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?