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.