Sunday, October 23, 2011

Which Lhendup Does Our PM See?

It seems the specter of Kazi Lhendup Dorji is going to haunt us ever more haughtily after Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s visit to India. When people ordinarily as far apart as Ram Chandra Paudel of the Nepali Congress and Ram Bahadur Thapa of the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist join in revulsion at the centerpiece of the bilateral agreements signed during the visit, the departed Sikkimese leader has a ghost of a chance at salvation.
Since Lhendup Dorji has become much more than a metaphor in our national consciousness, Maila Baje feels we need to look at the apparition squarely in the visage – or whatever we can find of it. As he performed stylishly during different acts of Sikkim’s national stage, did Lhendup Dorji ever recognize how all that would culminate in the phenomenon that would live on as his singular legacy? Or was Sikkim’s merger into the Indian union in 1975 an amalgam of decisions, traits and attitudes whose denouement the leading protagonist could scarcely have been aware of at each step?
To be sure, Lhendup did not have boisterous detractors warning of the impending degeneration of his name into the kind of infamy it has sunk to in Nepal. (And, yes, Nepal, we must emphasize, until we learn of an outbreak of any serious independence movement in Sikkim itself). How much of the kazi’s animus towards the monarchy was personal? Even if it were significant enough, could it by itself have so blinded Lhendup to the possibility of the loss of his country’s independence? In the grand geopolitical scheme of things, how much were the wives at fault, the queen being an American and the kazini a European?
Or was Lhendup mindful of his moves all along? Perhaps, like the chogyal, he saw Sikkim’s status as an Indian protectorate an anomaly that needed to be rectified. Full independence – the chogyal’s choice – was perhaps impractical in the prime minister’s view. If so, Sikkim’s full merger into the Indian union would have been the only road left.
Yet, in his later years, after serving as Sikkim’s first chief minister, Lhendup left his state as if for good. Decades later, warning Nepal’s leaders of the perils of a prolonged democracy-monarchy fight, Lhendup cited his own statelessness as the ultimate eventuality. When the Indian government awarded him the Padma Vibhushan – the second highest civilian award – euphemistically for ‘public service’ in 2003, it listed him as a resident of West Bengal.
For all his ostensible penitence aimed at audiences in Nepal, Lhendup did not reject Indian honors flowing in his direction. When he died in Kalimpong in 2007, the Indian government paid fulsome tributes to Lhendup as the father Sikkim’s democracy. Indians unconstrained by official propriety were even more effusive in recalling how without Lhendup, Sikkim would never have become a part of India.
In Nepal, over the years, there have been numerous contenders for the Lhendup epithet. The current prime minister, who labeled several predecessors as such, has now come under the most rigorous suspicion. Rarely has the Indian media gushed over the arrival, presence and departure of a Nepali prime minister. Yet Nepalis feel they have little to feel good about.
When Dr. Bhattarai said he would not have become who he is without Jawaharlal Nehru University, it may have been a sincere expression of his appreciation. For a man with a definite way with words, he must have recognized the connotations the remark would acquire back home.
If the opposition parties and the Maoists are to be believed, Dr. Bhattarai signed the bilateral investment promotion and protect agreement against the explicit wishes of fellow politicians. If so, he took a risk and will have to live with it politically. The Indian media will no doubt continue praising his contributions to the development of bilateral relations.
Coming back to Lhendup Dorji, since our prime minister had the opportunity to study the man in detail in his quest to project the epithet on his rivals, maybe he understands Sikkim’s first chief minister better than most of us will ever. As someone who long rued Nepal’s post-Sugauli Treaty status as a semi-colonial and semi-feudal entity, which Lhendup does he recognize today? More specifically, does the prime minister even consider Lhendup a pejorative now that he is in the driver’s seat?