Sunday, January 27, 2013

Too Many Tea Leaves To Take In

China’s decision to recall Yang Houlan as ambassador to Nepal before he completed his customary three-year term has set off zealous speculation at a variety of levels.
Yang is the third successive ambassador Beijing has called back early after Nepal’s headlong march toward a nebulous newness in 2006. Significantly, this has been a period in which Beijing has exercised uncharacteristic assertiveness in Nepali affairs. Maila Baje thinks a summing up is warranted to better grasp what might be happening.
In mid-2007, Zheng Xianglin became the first foreign ambassador who did not present his credentials to the king (who was, in the politically correct terminology of the times “in suspension”). When Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who served as acting head of state, received Zheng’s letters, the gesture was perceived as Beijing’s firm acknowledgement of the new realities on the ground here.
Zheng’s candid assertions, particularly concerning Nepal’s inability to contain the 2008 Tibetan protests, exemplified a transformation away from Beijing tradition of quiet diplomacy. When China recalled Zheng later in the year, it was surmised that his bosses were doubly displeased by his inability to anticipate the scale of the pre-Olympic protests and then effectively address them.
Zheng’s successor, Qiu Guohong, hit the headlines for having begun political consultations even before he had formally taken up his position. The Indians, it seemed, had finally met their match.
Over time, Qiu’s pronouncements on Nepal’s independence and sovereignty were becoming reminiscent of the pre-Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong era. While Qiu’s tenure saw a flurry of official Chinese visits, political and military, there was also a conspicuous spurt in assertions of Beijing’s soft power.
The Chinese Embassy, as the prevailing narrative held, shrewdly facilitated the seven-point pact between the CPN-UML and UCPN-Maoist and a new government under Jhal Nath Khanal, as President Ram Baran Yadav was on an official visit to India holding consultations on how to proceed with the protracted deadlock stemming from Madhav Kumar Nepal’s resignation.
Qiu’s tenure had its share of downs. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s government collapsed after an abortive attempt to sack the army chief. Moreover, the Maoists’ fall came after the leaking of a draft Chinese treaty that, among other things, envisaged a tightening of Nepal’s commitment to a One China policy.
The Krishna Bahadur Mahara cash-for-votes telephone controversy was not one of Qiu’s proud moments, either. In the end, according to news reports at the time, Qiu had lost out to the military attaché at the embassy. The military man, said to rank higher than Qiu on the ladder that really mattered back home, considered Qiu too lackluster in his approach to the Tibetans.
When Yang Houlan replaced Qiu in 2011, he was welcomed as the consummate diplomat, whose solid academic and professional backgrounds indicated that Nepal had risen up several notches in China’s foreign policy priorities.
Yang immediately embarked on an intense public diplomacy campaign, which his superiors readily appeared to endorse. Almost every meeting Yang held with almost anyone in Nepal was played up on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website. One some days, there were multiple pictures and captions ostensibly underlining the growing breadth of the bilateral relationship.
Yet Yang’s tenure was also marked by a long unexplained absence, perceived as Beijing’s expression of displeasure with the palpable southern tilt of the Baburam Bhattarai government. The confusion surrounding the leaked itinerary of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s proposed visit to Nepal and the strange abbreviated nature of the actual trip did not reflect well on bilateral relations.
Sections of the Nepali press became outspoken in criticizing Yang’s perceived arrogance. Claiming that the Chinese had lost ground to the Indians, some commentators called for his recall, something unprecedented concerning Nepal’s northern neighbor.
Yang’s successor, Wu Chuntai, comes from the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of External Security Affairs, which happens to be headed by Qiu, the former ambassador to Nepal. Before assuming the post of deputy director in the department, Wu served at embassies in other countries. Nepal is his first ambassadorial appointment.
The Americans and the British, too, have recalled their ambassadors early in the recent past. The Chinese seem to have set a pattern of sorts and raised new questions. All this may be a normal part of the reshuffling of responsibilities in an administrative/bureaucratic state, especially in view of the government leadership change in March. Or Beijing might be seriously seeking ways to recalibrate its position in Nepal after having invested so much in the post-2006 years.
Or perhaps it could be a manifestation of prudent deployment of diplomatic resources. Yang is reportedly being appointed as ambassador to Myanmar, where the Americans have gained political ground at the cost of the Chinese. Zheng, for his part, is ambassador in Brunei, a region at the center of the strategy Beijing perceives Washington has stepped up to contain its rise.
Ambassador-designate Wu’s current position might provide some answers. The Department of External Security Affairs originates in the office that was set up to deal with the Falon Gong challenge. Beijing sought to enhance its ability to predict and respond to non-traditional foreign policy threats by, among other things, coordinating the administration of activities of foreign non-governmental organizations in China.
The department, according to the official website, “reports on external security issues and makes policy recommendations, coordinates and manages relevant work, guides the related operation of China’s overseas diplomatic missions.”
Could Wu’s appointment then mean that the Tibet challenge emanating from Nepal is going to feature more prominently in that intersection of foreign policy/national security priorities for China as the Dalai Lama steps deeper into the twilight of his life?
Or, on a grander geo-strategic scale, does the “overseas interests” dimension mean China is working feverishly to respond to the Asia pivot of the Barack Hussein Obama administration, with Wu expected to checkmate any common front the Indians, Japanese and Australians might build with the Americans in Kathmandu to counter China’s assertiveness?
The Chinese always give us too many tea leaves to properly understand what their motives and expectations are. And they easily recognize the advantages inherent in these ambiguities.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lineal Freebies & Fainthearted Leadership

Pradip Nepal
Well, there is one way we can have our political class candidly engage with the Indians without quaking in their boots. Let’s just elect/nominate/appoint/anoint childless Nepalis to positions of power.
No, this is not another of Maila Baje’s wacky ruminations. It comports with what Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leader Pradip Nepal thinks. Well, sort of.
Speaking to reporters at CPN-UML headquarters the other day, Nepal suggested that our political leaders tend to hold their – even justifiable, one might add – ire on India for fear of losing (or presumably not getting, in the first place) free scholarships for their kids.
Forget whether Pradip Nepal is speaking from personal experience, venting his regrets or asserting his righteous indignation here. Also set aside whether he may be trying to settle scores with that surnamesake former prime minister from his party or may be attempting to explain the extent of the malady to a country fixated on offending individuals who tend to hit the headlines here and there.
Pradip Nepal actually speaks to a striking phenomenon gripping our politics ever since we started practicing the thing in the early Fifties. During elections and insurgencies alike, politicians of all hues have positioned themselves profoundly against accumulated instances of perceived and palpable Indian machinations. When they reach positions of power to do something about it, they just seem to go wobbly.
Offers of free education for your offspring at prestigious institutions of Indian higher education become an enticing proposition to Nepali leaders, administrators and enablers of all sorts. For one thing, the transaction does not contain the odiousness of outright bribery. (There must be something in the kid that allows him/her to maintain the requisite academic standards over multiple years.)
The pursuit of knowledge in our society, moreover, is a striving that is less susceptible to ever-lingering suspicions over means and motives. (It’s not as if you’re siphoning off foreign-donated food and medicine meant, say, for flood-relief camps.)
The likelihood of securing intergenerational loyalties comes complete with a greater scope for plausible deniability, should questions ever be raised. (The most ideologically liberal offspring might feel some level of guilt for having enjoyed such privilege, but he or she is very unlikely to go to the extent of repudiating the earned degree.) Childlessness, in this sense, might really accentuate cleanliness in inter-state political relations.
Yet the Indians, like many preponderant powers in their respective regions, have the ability to buy loyalty, tepid acquiescence or outright silence on matters pertaining to their national interest. Indeed, they even buy criticism as long as it can help deflect from the real issues at hand.
For influential Nepalis, given the nature of the bilateral relationship, the threat of frozen bank accounts, resurrection of tax claims or general exposure to the underworldly shadiness of India’s punitive resources on the streets of Kathmandu all act as stimulants or deterrents.
So it would be the height of naiveté to think that the Indians – during their full-blown quest to assert global ambitions –  would have no way of ensnaring Nepali leaders that do not have children.
Yet you are forced to focus on one more reason why Sushil Koirala might be having such a hard time becoming prime minister.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Being Sushil Koirala

It’s becoming harder by the day not to feel for Sushil Koirala.
Asked by the beleaguered Maoist-Madhesi ruling alliance to name a candidate for the premiership, the Nepali Congress pressed forward the name of its president to succeed Baburam Bhattarai.
The ruling alliance probably thought that the deeply fractious Nepali Congress would have had a hard time coming up with one name. Conspiratorial minds within the party, it was probably thought, would not be able to stop pitting all those contenders off one another.
That way, Dr. Bhattarai could hope to continue at the helm for a little while longer. Failing that, another communist could step in to pursue that chimera called consensus.
When Sushil was nominated, the astonishment across the political spectrum was palpable. But it was almost immediately camouflaged by a bevy of excuses. He was too disinterested about everything, Maila Baje heard some said. Others pointed out that he was too ill to be able to focus on national challenges. He was inexperienced in administration, still others contended, citing his lack of an executive background.
The latest count against Sushil seems to be that he is somehow against the 12-Point Agreement, the cornerstone of our hyped but hazy post-April 2006 transformation. By extension, this implies that Sushil is against India’s stifling involvement in Nepal, if not an outright anti-‘Indian’.
Such talk is not new. A decade and a half ago, sections of the Indian media – inspired no less by that country’s intelligence community – had sought to link Sushil with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The allegation that the ISI had bankrolled Sushil election campaign was exacerbated on the basis that his Banke constituency consisted of a heavy Muslim electorate.
That charge did not seem undercut Sushil’s politics. (Let’s not forget that this was a time when the queen was virtually accused of masterminding an Indian premier’s assassination.) He remained active in the higher echelons of the Nepali Congress, emerging as Sher Bahadur Deuba’s nearest competitor for the premiership in the parliamentary party election following the Narayanhity Carnage in 2001.
After strongman Girija Prasad Koirala’s death in 2010, Sushil was elected to the top job bolstered by much more than his surname. While nowhere near the towering personality Girija had been, Sushil has been no puny seat warmer, either. If anything, he has kept divisive tendencies within the party in rather notable check, as it ponders its future.
How that anti-12-Point Agreement tag emerged, it’s hard to say. Sushil’s public pronouncements before and after the April 2006 uprising have not veered in any substantial way from established party policy. As far as his private collaborations are concerned, in all fairness, they should be as irrelevant as those of his peers.
Part of the reason may be Sushil’s vociferous questioning of the Maoists’ motives in entering the peace process. But such suspicions have remained widespread from the start and have been fanned in large part by the Maoists themselves.
Regardless, any impression that Sushil may be less than enthusiastic about India’s role in Nepali affairs appeared to have been negated last summer. In what seemed to be a hastily arranged visit to New Delhi, Sushil had engaged in broad-ranging consultations there. He met most prominent Indian politicians and his subsequent pronouncements did not differ from those made by his peers emerging from similar visits.
So if critics believe Sushil is unworthy of the premiership, they must be able to make a more compelling case. Heck, he might even want to wear the current criticism as a badge of honor, given where we are today.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Fixation With A Nonpartisan Fix

The prospect of an ‘independent’ personality being appointed premier has posed a real dilemma to the political class. (Forget for the moment the absurdity of trying to identify a politically autonomous individual from the midst of our entrenched polarization and alignments into brotherhoods and sisterhoods of one party or the other.)
The mere acceptance of such a personality would be tantamount to a collective confession of failure on the part of our professional politicians. Yet a non-political prime minister, Maila Baje contends, would allow the traditional political fraternity to evade responsibility for the greater calamity likely to ensue from our prolonged national quandary.
That President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai can still feign credibility in their respective assault on the constitutionality of the other amplifies the emptiness of the external hand behind the contrived change under way here. The aliens we are talking about are far less likely to concede failure.
The erstwhile Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists were far too competent not to comprehend the absurdity of presiding over the kind of transformation that was never part of what drove the Nepali masses to rise up against direct royal rule in April 2006.
When the proverbial chickens came home to roost, elements of the ascendant political class found it tempting to play the blame game. Unable to impress the wary spectators, some now see virtue in bringing in someone new to fix the unfixable.
The idea of an independent prime minister has been both welcomed and ridiculed from across the political spectrum. Yet the Nepali Congress, aggrieved by its failure to reach what finally seemed to be within grasp this time, has been the most vociferous about letting the politicians do the politicking.
After all, as Dr. Shekhar Koirala reminded us the other day, the Maoists, the CPN-UML and the Madhesi Front had asked the party to name its prime ministerial candidate in what was projected as a gesture of conciliation. Sushil Koirala finally readies himself for the job and suddenly this talk emerges of an independent personality at the helm? Just because four commie premiers in a row failed to fulfill the promise that had never really been made seven springs ago?
Amid the diminishing prospects for consensus with deadline extension, Nepali Congress Vice-President Ram Chandra Paudel has come out with a novel idea. He insists that the president, being the guardian of the nation, should himself pick the new prime minister. As someone who endured 17 rounds of legislative balloting and still failed both to gain the top job and ensuring the sturdiness of the democratic process, Poudel understands the perils of a futile pursuit. Perhaps he has far too much faith in the president’s ability to pull off what the king could not, when it comes to exercising guardianship.
What we have today is a crisis of institutions, where the head of state and head of government each believes he is on the right side of history, geography and everything in between. This plays into the hands of those who want everything else but a solution.
In such a situation, half-measures like the president peremptorily picking a prime minister would do little to improve the situation. Instead, President Yadav might want to appoint himself head of government, too, move beyond vacuous expressions of concern and actually try to put things in order. Or would he prefer Prime Minister Bhattarai assuming the presidency as well and pressing ahead?