Monday, July 30, 2012

Nepal And The ‘Other’ President

Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist seems to have brightened his political prospects considerably with just one meeting.
Last week Oli became the first Nepali leader to meet with Pranab Mukherjee, the newly elected president of India. Our political chatterati has made much of the perception that Mukherjee has remained the driver of New Delhi’s Nepal policy for close to a decade.
Indeed, during one of the tensest phases of the relationship, Mukherjee straddled the contradictions that have come to comprise India’s policy toward Nepal.
As minister of defense during King Gyanendra’s takeover in February 2005, Mukherjee was part of India’s military-national security establishment that counseled continued engagement with the palace.
Then, Mukherjee felt that New Delhi should not read too much into the Chinese arms supplies to the royal regime and most preferably consider it an aberration. The more important task was to ensure that Nepal’s raging Maoist insurgency did not inspire Indian adherents of the Great Helmsman into wallowing in a wider South Asian wasteland.
When the UN oil-for-food scandal claimed Foreign Minister Kunwar Natwar Singh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took over the portfolio briefly before bringing in Mukherjee. As foreign minister, Mukherjee took a 180 and espoused his new institution’s hardening posture of lining up the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance against the monarchy. Once that process was under way, Mukherjee took credit in an interview with Al Jazeera TV for having succeeded in democratizing the Nepali Maoists.
Could all this suggest that Mukherjee is a man easily molded by the institution he sits atop at a given moment? That perception would hardly comport with the accolades Mukherjee has been receiving for his keen political skills and administrative capabilities.
As to the first, Maila Baje clearly remembers the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in late October 1984. Her son, Rajiv, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, was away from the capital on a tour accompanied by then-finance minister Mukherjee.
On their flight back to the capital upon receiving the horrific news, according to reports published then, Mukherjee had spent much time explaining to Rajiv how he (Mukherjee) should be named Indira’s successor because of seniority and experience.
Given the political alignments prevailing in New Delhi, the suddenness of the turn of events, and the general course of developments following Indira’s younger son Sanjay’s death in a flying accident, Mukherjee might have just shut up. Perhaps his ‘political skills’ simply got the better of him.
As for administrative capabilities, it took Mukherjee another assassination to try to get back where he had left off. Throughout his premiership and subsequent mortal existence, Rajiv appeared to distrust Mukherjee. Yet a man of such vaunted administrative capabilities should have been able to claw his way back to the inner Congress core.
Even after Rajiv’s assassination, midway through an election that resulted in a Congress triumph, Mukherjee lost out. The key contenders for the premiership thought it prudent to bring back P.V. Narasimha Rao, whom Rajiv had packed into retirement, and resume their battles later.
During the wily Rao’s premiership, when there was a palpable effort to keep Rajiv’s widow Sonia at bay, Mukherjee started playing both sides, as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and briefly foreign minister. Once Sonia’s stars rose in 2004, Mukherjee carefully played the role of mentor to both the new face of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and Prime Minister Singh, a one-time protégé.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why Nepali politicians most susceptible to getting a thrill up their legs should back off a bit. Mukherjee is but one man – in Professor S.D. Muni’s recent words – in a “balance of forces among multiple stakeholders in India’s Nepal policy [who] are diverse and varied and their positions often mutually incompatible”.
For now, though, Mukherjee, like many of these stakeholders, must be watching with great interest emerging signs of Nepali public sentiment rising against Chinese interference in Nepali affairs.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Split Personalities And Scrappy Pragmatism

Like much of the nation, Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai concedes that his government has been a failure. Maila Baje, however, sees no reason to be taken in by this atypical act of admission from someone known for bigheaded aloofness. Far from blaming himself personally for the fiasco, Dr. Bhattarai complained that the times were simply unpropitious.
The sheer letdown our first Ph.D. prime minister personifies was becoming apparent long before the concluding ceremony of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) plenum on July 21, where he made the qualified acknowledgement. If anything, events there certainly propelled Dr. Bhattarai toward some candor.
Infuriated party cadres accused the prime minister of virtually selling Tribhuvan International Airport to India in an effort to prolong his stay in power. They also revived allegations of treason surrounding the BIPPA and other accords with New Delhi.
After almost being manhandled by a senior member of the party, close to chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, all Dr. Bhattarai could assure the assembly was: “Our war (struggle) with India and the US is continuing at another front. We will make no compromise on issues of nationalism.” (Translation: You need me as prime minister to save Nepal from foreigners, who I need to prostrate before to stay in office.)
Dr. Bhattarai can take solace in the fact that he is not the only Maoist leader whose stars came crashing. One irate party member, reputedly a Bhattarai loyalist, hurled a chair the once-feared party chairman.
Hobbled by relentless personal problems, Dahal still attempted to put on a brave face. In his address to the closing session of the plenum, he claimed full credit for the advent of republicanism, federalism, inclusive representation and secularism. Of course, that was not the place to see how all those are working for Nepal.
Superficially, Dahal, Bhattarai and the third member of the triumvirate – Narayankaji Shrestha – emerged from the plenum proffering a posture of unity. The trio, among other things, decided to forgo their luxurious lifestyles and donate their property to the party.
The Maoists’ decision to hold a general convention in mid-January is emblematic of their attempt to transform the organization into a mass-based democratic movement. That, as we have recently discovered, is a course of action the Maoists, or at least a significant section of them, have contemplated since 2002.
The democratic-peace theory is bolstered by the plenum’s decision to adopt peace and constitution as the party’s tactical line. The Maoists professed commitment to investigate allegations of financial irregularities, should it be sincerely implemented, could herald new transparency and openness in a party known for imperviousness and obfuscation.
Yet the festering divisions within the party, underscored during the plenum, casts a shadow on the scheduled general convention, which would be the first in 23 years. After all, the previous two efforts to do so faltered on Dahal’s reluctance to cede control of the party apparatus.
Dahal, furthermore, has undermined his credibility as an agent of transformation, within his party and outside, by almost flaunting his ability to widen the gulf between his words and deeds.
The establishment faction of the Maoists needs to become more persuasive about wants to represent, now that the ostensibly hard-line and obstructionist Mohan Baidya faction has gone in its own direction. The plenum did little toward that end. The persona Dahal had managed to build during the ‘People’s War’ and the power he exuded throughout the insurgency rested on the ideological and organizational base provided by men and women who are today in the Baidya group.
The pragmatism Dahal wants to pursue can now only come through working with Dr. Bhattarai and Shrestha, who have been steadily building their own fiefdoms. With Dahal and Dr. Bhattarai palpably weakened, what might Shrestha – someone who joined the party after it entered the peace process – do to strengthen his hand? Who else might step in to stake a claim for the leadership and upon what internal realignments? And at what cost to ideology and/or organization in a party that insisted it was different? As for the rest of us, did we think we would be asking these question so deep into such a supposedly historic transformative process?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Comrade Madhav Should Know Better

Madhav Kumar Nepal is an uncharacteristically angry man these days. Although the senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) is among the first to be ticked off each time former king Gyanendra makes a public pronouncement, our comrade seems extraordinarily outraged this time.
Indeed, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has made the perfunctory threat to withdraw the state privileges the ex-monarch continues to enjoy if Mr. Shah persisted in his waywardness. CPN-UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal, too, has been quite vocal against the ex-king this time around. (His contribution to the rewriting of history lies in absurd assertion that the then-king was on the verge of fleeing the country.)
Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Sujata Koirala of the Nepali Congress have tried to make their mark (for their own obvious personal reasons), but have failed to persuade their Nepali Congress party to take a stand on the Mr. Shah’s latest comments. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal seemed the most restrained in his reaction to the ex-king’s expressed desire to play the role of national guardian.
Comrade Madhav, too, seems to have mellowed a bit over the days. Having first categorically denied the existence of any agreement between the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and King Gyanendra to retain the monarchy, the former prime minister now acknowledges that their agreement was limited to the resurrection of the House of Representatives.
The comrade’s personal antipathy for the ex-king is understandable. After all, he had urged the palace to form an inquiry commission to probe the Narayanhity Carnage to shore up public faith in the institution (before reversing his agreement to serve on the panel the new king formed.)
Over the ensuing months, Madhav Nepal – at least according to the Maoists – would rush to the palace to brief the monarch on the ‘secret’ talks the left parties were holding with the then-rebels across the border in Silguri and Lucknow.
Even after the palace snubbed his petition to the monarch requesting to be appointed prime minister, Comrade Madhav declared ‘royal regression’ had been ‘half corrected’ and pushed his party into a coalition with Sher Bahadur Deuba’s faction of the Nepali Congress.
When King Gyanendra took over full control of the state between February 2005 and April 2006, Madhav Nepal ended up being the prominent leader incarcerated the longest. (Deuba, it must be recalled, was in detention on a corruption case.)
Madhav Nepal’s personal travails notwithstanding, common sense suggests that intrinsic to the SPA’s acceptance of a peremptory royal resurrection of parliament dissolved by a duly elected prime minister (an act endorsed by the Supreme Court) was acknowledgement of the continuation of the monarchy. But, then, common sense has long since been a commodity our political class gives ordinary people scant credit for.
No matter how you look back, ‘People’s Movement II’ was clearly aimed at ending autocratic monarchy laced with the hope of bringing the Maoists into peaceful politics. How the SPA, the Maoists and certain sections in India saw virtue in maintaining ambiguity in the text and in discouraging a joint SPA-Maoist 12-Point Agreement has been highlighted recently by Professor Sukh Deo Muni. But such machinations were not clear to the Nepali people when they took to the streets. Sure, there were anti-monarchy slogans raised during the public demonstrations. But they did not represent the thrust of the movement.
Yet this is not why Maila Baje believes Madhav Nepal should be careful while categorically ruling out return of the monarchy in any shape, manner or form. Impossibility, after all, is the last thing Madhav Nepal should be talking about, considering his own political trajectory.
Did Madhav Nepal ever contemplate dominating the CPN-UML the way he did for much of the party’s existence when founder general-secretary Madan Kumar Bhandari was alive?
Furthermore, did Comrade Madhav expect to become prime minister after he lost in both constituencies he contested during the elections to the constituent assembly in 2008?
And, above all, did Madhav Nepal expect to become a player in drawing up a new constitution after having failed so miserably in foreseeing the woes the 1990 document he helped draft would eventually face? (Let’s not even speak of Comrade Nepal’s complicity as leader of the opposition in defacing the latter part of Nepal’s 1991-2002 experience in parliamentary democracy.)
Eventually, the Nepali people will determine the future, as the former and would-be monarch himself clearly said during his television interview. In a saner world, Comrade Madhav himself would have recognized the absurdity of talking the way he is these days.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Spinning On A Convenient Contrivance?

When Mohan Baidya and Pushpa Kamal Dahal met over the weekend for their first one-on-one after the party split, the Maoist honchos ostensibly grappled with the greater difficulty of the managing the aftermath.
The two leaders discussed, among other things, ways of controlling clashes between their respective supporters in different parts of the nation. They also sought to resolve the raging dispute over the ownership of party offices.
The talks took place against an escalating war of words between the two Maoist factions. Baidya has ceaselessly accused Dahal and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai of surrendering to the diktats of the Indians, an allegation that has gone some way toward fraying the already uneasy ties between Dahal and Bhattarai.
Yet the two men of the Maoist establishment remain no less energetic in suggesting that the Baidya split was engineered by New Delhi and that the new organization is doing the bidding of the Indians. (The assertion that U.S.-based Revolutionary Internationalist Movement engineered the split draws Uncle Sam – and who knows who else – closer to the row.)
The rivals’ surrogates have been more ferocious in their rhetoric. Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’, general secretary of the Baidya-led party, accused the Dahal-Bhattarai combine of plotting to set a bounty on leaders of the new organization. Badal went on to equate Dahal and Bhattarai with Adolph Hitler.
Before that outburst, several members of the Dahal-led organization have indicated they might resurrect the ‘scandalous’ and ‘salacious’ charge against Badal the Maoists had hushed up years ago.
As the name-calling between the rival revolutionaries worsens, more and more Nepalis have begun wondering how they could have been so naïve as to expect the Maoists to escape that great bane of our politics called division and factionalism.
Our gullibility runs far deeper. The unity the Maoists appeared to project during their years of adversity turned out to be contrived. S.D. Muni, one of the original patrons of the Nepali Maoists, concedes that official New Delhi had begun wooing the rebels in 2002. The C.P. Gajurel and Mohan Baidya arrests in Chennai and Silguri respectively, according to Muni, were just outcomes of the Indian intelligence agencies working at cross-purpose.
Considering that this was also the time New Delhi increased military, diplomatic and political support to the royal regime to suppress the insurgency, Maila Baje believes India’s Maoist policy merely mirrored the broader double-game it has perfected as Nepal policy.
With the post-April 2006 juggernaut rolling ahead full steam, Baidya and Gajurel faced dwindling options. So they let the Indians project their release from detention as a quid pro quo for the Dahal-Bhattarai group’s acquiescence in peaceful and democratic politics. Regardless of the extent of their revulsion for the Dahal-Bhattarai enterprise, the Baidya-Gajurel group could not mount a formal split because of its disadvantageous numbers in the constituent assembly. Instead, they worked to increase their strength within the party malcontents for the denouement. With the demise of the assembly, the party eventually split.
Netra Bikram Chand, a key Baidya loyalist, insisted the other day that China was against the Maoist split. That was his way of warding off accusations that Beijing had somehow engineered the split. Yet Ai Ping, the visiting South Asia point man in the Chinese Communist Party, virtually conferred Beijing’s blessings on the Baidya group, complete with an invitation to the leader.
The geopolitical conundrum surrounding the Maoist split is reflected in one manifestation of the local variant. Baidya concedes the possibility of a party reunification. And Bhattarai and Dahal acknowledge the possibility of resurrecting the constituent assembly, a proposition that has adherents in the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-UML.
All this forces you wonder whether Dahal-Bhattarai group conveniently dissolved the constituent assembly only to facilitate the Maoist split, with the other major parties’ connivance, for some murky end. How much faster is your head spinning now?

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Restoration: The Story Continues

P.L. Singh has provided another emphatic boost to demands for the restoration of the 1990 Constitution. In a recent write-up, the eternally cheery former mayor of Kathmandu (and former member of parliament) offered a caustic analysis of how the purported solution to Nepal’s deepening turmoil was derailed immediately after it was set in motion in the spring of 2006.
Particularly significant was Singh’s articulation of how the agreement India mediated between the palace and the Seven Party Alliance (and the Maoists) was subverted almost the moment after King Gyanendra restored the House of Representatives. (Dismissing the royal move as illegal, P.L. Singh himself refused to take his seat in the restored legislature.) In effect, the 1990 Constitution, the instrument that was supposed to have put the political process back on track, ended up digging the ground for its own burial. If the irony of all that genuinely impressed the Maoists, it surely did not do so for too long. The former rebels had made too many promises to too many quarters that they simply could not have kept. Little wonder then that they considered the constituent assembly – the epitome of their “struggle” – any thing more than the parliament they had once denounced as the venue for foisting mutt meat as mutton on the people.
Today, Sher Bahadur Deuba, the prime minister to whom the Maoists so proudly submitted their 40-point charter before launching their ‘People’s War’ and later started negotiations for a safe landing, can barely suppress laughter while surveying the lives and times of key Maoist leaders.
Indeed, the federal republic the Maoists claim to have enshrined remains a fantasy. The monarchy, jettisoned in the name of popular aspirations that were never seriously articulated during the “19-day movement”, lives on in the nation’s consciousness. Deep down, Maila Baje feels, more and more Nepalis continue to recognize that they have that traditional institution as the last line of defense.
The Maoists have spoken from so many sides of their mouths on the monarchy that walking back from republicanism would seem rather easy for them. Where they will have less success is on the issue of federalism. Foreign governments and their non-state agencies stand discredited even among beneficiaries for having tried to steer the federalism movement toward amorphous albeit insidious ends.
With the monarchy no longer available to kick around, there has been more informed debate not only on the structural and proximate causes of accumulated discrimination but also on the range and nature of the victims. No community has a monopoly on grievances, real or exaggerated.
Moreover, leaders of specific communities clamoring the most for redress have come under scrutiny for their own role in perpetuating, if not entirely perpetrating, injustice. The debate has acquired such intensity in recent days that leaders like Pradip Nepal of the CPN-UML have begun to come out openly against the wisdom of federalism.
External drivers have become less enamored of the ongoing enterprise. Professor S.D. Muni, long considered a prime architect of India’s Nepal policy, has outed himself in a recent book chapter as a leading figure behind the 12-Point Agreement. Even he has been reduced to asserting that the change in India’s policy in 2005-2006 was a response to the existing balance of the principal forces that have remained central to New Delhi’s Nepal policy. Scarcely implicit in Muni’s assertion is the reality that the balance could change at any time and manifest itself anew.
Other external stakeholders are perhaps likely to review their posture in less conspicuous and more impenetrable ways. Once the general dynamics of external and internal realignments begin to emerge more clearly, the non-Maoist parties might find it easier to change their postures and rationalize them.
Within the Maoists, the rival factions might try to blame each other for the failure of their revolutionary agenda. Yet, during the last six years, ordinary Nepalis have had much more time to reflect on the march to a nebulous newness. They have become more competent in distinguishing between foreign assistance and intervention, between sympathy and subversion, and between goodwill and gibberish. And they are better able to judge the actions and intentions of domestic players within these external undercurrents.
As for the 1990 Constitution, the very existence of that document in the national psyche is bound to drive the discourse among advocates and opponents of restoration in the coming days. Whatever ultimately happens, the Maoists will have the most explaining to do.