticking pro-Chinese tag the other day.
“If you recall, when I was prime minister, I had mooted the idea of an east-west railway,” Dahal said in remarks to a daily newspaper before his departure for Kuala Lumpur. “That process is still on. Does that give me a pro-India tag?”
Dahal’s comments came in response to his increasingly active involvement in the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), an organization widely projected by the Indians and their Nepalese protégés as a front for the Chinese government.
In the past, when Dahal left to attend APECF sessions, he sparked fierce speculation on which ranking Chinese official he was actually meeting with and what new twist he would then give our hopelessly contorted politics.
When APECF proposed a $3 billion project to boost Lumbini as the equivalent of Mecca for the world’s Buddhists, Dahal’s involvement became even more headline grabbing. Then when it emerged that former crown prince Paras Shah, like Dahal, is a co-chairman of the foundation along with eight other individuals, heads started spinning faster. (Dahal never said he would pick and choose his associations with Nepalese commoners, so Maila Baje thinks he owed no explanation there.)
The announcement in Beijing last month that Hu Yuandong, head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization’s China Investment and Technology Promotion Office, and Xiao Wunan, Executive Vice-Chairman of the APECF, had signed a formal agreement pertaining to the Lumbini project split our republican establishment right across the middle.
It took several weeks for an official response to come. The configuration of the ruling political alliance must have deterred an immediate response. One civil society luminary, flustered by China’s assertive intentions in post-monarchy Nepal, urged Beijing not to trust the Maoists. He coupled that assertion by explaining to us that the Chinese were only looking out for themselves in Nepal.
As the din of the collective ‘duh’ permeated the Nepalese ambience, the government secretary responsible for Lumbini’s development criticized the agreement, saying Nepal had not been consulted. Ordinarily, such a caustic remark would have sounded the death knell for the project. But in these extraordinary times, this bureaucratic appeal to our patriotism fell flat and the hapless official was forced to resign.
If news of Dahal’s departure to Kuala Lumpur gave a gripping headache to opponents of the Lumbini plan, just imagine how they must be feeling that he is scheduled to return home accompanying a senior delegation to discuss the details of the project. The team, led by senior Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang, serving as special envoy of Chinese president Hu Jintao, will hold discussion on conducting a feasibility study for developing Lumbini – and not just as a pilgrimage but a much broader special development zone.
“The birthplace of Lord Buddha is important for Nepal with regard to our economic prosperity and cultural development,” Dahal said in his newspaper interview. Officially still a confirmed atheist, Dahal would have a hard time peddling the four-fold noble truths in defense of the project. So the commercial aspect has come to the forefront. Yet there is more than a whiff of the spiritual in Dahal’s espousal of the middle path between our two neighbors.