Tuesday, January 31, 2012

State Of Our Peace War

For a people struggling to hope for the best, peace in pieces looks better than nothing. Still, you are forced to wonder: what exactly is it that we have been collectively seeking?
For the mainstream parties, the peace process was something to hit back at the monarchy with. The Maoists rebels, after a decade-long spree of murder and mayhem to impose Year Zero, went along because their principal external patron shared that sentiment, all the while hedging its bets.
Today, the international community is still anxious to see the integration of the state and former rebel armies as the most compelling evidence of peace. But their original resolve has fizzled. This comes at a time when fewer and fewer ex-fighters seem to consider that as a prerequisite to peace.
The human rights wings of the international community want to see that part of their agenda on the front-burner, something their cousins in the non-state sector are far more incendiary in asserting. Words like justice and reconciliation would have retained their sonorous ring if the truth of it all had not kept shifting so swiftly.
Over half a decade later, a chastened but still bickering Nepali Congress wants the Maoists to prove their commitment to the democratic process, despite the fact that the voters validated those credentials by electing them the largest party. True, that mandate was not eternal. But then there is little else to go on.
Even then, the Nepali Congress wears a far more substantive aura than the UML, which does not seem to know what it wants from the ex-rebels. Yet it cannot resist proclaiming that it is the only party that can drive the nation.
The Indians wanted the Maoists sidelined because they had envisaged the ex-rebels merely as something that would propel the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) protests beyond Ratna Park. The SPA’s subsequent performance fell far short of New Delhi’s expectations, while the ex-rebels’ geopolitical drift proved intolerable.
The mainstream parties may have succeeded in pulling the Maoists to their own level of ordinariness. But they did little to foil the ex-rebels’ overtures to Chinese pragmatism. Beijing, which once helped the palace and the parties in their effort to crush the rebels, today wants the Great Helmsman’s local offspring to head a broad patriotic front. In response, New Delhi is fanning the factional battles within the Maoists.
The Americans want the ex-rebels to maintain equidistance between the regional behemoths and have been extending a lateral hand in all directions. The Europeans, Russians, Japanese, Pakistanis, Arabs are all staking their claims in the emerging dynamics.
The international left is more interested in peddling such pet issues as homosexuality and abortion – not to mention that perfect watermelon, environmentalism – as the defining characteristics of Nepal’s newness over
everything else.
The global right is not only resisting with full force, but the evangelical variant also wants to spread the Good News in such a way that there is no Second Going.
And still we are at a loss. What do Nepalis want?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dr. Bhattarai And Our Strategy For Survival

Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is getting grief from across the spectrum for having suggested that Nepal risked being merged into either China or India if it failed to redefine its geo-strategic self-interest.
Some have attributed pure diplomatic immaturity to the premier’s assertion. Others see a pronounced albeit misguided boldness in his attempt to contend with both powerful neighbors at the same time. Others still see a sense of insecurity transformed into a ploy to prolong his tenure in power.
Regardless of the motive(s), Maila Baje feels Dr. Bhattarai has made a positive and much-needed contribution to the national discourse. If such forthrightness had not come from the man on the top, it might not have left us scratching our heads with the intensity we are today.
Ever since Nepal – in the eminent historian Father Ludwig Stiller’s words – “passed definitely from the status of an insignificant state to that of a power in the Indian subcontinent”, stopping the juggernaut entailed utmost urgency for Qing China and British India. And this consisted of more than military means. As Nepal festered in domestic turmoil after its military defeats by China and British India, the two empires perpetuated their respective narratives in which Nepal was part of their historical inheritance. Manchu emperors, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong all claimed Nepal as part of territories China lost to western imperialism.
To be sure, Nepal’s treaties with the People’s Republic of China have abrogated all past claims of Nepali vassalage to the Middle Kingdom and precluded the possibility of any resurrection of irredentist claims. But the historical and cultural legacies that feed the narrative are still very much alive among the Chinese, whose memory is legendary for its length in time.
Indians with a penchant for history have similarly been puzzled by the fact that Nepal managed to remain out of the formal British empire despite the East India Company’s decisive victory in the war. Indeed, if the Chinese shadow had not loomed so large on Governor-General Francis Rawdon-Hastings’ considerations before and after the Sugauli Treaty, the notion of a “limited war” would not have not existed. But for the Indians dominating the political security establishment in New Delhi, it is nonetheless intriguing that states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka – so distant from their version of Indianness – should be part of India but not Nepal.
As Nepalis continued to bicker, irrespective of the political system in place, this contested realm of overlapping orbits deepened among the Chinese and Indians. During times of peace, the fallout for us seems to have been calmer. During periods of tensions, greater convulsions have occurred. Sometimes, events have moved so fast that their impact on us has become quite inexplicable. The July 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship New Delhi signed with the Rana regime, for instance, was made utterly redundant merely by October that year, when Chinese communist troops moved into Tibet. A little over six months after Mohan Shamsher Rana thought his regime had attained some security vis-à-vis independent India, the Rana regime receded firmly in the dustbin of history. Not without the incongruity of the same Mohan Shamsher having become the first prime minister of democratic Nepal.
At other times, regional events have proceeded with greater placidity. With the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India in March 1959, Nepali democracy had virtually run its course – even before Nepal’s staggered first national elections had been completed.
For thirty years, the opacity and closed nature of the partyless system provided our two neighbors the kind of equilibrium they needed to calibrate their relationship. Whether Nepalis themselves would have volunteered to choose between full-fledged democracy and a sense of nationhood in the international community is debatable. That King Mahendra pushed us toward the latter course out of any consideration other than reinforcing his rule continues to be hotly debated. So is King Birendra’s Zone of Peace Proposal, which was prefaced by his 1973 interview with Newsweek that Nepal, consisting of three districts appertaining beyond the Himalayas, was not technically a subcontinental nation. King Gyanendra’s emphasis on developing Nepal into a transit hub between the two Asian giants continues to stir jeers of derision. Yet the Zone of Peace proposal has been gaining new interest, while the post-monarchy leadership has been touting the transit-hub model. If you really look for it, there is even a grudging admiration for King Mahendra’s notion of nationhood among his fiercest critics.
Put differently, Nepalis seem to like the way the country has survived in the international community with a distinct identity. Would the same have been achieved through the path of unshackled democracy and development? Probably. But the Cold War history of Asia, Africa and Latin America leaves us less sanguine. Other developing countries may have been liberated following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War that really matters to us has never really receded.
Our unrelenting march towards national newness has been marred by a lack of clarity on things that really matter. Manifestations of this contested realm of overlapping orbits, Maila Baje, feels will become more apparent in the period ahead from both our neighbors. By illuminating our geo-strategic vulnerability in so stark terms, Dr. Bhattarai has permitted Nepalis of all ideological persuasions to ponder a new – to borrow a worn but still worthy phrase – strategy for survival. It is only with life, after all, that liberty and the pursuit of happiness can follow.

Monday, January 16, 2012

China Plays The Nepal Card

One striking aspect of Premier Wen Jiabao’s abbreviated visit to Nepal was his professed expectation that Nepal’s relations with India would continue to grow in the days ahead.
To be sure, the assertion was revealed to the public indirectly. But since it has not been contradicted, the sentiment can be assumed to be one both Beijing and Kathmandu want disseminated in the aftermath.
At one level, you could argue that such a candid expression of goodwill on Wen’s part would be conducive to boosting the kind of stability that has eluded Nepal for a long time. Moreover, no country would question another’s sovereign right to conduct relations with a third nation as it wished.
And have not we heard countless Indian leaders go on the record that they were entirely satisfied with Nepal’s growing relations with China?
The Chinese have been particularly adept in transforming this accepted practice of international behavior into a tool of foreign policy. It is not hard to see how the longer the Indians and others are preoccupied with deciphering the motives and intentions of the Chinese in Nepal, the better it is for the mandarins up north.
You do not have to be an incorrigible cynic to see the depravity inherent in Beijing advising a government led by a party that has so strenuously flaunted its northern tilt with abandoned while spewing anti-Indianism for several years now to pursue greater ties with India. One can only imagine the heartburn among the hardest liners among the Mohan Baidya camp.
The circumstances and schedule of Wen’s visit amply underscore that it was one the visitor was anxious to make. That he was intent on doing so to send a message to audiences beyond Nepal was equally clear. Normally, visiting Chinese dignitaries have included Nepal in a wider regional itinerary or in terms of countries with which they believe they share civilization or traditional ties. From Beijing’s perspective, it suffices that the visit took place at all.
The pledges of Chinese assistance that made international headlines may be of limited purposes here. Foreign assistance that comes with no strings attached – touted as the singular tenet of Chinese benevolence – tends to cuts both ways. The donor can delay projects or disbursements or quietly pull out altogether on grounds that may not be anticipated or often explicable to the recipient.
What Nepalis and others should perhaps focus on is the basis for pursuing bilateral relations that Wen’s visit has provided to the next generation of China’s leadership, which is to begin ascending power at the party congress later this year.
Many key factions – including the ‘princelings’ (scions of former PRC leaders and officials) and the ‘neo-comms’ – are likely to bring a neo-Maoist approach to the helm over the ensuing years as they continue to dominate the levers of power. The Communist Youth League led by President Hu Jintao is unlikely to be able to challenge any broadening of such an alliance. The voice the People’s Liberation Army has acquired in China’s policies concerning its periphery has been ringing a disproportionate echo on matters concerning Nepal.
Those dwelling on – and denigrating – Nepal’s brazen flaunting of the so-called China card always sought to deny the fact that any game by definition requires a full-fledged partner willing to play on the established terms. Today those critics find themselves forced to contend with the meaning and motives of China’s Nepal card.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Fraternity’s Fervor In Self-Defense Flippancy

Leaders of the Big Three were always capable of charming us with their small chatter. The chunks Maila Baje could collect over one 48-hour period last week were truly splendid.
Nepali Congress president Sushil Koirala asserted that his party had done nothing to hurt the country. The CPN-UML’s K.P. Sharma Oli claimed that the current crop of leaders was keeping Nepalis in the dark in the name of fostering change. The Maoists’ C.P. Gajurel, who is becoming increasingly acerbic in some of his public pronouncements, called his party chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a traitor.
Sushil Koirala’s comment came against the backdrop of the autocracy allegation leveled against him by party dissident-in-chief Sher Bahadur Deuba. For someone who feels he stood up rather heroically to Girija Prasad Koirala, Deuba certainly cannot afford to let Sushil get the better of him. The party president is entirely justified in explaining his side of the story.
But Sushil took things a bit too far. Forget the specifics. A party that claims to have led three valiant campaigns to bring democracy was unable to preserve it twice and may be on the verge of failing a third time. How much longer can the nation put up with mere intentions, putting aside actual performance?
In including himself among the ranks of politicians who have failed the country, Oli is probably projecting himself as a worthy successor to Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. Given the beating Dr. Bhattarai’s personal image has taken during his tenure at the helm, any politician can expect to bask in the soft idolatry of lowered expectations. But Oli could have at least tried to shed more light on the kind of darkness he believes his tribe has cast on the country. He has, after all, been at the center of some of the most opaque deals sullying the Nepali political firmament.
Gajurel’s labeling of Dahal as a traitor is reminiscent, at least superficially, of the travails of another Comrade Pushpa a generation ago. Yet the accusers of Pushpa Lal Shrestha themselves could not ward off the same allegation from other comrades. Gajurel, who ostensibly wants to see Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal in Dr. Bhattarai’s seat, has too much of his skin in the game not to recognize how subjective the T word can be.
In grappling with the mechanics and machinations of the parliamentary system they once condemned as despicable as the monarchy, Badal or, for that matter, Mohan Baidya have diluted their rhetoric of a full Maoist takeover of the Nepali state. Granted, they have offered boisterous protests against perceived pernicious compromises Dahal and Bhattarai have made in the name of peace. Still, there may be some in their ranks who would be equally prone to accuse the hardest of the Maoist hardliners of having abandoning the cause.
In reality, our politicians have taken the easy way out. They are caught in a dance the real choreographers are directing on the fly. By demonizing their collective fraternity, they manage to keep the people as well as the puppeteers at bay. We’re all having fun in our own ways. Just don’t lose your penchant for springing up compromises when it comes to the crunch.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Holding On To Our Fragmenting Selves

Here we are welcoming the new year once again arguing over whose sense of injustice among us is more legitimate and why.
The Supreme Court order staying the proposed recruitment of Madhesi youths in the Nepal Army has fueled a familiar but infinite debate. The president (who is also the supreme commander of the national army), vice-president, deputy prime minister (who is also defense minister) are madhesis, yet some in that community still can’t quit complaining of how they are the victims of internal colonization. The other side is left wondering who quantifies how much must they must cede to prove their bona fides.
In this emotive atmosphere, it’s perhaps useless to keep harping on what really constitutes being a madhesi or a pahadi. The larger issue is looming ominously. The ever-expanding space available for articulating our grievances has unleashed ceaseless cries of marginalization. We did not need bahuns and chhettris rallying for their rights to recognize that we have always been a nation of minorities. As such, we cannot escape consensual existence.
Since the unity-in-diversity credo has been discredited as a legacy of an oppressive past, the search is on for an alternative model that fosters a genuine sense of commonality. Unfortunately, none seems available – at least one that can satisfy all aspects of our continually fragmenting selves. An alliance of several groups can project a majority for a while but the fault lines have been running too deep to make it sustainable. It becomes easier for everyone instead to define and decry that as a brazen display of political opportunism.
In our quest to remake the future as far removed from the past, our sense of victimhood is also becoming pernicious. Class, religion, ethnicity, caste, region and sexual orientation – not to speak of political ideology – have provided fertile ground not only for the magnification of gripes but also for their outright manufacture.
This intensifying sense of injury tends to rationalize every move. In global terms, we have a legislature that is far too bloated relative to our population, but we put up with it because we wanted to be inclusive.
As long as the money keeps pouring in from abroad, we have no problem subjecting ourselves to all manner of experimentation. But that has not stopped creating new contexts of perceived marginalization. When every death in the public square acquires a political content and is deemed worthy of declaration of martyrdom, politicians cannot resist pandering to the people.
Maybe this whole business of endlessly extending the constituent assembly is what keeps alive the myth called the peace process. The political establishment was mystified by the Supreme Court’s refusal to register its petition seeking a review of the justices’ verdict on the tenure of the constituent assembly. It was easy for us to dismiss the temerity of the politicians. Yet what we may really have to fear is the day the assembly actually has to produce a constitution that some of the drafters will likely find unacceptable right away.
It’s hardly a thought relishing for a year already known for its dire predictions, but maybe Nepalis haven’t fought our internal battles honestly enough to energize any genuine quest for peace.