Sunday, November 27, 2011

Call All You Want, But There’s No One Home…

The Nepali Congress seems destined to live with the Koirala-Deuba hostilities. Party president Sushil Koirala has come to the point of publicly complaining that senior leader Sher Bahadur Deuba is not responding to his telephone calls. “Let us solve our differences through dialogue,” Koirala urged Deuba through the press the other day.
What began as a confrontation sparked by Koirala’s dissolution of four sister wings of the Nepali Congress – led by Deuba loyalists – remains rooted in the contrived reunification of the party in 2007 ahead of the constituency assembly elections.
While it has always made sense for Deuba to portray his dissidence as opposition to the arbitrariness of the leadership, the fact that the leader today happens to be surnamed Koirala helps him immensely. Nepali Congress members come from such diverse backgrounds that the party simply has too many fault-lines to cover. But who in the country’s largest democratic party could oppose a clarion call to free the organization from the clutches of a clan if it could cover the sundry motives they have?
Deuba himself has often conceded that, despite his bold public criticisms of Girija Prasad Koirala, he could not muster enough courage to put his grievances across directly to the grand old man. With Girijababu’s departure, Deuba no longer feels so constrained.
His crusade has changed in other ways. Prakash Man Singh, party general secretary and onetime loyalist, today warns Deuba of disciplinary action. (With Girijababu’s own departure from this mortal world, Prakash probably no longer sees the anti-Koirala campaign an extension of the travails of his late father, Ganesh Man Singh.)
Even among onetime loyalists in the Nepali Congress-friendly media, the mood has soured. Editors and columnists who once hailed his courage easily dismiss him today as a relic of the old Nepal.
None of this appears to have dissuaded Deuba. The other members of the Koirala clan are quiet. Sujata is laying low lest the controversy surrounding her son-in-law, Rubel, climb up the family ladder. As one of the original promoters of his party’s alliance with the Maoists, Shekhar is still crossing his fingers on where the 12-point experiment would lead.
The once-promising Shashank has been reduced to lamenting how Nepal has forgotten the national-reconciliation policy his father had propounded when there was actually a king to kick around.
Yet just as Deuba felt he had tamed the tribe, Sushil has shown a sudden itch to enter Baluwatar. The seeds of that ambition, sown during his visit to India earlier in the year, have been nurtured by the succeeding political shenanigans. If Girija Prasad Koirala could become prime minister without having ever served in a lower ministerial rung, what should stop Sushil?
As the notion of a national unity government animates the Nepali Congress, Deuba feels he is most qualified man to head it. You can’t blame him. The negatives associated with Deuba’s record have paled in comparison to what is going on today.
The Maoists have proved that the 40-point charter Deuba had rebuffed in 1996 was not the actual propellant of their decade-long insurgency. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has outdone  Deuba in terms of bloating the cabinet. The ‘Pajero’ culture has turned viler both as a tool and outcome of political skulduggery.
Agreements far more toxic than the one on the Mahakali River have become commonplace. (At least during those days you could expect the principal opposition party to make a pretense of having split on account of anti-national agreements.)
As to the allegation that Deuba could not save democracy during his last two tenures as premier, isn’t it an article of faith among the current political class that true democracy ever existed in Nepal?
Looking ahead, maybe Deuba wants a new term to demonstrate that he is capable of something different, now that things have come full circle.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reaffirming The Status Quo

It seems Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is intent on proving that he is no better than his predecessors were. The populism that began with the Mustang grandstanding persists in the Hello Sarkar ruse. But Dr. Bhattarai appears to recognize the limits of pretense. The supposedly most qualified contender ever for the premiership has a demonstrable capacity for abjuring any desire for excellence.
That Dr. Bhattarai prefers the company of criminals and other unsavory elements within his ranks of loyalists should not be surprising considering where he is coming from. That he can be so energetic in flouting his much-vaunted pledge of financial austerity bespeaks of an abiding and unsurpassable satisfaction with his record as finance minister. The size of his cabinet and army of advisers and aides is matched by the lavishness of his government’s expenditure on entertainment.
When the prime minister candidly concedes that he does not recognize all of his own ministers, claiming that a bloated cabinet was a political compulsion, you get a feeling that he is still out to expose the iniquities of the democratic process he has accepted for now. After all, the Maoists had taken up arms against both the monarchy and the parliamentary system.
In any other context, that would have been a shrewd way of Dr. Bhattarai underscoring his ideological steeliness. But it is becoming increasingly hard for him to prove that, while he might differ with Mohan Baidya and Pushpa Kamal Dahal on tactics, he still intends to build that Maoist utopia. All Dahal had to do was to silence his guns. The web Dr. Bhattarai has built through his words is too tangled to permit an easy exit.
After disfiguring the domestic ambience with his dour haughtiness, Dr. Bhattarai has disrupted the precarious geopolitical equation. While embracing the Indians with the flamboyant contortions of a proud supplicant, the prime minister has proceeded to alienate the Chinese with equally abhorrent intensity.
Indeed, the prime minister may have sought to deflect attention from those domestic woes by announcing Premier Wen Jiabao’s impending visit to the muddled republic. It was taken in such bad form from those up north that it did not matter whether they registered their dissatisfaction in writing.
Whether that premature announcement would be enough to sabotage the visit – if it were indeed in that stage of finalization – remains unclear. Regardless, Dr. Bhattarai seems to have sought primarily to bolster his credentials within his principal external constituency down south. Whether that fealty would hold him in good stead is a different matter. After all, when Girija Prasad Koirala sunk deeper into the Tanakpur morass in the early 1990s, one of the first Indians to counsel his government to dissociate itself from the man was the venerable Sukh Deo Muni.
Even after all this, Dr. Bhattarai’s wife, Hisila Yami, insists that he remains the best person to complete the peace process. Hard as it may be to acknowledge, Maila Baje feels she may have a point.
With the incumbent faring no better or worse than his predecessors, why upset the applecart? Such status-quoism may be something even the rabid revolutionary in Dr. Bhattarai might be prepared to embrace.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Amnesty Of Disgrace

For a ceremonial head of state, President Ram Baran Yadav sure has an aversion to the rubber stamp. As the optimism generated by the Seven-Point Agreement dissipates faster than it bubbled up, it looks like the president is about to restrain a second Maoist prime minister.
Yadav is said to have been troubled by last week’s recommendation by the cabinet that he pardon Maoist legislator Balakrishna Dhungel, who was convicted by the Supreme Court in a murder case.
In an apparent effort to pre-empt the president, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, accompanied by the attorney general – a Maoist activist – met Yadav last week to press Dhungel’s case. The prime minister’s visit reportedly infuriated the president, who, Maila Baje understands, took it as an act of executive brazenness.
Arguing that the murder took place during the Maoist insurgency – ostensibly when abuses of the ultimate nature were carried out by both sides – the cabinet said Dhungel case was ‘political’ in nature. Accordingly, the Bhattarai government claims, the case falls within the purview of the presidential pardon the interim constitution stipulates.
A section of the Maoists maintains that the pardon stems from the framework of the peace agreement. But that claim cuts little ice. Dr. Bhattarai was roundly criticized by the United Nations, opposition parties, and human rights organizations, among others. Maoist secretary C.P. Gajurel, who belongs to the rival Mohan Baidya faction, wants the government to withdraw the decision forthwith (although his argument is that all conflict-era cases should be resolved together.)
In a statement laced more with mischief than anything else, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal claimed that the decision to grant amnesty to Dhungel was taken through consensus when CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal was prime minister. Then the Supreme Court stepped in over the weekend, ordering a stay on the amnesty move, in response to a petition by the sister of the murder victim.
Upon arrival from the Maldives after attending the SAARC summit, Dr. Bhattarai trained his guns – for now – on ‘dollar-spinning’ human rights organizations for creating needless controversy. As the prime minister maintained that the cabinet decision was irrevocable, President Yadav has begun consultations with experts and advisers. He is expected to make a decision in two or three weeks.
It is unclear whether the prime minister would retreat or confront the president. If he had his way, Dr. Bhattarai would be disinclined to do another Dahal. Yet he is far more constrained than Dahal was during the controversy surrounding the sacking and subsequent reinstatement of then army chief Rookmangad Katuwal.
The Maoists no longer carry novelty as agents of change. Dr. Bhattarai has squandered much of his political capital through personal gimmicks and haughtiness. Moreover, Deputy Prime Minister Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar, the pivot of his coalition, has virtually challenged the pardon agenda.
All this has prompted Minister for Culture Gopal Kiranti to warn of a conspiracy to have the term of the constituent assembly lapse and revert executive power to the president.
That is a lame ploy. Considering all the experiments that have taken place over the last five years in the name of creating a New Nepal and where they have led, Nepalis might be willing to endure that option.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Peace Muddle

Count on Comrade Narayan Man Bijukchhe to make sense of the peace muddle.
“Unless the internal dispute in the Maoist party is resolved, conclusion of the peace process as outlined in the seven-point deal is impossible,” the chairman of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party presaged the other day.
Lest the country castigate him as a spoiler, the comrade barely paused for thought. The majority of the points incorporated in the new deal are ones the parties had agreed upon two years ago, Bijukchhe continued. He’s a little suspicious that the parties have suddenly decided to give it formal shape after Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s visit to India.
Bijukchhe was far from charitable about the overall political process. Claiming the seven-point deal was unconstitutional and against democratic practice, he accused the three principal parties of hobbling the legislature.
But let’s focus on the Maoists, since they are in the driver’s seat. Whether authentic or contrived, Maila Baje feels the Maoists’ internal rift is unlikely to be healed soon. This is so for a variety of reasons but predominantly because of a traditional one: the rift fits into the traditional Indian playbook.
The principal success New Delhi achieved during Prime Minister Bhattarai’s high-profile visit lay in tightening the pro-India tag around his neck. Dr. Bhattarai probably thought that if he could only be seen as taking on in earnest the fallout from the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA), he might shore up his personal position in his primary external constituency. But that was never the objective of his hosts.
Back home, in the intervening weeks, even sympathetic quarters have begun to question the way the prime minister has been going about defending the deal. For someone who long railed against the pernicious legacy of unequal treaties to go and sign a controversial one – regardless of the merits – was audacious enough. Seeking to defend the deal with every shield he can pick up has had a demeaning effect. Suddenly, Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal have been resurrected as paragons of patriotism for their refusal to sign the agreement during their visits to India.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, having succeeded in sullying Dr. Bhattarai’s reputation after having conceded to him the premiership, has turned his attention to the Lumbini project, that other geopolitical fixture of our times.
Hardliner Mohan Baidya knows that he has little choice but to go along with the rest of the party and the political flow, be it the four-point deal with the Madhesis or BIPPA. But he also knows there is an opening here. If his faction could get the support of the traditional demolition derby across the southern border – which seems increasingly likely – he can hope to deflect any criticism of hypocrisy by projecting his group’s perceived northern tilt.
The mandarins up north, for their part, could be expected to relish that ruse. If perpetual political conflict is where India’s Nepal policy thrives, the Chinese have perfected ambiguity as the core of their pragmatism here.