Saturday, December 29, 2012

Conning Sense Out Of Us

Now that the Indians have intimated that they are not really interested in forging a Delhi Compromise III – not immediately, at least – some interesting internal developments are coming to the fore.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, having squandered much of the goodwill he came into office with, insists that he has been carrying his resignation letter in his pocket for quite a while. Responsibility for his failure to hand it in, according to the premier, lay elsewhere, however.
This while Dr. Bhattarai’s aides are letting it be known that the prime minister and Army Chief Gen. Gaurav Shamsher Rana share close views on Nepal’s geo-strategic location and India’s role within that.
Dr. Bhattarai’s nominal boss, United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has veered closer to Mohan Baidya, leader of the rival faction of the former rebels. Dahal, who has now openly flaunted his own prime ministerial ambitions, has begun virtually blaming Dr. Bhattarai for the party split.
Baidya, for his part, has joined CPN-UML leader Bam Dev Gautam and others in accusing Dr. Bhattarai of imperiling not merely the political gains of the last seven years but also Nepal’s sovereignty and independence. And these are just some of our many commies talking.
Superficially, at least, the Indians have shifted a bit. The new foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, openly acknowledges China’s arrival in South Asia as a matter of plain reality. This stance, coming as it does amid reports that Beijing and New Delhi might even be on the verge of devising a joint plan to stabilize Nepal, could be a benign development.
Or, as any adherent of the realist school of international relations would readily assert, this could just be India’s way of soothing China in South Asia as it forays deeper into the South China Sea.
If the Chinese and Indians do indeed have something up their sleeves to keep the Americans and Europeans out of Nepal, Maila Baje feels they must be waiting for the stars to align more propitiously. The logical pretense for both in the interim would be to exhort the domestic principals to work things out. The Chinese can easily rely on their much-vaunted tradition of non-interference, while the Indians can hope to make news by stating what should have been a given.
During President Ram Baran Yadav’s recent visit to Delhi, the Indian leadership almost uniformly contended that Nepalis had the primary responsibility for resolving their issues. Regardless of the nature of their edicts in private, the Indians had good reason for maintaining a palpable public posture of abstention.
The last time President Yadav was in India to seek a way out of the crisis, manifesting in the Madhav Kumar Nepal government’s prolonged caretaker status, Nepali parties surprisingly forged a deal under which Jhal Nath Khanal became prime minister. The perception that Khanal owed his ascendance to Beijing’s active mediation then – and thereby earning India’s displeasure – was strengthened when Khanal left office becoming the only post-2006 premier not to have been invited to visit India.
Professions of active neutrality this time were clearly – if not solely – aimed at being able to maintain the initiative, should such an ‘indigenous’ deal have emerged during President Yadav’s absence this time as well. As for President Yadav, he returned to a nation that is finding it harder by the day not to see him as part of the problem.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Two Deaths And A Nation’s Life

Dr. Keshar Jung Rayamajhi
Parasu Narayan Chaudhari
As the drivers of new Nepal chased the shadow of political consensus over the past weeks, two deaths went largely ignored.
Although they came from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Dr. Keshar Jung Rayamajhi and Parasu Narayan Chaudhari encapsulated in their own ways Nepal’s struggle for survival in a turbulent world.
Both men capped their political life as chairman of the Raj Parisad, the royal advisory council during critical phases. Dr. Rayamajhi oversaw the ascension of two kings in the aftermath of a still-mysterious palace massacre on June 1, 2001. Chaudhari served at a time when the monarchy needed the broadest range of advice but faced dwindling sources not entirely because of its own assertiveness.
While detractors have long denigrated both men, one-time general secretaries of the Communist Party and the Nepali Congress, respectively, as opportunists, Maila Baje seeks to recount the broader geopolitical context of their support for the Panchayat system.
Although Dr. Rayamajhi was never formally a member of the Panchayat system, Chaudhari joined the partyless system after abandoning the Nepali Congress and its two-decade struggle to uproot palace-led regime.
When King Mahendra overthrew Prime Minister B.P. Koirala’s government on December 16, 1960, in the prelude to the rise of the partyless Panchayat system, both Dr. Rayamajhi and Chaudhari happened to be out of the country.
Rayamajhi, who was in Moscow, welcomed the royal takeover. Chaudhari, education minister in Nepal’s first elected government, was in Paris to attend a conference and stayed behind to assess the situation.
Rayamajhi was already known for palpable royalist sympathies. The fact that he so openly supported the royal takeover from Moscow clearly bore the imprimatur of his hosts. And there was good reason.
As the Cold War heated up and the superpowers were intent on expanding their own global spheres of influence, the Soviet Union had abandoned an exclusive policy of subverting non-communist governments of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Khrushchev-era method of winning friends was to demonstrate that Moscow was perfectly capable of coexisting with diverse countries espousing different political systems.
The Soviets had already offered to extend development assistance to Nepal, which King Mahendra accepted during his visit to Moscow in 1958. After the royal takeover, the Soviets encouraged their local protégés to cooperate with the palace all the while seeking to place sympathizers close to the center of power. The palace, for its part, while maintaining utmost caution, tolerated the pro-Soviet elements to offset pressure from other flanks.
While Rayamajhi’s royalist stance helped to split the united Communist Party, the Sino-Soviet rupture led to a further splintering of the Nepalese communist movement into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing factions. Yet, as leader of the united party, Rayamajhi had already sensed the stance of the other communist colossus, Chairman Mao Zedong, vis-à-vis the monarchy. Rayamajhi himself on several public occasions explained how Mao had personally advised him to support the monarchy at that particular juncture in history. (For all the pro-Chinese label tagged onto King Mahendra, the monarch visited Moscow twice during his 17-year reign, but Beijing only once.)
While the East-West ideological struggle and the Sino-Soviet split drove Dr. Rayamajhi toward the palace-led system, Chaudhari remained firmly in his opposition. His commitment and fervor led B.P. Koirala to project him as a rising star in the Nepali Congress and even potential prime ministerial material.
During the national-referendum campaign in 1979-1980, Chaudhari relentlessly railed against the partyless system in his public speeches. While B.P. Koirala was stunned by the ‘inexplicability’ of the result in favor of the partyless system, he, as a committed democrat, accepted the outcome.
Implicit in this stance, which most in his own Nepali Congress found inexplicable, was recognition of the new geopolitical maneuverings under way in South Asia in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
When Chaudhari joined the Panchayat system shortly after the referendum, he stunned the political establishment and the opposition. Those close to B.P. Koirala at the time recognized that he had tacitly blessed Chaudhari’s move as part of building a wider Nepali Congress-palace understanding against the evolving Moscow-New Delhi nexus both considered deleterious.
King Birendra’s foreign-policy pronouncements and specific domestic developments, such as the ‘84-case diplomatic consignment’ controversy leading up to Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa’s ousting in a hastily stage-managed no-confidence vote, underscored B.P.’s apprehensions. The palace, of course, was alarmed by Moscow’s persistent indifference to the Zone of Peace proposal with almost the same iciness India had demonstrated.
As Chaudhari served in successive Panchayat-era cabinets, Dr. Rayamajhi the individual remained a central player in internal politics. But his pro-Soviet aura had receded amid the splits in the pro-Moscow movement and its general ideological dilution.
By the time the Soviet Union ceased to pose a challenge, the Panchayat system had lost its geopolitical relevance on account of additional realignments in the region and beyond, forcing both Dr. Rayamajhi and Chaudhari into new roles.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Flashback: Let A Hundred Rants Rage

With the monarchy consigned to the history books, the Maoist-mainstream alliance was bound to unravel. But few expected the guardians of the republic to fall out so bitterly during the official celebrations of Nepal’s “rebirth”.
Clearly, the farce surrounding the first session of the constituent assembly was a façade for last-minute haggling. Maoist chairman Prachanda revealed that he had agreed to the creation of a presidency and vice-presidency only to ensure the adoption of republic declaration. The Maoists had never renounced their claim to the top positions. That’s not how the Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist-Leninists understood the consensus.
As the participants and observers yawned and moaned at the Birendra International Convention Center, 11th-hour negotiations were going on at another level, too. The military was in an institutional battle for survival. A force gunning for Prachanda’s head until two years ago couldn’t be expected to give him its heart so readily. The Maoists could lay claim to the political space the monarch traditionally occupied, the top brass concurred, but certainly not to the supreme commandership of the state army.
A still momentous round of bargaining was going on elsewhere. If the monarch would accede to the outlines of a comprehensive agreement that would replace the much-maligned 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India, then he might be able to keep his crown. Since the mainstream parties and the Maoists had already made full sectoral undertakings during the previous two years, royal consent would merely affirm new Nepal’s commitment to new special relations.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala decided to let Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula present the republic motion and let other procedural lapses seep into the first session of the constituent assembly. If things went according to plan, the Maoists would walk out of the assembly and the mainstream parties would blame the ex-rebels’ untrustworthiness for their own vote against the republic motion.
Considering how those who egged him on to seize power on February 1, 2005 turned out to be his worst critics, the monarch wasn’t falling for that. The Indians refused to bring everyone together to a roundtable to compare notes because each participant had been handed a different page. Plan B envisaged the creation of two centers of power in presidency and premiership. The rest of the story has a familiar ring.
As the most aggrieved party, the Maoists are entitled to the hottest rage. But can Prachanda do anything about it without undermining himself? Experience taught most Nepalis to expect the Nepali Congress and the UML to buckle under southerly pressure. The Maoist leader rescinded the order to foot soldiers to march on the palace. The security forces, recognizing the political orientation of those who did turn out, easily beat them back.
Out of compulsion, the Americans, of all people, stepped in to help Prachanda put on a brave face. The eagerness of the Indians and the Chinese to evict the United Nations Mission in Nepal had roiled Washington enough. Deb Mukherji, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, shouldn’t have been so hasty in voicing the Indian left’s suspicions of Washington’s motives in the world’s newest republic.
To allow the new dynamics to play out, the Maoists are trying hard to conceal their rifts within. And that too in classic Maoist style. Prachanda is now threatening Kantipur Publications of unspecified consequences for its coverage of the former rebels. The Maoists, he said, had tolerated criticism thus far to ensure the elections. Victory has now pushed bad-mouthing off the national agenda.
Our own version of the Great Helmsman’s “Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom,” indeed.
(Originally published on May 31, 2008)

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Deadlines and Lifelines

President Ram Baran Yadav is probably distraught enough by the discovery that he has far more bark than bite. But it must be said that, with each extension of the collective consensus deadline to the bickering political parties, his howl is turning into a yipping yowl. This must make Yadav want to make good on his threat by packing up and returning to life as a farmer.
The ruling Federal Democratic Republican Alliance, which seemed rather rattled by the first deadline President Yadav had set, has now issued its own ultimatum. If there is no consensus by December 12, the ruling alliance will expand the cabinet on its own.
The president’s frustration is understandable. Yadav is the only elected head of state Nepalis have had the good fortune of having. Although a professional politician, so far he has largely discharged his ceremonial duties with dignity and decorum. Yet the Nepali taxpayers pay him to do the things the politicos can’t, don’t or won’t.
Yadav’s reinstatement a few years ago of the army chief then Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had sacked, prompting Dahal to resign, signified the emergence of an agile presidency, one capable of swerving on the task at hand and then stepping back.
Given the context of our recent political evolution, it would be unfair to blame Yadav for his current inertia. He could easily have copped out, claiming he was merely a figurehead obliged to go by guidelines of the government of the day. Yadav is not responsible for the fact that Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai today leads a government unimpeded by anything resembling basic constitutional propriety. That the president has even attempted to break the deadlock should count for something.
President Yadav, Maila Baje feels, should be heartened by the power of the status quo. Nepal continues to have a functioning government capable of ensuring the basic conditions needed for rudimentary existence. The brassy disarray in the opposition also shows that we have a vibrant democracy still trying to figure out a way ahead. The national discourse has taken a scope, tone and tenor that is no longer constrained by the composition of an elected assembly.
Politicians in power warn against a revival of the bad old autocratic days. Opposition leaders vow to sweep the Maoists onto the same dust heap the monarchy finds itself in. The principal political parties, despite their snarls, are happy with the status quo. Fresh elections might realign politics in undesirable ways.
Getting back to the original task of writing the constitution would bring back familiar headaches – and they could become far more severe with the second onset. The promulgation of a formal constitution – if that were possible at all – would circumscribe the power and privilege the eight parties feel eternally entitled to from those 19 magically tumultuous days almost seven springs ago.
The perfunctory concern notwithstanding, the international community is not unduly disturbed by developments here. Almost every alien player on this eerie playground is satisfied by its power of prevention or preemption. None can afford to lose a foothold in a key geostrategic region during this period of immense global transition, even if none knows precisely what it wants to achieve.
Instead, these players have collectedly figured out something subliminal. Nepalis tend to get riled up by we don’t want. For now, we don’t know what we do want – and that is good for them.
Admittedly, upholding the status quo comes with a price. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai might end up with life tenure. President Yadav should be happy to acknowledge that this ensures his own survival.
If, over time, human biology becomes a problem here, let the Nepali Congress inherit the presidency and the Maoists the prime ministership in perpetuity. The political bickering will continue but the equilibrium will continue – until something gives.
The last time we had a serious premier-ceremonial head of state standoff, the regime lasted 104 years. And nobody blamed the Nepali people.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Trilateral Reality Check

So we now have it on sound authority that China is in regular contact with India on ways to stabilize the situation in Nepal.
The fact that the man making that assertion happens to represent the government that has traditionally been the most circumspect in its public posture provides added significance of some kind.
True, sections in the Nepali media have dismissed the comments Chinese Ambassador Yang Houlan made at the Reporters’ Club the other day as the surliness of someone whose tenure in Kathmandu has not lived up to his stature in Beijing’s diplomatic establishment. Others tend to see the remarks as an admission by China that its recent activism and assertiveness in Nepal has, for all practical purposes, failed.
Maila Baje, however, thinks the kind of trilateral cooperation that Yang expressed a predilection for is credible harbinger of things to come. This is because it is a culmination of a process – viewed in retrospect – that has driven Nepal’s post-2006 change.
After the royal takeover of February 1, 2005 – which the rest of the world was busily portraying either as a Chinese-backed coup or a power-hungry monarch’s brazen flaunting of the ‘China card’ – Nepal was trying to regain the geopolitical equilibrium it had lost after the first People’s Movement.
As Nepali opposition parties veered closer to the once-pariah Maoist rebels over several phases, New Delhi remained in consultation with Beijing on developments in Nepal as part of their formal strategic dialogue.
The reality that India proceeded to take a hard line against the monarchy after the palace assiduously backed China’s entry into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as an observer was interpreted exclusively as a demonstration of New Delhi’s thinning patience. Prominent Indians, at least in public, tried to portray precisely such an image.
Deeper down, however, the move was likely a culmination of consultations between Beijing and New Delhi. Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister who was then a State Councillor, provided enough indications during his March 2006 visit to Nepal, which have acquired greater clarity with the passage of time.
The collapse of royal rule and the ascendance of the Seven Party Alliance-Maoist combine did not seem to have assured New Delhi, notwithstanding the reality that the Indians actively drove that change. Privately, leading Indians with an abiding interest in Nepal still wondered how the Maoists – whom their country had more than sheltered – might proceed to redefine Nepal’s geopolitical identity vis-à-vis the north. The overall realignment had gathered such a pace that then-premier Girija Prasad Koirala, at the New Delhi SAARC summit in 2006, pushed for China’s inclusion as a full member of SAARC.
The fact that China moved to step up its influence in Nepal at a time when Nepalis were almost exclusively focused on India’s stifling hand turned out to be a superficial reading of events.
When India and China agreed to UNMIN, the United Nations peace mission in Nepal, you were generally dismissed as a cynic for thinking that the Asian giants might have wanted the world organization to fail so miserably in Nepal that it would never dream of hovering around issues like Tibet and Kashmir. Cynicism has proved too contagious for critics to chuckle today.
Through an adroit admixture of cooperation, competition and confrontation, China and India have succeeded in maintaining basic stability in overall bilateral relations. Their carping and caviling has not stopped them from collaborating where they can.
They have used similar prudence in addressing their historically overlapping spheres of influence. Even while warning the Indians against the folly of joining the Washington-led containment bandwagon, Beijing tends to laud India’s foreign policy tradition of strategic autonomy.
Although the Indians continue to voice anxiety over China’s growing inroads in South Asia’s smaller states, New Delhi also seems more sympathetic to Beijing’s insistence on these states’ right to chart an independent foreign policy. When the Indians choose not to react too uncharitably to Bhutan’s reminder that China has become a reality in our region, you get a sense that great power ambitions do require a public demonstration of some – authentic or artificial – humility.
Simply put, there are far too many pressure points in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship to allow room for third-country/party collusions. Paradoxically, Ambassador Yang, given his vaunted diplomatic skills, might choose to become even less circumspect in the days ahead.