Monday, March 28, 2011

The Curious Case Of Qiu Guohong

Qiu Guohong and weakness? If those words go together, then that may be yet another indication of how bad things are likely to turn for us in the months ahead.
The first wave of news blandly suggested that Beijing had recalled its ambassador in Kathmandu eight months before he completed his three-year tenure. Then came suggestions that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was dissatisfied with Qiu’s ‘weak diplomacy’ in neutralizing anti-Chinese activities in Nepal. Really?
This is a man who, emulating his counterpart from India, began consultations with Nepalese politicians even before he had presented his credentials. Over time, Qiu’s pronouncements grew candid vis-à-vis Nepal’s independence and sovereignty, reminiscent of the pre-Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong era. While Qiu’s tenure saw a flurry of official Chinese visits, political and military, there was also a conspicuous spurt in assertions of Beijing’s soft power.
The Chinese Embassy, as the prevailing narrative holds, shrewdly facilitated the seven-point pact between the CPN-UML and UCPN-Maoist and a new government as President Ram Baran Yadav was on an official visit to India holding consultations on how to proceed with the protracted deadlock. Qiu’s embassy persuaded democratic governments to crack down hard on Tibetans in Nepal who were exercising their own democratic rights in exile.
Sure, his tenure had its share of downs. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s government collapsed after an abortive attempt to sack the army chief. The fact that our current Prime Minister, Jhal Nath Khanal, who received a abrupt phone call from India and cut short his visit to China to return home to criticize the Maoists’ move he was originally said to have supported, reflected poorly on Beijing.
Moreover, the Maoists’ fall came after the leaking of a draft Chinese treaty that, among other things, envisaged a tightening of Nepal’s commitment to a One China policy. The Krishna Bahadur Mahara cash-for-votes telephone controversy was not one of Qiu’s proud moments, either.
But Qiu, Maila Baje believes, fared better than his predecessor, Zheng Xialing, who was also recalled before the completion of his term. Zheng, who made history by becoming the first ambassador in Kathmandu not to present his credentials to the king, ostensibly displeased his bosses by his inability to anticipate Tibetan protests in Kathmandu on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.
Said to have been vacationing while much of the Tibetan exiles’ planning took place, Zheng returned to work forthwith and hit hard on Nepal for not doing enough to calm the streets. But it was too late.
Generally speaking, Chinese ambassadors do not seem to have had a consistent tenure in Kathmandu. Zhang Shijie (1960-1965) and Cao Chi (1972-1977) each served over five years. Li Debiao (1987-1991) and his successor Shao Jiongchu (1991-1995) served over four years each. On the other hand, men like Ma Muming (1981-1983), Zhang Jiuhuan (1995-1998) and Wu Congyong (2001-2003) were in Kathmandu less than three years.
The shortest tenure was that of Yang Gongsu who served barely a year and a half when he was recalled in mid-1967. But he was part of Cultural Revolution’s foreign policy fallout when Beijing recalled every ambassador except – inexplicably – the one in Cairo. (Technically,Yuan Zhongxian had the briefest term – six months between 1955 and 1946 – but, then, he served currently as Beijing’s envoy to Delhi and Kathmandu).
What makes Qiu’s case curious is the revelation by a Nepalese daily he had lost out to the military attaché at the embassy. The military man, who is said to rank higher than Qiu on the ladder that really matters, considered Qiu too lackluster in his approach to the Tibetans.
That underscores a conspicuous trend wherein the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has acquired a growing influence over Chinese foreign policy. Juxtaposed with the substance and symbol of PLA chief Chen Bingde’s recent visit and the jockeying in the Tibetan exile movement following the Dalai Lama’s latest announcement about his future role, are we surprised that the Terai and the southern realm beyond is once again swinging into harried action?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Baburam’s Frivolous Bhimsen Fetish

Six months after a visiting senior Chinese official described him as Nepal’s equivalent of Deng Xiaoping, UCPN (Maoist) vice-chairman Dr. Baburam Bhattarai says he is working on a model for a new Nepal. We are a far way from knowing the number, nature or navigability of the modernizations he envisages.
His inspiration, too, remains elusive. Yet Maila Baje feels Dr. Bhattarai has made a curious start of sorts. For someone who has identified Nepal’s long-running malady as stemming from the injustice of the 1816 Sugauli Treaty that ended our war with British India, Dr. Bhattarai has demonstrated an odd reverence for the man most responsible for the catastrophe.
After losing one-third of the national territory in a war he pushed over the objections of key commanders and courtiers, you would have expected Bhimsen Thapa’s career to end there. Instead he used the national debacle to consolidate his power, aided through a succession of minors on the throne and a willful patron in Regent Lalita Tripurasundari.
How the assassin of ex-king and regent Rana Bahadur Shah managed to strike precisely moments after Bhimsen excused himself from the fateful meeting and how he succeeded in decimating all of his rivals but stop Tripura Sundari from customarily stepping on to her late husband’s funeral pyre, remain other intriguing aspects of that period.
In likening his current stance to Bhimsen’s dedication to the national cause, Dr. Bhattarai has reopened another can of worms. What exactly did Bhimsen do to help Nepal recover from the Sugauli disaster? To be fair, he preserved Nepal’s current shape and size by shrewdly balancing off the Chinese and the British against each other. But, then, Dr. Bhattarai has no such admiration for the Ranas or the Shahs who did much the same perhaps with greater effect and élan.
As to Dr. Bhattarai’s implication that Bhimsen paid with his life for his patriotism, history’s judgment is more tentative. The seeds of Bhimsen’s downfall were laid in the mayhem through which he rose to power. The rival Pande clan, an assertive monarchy, a resurgent British India and a tepid China, combined with his own refusal to doubt his invincibility ultimately precipitated Bhimsen’s tragic death in prison. We may not know whether Bhimsen actually slit his throat or was murdered – or even hung himself as Dr. Bhattarai suggested – we do know it had little to do with patriotism.
In hyping such counterfactual historical continuities, Dr. Bhattarai may have been impelled by his traditional links to his native Gorkha, where Bhimsen’s family also came from. Admittedly, if they had succeeded in disrupting his activities on his home turf, Dr. Bhattarai’s rivals would have scored a major symbolic triumph. Further, in rooting himself in the region most closely identified with the growth of the modern Nepalese state, Dr. Bhattarai may have hoped to deflect criticism of purported ‘special relations’ with India.
But the visionary he sees himself as must be able to move beyond the comfort zone of extrapolating contradictions. Dr. Bhattarai will always be remembered as having given the intellectual firepower for republicanism in Nepal. Yet many will also continue to recall him as the man who overreached by averring how history would positively evaluate the contributions of King Birendra’s and all of his ancestors, just to delegitimize King Gyanendra in the aftermath of the Narayanhity carnage. And seven years later, he became the principal advocate of a cultural monarchy when King Gyanendra himself had pretty much made up his mind to pack his bags.
As chief propagandist for an organization that oversaw Nepal’s worst spree of destruction, Dr. Bhattarai used equivocation, evasion and prevarication to demolish rivals. Dissenting and discombobulating cannot burnish the credentials of a builder. Of course, Dr. Bhattarai, like the rest of us, sees everyday how his boss, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, gets away with gaffes and gaps. One reason Dahal does so is because he lacks – and does not seem to miss – the high-brow heft of Bhattarai’s honorific.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Homing In On The Maoists?

Jasjeet Singh seems to have secured the home ministry for the Maoists. Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal and UCPN (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal both, in their own ways, have described the murder attempt on TV executive Yunus Ansari inside high-security Central Jail as an attack on Nepal.
The prime minister pledged to the legislators that he would hold a detailed inquiry into what happened and how. As the antecedents of the accused hit man revealed intriguing twists, there was, in Maila Baje’s view, a development that ranked much more than a related development. Bhim Acharya, the chief whip of the CPN-UML, publicly announced the Maoists would get the home ministry in the next cabinet expansion.
In the weeks since Khanal’s rise, the omnipresence of the prime minister has not been able to negate the absence of the home minister. From the outset, the premier could have kept the portfolio pending a resolution of the controversy, but he knew home affairs was a full-time responsibility. For that simple reason, all that talk about awarding the ministry to Bishnu Poudel, in addition to his defense portfolio, was probably a last-ditch ruse of the anti-Khanal faction in the UML.
The other major parties do not want to see the Maoists at the helm of the home ministry, for long obvious reasons. If anything, the escalation in the ex-rebels’ rhetoric since their ascension to power has bolstered their critics. Yet the Maoists themselves might not be that keen to designate the next home minister without properly vetting the credentials of the candidate.
Within each major party, former home ministers have carved a special place for themselves. The likes of Khum Bahadur Khadka, Govinda Raj Joshi and Krishna Prasad Sitaula continue to rattle the internal equations of the Nepali Congress. Deep down, Ram Chandra Poudel probably saw in his recent candidacy for the premiership less a lateral shadow of his stint as speaker than a vertical entitlement stemming from his home ministership.
In the UML, people like K.P. Sharma Oli and Bam Dev Gautam have used their terms as deputy premier and home minister – either clubbed together or during separate terms – to fortify themselves within the party and beyond. The former continues to hover around the constituent assembly, despite the fact that he lost the 2008 election. The latter, another defeated candidate, still cannot really be written off as a has-been.
The home hallmark is most conspicuous in the right. Kamal Thapa, King Gyanendra’s much-maligned home minister, is the chief of a party whose ideological consistency has of late drawn defections from former royalist organizations.
The Maoists appear anxious to want someone with little propensity to create his or her own fiefdom. A quadrangular factional contest may help Dahal, Mohan Baidya and Baburam Bhattarai to roil the waters to their liking. But it would be less likely to let any one of them dominate the process, much less the outcome.
Ansari blamed India’s premier external spy agency, RAW, for the failed plot to kill him. But sloppiness is not an attribute normally associated with RAW, especially when it comes to physical liquidation. Perhaps whoever was behind the attack wasn’t really trying to kill Ansari? Maybe they were anxious to see the Maoists get the home ministry, even more so than the ex-rebels themselves?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Medium, Message And... Mahara

Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s elevation to senior deputy premier after much haggling within his UCPN (Maoist) and outside raises interesting questions. Let’s begin with the most general one.
Why has Mahara returned to the information and communication ministry after what was arguably a huge promotion? No offense to the men and women in that realm, but the No.2 person in the cabinet leading the contingent of the No. 1 party in the legislature would have been expected to get something far more potent symbolically and in substance.
With the CPN-UML’s Bharat Mohan Adhikari already having bagged his virtual preserve –finance – at the outset, the foreign ministry could have gone to Mahara. He is, after all, the chief of his party’s international department. But, then, that’s probably what Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal is dangling before the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum’s Upendra Yadav. (Or is it Sujata Koirala her Nepali Congress?)
Defense might have sounded more dignified for Mahara. But, like the home portfolio, it was too sensitive for the Maoists. Even minister without portfolio would have been more DPM-like, in this case.
Not that Mahara is unqualified for the job. During the height of the insurgency, he was the public face of the Maoists. He led the rebel delegation in the first round of talks with the government. When that fell through, he emerged from hiding to appear on CNN, discharging himself well before an inquisitive international audience.
During his last stint in the ministry… well, top officials there welcomed him back last week saying they had fond memories of his working style. And that says something even after discounting the sweet talk built into the bureaucracy.
During last year’s cash-for-votes telephone scam, Mahara acquitted himself quite well. First he directed his purported Chinese interlocutor to his boss on such a lucrative offer. In the follow-up conversation, Mahara quizzed the caller on whether he had already opened other channels to the party. Once satisfied that he wasn’t being bypassed, he quickly regained his customary cool. And when the conversation was made public, threatening to tarnish Mahara’s personal reputation, he wiggled out with skill.
Far from issuing a flat denial, Mahara conceded that the voice heard on the recording might have been his. He went on to accuse his detractors of creating a montage of disparate innocuous conversations only the sum of which would suggest a scandal. The perfect technology defense.
As a leading lieutenant of party chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Mahara seems to have won enough support from the Mohan Baidya and Baburam Bhattarai factions in returning to the cabinet. (He didn’t seem to be on the original list the top comrades had been skirmishing over.) And this brings Maila Baje back to the information and communication conundrum.
Or maybe it’s not really one. With so much at stake for everybody, the former rebels seem to have settled on controlling the medium and the message. Prime Minister Khanal has exhibited an incredible ability to define reality distinct from what those around him see and feel. Now that’s dangerous for a party that once considered it had Khanal on its side and went ahead and sacked the army chief. Little did it anticipate that mysterious phone call (to quote the Chinese) that forced the CPN-UML chief to cut short his visit up north and return home to criticize the move.
So the Maoists now expect Mahara to define whatever comes out of cabinet meetings to dominate the national conversation. Khanal can complain but even he knows how his No.2 would cushion him from an increasingly resentful UML.
In its disarray, the Nepali Congress might take comfort in the thought that Mahara represents that rare Maoist today who had actually begun as a student activist adhering to B.P. Koirala Thought. And within the Maoist fold, Baidya and Bhattarai are probably counting on Mahara’s ebullience to trip Dahal some way somewhere down the line.
Maybe all that public squabbling over the home ministry was actually aimed at getting Mahara in high and close enough to rein in the premier. He may yet get the home ministry. But from next time, our parties might even start fighting over who gets to hold the information and communication portfolio.