Saturday, December 29, 2012

Conning Sense Out Of Us

Now that the Indians have intimated that they are not really interested in forging a Delhi Compromise III – not immediately, at least – some interesting internal developments are coming to the fore.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, having squandered much of the goodwill he came into office with, insists that he has been carrying his resignation letter in his pocket for quite a while. Responsibility for his failure to hand it in, according to the premier, lay elsewhere, however.
This while Dr. Bhattarai’s aides are letting it be known that the prime minister and Army Chief Gen. Gaurav Shamsher Rana share close views on Nepal’s geo-strategic location and India’s role within that.
Dr. Bhattarai’s nominal boss, United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has veered closer to Mohan Baidya, leader of the rival faction of the former rebels. Dahal, who has now openly flaunted his own prime ministerial ambitions, has begun virtually blaming Dr. Bhattarai for the party split.
Baidya, for his part, has joined CPN-UML leader Bam Dev Gautam and others in accusing Dr. Bhattarai of imperiling not merely the political gains of the last seven years but also Nepal’s sovereignty and independence. And these are just some of our many commies talking.
Superficially, at least, the Indians have shifted a bit. The new foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, openly acknowledges China’s arrival in South Asia as a matter of plain reality. This stance, coming as it does amid reports that Beijing and New Delhi might even be on the verge of devising a joint plan to stabilize Nepal, could be a benign development.
Or, as any adherent of the realist school of international relations would readily assert, this could just be India’s way of soothing China in South Asia as it forays deeper into the South China Sea.
If the Chinese and Indians do indeed have something up their sleeves to keep the Americans and Europeans out of Nepal, Maila Baje feels they must be waiting for the stars to align more propitiously. The logical pretense for both in the interim would be to exhort the domestic principals to work things out. The Chinese can easily rely on their much-vaunted tradition of non-interference, while the Indians can hope to make news by stating what should have been a given.
During President Ram Baran Yadav’s recent visit to Delhi, the Indian leadership almost uniformly contended that Nepalis had the primary responsibility for resolving their issues. Regardless of the nature of their edicts in private, the Indians had good reason for maintaining a palpable public posture of abstention.
The last time President Yadav was in India to seek a way out of the crisis, manifesting in the Madhav Kumar Nepal government’s prolonged caretaker status, Nepali parties surprisingly forged a deal under which Jhal Nath Khanal became prime minister. The perception that Khanal owed his ascendance to Beijing’s active mediation then – and thereby earning India’s displeasure – was strengthened when Khanal left office becoming the only post-2006 premier not to have been invited to visit India.
Professions of active neutrality this time were clearly – if not solely – aimed at being able to maintain the initiative, should such an ‘indigenous’ deal have emerged during President Yadav’s absence this time as well. As for President Yadav, he returned to a nation that is finding it harder by the day not to see him as part of the problem.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Two Deaths And A Nation’s Life


Dr. Keshar Jung Rayamajhi
Parasu Narayan Chaudhari
As the drivers of new Nepal chased the shadow of political consensus over the past weeks, two deaths went largely ignored.
Although they came from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Dr. Keshar Jung Rayamajhi and Parasu Narayan Chaudhari encapsulated in their own ways Nepal’s struggle for survival in a turbulent world.
Both men capped their political life as chairman of the Raj Parisad, the royal advisory council during critical phases. Dr. Rayamajhi oversaw the ascension of two kings in the aftermath of a still-mysterious palace massacre on June 1, 2001. Chaudhari served at a time when the monarchy needed the broadest range of advice but faced dwindling sources not entirely because of its own assertiveness.
While detractors have long denigrated both men, one-time general secretaries of the Communist Party and the Nepali Congress, respectively, as opportunists, Maila Baje seeks to recount the broader geopolitical context of their support for the Panchayat system.
Although Dr. Rayamajhi was never formally a member of the Panchayat system, Chaudhari joined the partyless system after abandoning the Nepali Congress and its two-decade struggle to uproot palace-led regime.
When King Mahendra overthrew Prime Minister B.P. Koirala’s government on December 16, 1960, in the prelude to the rise of the partyless Panchayat system, both Dr. Rayamajhi and Chaudhari happened to be out of the country.
Rayamajhi, who was in Moscow, welcomed the royal takeover. Chaudhari, education minister in Nepal’s first elected government, was in Paris to attend a conference and stayed behind to assess the situation.
Rayamajhi was already known for palpable royalist sympathies. The fact that he so openly supported the royal takeover from Moscow clearly bore the imprimatur of his hosts. And there was good reason.
As the Cold War heated up and the superpowers were intent on expanding their own global spheres of influence, the Soviet Union had abandoned an exclusive policy of subverting non-communist governments of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Khrushchev-era method of winning friends was to demonstrate that Moscow was perfectly capable of coexisting with diverse countries espousing different political systems.
The Soviets had already offered to extend development assistance to Nepal, which King Mahendra accepted during his visit to Moscow in 1958. After the royal takeover, the Soviets encouraged their local protégés to cooperate with the palace all the while seeking to place sympathizers close to the center of power. The palace, for its part, while maintaining utmost caution, tolerated the pro-Soviet elements to offset pressure from other flanks.
While Rayamajhi’s royalist stance helped to split the united Communist Party, the Sino-Soviet rupture led to a further splintering of the Nepalese communist movement into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing factions. Yet, as leader of the united party, Rayamajhi had already sensed the stance of the other communist colossus, Chairman Mao Zedong, vis-à-vis the monarchy. Rayamajhi himself on several public occasions explained how Mao had personally advised him to support the monarchy at that particular juncture in history. (For all the pro-Chinese label tagged onto King Mahendra, the monarch visited Moscow twice during his 17-year reign, but Beijing only once.)
While the East-West ideological struggle and the Sino-Soviet split drove Dr. Rayamajhi toward the palace-led system, Chaudhari remained firmly in his opposition. His commitment and fervor led B.P. Koirala to project him as a rising star in the Nepali Congress and even potential prime ministerial material.
During the national-referendum campaign in 1979-1980, Chaudhari relentlessly railed against the partyless system in his public speeches. While B.P. Koirala was stunned by the ‘inexplicability’ of the result in favor of the partyless system, he, as a committed democrat, accepted the outcome.
Implicit in this stance, which most in his own Nepali Congress found inexplicable, was recognition of the new geopolitical maneuverings under way in South Asia in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
When Chaudhari joined the Panchayat system shortly after the referendum, he stunned the political establishment and the opposition. Those close to B.P. Koirala at the time recognized that he had tacitly blessed Chaudhari’s move as part of building a wider Nepali Congress-palace understanding against the evolving Moscow-New Delhi nexus both considered deleterious.
King Birendra’s foreign-policy pronouncements and specific domestic developments, such as the ‘84-case diplomatic consignment’ controversy leading up to Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa’s ousting in a hastily stage-managed no-confidence vote, underscored B.P.’s apprehensions. The palace, of course, was alarmed by Moscow’s persistent indifference to the Zone of Peace proposal with almost the same iciness India had demonstrated.
As Chaudhari served in successive Panchayat-era cabinets, Dr. Rayamajhi the individual remained a central player in internal politics. But his pro-Soviet aura had receded amid the splits in the pro-Moscow movement and its general ideological dilution.
By the time the Soviet Union ceased to pose a challenge, the Panchayat system had lost its geopolitical relevance on account of additional realignments in the region and beyond, forcing both Dr. Rayamajhi and Chaudhari into new roles.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Flashback: Let A Hundred Rants Rage

With the monarchy consigned to the history books, the Maoist-mainstream alliance was bound to unravel. But few expected the guardians of the republic to fall out so bitterly during the official celebrations of Nepal’s “rebirth”.
Clearly, the farce surrounding the first session of the constituent assembly was a façade for last-minute haggling. Maoist chairman Prachanda revealed that he had agreed to the creation of a presidency and vice-presidency only to ensure the adoption of republic declaration. The Maoists had never renounced their claim to the top positions. That’s not how the Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist-Leninists understood the consensus.
As the participants and observers yawned and moaned at the Birendra International Convention Center, 11th-hour negotiations were going on at another level, too. The military was in an institutional battle for survival. A force gunning for Prachanda’s head until two years ago couldn’t be expected to give him its heart so readily. The Maoists could lay claim to the political space the monarch traditionally occupied, the top brass concurred, but certainly not to the supreme commandership of the state army.
A still momentous round of bargaining was going on elsewhere. If the monarch would accede to the outlines of a comprehensive agreement that would replace the much-maligned 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India, then he might be able to keep his crown. Since the mainstream parties and the Maoists had already made full sectoral undertakings during the previous two years, royal consent would merely affirm new Nepal’s commitment to new special relations.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala decided to let Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula present the republic motion and let other procedural lapses seep into the first session of the constituent assembly. If things went according to plan, the Maoists would walk out of the assembly and the mainstream parties would blame the ex-rebels’ untrustworthiness for their own vote against the republic motion.
Considering how those who egged him on to seize power on February 1, 2005 turned out to be his worst critics, the monarch wasn’t falling for that. The Indians refused to bring everyone together to a roundtable to compare notes because each participant had been handed a different page. Plan B envisaged the creation of two centers of power in presidency and premiership. The rest of the story has a familiar ring.
As the most aggrieved party, the Maoists are entitled to the hottest rage. But can Prachanda do anything about it without undermining himself? Experience taught most Nepalis to expect the Nepali Congress and the UML to buckle under southerly pressure. The Maoist leader rescinded the order to foot soldiers to march on the palace. The security forces, recognizing the political orientation of those who did turn out, easily beat them back.
Out of compulsion, the Americans, of all people, stepped in to help Prachanda put on a brave face. The eagerness of the Indians and the Chinese to evict the United Nations Mission in Nepal had roiled Washington enough. Deb Mukherji, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, shouldn’t have been so hasty in voicing the Indian left’s suspicions of Washington’s motives in the world’s newest republic.
To allow the new dynamics to play out, the Maoists are trying hard to conceal their rifts within. And that too in classic Maoist style. Prachanda is now threatening Kantipur Publications of unspecified consequences for its coverage of the former rebels. The Maoists, he said, had tolerated criticism thus far to ensure the elections. Victory has now pushed bad-mouthing off the national agenda.
Our own version of the Great Helmsman’s “Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom,” indeed.
(Originally published on May 31, 2008)

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Deadlines and Lifelines

President Ram Baran Yadav is probably distraught enough by the discovery that he has far more bark than bite. But it must be said that, with each extension of the collective consensus deadline to the bickering political parties, his howl is turning into a yipping yowl. This must make Yadav want to make good on his threat by packing up and returning to life as a farmer.
The ruling Federal Democratic Republican Alliance, which seemed rather rattled by the first deadline President Yadav had set, has now issued its own ultimatum. If there is no consensus by December 12, the ruling alliance will expand the cabinet on its own.
The president’s frustration is understandable. Yadav is the only elected head of state Nepalis have had the good fortune of having. Although a professional politician, so far he has largely discharged his ceremonial duties with dignity and decorum. Yet the Nepali taxpayers pay him to do the things the politicos can’t, don’t or won’t.
Yadav’s reinstatement a few years ago of the army chief then Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had sacked, prompting Dahal to resign, signified the emergence of an agile presidency, one capable of swerving on the task at hand and then stepping back.
Given the context of our recent political evolution, it would be unfair to blame Yadav for his current inertia. He could easily have copped out, claiming he was merely a figurehead obliged to go by guidelines of the government of the day. Yadav is not responsible for the fact that Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai today leads a government unimpeded by anything resembling basic constitutional propriety. That the president has even attempted to break the deadlock should count for something.
President Yadav, Maila Baje feels, should be heartened by the power of the status quo. Nepal continues to have a functioning government capable of ensuring the basic conditions needed for rudimentary existence. The brassy disarray in the opposition also shows that we have a vibrant democracy still trying to figure out a way ahead. The national discourse has taken a scope, tone and tenor that is no longer constrained by the composition of an elected assembly.
Politicians in power warn against a revival of the bad old autocratic days. Opposition leaders vow to sweep the Maoists onto the same dust heap the monarchy finds itself in. The principal political parties, despite their snarls, are happy with the status quo. Fresh elections might realign politics in undesirable ways.
Getting back to the original task of writing the constitution would bring back familiar headaches – and they could become far more severe with the second onset. The promulgation of a formal constitution – if that were possible at all – would circumscribe the power and privilege the eight parties feel eternally entitled to from those 19 magically tumultuous days almost seven springs ago.
The perfunctory concern notwithstanding, the international community is not unduly disturbed by developments here. Almost every alien player on this eerie playground is satisfied by its power of prevention or preemption. None can afford to lose a foothold in a key geostrategic region during this period of immense global transition, even if none knows precisely what it wants to achieve.
Instead, these players have collectedly figured out something subliminal. Nepalis tend to get riled up by we don’t want. For now, we don’t know what we do want – and that is good for them.
Admittedly, upholding the status quo comes with a price. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai might end up with life tenure. President Yadav should be happy to acknowledge that this ensures his own survival.
If, over time, human biology becomes a problem here, let the Nepali Congress inherit the presidency and the Maoists the prime ministership in perpetuity. The political bickering will continue but the equilibrium will continue – until something gives.
The last time we had a serious premier-ceremonial head of state standoff, the regime lasted 104 years. And nobody blamed the Nepali people.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Trilateral Reality Check

So we now have it on sound authority that China is in regular contact with India on ways to stabilize the situation in Nepal.
The fact that the man making that assertion happens to represent the government that has traditionally been the most circumspect in its public posture provides added significance of some kind.
True, sections in the Nepali media have dismissed the comments Chinese Ambassador Yang Houlan made at the Reporters’ Club the other day as the surliness of someone whose tenure in Kathmandu has not lived up to his stature in Beijing’s diplomatic establishment. Others tend to see the remarks as an admission by China that its recent activism and assertiveness in Nepal has, for all practical purposes, failed.
Maila Baje, however, thinks the kind of trilateral cooperation that Yang expressed a predilection for is credible harbinger of things to come. This is because it is a culmination of a process – viewed in retrospect – that has driven Nepal’s post-2006 change.
After the royal takeover of February 1, 2005 – which the rest of the world was busily portraying either as a Chinese-backed coup or a power-hungry monarch’s brazen flaunting of the ‘China card’ – Nepal was trying to regain the geopolitical equilibrium it had lost after the first People’s Movement.
As Nepali opposition parties veered closer to the once-pariah Maoist rebels over several phases, New Delhi remained in consultation with Beijing on developments in Nepal as part of their formal strategic dialogue.
The reality that India proceeded to take a hard line against the monarchy after the palace assiduously backed China’s entry into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as an observer was interpreted exclusively as a demonstration of New Delhi’s thinning patience. Prominent Indians, at least in public, tried to portray precisely such an image.
Deeper down, however, the move was likely a culmination of consultations between Beijing and New Delhi. Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister who was then a State Councillor, provided enough indications during his March 2006 visit to Nepal, which have acquired greater clarity with the passage of time.
The collapse of royal rule and the ascendance of the Seven Party Alliance-Maoist combine did not seem to have assured New Delhi, notwithstanding the reality that the Indians actively drove that change. Privately, leading Indians with an abiding interest in Nepal still wondered how the Maoists – whom their country had more than sheltered – might proceed to redefine Nepal’s geopolitical identity vis-à-vis the north. The overall realignment had gathered such a pace that then-premier Girija Prasad Koirala, at the New Delhi SAARC summit in 2006, pushed for China’s inclusion as a full member of SAARC.
The fact that China moved to step up its influence in Nepal at a time when Nepalis were almost exclusively focused on India’s stifling hand turned out to be a superficial reading of events.
When India and China agreed to UNMIN, the United Nations peace mission in Nepal, you were generally dismissed as a cynic for thinking that the Asian giants might have wanted the world organization to fail so miserably in Nepal that it would never dream of hovering around issues like Tibet and Kashmir. Cynicism has proved too contagious for critics to chuckle today.
Through an adroit admixture of cooperation, competition and confrontation, China and India have succeeded in maintaining basic stability in overall bilateral relations. Their carping and caviling has not stopped them from collaborating where they can.
They have used similar prudence in addressing their historically overlapping spheres of influence. Even while warning the Indians against the folly of joining the Washington-led containment bandwagon, Beijing tends to laud India’s foreign policy tradition of strategic autonomy.
Although the Indians continue to voice anxiety over China’s growing inroads in South Asia’s smaller states, New Delhi also seems more sympathetic to Beijing’s insistence on these states’ right to chart an independent foreign policy. When the Indians choose not to react too uncharitably to Bhutan’s reminder that China has become a reality in our region, you get a sense that great power ambitions do require a public demonstration of some – authentic or artificial – humility.
Simply put, there are far too many pressure points in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship to allow room for third-country/party collusions. Paradoxically, Ambassador Yang, given his vaunted diplomatic skills, might choose to become even less circumspect in the days ahead.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Great Imponderable

President Ram Baran Yadav’s call on political parties to name a unanimous candidate for the premiership by November 29 has triggered an interesting variety of responses. The opposition Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist have been thrilled enough to withdraw their anti-government protests. (A great excuse to end what had become a tepid enterprise anyway.)
From the other end, the Maoist-led ruling alliance has denounced the president’s move as anti-constitutional. Within the ruling faction of the former Maoist rebels, party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai seem to share opposite views.
The Maoist chairman does not seem to be in a mood to immediately question President Yadav’s motives, although Maila Baje feels he has characteristically provided enough room for skullduggery as events unfold.
The prime minister – at least in the voices of two leading surrogates – foresees doom. Devendra Poudel, a top Bhattarai aide, calls the presidential appeal ‘unconstitutional’ and even a precursor to a full-blown coup.
Finance Minister Barsa Man Pun – another key Bhattarai loyalist – believes Yadav’s activism is ultimately aimed at restoring the 1990 statute, complete with the monarchy and official Hindu statehood, perhaps even with the connivance of the rival Maoist faction led by Mohan Baidya.
As the principal putative target of the president’s activism, it is natural for Dr. Bhattarai and his loyalists to sound the loudest alarm. The prime minister must have been rankled also by the fact that the president’s call came merely a day after he had, in a televised address to the nation, asserted that he was ready to step down if a broader national consensus could be forged.
Still, let us assume for a moment that the magic consensus premier does happen to emerge in some form. In the implausible event that Dr. Bhattarai succeeds in transforming himself into a premier supported by all the parties, would he be able to overcome the bad blood his very existence in the high office has generated thus far?
Mahant Thakur of the Terai Madhesh Loktantrik Party, the man many consider likely to emerge as the consensus premier, is a respected former Nepali Congress member. He was the unlikeliest of the politicians to go regional amid the post-2006 realignment. Yet what situation might a line-up of a Madhesi president, vice-president and prime minister create at a time when grievances – real and manufactured – show no sign of abating?
A technocrat, a former Supreme Court chief justice or a civil society luminary might represent as a welcome departure from professional politicians taking turns. But where will such a personality turn for the organizational backbone to press ahead on what promises to be an even more tumultuous road ahead?
Responding to a virtual government censure of his call, President Yadav insists that he would abide by the (interim) constitution in all his actions. Missing from the entire debate are the people.
No anecdotal evidence based on public participation, private confabs or social-media activism can substantiate what they really desire. Having gained full sovereignty, they are justified in their discontent. Yet, truth be told, they are equally entitled to doing nothing. This is the great imponderable, indeed, that drives and derides us all.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Slap In The Farce

The hard slap that stung across Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s cheek has spawned a stimulating variety of responses. That the predominant political personality of our times, the symbol of the nation’s promise as well as the perils, was so publicly humiliated has left its own searing mark on our collective countenance.
It is not difficult to sympathize with those arguing that political leaders, notwithstanding their brazenly manifest failings, deserve the basic physical security every Nepali expects as a matter of daily life. In these emotionally charged times, though, more vocal seems to be support for Padma Kunwar, whose shock treatment many indicate they would personally liked to have administered to some more our leaders.
Then there are those – particularly from the Dahal camp – who continue to characterize the attack as some kind of a conspiracy against democracy. Those who see the slap as an attempt to malign the political leadership, Maila Baje feels, may have it entirely backwards. If anything, the attack was a manifestation of the disrepute the current political leadership has fallen into.
With Dahal now having joined the company of Nepali Congress President Sushil Koirala and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist chairman Jhal Nath Khanal, it can be said that public revulsion cuts across party lines. While the individual attacker in each of the cases may have been a disgruntled activist of the respective party, the general pattern cannot be separated from the perspective that has been evolving since the spring of 2006.
Nepali leaders who vowed to end the impunity of royal autocracy have ended up perpetuating such exemption on a far greater scale. The search for excuses for not having been able to produce a new constitution even after repeated extensions to the two-year deadline continues to challenge common sense.
Sitting atop a legally dubious arrangement that makes the much-maligned royal exercise of Article 127 as a model of constitutionalism, today’s leaders must have known how widely they have exposed themselves to popular discontent.
Dahal, to be sure, exists in a category of his own. He represents a party that unleashed unprecedented death, destruction and despair on the people all in the name of ridding feudal tyranny and ushering in a new albeit amorphous period of liberty and equality.
In truth, there was little popular faith in his protestations, be it during war or peace. Although the Maoists had not defeated the ‘old state’ militarily, the public mood changed when they teamed up with the mainstream parties, whose leaders were seemingly contrite for their own past failures, with promises of change. Luminaries of Nepali civil society essentially vouched for the Maoists by incessantly proclaiming that the then-rebels, unlike the royal military, had raised arms for the people.
That the Maoists under Dahal ended up no differently than the parties they had once ranked alongside the monarchy in terms of depravity rankled the Nepali mind. How much the Maoist leadership’s abandonment of the ideology that fueled the ‘people’s war’ must have aggrieved the foot soldiers might help to explain Kunwar’s action.
Dahal’s propensity to retain the initiative by speaking through all sides of his mouth, juggling contradictory positions and often indulging in third-rate maneuvering was responsible for the waning of his persona. The latest slap was nothing to cheer about, but it would be reckless not to grasp its symbolism.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Put Up Or Shut Up

It’s getting patently ridiculous, wouldn’t you say?
Former king Gyanendra Shah alerts Nepalis to beware the waywardness of the current leadership and all Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai can do is reiterate his well-worn threat to withdraw his state privileges. How many times have we heard Bhattarai – and his predecessors – threaten the ex-monarch in this way? And, more importantly, to what effect?
As a former head of state, Mr. Shah certainly has the right to speak his mind on crucial national issues. In that same capacity, he enjoys certain facilities from the state. If the government deems it necessary to withdraw those privileges on any account, it can go ahead. For the sake of its own credibility, however, at a time when former office-holders of far lesser rank have been enjoying state privileges, the government must come up with a better reason to deny the ex-king his.
Let’s say the Bhattarai government, in a singular quest for retribution, decides to withdraw facilities to the ex-king and Mr. Shah still goes around the country expressing his views. What can Bhattarai and his ilk do, might Maila Baje ask, to curb the ex-monarch’s freedom of speech then?
Nepalis are entitled to listen to what Mr. Shah has to say because of the national context. The current leadership – as part of a broader alliance – took charge pledging that it had a better solution to Nepal’s problems than the king’s ‘autocratic’ ways. So impatient were they to implement their nebulous vision that they ruthlessly denied the king the three years he had sought to put the political process back on track.
Nearly seven years down the road, the new drivers themselves have shattered that pledge into smithereens. That they have sequestered themselves today into ruling and opposition camps is as immaterial to the current context as is their sustained campaign to exclude the ex-king and his supporters from the national mainstream.
In the absence of any other gauge of the public mood, the growing size and scope of the audience eager to listen to what the ex-king has to say remains the best measure. The external stakeholders – regional and distant alike – who continue to bless the current dubious political arrangement because of provisional imperatives are far from oblivious to this reality.
During the king’s rule, the mainstream leaders were able to express their views well – be it during their time in detention or during public protests. The Maoist leadership, having deployed their armed foot soldiers to rain death and destruction upon the nation, heaped calumny on the then-king safely ensconced underground, some even from foreign soil. At least the Mr. Shah has mustered the resolve to voice his criticism in full public view within the country.
The frivolousness of the Bhattarai government’s stance becomes starker from the ‘opposition’ parties’ response. Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel, for example, criticized how ‘reactionaries’ were now being emboldened to raise their heads. Yet, in doing so, this time he blamed the Maoists for creating the conditions.
Pressed on the subject, the drivers of ‘new’ Nepal would be the first to invoke the moral high ground and insist that democracy has given the former king the right to speak with such candor. All the more reason, isn’t it then, for them to desist from resorting to ludicrous threats?

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Consensus Without Concord

Cutting through the political cacophony over the Dasain holidays and their aftermath, it seems consensus has retained its supremacy in the national conversation. Yet the sound that emerges is not a sonorous one.
President Ram Baran Yadav, who has for the umpteenth time warned how he would not remain a mute spectator to the political torpor, nevertheless wants a collective recommendation from the parties on how to proceed.
UCPN-Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, whose flip-flops Maila Baje believes have ceased to be a serious factor in any solution, now wants the parties to name a consensus candidate for the premiership.
The incumbent, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, while not averse to making way for a suitable successor, insists he could work economic miracles if he got another 10 uninterrupted years on the job.
Maoist vice-chairman Narayan Kaji Shrestha, enjoying his own bewildering moment in the sun, proclaims that elections would be held in April-May next year. Never mind that the parties cannot agree on whether the voting would be for the Constituent Assembly or for a new parliament.
The rival Maoist faction has named Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal as its candidate for premier. But the ‘hard-line’ faction is still caught between the imperatives of capturing the state and competing in open politics.
Such talk is passé to CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal. He thinks the Maoists have already captured the state. The real challenge, according to him, is to pry open the ex-rebels’ fists to the extent possible. His party colleague K.P. Oli, for now, at least, is too sick to make any splash. UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal seems to have become the least relevant of the trio following the ethno-regional fissures within the party.
For once, Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress has taken a firm stand. But his decision to go for fresh parliamentary elections is being challenged every moment from every possible corner. Sensing that Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel lack the ability to amount to much on their own, Sujata Koirala has staked her claim to the premiership. (The other Koiralas, while quiet on the surface, must be preparing to checkmate her.)
The Madhes-based parties, locked in their own internecine battles, have generously ceded the initiative to the big parties. However, they are primarily aiming to hold on to what they have got.
All this has emboldened Surya Bahadur Thapa of the Rastriya Janashakti Party to step up to the plate. Unfortunately, time – in all its manifestations – is not on his side.
Amid this muddle, Finance Minister Barsa Man Pun thinks he has figured things out. If the president tries to make even the slightest iniquitous move, the Bhattarai ally maintains, the country will either revert to the rule of King Gyanendra or become involved in civil war. Now, does Pun think most Nepalis consider the alternatives politically or morally equivalent?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

From Messiah To Mortal

What a plunge it has been – the thud persists in a rumble that refuses to wane. A man who sought to claim singular credit for turning Nepal into a republic today seeks to preserve his premiership by raising the specter of a return of the monarchy.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai began cutting a pathetic figure months after he took that ride on the Mustang. A year later, the Messiah, who had emerged ostensibly to exorcise all our evils of the past, has ended up accumulating new apparitions.
Billed as smarter, savvier and more sophisticated than any of his predecessors – commoner and oligarch alike – the incumbent prime minister ignored the pitfalls extending from his persona. Nepalis have never spared a leader who has started off making or implying soaring promises. Nor has any leader ceased blaming everybody else for his or her failures. But when they perceive a narcissist trying to wriggle out of responsibility, Nepalis are unforgiving. They sure still see a trained architect in our prime minister, but one who has demonstrably destructive proclivities in war and peace.
Dr. Bhattarai, to be sure, has maintained a reputation for personal probity. Yet he has surrounded himself with the sleazy and slimy. Girija Prasad Koirala did not have a mansion in Kathmandu or a particularly glamorous personal wardrobe, either. That didn’t stop Nepalis from drawing the conclusions of the man that they have.
Dr. Bhattarai, Maila Baje feels, made a strategic decision early on. He had spent years railing against the emergence of the equivalent of Sikkim’s Lhendup Dorji at a time when Nepalis needed to redress the external injustices inflicting upon them since the Sugauli Treaty. If he happened to make decisions as premier that seemed to conflict with that expectation, he seemed to have wagered, Nepalis would see them as part of the compulsions of governing a geo-strategically perilous nation.
The Chinese understood this psychology well and, with a little tinkering, have left him virtually begging for an invitation to Beijing. But the Indians aren’t cooling their heels, either. It is hardly an accident that they chose to reveal Dr. Bhattarai’s secret contacts with New Delhi when his party – and his own prose – was most virulently anti-Indian in public. Even in the midst of the BIPPA fiasco and the controversy over the circumstances surrounding Dr. Bhattarai’s meeting with his Indian counterpart in Teheran, New Delhi has refused to throw a reliable lifeline. When the Indian ambassador announced a special grant to Dr. Bhattarai’s former school in Gorkha the other day, his wink-wink was barely concealed.
Today, a supposedly ceremonial head of state has mustered the will to reminds us that he can’t sit idly by any longer, in effect, issuing a thinly veiled threat to the premier. What’s Dr. Bhattarai going to do next to save his mortal soul? Finally reveal who the real author of his June 6, 2001 ‘Let’s Not Legitimize This New Kot Massacre’ essay was?

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Perils Of Pressing The Cambodia Parallel

Cambodia has continued to fascinate Nepal’s political class ever since our Maoist rebels burst on to the scene in the mid-1990s. Over time, the South East Asian nation was increasingly cited as an example of how avowedly republican armed communists and the monarchy could coexist.
During the violent insurgency, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai regularly spoke of a Sihanouk-like role for the king in Nepal if the palace adopted pro-people policies.
A Nepali national serving as a senior officer with the United Nations Children Fund soon began recounting his experiences in Cambodia early in his career as the Khmer Rouge had rolled into Phnom Penh. After retiring from the UN, the gentleman returned to Kathmandu as a peacebuilder – donning the title ‘former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations’.
Our peace politics took a dramatic turn in the spring of 2006, sidelining and eventually abolishing the monarchy. Dr. Bhattarai still praised the Khmer Rouge and denounced all those allegations of crimes against humanity as nothing but western propaganda.
Six years later, as talk persists of how the Maoists and the monarchy may yet coexist on a platform of nationalism (with the mediation of the Chinese), we were justified in wondering how Cambodians saw developments in Nepal.
Well, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave us an inkling last week. Hitting out at UN human rights envoy Dr. Surya Subedi – without naming him – for writing ‘untrue’ reports about the Southeast Asian nation, Samdech Hun Sen said the envoy should worry about his homeland Nepal instead.
The author of the untrue writings was a national of a country that “has already abolished the monarchy” and “at this hour... has no constitution”, the Cambodian prime minister reminded graduating students in Phnom Penh.
In fairness, the UN assigned Dr. Subedi responsibility for Cambodia and he concluded, among other things, that Cambodian land disputes “indicate an increasingly desperate and
unhappy population”. Moreover, Dr. Subedi’s predecessor had resigned in 2009 amid a war of words with Phnom Penh.
Still the Oxford-educated legal scholar mounted a spirited defense of developments in Nepal. “Nepal has a liberal democracy where the judiciary is independent and people do not go to jail for criticizing the government,” Dr. Subedi said in a written response to Hun Sen’s comments.
“Nepal has a democratic interim constitution at the moment and people have been trying to write a new constitution with a view to strengthening democracy, human rights and rule of law. Both Cambodia and Nepal have gone through similar experience in the past and have a great deal to learn from each other,” he added.
Regardless of how the exchange plays out, Maila Baje thinks the episode suggests the wisdom of acknowledging the limits of the Cambodian parallel for Nepal. The Khmer Rouge waged war and rained devastation upon the Cambodians several times deadlier than what our Maoists did. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge did so while Mao Zedong was still alive and communism had not collapsed in the rest of the red world.
Our Maoists, for their part, espoused a discredited ideology only to overthrow the established order by exploiting and exacerbating local – and often contradictory – faultlines in what seems to be a sideshow to a larger geopolitical game.
Today, our Maoist luminaries are in power and enjoying pelf and privilege, while the Khmer Rouge leadership – at least the remnant that is still breathing – faces charges of genocide. (The UN acquitted its peace mission in Cambodia in the early 1990s impressively, while messing things up more in Nepal, but that is another story.)
Hun Sen, a junior functionary of the Khmer Rouge who was later purged and joined the Vietnamese-backed administration, reinvented himself as a democrat in a way no Nepali Maoist could ever hope to. Our dethroned monarch, far from hopping between Pyongyang and Beijing, walks among the people.
If anything, we would be served better by looking at our problems – and solutions – for what they are.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Someone To Do Our Dirty Work?

In calling for a ‘liberal dictatorship’ that could save Nepal from impending catastrophe, historian Satya Mohan Joshi ostensibly spoke for countless compatriots. Such sentiments have become commonplace during casual conversations and in online chatter but do not yet command commensurate coverage in the media. It will take more of the likes of the nonagenarian academic to keep that quest in the headlines.
When an exasperated interviewer questioned whether his prescription did not represent a contradiction in terms, Joshi cited King Mahendra’s record as an example. Implied in Joshi’s remark was the fact that democracy was an annoying distraction to substantive action.
This is not as outrageous a concept in this day and age as it might sound. Even in the world’s most advanced democracy, some people have started to look enviously at the ease with which leaders in China can get things done. (How many times, after all, has Thomas L. Friedman, the respected foreign affairs columnist of the equally venerable New York Times wistfully wondered how much more President Barack Hussein Obama could have achieved had he had the ‘flexibility’ of a President Hu Jintao?)
Just because Joshi cited King Mahendra and because his son, the last Nepali monarch, has been drawing record crowds during his regional tours does not necessarily mean the monarchy should be the focus of our attention here. (In any case, Maila Baje finds it hard to imagine a scenario where a restored monarchy would manifest itself in an authoritarian incarnation.)
Since Nepalis have already experienced an oligarchy and a non-party regime, this new dictatorship would probably have to come from someone who has total organizational control, who has leadership of a coercive force such as the military or who has a powerful and dynamic personality that could simply attract others.
Girija Prasad Koirala, Nepal’s closest example of democratic authoritarianism, could not go too far. Military rule could be a novel experiment in Nepal, given that the armed forces have never directly run the country. Or someone could just emerge in some form or the other and begin proving his or her abilities by getting the job – at least a lot of it – done.
But we must consider the other side of the coin first. What do people demanding a liberal dictatorship actually envisage? Of course, benevolent dictatorship is a form of government in which an authoritarian leader exercises political power for the benefit of the whole population rather than exclusively for his or her own self-interest or benefit or for the benefit of only a small portion of the population. But will Nepalis have the patience to put up with such a dictator once the welcome wears off?
A people who could rise up against a monarch who was barely halfway through the three-years he asked for to set thing right remain sullen as the successor political class failed to complete their job in twice the time they were allotted. What has really stopped us from organizing a massive uprising for the promulgation of the constitution? Some congenital collective perpetual oppositional proclivity?
If we are looking for someone who will do our dirty work for us on ill-defined terms and a perilous tenure, we might better recognize right away the elusiveness of that liberal dictator.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wider Dimensions Of National Reconciliation

His voice tends to be muffled in the cacophony that passes for serious deliberation in the Nepali Congress, but when he does speak, he forces you to sit up and listen.
When Dr. Shashank Koirala, son of Nepal’s first elected prime minister B.P. Koirala, announced a few years ago that he was entering politics, many of us expected him to go far. How naïve we were.
In a field already crowded by Koirala scions, the Nepali Congress also had no shortage of political parvenus that had hitched their wagons elsewhere. If B.P.’s legacy was what we expected to drive Shashank political trajectory, we should have known better. Today’s Nepali Congress remembers B.P. perfunctorily once a year. His brothers’ offspring have arrogated to themselves the Koirala mantle and want very little to do with the most illustrious member of the clan.
Yet Shashank, like his father, persists in unconventional ways. A few years ago, he suggested publicly that a new constitution was being prepared outside Nepal. This time, Shashank has expostulated his views across a wider canvas, linking the issues of federalism and religion to our geopolitics. And he has done so by boldly comparing the politics of his father and his father’s ostensible arch-nemesis, King Mahendra with those of the present-day rulers.
There was much more that united these two great men of a bygone generation than conventional wisdom would lead us to believe. King Mahendra’s seminal experience occurred during his months in exile in New Delhi with his father in 1950-1951, where he observed the maneuverings unfolding against Nepal in the name of change.
Today, based on the limited declassified material available, we have a better understanding of how wide apart the Indian and British/American governments stood on matters unfolding in Nepal. It was fortunate for our independence and sovereignty that a toddler prince was left behind in Kathmandu bear the crown of a sovereign nation. A slight misstep here or there and who knows how Nepal would look on today’s political map.
That Nepal succeeded in remaining outside the Indian union so riles one class of today’s Indians that they are still feverishly searching for ‘evidence’ to back the long-held canard that King Tribhuvan had offered to merge Nepal with India.
The political compromise of 1950-1951 represented a turning point in B.P.’s political evolution. Although he led the Nepali Congress in the Rana-Congress coalition, he was acutely aware of New Delhi’s attempt to relegate the Nepali Congress to the junior-most status in the tripartite experiment. He found himself ‘tricked’ into pushing for the resignation of Prime Mohan Shamsher Rana only to find himself out of power for the next eight years.
As prime minister in 1959, B.P. vision for Nepal was scarcely that different from King Mahendra’s, if you put aside the issue of democracy. With Tibet issue heating up, the Sino-Indian dispute flaring and the Soviet juggernaut rolling on, Nepal had been caught in the vortex of the Cold War. That these regional and international machinations could not be pursued out in the open was well understood by those foreign governments who had advised King Mahendra not to hold the elections at all. If the Indians, Chinese, Americans and Soviets wanted to pursue their respective quests, they had to be able to do so in the dark, not in partnership with a dynamic elected prime minister.
B.P.’s exasperation after his last meeting with Nehru and his seeming apathy in the midst of rumors of an impending royal coup bespeak a realization that he had lost out to regional and international forces. In his prison diaries and subsequent publications and pronouncements, B.P., contrary to his party colleagues and much of the royal opposition, was careful not to blame King Mahendra entirely for the subversion of the democratic process. The prevailing geopolitical dynamics, in B.P.’s view, were what they were. Still, he believed he could bring King Mahendra and his successors around to the intrinsic value of democracy to Nepal’s well being. (In terms of international powers, it was immensely significant that B.P. was the least critical of the Chinese.)
King Mahendra, for his part, was always effusive in his praise of B.P., even while he ordered the former premier’s incarceration for eight long years. If Nepal ever had a prime minister the country could be proud of, the monarch often asserted, it was only B.P.
The substance of King Mahendra’s geopolitics during the partyless Panchayat years was a virtual continuation of B.P.’s, be it on the urgency of maintaining equidistance between India and China or exercising Nepal’s independent international options by, among other things, building relations with Israel, a new nation shunned by both our giant neighbors.
King Mahendra, Maila Baje feels, must have felt that keeping B.P. under royal lock and key would prevent India – as B.P.’s would-be host in exile – from deploying him as a tool of destabilization in the guise of democracy promotion.
When B.P. was finally released from prison in 1968, it was Surya Bahadur Thapa, with his known pro-Indian proclivities, who intimidated the former premier into exile. Once across the southern border, B.P. was cold-shouldered by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and learned his lessons well. Although he continued to up the ante against the royal regime, India’s machinations in the chain of events that led to creation of Bangladesh spurred behind-the-scenes efforts toward reconciliation with King Mahendra. The monarch’s unexpected death in Bharatpur in 1972 shut the door on that prospect.
While the Nepali Congress persisted with its anti-palace activities during King Birendra’s early reign, B.P. saw a repetition of India’s conspiratorial policies in the events leading up to its annexation of Sikkim. A virtual prisoner of the Indian state, B.P. chose to return to Nepal in 1979 having formally articulated his national reconciliation policy. It was scarcely accidental that people like Surya Bahadur Thapa would call for his execution. Instead, King Birendra permitted him go abroad for medical treatment and B.P., true to his word, returned home to answer the sedition charges awaiting him.
To cut a long story short, B.P.’s national reconciliation policy was much more than a blueprint for compromise between the monarchy and the Nepali Congress. It represented a way in which Nepal could reconcile its perilous geographic position and with its ability to exercise its sovereign international option regardless of the changes in time or circumstance. Shashank can only be commended for articulating that reality so succinctly.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Confirmation, Not Cop-Out

Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, President Ram Baran Yadav finally erupted the other day.
“I am a creature of the interim constitution that you all prepared,” the president reportedly snapped during a meeting with the top leaders of four leading political parties. “If you cannot respect that office, take whatever decision you want to regarding the fate of this institution.”
Ever since the demise of the constituent assembly, before it could complete its assigned task of producing a new constitution, leaving Nepal in a vacuum, the people’s eyes have turned to the president.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, facing mounting criticism for having led the country to the brink, contends that the head of state has no right to interfere with the status quo. Opponents of the incumbent government clamor that President Yadav is constitutionally obliged to sack Dr. Bhattarai’s government and are now growing impatient that he may be deepening the disaster by failing to act.
What can the president realistically do? Who does he really have to back him? A ceremonial head of state taking over the reins of power now cannot be construed as being anything different than the much-maligned royal interventions of October 4, 2002 or February 1, 2005, can it?
One may argue that the president, unlike the erstwhile king, is a symbol of modernity that represents a modicum of popular legitimacy. But does President Yadav really have the power to withstand the fallout any form of direct action would surely engender? Even if he could count on the military, police and bureaucracy, would they alone be able to sustain the course?
The Maoists may be a divided lot, but they still can rock the streets. The opposition leaders that are egging President Yadav on to do something will likely be among the first people to criticize him if things do not turn out to their liking.
The international community would be hard-pressed to go out of its way to endorse a controversial presidential intervention at this time without greater clarity about the legitimacy of the institution vis-à-vis the premiership. In many ways, foreign powers also are responsible for creating today’s mess. Even if they own up to breaking the product, would they be ready to own it?
India has never ceased giving mixed signals, while the Chinese are happily letting out all indications. The Americans are wooing the Maoists they once so assiduously worked to crush, while the Europeans are still in damage-control mode after their overreach on the issues of federalism and secularism.
For the distant powers, talk of restoring the constituent assembly or holding fresh elections works just fine, until there is some clarity in the approaches of Nepal’s two immediate neighbors. Grappling as they are with their own internal political issues, neither behemoth is likely to tip the scales right away.
In this situation, the president seems to have done his homework well. Saying that he did not expect the parties defying the constitution to uphold the dignity of the office of the president, President Yadav told the assembled leaders that he would be very happy if they took ‘any decision’ regarding the fate of his office.
Far from being a cop-out, Maila Baje thinks President Yadav’s words serve to underscore the timidity and tentativeness underlying the glorified effort to reinvent Nepal.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

RPP-N And Our Last Line Of Defense

The much-hyped unification process launched by the three parties dominated by former panchas has come to a juddering stop, at least for now. A breakthrough was considered imminent this time because much of the optimism seemed to be coming from the so-called ‘republican ex-panchas’, i.e., Surya Bahadur Thapa’s Rastriya Janashakti Party (RJP) and Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).
At one point during the negotiations, Kamal Thapa’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) was even reported to have abandoned its agenda of restoring the monarchy in order to facilitate the unity.
Now S.B. Thapa is being blamed for scuttling the unification by, among other things, expelling party general-secretary Keshar Bahadur Bista, who was active in the negotiations. But you cannot really blame the wily old man. He must have so badly wanted to believe that the RPP-N’s interest in unification far outweighed its affinity to the crown.
Maila Baje finds the republican panchas in a deep identity crisis. To be fair, the RJP and RPP opposed the royal takeover of February 1, 2005, seeking to project themselves as centrist democratic parties. But that was not enough for the rest of the country to consider them the equivalents of the Nepali Congress or the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist.
Towards the twilight of his life, Surya Bahadur Thapa may have sought to build a legacy. If B.P. Koirala, who was so vicitimized by the palace, could remain a monarchist until his last breath, why could not a man patronized by the palace be a republican? The problem is, no one believes S.B. Thapa. For all his personability, the man is far too impervious politically.
Rana in recent months has become less confident of the real end of the Nepali monarchy. Of course, when your survival – political and personal – depends on disbursement of protection money, there are few things you can take for granted.
Kamal Thapa’s course is an honorable one, in no small measure because he sees no reason to make apologies for his political past. As home minister during the royal regime, he has taken responsibility for the excesses committed under his watch. He could have taken the easy route and blamed the king for the failure of that experiment. Instead, the campaign to restore Nepal’s monarchy and Hindu character gives the RPP-N a distinct identity.
The monarchy’s return is not something that can be ruled out or ruled in. If it is restored, it will be through the will of the people, expressed in some form. (Former king Gyanendra Shah himself has signaled as much.)
More importantly, the people’s desire for such a return will be rooted not in any great national salvation plan they expect the crown to possess, but because of the systematic erosion of what Nepal had acquired under the monarchy.
History tends to obscure the bad and amplify the good. When the average Nepali looks back – through personal or secondary experience – the dark tends to be exorcised. The national political discourse, admittedly, runs from political exigencies, but they ultimately have to succumb to the people’s desires.
Nepalis have stunned the world by their resilience. In the midst of constant experimentations, sheer abandonment of constitutionalism and proliferation of platitudes, they have not lost hope. There may be many reasons for this national trait. One certainly is the fact that the monarchy remains alive in the national consciousness.
History and tradition have provided a last line of defense, a conviction symbolized in the RPP-N’s political platform. Should we really expect the party to abandon it?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Reading Baburam In Tehran

When Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai departed for Tehran leading the Nepali delegation to the summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it finally seemed like he had begun to walk the walk.
Having penned an impassioned op-ed in a leading daily days earlier on the need for Nepal to pursue a foreign policy that genuinely served the national interest, Dr. Bhattarai faced an immediate test.
The Americans did not want him to go to Iran, desiring that Nepal leave its participation at the 16th summit at a lower level. Clearly, the greater the number of heads of state or government who stayed away from Tehran, the better it would be for Washington’s decades-long bipartisan campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic.
Nevertheless, Dr. Bhattarai was under tremendous pressure from the other side, too. India, which has maintained its own extensive relationship with Iran seemingly without undermining New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Washington, wanted to see Dr. Bhattarai in Tehran.
Since Nepal, as a founding member of the NAM, would ordinarily have been expected to attend the summit at the highest level, the Indian angle did not assume much prominence or controversy.
In his speech at the summit, Dr. Bhattarai generally reiterated Nepal’s traditional stands on international issues. He spoke of the need for forging a new global economic order based on equitable distribution of the available resources in the world. “We in Nepal are in favor of open, rules-based, equitable, predictable and non-discriminatory trading as well as financial and monetary systems,” he said.
The prime minister also urged the delegates to commit to make NAM “a voice for the voiceless and a power for the powerless” – hardly a departure from traditional Nepali foreign policy tenets. In signing on to the Tehran Declaration, in which the NAM countries agreed that a nuclear energy program for peaceful purpose is the inseparable right of a nation, Dr. Bhattarai, like the other signatories, reiterated common sense.
Dr. Bhattarai, in his own words, had said he was traveling to Iran to project and promote Nepal’s active nonaligned policy to the world. By the time he returned home, however, we learned that he might not have quite achieved that.
At the center of the latest controversy to hit Nepal’s most-educated premier are the circumstances surrounding his meeting with his Indian counterpart. Dr. Bhattarai disappeared for over an hour for what he later told reporters was a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Manmohan Singh. Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a fellow vice-chairman of the prime minister’s party, had no prior intimation of the meeting. The Indian prime minister, it later emerged, had his complement of advisers and aides.
Although Dr. Bhattarai briefed reporters on his talks, what the two premiers really discussed remains in the realm of wide speculation. Our prime minister’s version of the talks could not be independently corroborated, an imperative Maila Baje believes that gained much more significance in view of Dr. Bhattarai’s early insistence that it was a one-on-one meeting.
All this fueled suggestions that Dr. Bhattarai and Dr. Singh may have reached another written or unwritten accord/understanding/protocol that, by the meeting’s very ostensible secrecy, might not be to Nepal’s advantage.
Seeking to assuage members of his delegation, Dr. Bhattarai sought to highlight his compulsions for the apparent clandestineness. His originally scheduled meeting with Dr. Singh, after all, had been called off and the two delegations were pressed for time.
Yet by failing to explain that to members of the delegation – or at least those closest to him – beforehand exposed the prime minister to much grief. Also unclear is whether Dr. Bhattarai in any way pressed his interlocutors on unnatural circumstances of the meeting and its possible fallout back home.
Someone who has so recently been on the receiving end of selective and convenient Indian leaks of supposedly secret confabulations and communications might have been more careful of his actions. But Dr. Bhattarai, upon his return, has adopted the posture of someone who feels confident enough of handling his internal critics as long as his external patrons are steadfast in their support.
Maybe the Americans were on to something.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In That Very Special Place

With a major section of the Nepali Congress in a tizzy over how leading party luminaries are being singled out for corruption conviction and sent to prison, Maila Baje recalls a remark Shailaja Acharya used to make.
As Nepal’s last real brush with democratic politics degenerated into a macabre street show, the Nepali Congress was singled out for wrecking an enterprise that had begun with such hope in early 1990. While most of the other Nepali Congress stalwarts were busy blaming the palace, the CPN-UML and the Maoists for subverting democracy, Shailaja had a different take.
The Nepali people had a right to be angry with the Nepali Congress, she said. And no, it was not just because the party had been in power for most of the 1990-2002 period. The public outcry was rooted in the great expectations the people had from the party.
Now, Shailaja’s words had an unnerving self-righteous tinge, quite imaginably even to some within her party. But consider the context. The panchas had squandered thirty years trying to prove their democratic credentials, when they could focused more on infrastructure building and promoting Nepal’s international persona.
The communists, who boldly called their system a dictatorship of the proletariat, were congenitally brutal. The head-hunters in Jhapa were merely forerunners of the mass murderers unleashing a ‘People’s War’.
Sure, the Nepali Congress, too, bombed bridges and tried to kill kings. But when the party claimed it did so in the name of democracy, that sort of ended the story. Countless leaders and supporters had braved incarceration and exile, while many made the ultimate sacrifice for the people. Lack of inner-party democracy did little to obscure the halo of democracy from the party. So when the Nepali Congress in 1990 promised to turn Nepal into another Singapore and Switzerland, the people could do little but take them seriously.
No such feeling exists for the party today. Few Nepalis see the Nepali Congress as any different from the bumbling tribe that comprises the political class. Time has been a great equalizer since April 2006, where the Maoists, mainstream parties and the monarchists are on the same plane.
If anything, in today’s sovereignty-is-under-siege ambience, Jang Bahadur Rana is remembered for having regained some of the territory Nepal had lost in the Sugauli Treaty. Chandra Shamsher is lauded for his role in securing the British Empire’s unequivocal recognition as a free and independent state as the Great Game waned.
Still, Shailaja’s remark carries relevance to our context if you are willing to listen a bit differently. The Nepali Congress, despite its tawdry record in office, continues to assert its specialness. (“We led three democratic revolutions… blah, blah, blah.”) And that puts off a lot of people.
So when Chirajibi Wagle, Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta, Govind Raj Joshi and Khum Bahadur Khadka are packed into prison for old cases of corruption, the people barely yawn. What they stole may seem chump change compared to the scale of the loot people of other parties (and, yes, the Nepali Congress) are perpetrating today. But your average person has no time for that.
The moral of the story: If the Nepali Congress wants to be treated like the other parties on matters of vice – or for that matter, virtue -- then maybe it should quit claiming to be so special.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

New Stories From Old Nepal

As more and more Nepalis find themselves gaping deeper into an uncertain future, they also seem to be getting a clearer vision of the past. Published reminiscences by influential players of yesteryear continue to serve up new perspectives on old issues, events and ideas. To Maila Baje, at least, the contents of the Smaran column of Nepal weekly magazine stand out impressively.
In one particularly revealing account earlier this year, Arvind Kumar Thakur, whose relentless campaigns against the partyless Panchayat system earned him years of jail time, turned conventional wisdom on its head.
While discussing various aspects of life behind bars, Thakur maintained that King Mahendra’s rule was far more benign than that of his successor, King Birendra. Thakur, of course, limits himself to the pre-referendum phase of Birendra’s rule. His point nevertheless was that more state prisoners faced harsher conditions – with many losing their lives in ‘encounters’ faked during purported transfers between jails – under the first phase of King Birendra’s government, compared to that of King Mahendra’s entire Panchayat rule.
A growing number of people associated with various aspects of the Panchayat system under the two monarchs have been equally articulate in the aforementioned column. Two recent examples, representing people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, are noteworthy.
Kamal Raj Regmi poignantly narrated how he, a jailed luminary of the Communist Party after the royal takeover of 1960, eventually joined the Panchayat system. At the moment, Bishwa Bandhu Thapa continues to provide a gripping perspective of events from his background as a one-time Nepali Congress stalwart.
Many in today’s communist factions and Nepali Congress continue to brand people like Regmi and Thapa as traitors to freedom and democracy. It is not surprising, therefore, that their narratives pulsate with a quest to rehabilitate their image.
Countless Nepali Congress and communist leaders had personal responsibilities and commitments that could easily have driven them to compromise on their ideology. Yet many of these people chose exile and incarceration to political capitulation. (Regmi, in particular, would probably resent the term ‘capitulation’, having been instrumental in introducing radical leftist concepts like the ‘Back to Village National Campaign’ to the Panchayat system.)
Thapa has long been denigrated as a palace collaborator, who, together with Dr. Tulsi Giri, ostensibly worked from within to undermine Nepal’s first elected premier, B.P. Koirala, only to become early pillars of the Panchayat system. The National Guidance Ministry, which Thapa led assiduously in the early partyless weeks and months, was at the forefront of driving the narrative that buttressed the system for three decades.
People still remember how Thapa would bike his way to work, unfazed by the oil embargo the Indian government had imposed in the 1960s. His commitment to the partyless cause culminated in his election as the chairman of the Rastriya Panchayat.
To be fair, people like Regmi and Thapa probably joined the palace-led non-party enterprise in a genuine spirit of service. After all, it was not as if panchas were born anywhere outside the wombs of the communist and Nepali Congress movements. As the years went by, these men had every right to be disenchanted with a system a growing number of Nepalis had started opposing.
Yet, in their narration of events today, they seem eager to pin blame for the Panchayat system’s ills on the two successive monarchs, barely acknowledging their roles as willful participants.
This omission has become interesting in our times when distance has facilitated a more dispassionate view of the Panchayat legacy. The system could never be described as democratic in the commonly accepted definition of the term. The outlawing of political organization based on ideology could never be compensated by the expansion of space along class organizations. That the system spent so much time trying to prove its democratic credentials was preposterous.
It is easier to debate whether the system was suited to our soil. Not because of some inherent flaw in the Nepali DNA but because of the geopolitical realities of the Cold War overlapping deep regional rivalries.
The fact that the Panchayat system worked to forge a common Nepali nationhood continues to be resented internally. Yet that sustained drive – often through the coercive powers of the state – did allow Nepal to assert its international identity and profile.
The relatively few Nepalis living abroad at the time were more attuned to this aspect of the Panchayat system. In the midst of the more recent radical expressions of the campaign for federalism, Nepalis within the country, too, are becoming more sympathetic to Panchayat-built foundation they can expect to build on.
Regardless of their overt and implied biases, more and more people associated with events and perspectives from the past need to be encouraged to articulate their experiences. There is much new Nepal can learn from the old.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sushil Koirala: Ambition Vs. Ambivalence

Sushil Koirala has long since learned how little there is in surname when it comes to leading the today’s Nepali Congress party. He seems intent now and then, though, on invoking the magic of his forebears.
The Nepali Congress president stated the other day that the Maoists had entered the peace process six years ago after realizing the real meaning of B.P. Koirala’s doctrine of peace and reconciliation.
It is unclear who is offended the most – B.P.’s adherents or the Maoists – from Sushil’s strange claim. Far too many Congressis continue to lament how Girija Prasad Koirala not only usurped B.P.’s legacy but also undermined its ideological intent in reaching out to the Maoists. The former rebels, for their part, insist that they ended their violent campaign on their own volition to lead the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist into the realm of new Nepal.
Sushil thus recognizes that he alone stands to lose by uttering such inanities. Yet he persists because, Maila Baje feels, he hopes it might deflect attention from his real predicament.
The five-point agreement the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist and United Democratic Madhesi Front signed with the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML on May 3 envisaged handing over the government’s leadership to NC just before the constitution was promulgated. While Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal insists that the agreement has been overtaken by events, the CPN-UML has been admonishing the Nepali Congress to name a prime ministerial contender forthwith or else forfeit its claim to lead the next government. The intensity of each ultimatum only seems to have increased Sushil’s desire for the top job.
His ambitions suddenly grew after a series of meetings he held in New Delhi several months ago. Sources close to Sushil contend that their man is merely waiting for a propitious alignment of external stars. In reality, the NC president’s challenge is internal. He confronts Sher Bahadur Deuba, a three-time prime minister, and Ram Chandra Poudel, who contested 17 round of elections in the now defunct legislature to become premier.
That contest has percolated to the lower rungs of the party and fraternal organizations to such an ominous extent that some veterans like Ram Sharan Mahat are scrambling to stanch the bleeding. Other NC leaders are urging Deuba and Poudel to take turns. Still others prefer to see Dr. Baburam Bhattarai continue in the job and lose further credibility.
Sushil’s dilemma is real. By letting Deuba become premier, he will find it harder to tighten his grip on the party. Since Sushil wants another term as Nepali Congress leader, he is also in no mood to promote Poudel’s standing within the party.
So far Sushil shrewdly has not explicitly stated his desire to take the job, waiting instead for others to nominate him. To be sure, there are practical political considerations he must make. What if Deuba and Poudel, in their common exasperation, join hands in subverting a Sushil-led government?
Yet Sushil also seems to be gripped by a lack of confidence in his ability to deliver, especially after having so excoriated Dr. Bhattarai’s performance. The NC president, after all, record stands out for its dearth of executive experience.
Maybe this is the right time to let people like Gagan Thapa to take charge and prove they can turn their words into deeds. But, again, considering the history of the Nepali Congress, a campaign to seat Gagan would more likely push Sushil, Deuba and Poudel firmly behind the Bhattarai government. Now, that would be an interesting manifestation of peace and reconciliation, would it not?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Adrift In A Zone Of Desperation

If Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is showing solid signs of downright desperation these days, it is not difficult to see why.
As head of government during such a critical period, he cannot but have realized how staggeringly he has squandered the political capital he came into office with.
How much of that capital was authentic becomes immaterial in a day and age where perception trumps everything else. When a ‘dynamic’ finance minister climbs up the political pole only to become enmeshed in gaudy gimmicks, the people are quick to take notice.
Any man (or woman) could have held the premiership during this time and have pretended to govern. Nepalis had been led to expect Dr. Bhattarai to be much more than just another man.
Personal and political incompetence tends to stand out more starkly among those who are somehow deemed special. When that specialness itself comes into sharper focus, mud and slime tend to acquire greater tackiness.
The exasperated side of Dr. Bhattarai has evinced a desire to step down. But he says he cannot do so in the absence of consensus on what might follow. No one believes magnanimity or altruism is at work here. He has reached that point where he must speak from all sides of his mouth. All the more so when his Indian mentors are getting edgier by the day.
Dr. Bhattarai may be technically accurate in providing the context to the now infamous letter the Nepali Maoists wrote to the Indian government way back in 2002 pledging not to harm New Delhi’s core interests. However, it is in today’s context that the Nepali people are prone to comprehending the interests and implications. (The telling reality that the Indian government at the time was led by the ostensibly pro-monarchist and Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have been lost in the discourse.)
As one of the foremost surveyors – at least through his writings once upon a time – of the systematic erosion of Nepali sovereignty since the Sugauli Treaty, Dr. Bhattarai may have felt added justification in criticizing the Chinese for challenging the wisdom of radical ethnic federalism the Maoists forced upon Nepal. Most Nepalis are tempted to see in his comments displeasure over the way Beijing seems to have shunned him.
The aura of erudition surrounding Dr. Bhattarai is inadequate to bail him out of his general plight. Neighbors – people as well as states – are guided by their own interests.
During the height of the Tanakpur controversy in the early 1990s, Professor Muni was among those who urged his government to distance itself from then-prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
For all intents and purposes, the likes of Muni, P.K. Hormis and Ashok K. Mehta are professional agitators. They excel at shaking the established order on various pretexts but fail to shape the aftermath. (Any coincidence that these three men have had virtually the same reaction to former king Gyanendra’s recent public utterances?)
As the prime architects of the April 2006 arrangement, these Indian men stuck out their necks quite far ahead of the prevailing Nepali public sentiment. Now that the experiment has crashed, these men need scapegoats to present to their superiors in power. The Nepali leadership, in their view, is congenitally incompetent, regardless of ideology or orientation.
The Chinese, for their part, are more subtle pragmatists. At the moment, they do not want to precipitate another crisis on the periphery. Above all, President Hu Jintao wants stability and harmony, at least superficially, to insert as many protégés into the leadership rungs as the power transition in the Chinese Communist Party gathers pace. Yet Beijing knows how to express its displeasure to Nepal. The Chinese did not like the way Dr. Bhattarai’s inner circle was leaking information on the eve of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit and its aftermath. And that was only one of a host of issues.
All prime ministers have faced the kind of external pressures the incumbent is complaining of. Many Nepalis thought Dr. Bhattarai possessed the skill and energy to work around such pressures.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Nepal And The ‘Other’ President

Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist seems to have brightened his political prospects considerably with just one meeting.
Last week Oli became the first Nepali leader to meet with Pranab Mukherjee, the newly elected president of India. Our political chatterati has made much of the perception that Mukherjee has remained the driver of New Delhi’s Nepal policy for close to a decade.
Indeed, during one of the tensest phases of the relationship, Mukherjee straddled the contradictions that have come to comprise India’s policy toward Nepal.
As minister of defense during King Gyanendra’s takeover in February 2005, Mukherjee was part of India’s military-national security establishment that counseled continued engagement with the palace.
Then, Mukherjee felt that New Delhi should not read too much into the Chinese arms supplies to the royal regime and most preferably consider it an aberration. The more important task was to ensure that Nepal’s raging Maoist insurgency did not inspire Indian adherents of the Great Helmsman into wallowing in a wider South Asian wasteland.
When the UN oil-for-food scandal claimed Foreign Minister Kunwar Natwar Singh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took over the portfolio briefly before bringing in Mukherjee. As foreign minister, Mukherjee took a 180 and espoused his new institution’s hardening posture of lining up the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance against the monarchy. Once that process was under way, Mukherjee took credit in an interview with Al Jazeera TV for having succeeded in democratizing the Nepali Maoists.
Could all this suggest that Mukherjee is a man easily molded by the institution he sits atop at a given moment? That perception would hardly comport with the accolades Mukherjee has been receiving for his keen political skills and administrative capabilities.
As to the first, Maila Baje clearly remembers the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in late October 1984. Her son, Rajiv, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, was away from the capital on a tour accompanied by then-finance minister Mukherjee.
On their flight back to the capital upon receiving the horrific news, according to reports published then, Mukherjee had spent much time explaining to Rajiv how he (Mukherjee) should be named Indira’s successor because of seniority and experience.
Given the political alignments prevailing in New Delhi, the suddenness of the turn of events, and the general course of developments following Indira’s younger son Sanjay’s death in a flying accident, Mukherjee might have just shut up. Perhaps his ‘political skills’ simply got the better of him.
As for administrative capabilities, it took Mukherjee another assassination to try to get back where he had left off. Throughout his premiership and subsequent mortal existence, Rajiv appeared to distrust Mukherjee. Yet a man of such vaunted administrative capabilities should have been able to claw his way back to the inner Congress core.
Even after Rajiv’s assassination, midway through an election that resulted in a Congress triumph, Mukherjee lost out. The key contenders for the premiership thought it prudent to bring back P.V. Narasimha Rao, whom Rajiv had packed into retirement, and resume their battles later.
During the wily Rao’s premiership, when there was a palpable effort to keep Rajiv’s widow Sonia at bay, Mukherjee started playing both sides, as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and briefly foreign minister. Once Sonia’s stars rose in 2004, Mukherjee carefully played the role of mentor to both the new face of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and Prime Minister Singh, a one-time protégé.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why Nepali politicians most susceptible to getting a thrill up their legs should back off a bit. Mukherjee is but one man – in Professor S.D. Muni’s recent words – in a “balance of forces among multiple stakeholders in India’s Nepal policy [who] are diverse and varied and their positions often mutually incompatible”.
For now, though, Mukherjee, like many of these stakeholders, must be watching with great interest emerging signs of Nepali public sentiment rising against Chinese interference in Nepali affairs.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Split Personalities And Scrappy Pragmatism

Like much of the nation, Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai concedes that his government has been a failure. Maila Baje, however, sees no reason to be taken in by this atypical act of admission from someone known for bigheaded aloofness. Far from blaming himself personally for the fiasco, Dr. Bhattarai complained that the times were simply unpropitious.
The sheer letdown our first Ph.D. prime minister personifies was becoming apparent long before the concluding ceremony of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) plenum on July 21, where he made the qualified acknowledgement. If anything, events there certainly propelled Dr. Bhattarai toward some candor.
Infuriated party cadres accused the prime minister of virtually selling Tribhuvan International Airport to India in an effort to prolong his stay in power. They also revived allegations of treason surrounding the BIPPA and other accords with New Delhi.
After almost being manhandled by a senior member of the party, close to chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, all Dr. Bhattarai could assure the assembly was: “Our war (struggle) with India and the US is continuing at another front. We will make no compromise on issues of nationalism.” (Translation: You need me as prime minister to save Nepal from foreigners, who I need to prostrate before to stay in office.)
Dr. Bhattarai can take solace in the fact that he is not the only Maoist leader whose stars came crashing. One irate party member, reputedly a Bhattarai loyalist, hurled a chair the once-feared party chairman.
Hobbled by relentless personal problems, Dahal still attempted to put on a brave face. In his address to the closing session of the plenum, he claimed full credit for the advent of republicanism, federalism, inclusive representation and secularism. Of course, that was not the place to see how all those are working for Nepal.
Superficially, Dahal, Bhattarai and the third member of the triumvirate – Narayankaji Shrestha – emerged from the plenum proffering a posture of unity. The trio, among other things, decided to forgo their luxurious lifestyles and donate their property to the party.
The Maoists’ decision to hold a general convention in mid-January is emblematic of their attempt to transform the organization into a mass-based democratic movement. That, as we have recently discovered, is a course of action the Maoists, or at least a significant section of them, have contemplated since 2002.
The democratic-peace theory is bolstered by the plenum’s decision to adopt peace and constitution as the party’s tactical line. The Maoists professed commitment to investigate allegations of financial irregularities, should it be sincerely implemented, could herald new transparency and openness in a party known for imperviousness and obfuscation.
Yet the festering divisions within the party, underscored during the plenum, casts a shadow on the scheduled general convention, which would be the first in 23 years. After all, the previous two efforts to do so faltered on Dahal’s reluctance to cede control of the party apparatus.
Dahal, furthermore, has undermined his credibility as an agent of transformation, within his party and outside, by almost flaunting his ability to widen the gulf between his words and deeds.
The establishment faction of the Maoists needs to become more persuasive about wants to represent, now that the ostensibly hard-line and obstructionist Mohan Baidya faction has gone in its own direction. The plenum did little toward that end. The persona Dahal had managed to build during the ‘People’s War’ and the power he exuded throughout the insurgency rested on the ideological and organizational base provided by men and women who are today in the Baidya group.
The pragmatism Dahal wants to pursue can now only come through working with Dr. Bhattarai and Shrestha, who have been steadily building their own fiefdoms. With Dahal and Dr. Bhattarai palpably weakened, what might Shrestha – someone who joined the party after it entered the peace process – do to strengthen his hand? Who else might step in to stake a claim for the leadership and upon what internal realignments? And at what cost to ideology and/or organization in a party that insisted it was different? As for the rest of us, did we think we would be asking these question so deep into such a supposedly historic transformative process?