Sunday, April 29, 2012

China’s Silence: Alienation Or Activism?

Chinese Ambassador Yang Houlan’s prolonged absence from Kathmandu has set off considerable speculation over Beijing’s approach and attitude toward recent developments in Nepal.
One set of Indians players and their Nepali protégés initially found considerable room for maneuver. The Munis and Mehtas, along with their local acolytes, appeared to have salvaged some of the hope they thought they had injected into the November 2005-April 2006 phase of India’s grand review of its Nepal policy. The wayward Maoists seemed to have been sufficiently tamed. Political affirmations on the inevitability of Nepal’s march toward a nebulous newness began to pervade the national scene with uncharacteristic conviction.
What are the Chinese really up to? Could Yang’s absence be related to something inherently personal to the man and his family or could it be an indication of Beijing’s displeasure over our general state of affairs.
In the latter instance, are the Chinese so peeved by the Nepali government’s ostensible inability or unwillingness to pursue the One China policy vis-à-vis the Tibetans in Nepal that they are ready to ignore the other dimensions of the relationship? (After all, Maila Baje recalls, the Nepalis and the Tibetan government in exile can’t seem to agree on something as simple as whether or not a Tibetan minister was denied entry into Nepal.)
Sure, the Bo Xilai affair has preoccupied the Beijing leadership. The ostensible travails of Zhou Yongkang suggest a widening political crisis as the Chinese leadership prepares for a power transition. (To recall, Zhou is the public security minister who, during his visit to Nepal last year, made news by, among other things, visiting the family of the late Sinologist Niranjan Bhattarai.)
Yet could Beijing’s silence on Nepali affairs really be linked to internal developments. For one thing, we do not know the extent of the seriousness of the crisis. A power struggle of sorts may be going on, given the stakes involved amid the absence of a single dominating figure in mold of a Mao Zedong or a Deng Xiaoping. But could the Chinese Communist Party’s factional dissonance be so pronounced as to reverse the political, security and economic assertiveness of the recent past in Nepal.
Inexorably, perceptions of Chinese apathy have created sudden frustration in the peace process. The latest political consensus has been marred by the fingerprints of the Muni-Mehta school of thought. Beijing’s public indifference has heightened the perceived risk that any new constitution might be construed as having come in its entirety from India. In the aftermath of China’s pointedly abstruse reaction to India’s latest Agni missile test, New Delhi’s latest move has apparently run its course.
After the Maoists came up with their new proposal on federalism, the talk has shifted to a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. Former prime minister and CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal – who not too long ago threatened to jail former king Gyanendra – has been reduced to suggesting that a partial draft of the constitution might be the key to another extension of the constituent assembly.
Could there be a more plausible interpretation of Beijing’s public composure vis-à-vis the latest developments? For example, could the Chinese have decided to let the Indians and the Europeans square off on their expected return on investment under Japanese inspection before assessing the emerging ground realities? After all, even the neo-cons in Washington are now seriously contemplating whether the India-US alliance has been oversold.
Ultimately, who can really read China’s moves, which – to paraphrase Henry Kissinger – contain so many layers of meaning that the brilliantly painted surface is the least significant part?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cloudy Collaborations

The shadow of RAW and royalists has come to trouble our makers of history. For whatever reasons, Nepal’s political establishment has successfully navigated through some of the most contentious issues bedeviling the peace process that began with the uprising six springs ago.
From across the southern border, the S.D. Munis and Ashok K. Mehtas have given their imprimatur to what they consider our irreversible plunge into newness, notwithstanding its nebulousness. Since the Karan Singhs and K.V. Rajans have not challenged that affirmation, a new constitution – more likely to be a far less truncated one than we feared until even a week ago – will emerge by May 28.
But will the document fare any better than its predecessors?
Many heads are turning toward Maoist leader Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’. He does not want to be seen as the party pooper. But what can he do? His erstwhile party comrades are pulling him from the extremes. Baidya has been maintaining clandestine links with India’s Research and Analysis Wing as well as Nepali royalists, according to the Maoist establishment.
Straddling those extremes – if indeed that is what Baidya is doing – may not be as insufferable as it sounds. RAW itself, it has long been rumoured, has been split between those who pompously pushed the post-April 2006 agenda and still believe in it and those who began regretting it as soon as events began going off script.
The last real moments of glory for India’s premier external intelligence agency were in Bangladesh and Sikkim. Ask an ordinary Indian today and they will rue the ineptitude of RAW vis-à-vis, say, the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan.
One former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency became the 41st president of the United States. A far junior-level functionary of its Soviet counterpart, the KGB, is now in his second non-consecutive tenure in the Kremlin. RAW, far from achieving any comparable symbolism, continues to make a mess while trying to covering its mess.
If the royalists seem a new ally for one group of RAW sleuths, Maila Baje feels it is because their enemy’s enemy can only be their ally. (Can it be a mere coincidence that our peace process took some of its most dramatic steps after the former monarch started drawing overtly political crowds during his ostensible pilgrimages?)
Baidya, too, is in the same category. He, like C.P. Gajurel – another preeminent anti-establishmentarian within the former rebels – were in detention in India when the 12-Point Agreement was set in motion. They were freed only after New Delhi concluded that the Maoists had been securely tied down in the peace process.
Baidya is in a bind. He can’t be sure his faction is big enough to thrive as an independent party capable of pushing its revolutionary rhetoric. But he knows it is too small to just wither away like countless other Nepali communist malcontents have over the decades. So Baidya seems to have reverted to what his once-formidable party thrived on: fomenting confusion. The RAW and royalist slurs are not something he would ordinarily relish. But if the ambiguity of pressing unlikely alliances can create enough energy to fuse the perception of the emergence of new ground realities, then why mind the haziness?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wrestling History With The President

Regardless of how Nepal’s transition to a federal democratic republic turns out, this much is clear: few people would have been able to lead the country during these tumultuous times better than Ram Baran Yadav. To get a sense of his significance, just consider some of the leading contenders for the top job in the summer of 2008 and speculate how they might have compared. Some were simply too rough for the requisite ceremonialism. Others were too frail in physique. The snobbery, haughtiness, elitism and entitlement of those in between were repulsive enough.
Throughout his tenure, President Yadav has served the office with equipoise and grace. When he has acted seemingly outside his authority, as in reversing then-premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s decision to fire army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal, Yadav was able to project his action as being in the national interest.
Of course, the president has had his share of critics. Some in the Nepali Congress accuse him of political machinations within his former (and future?) party, needlessly picking sides in the acrimonious internal battles. Others have cited the president’s inability to rein in those close to him, be they family members or advisers.
What has struck Maila Baje most profoundly is the restraint Yadav has been able to maintain in his pronouncements. Anyone familiar with the words Yadav uttered during the factional skirmishes in the Nepali Congress or during the party’s battles against the monarchy in the past would recognize how hard holding back must be for the president.
Surely, we would have been in a greater mess had Yadav gone around shooting from all sides of his mouth in the way, say, his deputy does. That’s why it is important to take seriously what Yadav does say.
Just the other day, he insisted that he would not sign any constitution that he felt would lead to the division of the country. The statement did not quite kick up a firestorm perhaps because of the general euphoria that broke out over successive breakthroughs relating to the Maoist army and arms. Yadav’s assertion does, however, have important implications relating to the future of our political development.
Any constitution that may be promulgated by the May 28 deadline – full, partial or any other variant – undoubtedly will have its share of bitter critics. The issue of federalism alone will be hard to satisfy all the constituencies that have invested so much political energy in it.
Any hastily produced document just to meet the latest deadline might not be what Nepal needs right now. But can a ceremonial president, on his own, block something of such enormity an elected body has produced?
When King Birendra used a constitutional technicality to block a controversial citizenship bill voted on by parliament, he could do so with barely an outcry because he had public opinion on his side.
Yadav himself could restore Katuwal to office because even the leaders who Dahal thought he had on his side eventually sided with the president. (The people, of course, were wary enough of the prospect of an imperial prime minister with his own army.)
Were Yadav to block a constitution on the grounds he cites, it might satisfy many and alienate many others. For every voice bemoaning the possible disintegration of the country, there is another rejoicing in the prospect of real sense of belonging. How is Yadav going to straddle the ends?
More importantly, could he do so without stepping into a more assertive political role should the national situation so demand? Were he to step out of his ceremonial limits, might critics accuse him of harboring dictatorial intentions?
Yadav may enjoy international legitimacy in whatever he does, but what about those who press ahead with the principle of constitutionalism. (And, rest assured, the cause of constitutionalism would provide a broad umbrella to disparate groups opposed to the president’s action.)
What role would the Supreme Court – already energized by its recent spate of decisions – be asked to perform here? What about the military? Equally importantly, what about the armed groups who might have no shortage of external patrons should the geo-strategic dynamics shift precipitously.
So far, Nepalis have had the luxury of blaming individual leaders for much of the mess. It won’t be so easy when institutions are pitted against one another.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Majesty Of Meddle And Muddle

Two dramatically divergent Indian expositions of New Delhi’s approach, attitude and outlook on Nepal were on full public display this week.
Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad affirmed a steadfast policy of non-interference. “India and Nepal are equal and sovereign states, and in keeping with the spirit of non-intervention in each other’s domestic affairs, India does not have preferred electoral outcomes, preferred ruling arrangements or favourites among political parties,” the ambassador said in his address to a seminar.
Professor Sukh Deo Muni, a veteran Indian scholar on Nepal, gave a sharply contrasting view. Diving straight into a subject of current curiosity, Muni emphatically ruled out the possibility of the restoration of the monarchy. With far greater confidence, Muni predicted that a new constitution – in one form or the other – would be promulgated within the May 27 deadline.
Ambassador Prasad’s remarks do not merit too much space here. As his country’s top diplomat in Nepal, he could have said little else on such an emotive issue for Nepalis.
At one level, Professor Muni’s assertion, too, should not arouse too much attention. By most accounts, he was among the prime drivers on his side of the border of our 2006 political change. As such, he could scarcely acknowledge the failure of that enterprise.
Muni has spent a lifetime studying and explaining Nepal. There was a time he could be seen spending hours in and around Panchayat-era official media institutions, where many chiefs complained of being badgered by his incessant albeit probing inquiries. For some, it became natural to wonder whether there might have been more than met the eye to his role as an academic.
Years later, when Muni ended up serving as India’s ambassador to Laos, there were many Nepalis who speculated on the many calculations that might have gone on in avoiding his posting in Kathmandu.
Muni’s views on the Nepalese monarchy have changed with the times. His chapter “The Dynamics of Foreign Policy” in Nepal: An Assertive Monarchy, published in 1977, paid glowing tribute to King Mahendra’s practical achievements on the front, while recognizing the “evolutionary” contributions of B.P. Koirala.
In his 2009 book, India’s Foreign Policy: The Democracy Dimension, Muni gives a candid account of how India sought to overcome its monarchy-versus-Maoist dilemma, influenced no doubt by his own advocacy of turn Indian policy subsequently took. (One does sense in some of Muni’s recent pronouncements an abiding personal admiration for King Mahendra.)
In period since April 2006, Maila Baje understands that Muni has been under much pressure from powerful quarters in his country to explain how his analyses and assertions about the Maoists, particularly vis-à-vis their attitudes toward New Delhi, could have been so off base. In a sense, this is a do-or-die time for him.
The hubris with which he approached his mission this week has been breathtaking. He invoked the Indian government, bureaucracy and the people in opposing the restoration of the monarchy, almost expropriating to himself supernatural powers that even his mystical surname would barely entitle him to.
Apparently, Muni seems to know everything that transpired during the latest series of meetings between former king Gyanendra Shah and Indian leaders. Essentially, he seems to have read the mind of every personality and institution involved in every level of official deliberation on Nepal. And he seems to have read the mind of every Indian, religious, secular, culturally attuned or strategically minded. Indeed, whether the monarchy will ever be restored in Nepal is something that the country’s own domestic realities and its geo-strategic imperatives will determine – something the former king as well as the people fully understand.
What tops everything, however, is Muni’s assertion that a constitution of some kind will be promulgated within the deadline. That might be the case, but to what effect? At a superficial level, it would vindicate the stand taken by Muni and his ilk. But a constitution delegitimized by a dubious process unable to address an expanding sense of real and manufactured victimhood can hardly be to the benefit of Nepal or its neighborhood.
It is perhaps this realization deep down that explains Muni’s harsh words for our current political leadership.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Interim Constitution In Perpetuity

Just as tenacious doubters were beginning to reconcile themselves to the possibility of an abbreviated constitution being promulgated by the May 27 deadline, ethnic activists have fired their salvo. A full-throttled conflict would be inevitable, they say, if the exalted promise of federalism were to be tampered with in any way.
In case you missed it, the lack of consensus on the kind of federalism that would suit us best is at the heart of the realization that a partial constitution would be better than none.
Why not then, you may ask, promulgate a constitution that would encompass the different models of federalism in turn. If the ethnic variety turns out to be as unworkable as its critics say, the geographic variant could be adopted next. There are no limits to the number of amendments you could contemplate once the basic law is enacted. That way, the federalism debate, too, could persist. Maybe someone might think up just the right kind of model.
A trivialization of the task? Look at the broader picture. No matter how the constitution were to look – full or truncated – chances are that it would be greeted by a surfeit of bonfires. Many of the people who were part of the process will find it politically expedient to oppose the constitution in the most inflammatory form possible.
Perhaps, then, the smoldering fragments could provide the basis for further amendments. Take this out, put that in, in, say, six-monthly cycles. The Big Three could take collective leadership of a mechanism overseeing the changes.
Where would such a document draw its legitimacy from, you ask? The interim constitution, of course. That document was born to live until we spawned a formal constitution. With work still in progress, it would be imprudent to invalidate the interim statute, wouldn’t it?
Even by the standards of the general cockamamie going around, Maila Baje acknowledges, this approach sounds crazy. But it would sound less so once you considered the alternative. A full-fledged conflict among the various contenders would make the Maoist conflict look like a walk in the park. At least that was a battle between two clear and identifiable combatants with sharp objectives. (What was the last count of the number of armed groups active in the country, anyone?)
True, there is a bright side to renewed fighting. For one, the country would be able to recognize real grievances from the ones contrived on an industrial scale. Those prepared to fight the hardest and longest for their cause might not be the ones with the deepest convictions.
As we have learned from the Maoist and Nepali Congress insurgencies, external uncontrollable variables have to be factored in heavily. In the given circumstances, however, where the closest of the foreign hands have begun to tremble a bit, the ferocity of the fighting should be a sufficient pointer to who might prevail and how – and what the rest could do.
The obvious downside here is our collective traditional propensity to compromise midway, sometimes even settling on issues that were never part of the original objectives. But if compromise we must, what better way than to perpetualize the interim constitution?