Saturday, September 29, 2012

Someone To Do Our Dirty Work?

In calling for a ‘liberal dictatorship’ that could save Nepal from impending catastrophe, historian Satya Mohan Joshi ostensibly spoke for countless compatriots. Such sentiments have become commonplace during casual conversations and in online chatter but do not yet command commensurate coverage in the media. It will take more of the likes of the nonagenarian academic to keep that quest in the headlines.
When an exasperated interviewer questioned whether his prescription did not represent a contradiction in terms, Joshi cited King Mahendra’s record as an example. Implied in Joshi’s remark was the fact that democracy was an annoying distraction to substantive action.
This is not as outrageous a concept in this day and age as it might sound. Even in the world’s most advanced democracy, some people have started to look enviously at the ease with which leaders in China can get things done. (How many times, after all, has Thomas L. Friedman, the respected foreign affairs columnist of the equally venerable New York Times wistfully wondered how much more President Barack Hussein Obama could have achieved had he had the ‘flexibility’ of a President Hu Jintao?)
Just because Joshi cited King Mahendra and because his son, the last Nepali monarch, has been drawing record crowds during his regional tours does not necessarily mean the monarchy should be the focus of our attention here. (In any case, Maila Baje finds it hard to imagine a scenario where a restored monarchy would manifest itself in an authoritarian incarnation.)
Since Nepalis have already experienced an oligarchy and a non-party regime, this new dictatorship would probably have to come from someone who has total organizational control, who has leadership of a coercive force such as the military or who has a powerful and dynamic personality that could simply attract others.
Girija Prasad Koirala, Nepal’s closest example of democratic authoritarianism, could not go too far. Military rule could be a novel experiment in Nepal, given that the armed forces have never directly run the country. Or someone could just emerge in some form or the other and begin proving his or her abilities by getting the job – at least a lot of it – done.
But we must consider the other side of the coin first. What do people demanding a liberal dictatorship actually envisage? Of course, benevolent dictatorship is a form of government in which an authoritarian leader exercises political power for the benefit of the whole population rather than exclusively for his or her own self-interest or benefit or for the benefit of only a small portion of the population. But will Nepalis have the patience to put up with such a dictator once the welcome wears off?
A people who could rise up against a monarch who was barely halfway through the three-years he asked for to set thing right remain sullen as the successor political class failed to complete their job in twice the time they were allotted. What has really stopped us from organizing a massive uprising for the promulgation of the constitution? Some congenital collective perpetual oppositional proclivity?
If we are looking for someone who will do our dirty work for us on ill-defined terms and a perilous tenure, we might better recognize right away the elusiveness of that liberal dictator.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wider Dimensions Of National Reconciliation

His voice tends to be muffled in the cacophony that passes for serious deliberation in the Nepali Congress, but when he does speak, he forces you to sit up and listen.
When Dr. Shashank Koirala, son of Nepal’s first elected prime minister B.P. Koirala, announced a few years ago that he was entering politics, many of us expected him to go far. How naïve we were.
In a field already crowded by Koirala scions, the Nepali Congress also had no shortage of political parvenus that had hitched their wagons elsewhere. If B.P.’s legacy was what we expected to drive Shashank political trajectory, we should have known better. Today’s Nepali Congress remembers B.P. perfunctorily once a year. His brothers’ offspring have arrogated to themselves the Koirala mantle and want very little to do with the most illustrious member of the clan.
Yet Shashank, like his father, persists in unconventional ways. A few years ago, he suggested publicly that a new constitution was being prepared outside Nepal. This time, Shashank has expostulated his views across a wider canvas, linking the issues of federalism and religion to our geopolitics. And he has done so by boldly comparing the politics of his father and his father’s ostensible arch-nemesis, King Mahendra with those of the present-day rulers.
There was much more that united these two great men of a bygone generation than conventional wisdom would lead us to believe. King Mahendra’s seminal experience occurred during his months in exile in New Delhi with his father in 1950-1951, where he observed the maneuverings unfolding against Nepal in the name of change.
Today, based on the limited declassified material available, we have a better understanding of how wide apart the Indian and British/American governments stood on matters unfolding in Nepal. It was fortunate for our independence and sovereignty that a toddler prince was left behind in Kathmandu bear the crown of a sovereign nation. A slight misstep here or there and who knows how Nepal would look on today’s political map.
That Nepal succeeded in remaining outside the Indian union so riles one class of today’s Indians that they are still feverishly searching for ‘evidence’ to back the long-held canard that King Tribhuvan had offered to merge Nepal with India.
The political compromise of 1950-1951 represented a turning point in B.P.’s political evolution. Although he led the Nepali Congress in the Rana-Congress coalition, he was acutely aware of New Delhi’s attempt to relegate the Nepali Congress to the junior-most status in the tripartite experiment. He found himself ‘tricked’ into pushing for the resignation of Prime Mohan Shamsher Rana only to find himself out of power for the next eight years.
As prime minister in 1959, B.P. vision for Nepal was scarcely that different from King Mahendra’s, if you put aside the issue of democracy. With Tibet issue heating up, the Sino-Indian dispute flaring and the Soviet juggernaut rolling on, Nepal had been caught in the vortex of the Cold War. That these regional and international machinations could not be pursued out in the open was well understood by those foreign governments who had advised King Mahendra not to hold the elections at all. If the Indians, Chinese, Americans and Soviets wanted to pursue their respective quests, they had to be able to do so in the dark, not in partnership with a dynamic elected prime minister.
B.P.’s exasperation after his last meeting with Nehru and his seeming apathy in the midst of rumors of an impending royal coup bespeak a realization that he had lost out to regional and international forces. In his prison diaries and subsequent publications and pronouncements, B.P., contrary to his party colleagues and much of the royal opposition, was careful not to blame King Mahendra entirely for the subversion of the democratic process. The prevailing geopolitical dynamics, in B.P.’s view, were what they were. Still, he believed he could bring King Mahendra and his successors around to the intrinsic value of democracy to Nepal’s well being. (In terms of international powers, it was immensely significant that B.P. was the least critical of the Chinese.)
King Mahendra, for his part, was always effusive in his praise of B.P., even while he ordered the former premier’s incarceration for eight long years. If Nepal ever had a prime minister the country could be proud of, the monarch often asserted, it was only B.P.
The substance of King Mahendra’s geopolitics during the partyless Panchayat years was a virtual continuation of B.P.’s, be it on the urgency of maintaining equidistance between India and China or exercising Nepal’s independent international options by, among other things, building relations with Israel, a new nation shunned by both our giant neighbors.
King Mahendra, Maila Baje feels, must have felt that keeping B.P. under royal lock and key would prevent India – as B.P.’s would-be host in exile – from deploying him as a tool of destabilization in the guise of democracy promotion.
When B.P. was finally released from prison in 1968, it was Surya Bahadur Thapa, with his known pro-Indian proclivities, who intimidated the former premier into exile. Once across the southern border, B.P. was cold-shouldered by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and learned his lessons well. Although he continued to up the ante against the royal regime, India’s machinations in the chain of events that led to creation of Bangladesh spurred behind-the-scenes efforts toward reconciliation with King Mahendra. The monarch’s unexpected death in Bharatpur in 1972 shut the door on that prospect.
While the Nepali Congress persisted with its anti-palace activities during King Birendra’s early reign, B.P. saw a repetition of India’s conspiratorial policies in the events leading up to its annexation of Sikkim. A virtual prisoner of the Indian state, B.P. chose to return to Nepal in 1979 having formally articulated his national reconciliation policy. It was scarcely accidental that people like Surya Bahadur Thapa would call for his execution. Instead, King Birendra permitted him go abroad for medical treatment and B.P., true to his word, returned home to answer the sedition charges awaiting him.
To cut a long story short, B.P.’s national reconciliation policy was much more than a blueprint for compromise between the monarchy and the Nepali Congress. It represented a way in which Nepal could reconcile its perilous geographic position and with its ability to exercise its sovereign international option regardless of the changes in time or circumstance. Shashank can only be commended for articulating that reality so succinctly.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Confirmation, Not Cop-Out

Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, President Ram Baran Yadav finally erupted the other day.
“I am a creature of the interim constitution that you all prepared,” the president reportedly snapped during a meeting with the top leaders of four leading political parties. “If you cannot respect that office, take whatever decision you want to regarding the fate of this institution.”
Ever since the demise of the constituent assembly, before it could complete its assigned task of producing a new constitution, leaving Nepal in a vacuum, the people’s eyes have turned to the president.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, facing mounting criticism for having led the country to the brink, contends that the head of state has no right to interfere with the status quo. Opponents of the incumbent government clamor that President Yadav is constitutionally obliged to sack Dr. Bhattarai’s government and are now growing impatient that he may be deepening the disaster by failing to act.
What can the president realistically do? Who does he really have to back him? A ceremonial head of state taking over the reins of power now cannot be construed as being anything different than the much-maligned royal interventions of October 4, 2002 or February 1, 2005, can it?
One may argue that the president, unlike the erstwhile king, is a symbol of modernity that represents a modicum of popular legitimacy. But does President Yadav really have the power to withstand the fallout any form of direct action would surely engender? Even if he could count on the military, police and bureaucracy, would they alone be able to sustain the course?
The Maoists may be a divided lot, but they still can rock the streets. The opposition leaders that are egging President Yadav on to do something will likely be among the first people to criticize him if things do not turn out to their liking.
The international community would be hard-pressed to go out of its way to endorse a controversial presidential intervention at this time without greater clarity about the legitimacy of the institution vis-à-vis the premiership. In many ways, foreign powers also are responsible for creating today’s mess. Even if they own up to breaking the product, would they be ready to own it?
India has never ceased giving mixed signals, while the Chinese are happily letting out all indications. The Americans are wooing the Maoists they once so assiduously worked to crush, while the Europeans are still in damage-control mode after their overreach on the issues of federalism and secularism.
For the distant powers, talk of restoring the constituent assembly or holding fresh elections works just fine, until there is some clarity in the approaches of Nepal’s two immediate neighbors. Grappling as they are with their own internal political issues, neither behemoth is likely to tip the scales right away.
In this situation, the president seems to have done his homework well. Saying that he did not expect the parties defying the constitution to uphold the dignity of the office of the president, President Yadav told the assembled leaders that he would be very happy if they took ‘any decision’ regarding the fate of his office.
Far from being a cop-out, Maila Baje thinks President Yadav’s words serve to underscore the timidity and tentativeness underlying the glorified effort to reinvent Nepal.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

RPP-N And Our Last Line Of Defense

The much-hyped unification process launched by the three parties dominated by former panchas has come to a juddering stop, at least for now. A breakthrough was considered imminent this time because much of the optimism seemed to be coming from the so-called ‘republican ex-panchas’, i.e., Surya Bahadur Thapa’s Rastriya Janashakti Party (RJP) and Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).
At one point during the negotiations, Kamal Thapa’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) was even reported to have abandoned its agenda of restoring the monarchy in order to facilitate the unity.
Now S.B. Thapa is being blamed for scuttling the unification by, among other things, expelling party general-secretary Keshar Bahadur Bista, who was active in the negotiations. But you cannot really blame the wily old man. He must have so badly wanted to believe that the RPP-N’s interest in unification far outweighed its affinity to the crown.
Maila Baje finds the republican panchas in a deep identity crisis. To be fair, the RJP and RPP opposed the royal takeover of February 1, 2005, seeking to project themselves as centrist democratic parties. But that was not enough for the rest of the country to consider them the equivalents of the Nepali Congress or the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist.
Towards the twilight of his life, Surya Bahadur Thapa may have sought to build a legacy. If B.P. Koirala, who was so vicitimized by the palace, could remain a monarchist until his last breath, why could not a man patronized by the palace be a republican? The problem is, no one believes S.B. Thapa. For all his personability, the man is far too impervious politically.
Rana in recent months has become less confident of the real end of the Nepali monarchy. Of course, when your survival – political and personal – depends on disbursement of protection money, there are few things you can take for granted.
Kamal Thapa’s course is an honorable one, in no small measure because he sees no reason to make apologies for his political past. As home minister during the royal regime, he has taken responsibility for the excesses committed under his watch. He could have taken the easy route and blamed the king for the failure of that experiment. Instead, the campaign to restore Nepal’s monarchy and Hindu character gives the RPP-N a distinct identity.
The monarchy’s return is not something that can be ruled out or ruled in. If it is restored, it will be through the will of the people, expressed in some form. (Former king Gyanendra Shah himself has signaled as much.)
More importantly, the people’s desire for such a return will be rooted not in any great national salvation plan they expect the crown to possess, but because of the systematic erosion of what Nepal had acquired under the monarchy.
History tends to obscure the bad and amplify the good. When the average Nepali looks back – through personal or secondary experience – the dark tends to be exorcised. The national political discourse, admittedly, runs from political exigencies, but they ultimately have to succumb to the people’s desires.
Nepalis have stunned the world by their resilience. In the midst of constant experimentations, sheer abandonment of constitutionalism and proliferation of platitudes, they have not lost hope. There may be many reasons for this national trait. One certainly is the fact that the monarchy remains alive in the national consciousness.
History and tradition have provided a last line of defense, a conviction symbolized in the RPP-N’s political platform. Should we really expect the party to abandon it?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Reading Baburam In Tehran

When Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai departed for Tehran leading the Nepali delegation to the summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it finally seemed like he had begun to walk the walk.
Having penned an impassioned op-ed in a leading daily days earlier on the need for Nepal to pursue a foreign policy that genuinely served the national interest, Dr. Bhattarai faced an immediate test.
The Americans did not want him to go to Iran, desiring that Nepal leave its participation at the 16th summit at a lower level. Clearly, the greater the number of heads of state or government who stayed away from Tehran, the better it would be for Washington’s decades-long bipartisan campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic.
Nevertheless, Dr. Bhattarai was under tremendous pressure from the other side, too. India, which has maintained its own extensive relationship with Iran seemingly without undermining New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Washington, wanted to see Dr. Bhattarai in Tehran.
Since Nepal, as a founding member of the NAM, would ordinarily have been expected to attend the summit at the highest level, the Indian angle did not assume much prominence or controversy.
In his speech at the summit, Dr. Bhattarai generally reiterated Nepal’s traditional stands on international issues. He spoke of the need for forging a new global economic order based on equitable distribution of the available resources in the world. “We in Nepal are in favor of open, rules-based, equitable, predictable and non-discriminatory trading as well as financial and monetary systems,” he said.
The prime minister also urged the delegates to commit to make NAM “a voice for the voiceless and a power for the powerless” – hardly a departure from traditional Nepali foreign policy tenets. In signing on to the Tehran Declaration, in which the NAM countries agreed that a nuclear energy program for peaceful purpose is the inseparable right of a nation, Dr. Bhattarai, like the other signatories, reiterated common sense.
Dr. Bhattarai, in his own words, had said he was traveling to Iran to project and promote Nepal’s active nonaligned policy to the world. By the time he returned home, however, we learned that he might not have quite achieved that.
At the center of the latest controversy to hit Nepal’s most-educated premier are the circumstances surrounding his meeting with his Indian counterpart. Dr. Bhattarai disappeared for over an hour for what he later told reporters was a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Manmohan Singh. Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a fellow vice-chairman of the prime minister’s party, had no prior intimation of the meeting. The Indian prime minister, it later emerged, had his complement of advisers and aides.
Although Dr. Bhattarai briefed reporters on his talks, what the two premiers really discussed remains in the realm of wide speculation. Our prime minister’s version of the talks could not be independently corroborated, an imperative Maila Baje believes that gained much more significance in view of Dr. Bhattarai’s early insistence that it was a one-on-one meeting.
All this fueled suggestions that Dr. Bhattarai and Dr. Singh may have reached another written or unwritten accord/understanding/protocol that, by the meeting’s very ostensible secrecy, might not be to Nepal’s advantage.
Seeking to assuage members of his delegation, Dr. Bhattarai sought to highlight his compulsions for the apparent clandestineness. His originally scheduled meeting with Dr. Singh, after all, had been called off and the two delegations were pressed for time.
Yet by failing to explain that to members of the delegation – or at least those closest to him – beforehand exposed the prime minister to much grief. Also unclear is whether Dr. Bhattarai in any way pressed his interlocutors on unnatural circumstances of the meeting and its possible fallout back home.
Someone who has so recently been on the receiving end of selective and convenient Indian leaks of supposedly secret confabulations and communications might have been more careful of his actions. But Dr. Bhattarai, upon his return, has adopted the posture of someone who feels confident enough of handling his internal critics as long as his external patrons are steadfast in their support.
Maybe the Americans were on to something.