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?