Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tentativeness… Here, There, Everywhere

Even after a major organizational split, both factions of the Nepali Maoists have managed to exude an aura of inconclusiveness around the whole affair. The fault lines, running as deep as they were, should have injected a sense of finality.
Mohan Baidya Kiran and Chandra Prakash Gajurel, the perennial malcontents, were in detention in India when the Maoist rebels and the Seven Party Alliance signed the 12-Point Accord in New Delhi in November 2005. Even before that, the two men were considered more anti-Indian than they were anti-palace.
When Baidya and Gajurel emerged in Kathmandu amid the hopey-changey ambience, they seemed to have accepted the new realities as a price for their freedom. But only grudgingly, as they instantly went out in search of new allies. Gajurel, as Maila Baje recalls, was quite candid about the comrades’ real intentions during what he mistakenly considered a closed-door meeting with Indian supporters during a visit to New Delhi later that year.
These ‘hardliners’ seemed to have attracted the Chinese, or at least an influential section of the mandarins up north. Having once denounced the Nepali Maoists as a stain on the memory of the Great Helmsman, Beijing seemed to have embraced Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal in a new tilt by encouraging him to visit Beijing before New Delhi as Nepal’s first elected head of government in half a decade.
But Dahal was prone to exaggerating, like most things else, his China connections. Who saw whom as more unreliable remained unclear, but Dahal ostensibly chose to throw in his lot with New Delhi.
More ruthless and regimented than the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML in meshing their ideological and illicit tendencies into an organized force, the Maoists managed to outfox the rest by forcing them to wonder whether their internal fractiousness was for real or merely a ruse.
Today, the Dahal-led Maoists are denouncing the Baidya group as tools of foreigners. Baidya loyalists in turn accuse Dahal of leading a political chaebol. The slurs balance out each other, engendering same-old-same-old smirks among long-time observers of Nepali politics. So when both factions spell out terms for reunification, the pressures on our collective facial muscles mount excruciatingly.
Yet something must have pushed Baidya toward his long-threatened split. Could Beijing be behind it? When an emphatic reporter posed this question to Ma Jiali, the prominent Chinese academic only seemed to expand the space for speculation.
You could hardly blame him. The neo-Maoists in Beijing, who probably would be the most promising allies for Baidya, are not in terribly good shape right now. They partially overlap with the ‘princelings’ as the campaign to succeed President Hu Jintao gathers pace.
The enduring mystery surrounding Bo Xilai and Zhou Yangkang leaves much to the realm of imagination for now. The political dimensions of the crises should become clearer after the 18th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party later this year when the new leadership line-up becomes more visible.
Reports from Beijing, however, suggest that the party congress might be delayed by a few months. Amid this flux, Beijing would not want to find itself having to respond to a new crisis on a volatile section of its periphery, much less engineer one.
The Indians, too, are in the process of a major transition. By personality and temperament, Pranab Mukherjee, the putative new president of India, is likely to be anything but ceremonial in his high office.
As the driver of India’s Nepal policy for decades now, he would be hard-pressed to cede that role. Mukherjee’s ascension in July – and the larger one he is expected to oversee, i.e., Rahul Gandhi’s – is more assured than the transition that may be evolving in Beijing. Logically – that is, if logic were trapped in a time warp – this would be the best time for India to strike to preserve its version of the Monroe Doctrine.
But the Indians and Chinese seem to have grown far more comfortable with each other in Nepal than with any third country. The latest personage to make this plain is Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, Indian ambassador in Kathmandu during the April Uprising. Much as Washington might want to pit the regional powers against each other, Beijing and New Delhi recognize the costs of any misstep now.
Nepalis must be able to juxtapose the well-known sources of tensions between their two neighbors with the $100 billion in annual bilateral trade they are set to start enjoying soon, not to speak of the common cause New Delhi and Beijing have been making on the international stage on crucial issues such as the environment and pariah nations.
Again, geo-politics is not a zero-sum game. The Indian intelligence agencies, particularly RAW, could be behind the Baidya split to foment the kind of confusion that at once perpetuates instability and affords official India much-needed plausible deniability.
The added incentive for India this time may be the arrival of a new American ambassador in Kathmandu. The last time Peter Bodde, recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Washington’s third ambassador in Kathmandu in five years, served in our midst, the CPN-UML had become the first democratically elected communist party leading a government at a time the United States was heralding the ‘end of history’.
The conspiracy theories going around then was that the Americans – and the wider West – sought to clip the wings of the UML by promoting a more radical communist organization. (For the record: during Bodde’s first tenure in Kathmandu, in the early 1980s, the American Embassy was finding ways to ward off Soviet influence in Nepal.)
The upshot: the Maoist split (and possible reunification), like the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (and its possible restoration), can best be understood within the tentativeness that our two neighbors have constructed as policy for now to check third countries.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Nepali Congress’ Struggle For Relevance

As the once-formidable Nepali Congress struggles to retain its relevance, Chakra Bastola, a prominent party leader and a former foreign minister, has succeeded in placing the organization’s travails in the wider perspective of Nepal’s geopolitical legacy.
In an extended interview with a newspaper, Bastola conceded that the Nepali Congress only grudgingly turned in favor of republicanism after the April 2006 uprising. But he did so not with any sense of shame. In explaining that turn, Bastola seemed to underscore how the imperatives of Nepali politics can conflict and reconcile with the exigencies of geopolitics.
To press his point, Bastola claimed that B.P. Koirala, every royalist’s enduring icon these days, was never a royalist. Indeed, as Maila Baje constantly harps in this space, the Nepali Congress under Koirala’s leadership, attempted to assassinate two monarchs, Mahendra and Birendra.
Even before that, on the eve of the 1950-51 revolution, during the party’s Bairganiya Conference, Nepali Congress youths led by Devendra Raj Upadhyaya pushed a resolution for the adoption of republicanism as the party’s official policy, should King Tribhuvan decline to side with the agitating democrats against the Ranas.
Over time, and amid great personal and political cost, Nepal’s precarious geopolitical realities forced B.P. Koirala to acknowledge the salutary effects of the Nepali Congress trying to work with the monarchy on matters of national interest despite the deep differences over where political power should ultimately reside. In effect, constitutional monarchy was an ideal whose virtue B.P. hoped to impress upon the palace through persistent and often perilous prodding.
B.P. did not live to see events bear out his beliefs, but he did not die a broken man. Nepal’s 12-year democratic experiment that began in 1990 was marked by a struggle between the palace and the Nepali Congress on how best to steer the country – in essence, B.P.’s work in progress.
Ever since the Nepali Congress abjured constitutional monarchy as a defining principle in the aftermath of the April 2006 uprising, the party has been left struggling for relevance. Given the sudden realignment of forces, the extreme left of the political spectrum was bound to be captured by the Maoists, leaving to the UML the traditional left-of center social-democratic space the Nepali Congress traditionally occupied.
Logically, the Nepali Congress should have shifted rightward. The absence of the monarchy precluded that, allowing the Rastriya Prajatanta Party-Nepal to grow in that space. As such, the Nepali Congress was left competing with the UML, while no less fractious was far better organized and ideologically attuned.
The Nepali Congress has reached a point where it must ponder the injury its abandonment of the monarchy has inflicted not only to the organization but also to the country large.
Days before Bastola’s interview, Bishwanath Upadhya, former chief of justice of the Supreme Court and the man who led the panel that drafted the 1990 Constitution, began an earnest process of reappraising the role of the monarchy. Particularly invigorating was Upadhyaya’s claim, made in the course of an interview with the BBC Nepali Service, that the Nepali monarchy could not be called anti-people, if one compared the experiences of other countries.
Those who insist that the country has moved beyond the point of recognizing the monarchy as anything but a relic of history must answer how it went on to be abolished when such a demand was not part of the explicit agenda of change in 2006.
Again, those who insist that the monarch was never the symbol and source of stability that it was made out to be must account for the dysfunction and degeneration that has occurred since its abolition.
Should the Nepali Congress, in light of these realities, confirm the validity of its decision to espouse republicanism, it must take the next logical step. It must envision and construct institutional processes to bolster national stability in an inherently volatile region.
Political parvenus like Sujata Koirala or Krishna Prasad Sitaula lack the background, temperament and aptitude to grasp the Nepali Congress’ ideological legacy and galvanize the party toward enduring relevance. The task would fall upon people like Prakash Man Singh and Bimalendra Nidhi, who saw their fathers build the organization against great odds, suffer incarceration and exile for their beliefs when the geopolitical ground shifted, and regain the initiative once the winds started blowing the other way, all the while unwavering in their principles and poise.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Let The Merriment Continue

It’s reassuring to see that our political leadership has returned to its spirited and playful mood. After all, the sky really did not fall after the constituent assembly died without producing a constitution.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal seemed to be in the bounciest mood of all when he prattled with zest and volubility the other day over how he took India for a double ride. First, his party took a firm stand in favor of identity-based federalism. New Delhi, according to Dahal, had been expecting the Maoists to support a constitution that contained no provision for federalism based on identity.
The second ride rolled on when, Dahal gushed, the Maoists defied the Indians by not supporting the imposition of an emergency order to prolong the constituent assembly’s term by six months.
A few days later, still in a frisky mode, Dahal rejected the notion that the Maoists had disbanded their once formidable fighting for virtually nothing. “The Nepal Army is in the grip of the Maoists,” Dahal asserted. Scary as that sounds, it’s probably safe to take that assertion as part of Dahal’s general cheerfulness.
From the other end of the communist spectrum, CPN-UML senior leader Madhav Kumar
Nepal, too, was in much jollity. In an interview with reporters, he conceded that he knew from the outset that the constituent assembly would end up being an albatross around the national neck.
However, he offered no explanation as to why he insulted the Nepali people by entering the assembly through a circuitous route after having been doubly defeated in the elections.
The assembled reporters did not seem terribly impressed by his articulation of the road ahead. One suggested how the mainstream parties could now rebut the monarchists when they sought a seat at the table. “A seat for a spent force?” Madhav Nepal retorted. “Then why don’t we also bring the Ranas, Mallas, Licchavis, Kirats and everybody else who came before them?”
Of course, that was before Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s public rally calling for the restoration of the monarchy, which dwarfed the earlier gathering organized by an alliance of mainstream and fringe parties opposed to Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s continuance in office.
The Nepali Congress, the most befuddled of the three in the post-April 2006 epoch, still managed to have its share of the amusement. The rival Sushil Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba factions are trying to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd by pushing bizarre ideas that have only convoluted the discourse. The party claiming to be Nepal’s only democratic formation now risks hemorrhaging its janjati flank.
Tempting as it might be to castigate the callousness of top national leaders during such extreme times, Maila Baje thinks we really need to cut them some slack. Two foreign eggheads, writing in The New York Times, blamed the post-monarchy leadership for wrecking Nepal and called for withholding aid to force them to see straight. That was too much for two other foreign brainboxes, who fired off a letter to the editor rebuking the original authors for ignoring the gains Nepalis had actually made. They specifically chided the authors for counseling aid suspension.
Such internecine battles suggest that Nepalis may be turning the tables on our alien interlocutors. When they got an opportunity, foreigners stepped in en masse with their irreconcilable formulations on religion, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the like that were not part of the original hopey-changey vision laid down in the 12-Point Agreement. (Of course, the shrewder of our politicos, like the Maoists, milked the foreigners to the hilt.)
Today, when foreigners – in their state and non-state incarnations – are counting the return on their investment, their shock is palpable. Nepali politicians, for their part, finally seem determined not to accept responsibility for things that were not of their doing. So, let the merriment continue.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Back To Where It All Began

The abject failure of the post-April 2006 enterprise has underscored the imperative for the country to return to the drawing board at the point where it all started.
That the crown was accepted as the part of the solution even then was evident in the reality that the 12-Point Agreement had not envisioned the abolition of the monarchy as a precondition for national salvation.
All three principal parties to that document – the Indian government, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoist rebels – may have expected tactical advantage from perpetuating some ambiguity over the course ahead.
Yet the ambiguity concerning the monarchy – to the extent there was any – dissipated when the SPA-Maoist combine accepted the House of Representatives restored by King Gyanendra as the starting point for their action. Everything that has happened in the country since vis-à-vis the monarchy was a result of sustained internal and external maneuverings, which, in Maila Baje’s view, only doomed the march toward a new Nepal.
The constituent assembly, which died an ignominious death on May 27, 2012, was already on life support for the last two years of its existence. The international community’s support for tentativeness under the ‘doctrine of necessity’ seemed to give the process enough political credibility to sputter along. It was tempting for the ruling class to dispense with notions of constitutionalism when Nepal lacked a constitution. But the goalposts were shifted so often that it stung our collective sense of decency.
What became all too apparent was that King Gyanendra’s invocation of Article 127 during his much-maligned direct rule stood on sounder constitutional footing. In retrospect, it became clear that the king lacked political legitimacy for his actions not because the crisis he confronted was somehow contrived but because democracy became a convenient cover for the domestic and external forces arrayed against him to seek to pursue their conflicting priorities.
To be sure, the accumulated grievances of exploitation and exclusion voiced by various communities were real. The Maoists exaggerated them to great effect and hurtled their way to the forefront of power. Once there, they had to machinate new gripes and grumbles, in which they were happily assisted by foreign quarters. When the time came to deliver, all the former rebels could do was try to speak from all sides of their mouths. The degeneration of the Maoists into just another ambitious, avaricious and acrimonious cabal was complete once they assumed power.
The mainstream parties pretended they could be the harbingers of change necessitated by the breakdown they themselves were part of. King Gyanendra took direct control of government beginning on October 4, 2002 because of the two main parties’ failure to live up to a constitution they had touted as the best in the world. To his credit, King Gyanendra took full responsibility for his failure, while many of those who assisted him them are still taking the easy way out by pleading powerlessness.
Doubtless, there will be strong resistance to any quest to involve the monarchy into the current national discourse. But their claims must be examined for what they are. Their basic contention that the institution has harmed – more than helped – Nepal has fallen flat amid the post-April Uprising debris. Their assertion that successive kings have been congenitally anti-democratic must now take into account their own role in the decline of democracy.
One of the seminal achievements of the post-2006 years is the scrutiny the foreign factor – in their state and non-government incarnations – has come under. Increasingly Nepalis seem disinclined to view them as innocuous partners oblivious to any cost-benefit calculations. With that knowledge, Nepalis are in a better position to accept with enduring gratitude the help they think will be to their benefit. Conversely, they can decline gratuitous advice and offerings with confidence and carefulness.
An abiding sense of nationhood has energized the discourse at the level that really matters to the point where those who advocate newness now have to prove the viability of their vision. People cannot be asked to be eternally forward-looking when all they see is a dark abyss.
The issue of federalism, legitimate as it may be, cannot be a panacea for our real and imaginary injuries. More importantly, we cannot divorce such nebulous federalism from our geo-strategic realities. True, our neighbors so far have been reticent about the fallout from our collective quandaries. We cannot be oblivious to those ramifications.
The questions today are not only about the Free Tibet movement/containment of China or cross-border terrorism/string of pearls theory. The rise of China and India has precipitated different responses among the traditional powers. Beijing and New Delhi recognize deep down how much they stand to lose if they lose any sense of perspective or proportion.
Nepalis can no longer wallow in the illusion that we are too small and insignificant players on the international stage to be talking about great power rivalries. For far too long, this sense of inadequacy has helped to narrow our vision and provided others space to maneuver.
Voices of separatism aligned with one neighbor or the other cannot be ignored or appeased. They should be brought to the table, discussed vigorously as any other issue regarding their relevance, durability and wider ramifications. Grievances can then be distinguished and addressed not only for their genuineness but also for the sustainability of solutions. The answer to our individual victimhoods cannot be collective victimhood. What a travesty it would be to continue to try to isolate the individual/institution that has made that case so consistently over the past six years.