Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Benefits Of Being On The Fringe

We have got a real problem here when, in terms of sheer numbers, there are more fringe parties than there are those driving the political agenda.
Now, Maila Baje doesn’t want to hear any growls or grunts. The four major constituents of our satrapy remain the best-organized outfits and would probably dominate the outcome of the upcoming elections. Yet, by last count, 33 parties are resisting the quartet’s obdurate campaign to take the country wherever they are.
Granted, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, which broke away from the once-formidable organization that waged that romanticized 10-year spiral of death and destruction, cannot be dismissed as fringe. They still have the muscle and money to enforce their will. The other 32 are thus mere followers in an alliance of convenience.
Most of these smaller parties will probably never be able to garner enough collective electoral strength to impose their agenda, even if they were to cobble together one. But, if history is any guide, they do have the collective power to thwart the agendas of others. And that is what is becoming scarier by the day in these creepy times.
The notion of change remains popular until you ask people what the term really means to them. Everyone loves his or her own version of transformation. But they seem to revile far more deeply what others expect change to mean.
Everybody has all kinds of solutions for the country’s real and imagined problems. The basic problem is, each one us wants exclusive rights to implement our own solutions. And when we realize we can’t have that, then we embark on the second-best course: share the littlest with the fewest.
So Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi gets to become head of the interim election council because no real politician wanted any other member of his/her fraternity to succeed Dr. Baburam Bhattarai.
Still, we’re left arguing whether Regmi will end up becoming a weak reflection of discredited political parties or turn into a purveyor of something entirely sinister.
Critics want him to quit as chief justice to ensure free and fair elections. Where do notions like separation of powers even come in when the larger process is already being driven by absolutism and imperiousness?
Consider the fallout. Political parties that ordinarily would have been talking about winning comfortable majorities on their own are busy contemplating the most fruitful alliances. Regmi, meanwhile, gets to assert that he would be able to announce progress toward elections only when his opponents cease their campaign of disruption.
President Ram Baran Yadav, for his part, is emboldened to voice dissatisfaction with a head of government who is barely three days in office. The external sponsors of the current formula continue to get to pit the president against prime minister, ensuring that neither could accumulate institutional robustness that could prove deleterious to non-Nepalis down the line.
As such, each day wasted in acrimony and animosity deals another blow to the credibility of the poll results even before the first votes have been campaigned for, much less cast. And it’s in that hostile expanse where a bloated fringe has the greatest room for maneuver.
Call them fringe at our own peril.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Congratulations, Dr. Bhattarai

An incorrigible critic of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Maila Baje should have found it easy to join the legions in acclaiming his departure from the premiership. In all candor, yours truly remains in angst of sorts.
It really doesn’t feel nice hearing Dr. Bhattarai demonized by many as the worst premier Nepal has had since 2006, if not in its entire history. The former prime minister, for his part, can take solace in the reality that such sentiments have surrounded each of his predecessors.
There was a lot during Dr. Bhattarai’s 18 months and 18 days in office that riled Maila Baje: The BIPPA agreement with India, the mismanagement of then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit, the sneaky meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the non-aligned conference in Teheran, the Tribhuvan International Airport development program and some of the prime minister’s own pronouncements on the scope and extent of Nepalis’ ability to determine their fate. Collectively, these have tarnished a tenure that had begun amid such hope.
The individual lapses of Dr. Bhattarai’s government cannot be ignored. But there are also other things that must not be overlooked: the nature of the ruling coalition, the circumstances of the times and a propaganda barrage targeted against one of its most skillful practitioners all played a part in defining the man’s legacy. Yet Dr. Bhattarai, in Maila Baje’s appraisal, has dismounted the tiger keeping much of himself intact.
Dr. Bhattarai could have avoided some grief by trying to play down the people’s expectations. But that would have been an inherently unpolitical thing to do, especially given the general acrimony already preceding his ascension. The price, of course, was the precipitousness with which his persona plummeted.
Having railed so hard against almost everyone who steered the ship of state since modern Nepal’s founding, Dr. Bhattarai confronted many challenges that were common to kings, oligarchs, and non-Maoist commoners alike. And as one of the keenest observers of Nepal’s geopolitical precariousness, Dr. Bhattarai could not have been oblivious of this historical continuity.
In a lengthy interview following his departure, he seemed to indicate awareness of the challenges involved in governing – as opposed to castigating those who did govern – the country. This was particularly evident in his defense of the nomination of former chief secretary Lokman Singh Karki to head the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Describing him as an efficient administrator, Dr. Bhattarai sought to play down the nature of the system Karki worked for and even the mode of Karki’s entrance into the civil service (through peremptory royal fiat).
As premier, Dr. Bhattarai could have taken a bolder step. A major gesture that he – and only he – could have made was to have met with former king Gyanendra in full public glare as part of a desire to understand the kinds of regional and international pulls and pressures Nepali leaders have had to face in seeking to exercise the country’s sovereign rights.
Furthermore, by meeting with former prime minister Marich Man Singh Shrestha, a first-hand witness to the geopolitical pressures of the 1990s – no less a factor in the collapse of the partyless Panchayat system than the people’s aspirations for freedom – he could have affirmed a true sense of purposeful national reconciliation.
Nepal, after all, may have become new, but those with roots in and reminiscences of the old variant are likely to be around for a while desirous to be of use and deserve to be treated as equal citizens. The relevance and appropriateness of what they might have to say vis-à-vis the country’s march forward could be the subject of a separate debate. Yet the simple affirmation that we are all in this together would certainly have helped the country’s long-term prospects.
History will certainly be more dispassionate in its judgment of what Dr. Bhattarai did or didn’t do as prime minister. Yet this much can be safely said: He set himself apart from his predecessors by leaving office successfully portraying himself as someone who at least tried to do in his own way what he thought was right in the given circumstances, yet also ready to cede the ultimate conclusion to the rest of us. And for that feat alone, Dr. Bhattarai deserves our congratulations.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Holding Their Feet To The Fire

Considering the swiftness and sanguinity of the international community’s response, Nepalis were seemingly senseless to have spent all those exquisite weeks on constitutionalism.
Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi’s installation as head of the interim election government, according to these foreign stakeholders, is a welcome development toward consolidating democracy.
The street protesters, backroom complainers and congenital quibblers may have a hard time digesting this subversion of the democratic process. But they should recognize that, at least in this case, separation of powers and judicial independence – like beauty – are in the eyes of the beholder. And, for those with the locus standi to confer legitimacy, every thing is hunky-dory.
A leading poll shows the electoral field wide open, with the people willing to hear all ideas. But the prospects of elections do not seem that bright. Even if they were to be held soon enough, prolonged squabbling over the outcome is likelier than ever, considering the perceived shift in the popular mood and the ostensible addiction of the current satrapy to monopolizing matters.
Then, of course, there’s that pesky little issue: what do we do if the Regmi government, too, were to prove just another futile experiment?
Maila Baje feels Nepalis could do much more than just sit back and seethe. To make some good out of this bewildering twist, we could strive harder to make the international stakeholders own more conscientiously the entire post-April 2006 process.
Let’s not feel bad in considering ourselves in some kind of international trusteeship. (Which, so to speak, is far better than the ‘Bhutanization’ we’ve been denouncing and dreading for so long.) The international principals would now have to substantiate that what they have legitimized is actually not so ludicrous.
Sure, the Americans and Europeans won’t see eye to eye on everything, despite their perceived proximity on the values of democracy. Nor will the Chinese and Indians ever be able to come close enough to really rooting out the rest. The Russians, Japanese and Pakistanis are other key imponderables we must contend with.
However, the international and regional powers that so haughtily claim a stake in this nebulous new Nepal can be expected to sufficiently negotiate their contradictions to build a basic state of equilibrium.
Nepalis have seen enough political systems to recognize that the sturdiness of the basic law alone does not ensure regime durability. What does count for us is basic life and liberty in pursuit of a decent existence.
The principal panic that has resurfaced is of one of sweeping demographic transformation through the indiscriminate distribution of citizenship certificates by the new government. But that certainly is not the only thing pitting the regional behemoths and their clients against each other.
If our water resources are a problem for our neighbors, Nepalis could certainly forgo our long-held dreams of building dams here. In terms of crude water flow, topography long favored the Indians; technology today would allow the Chinese deploy water as a strategic tool.
We wouldn’t mind helping out the Americans in such areas as extraordinary rendition, missile defense or what have you. Keep the Free Tibet issue as alive as you will; just don’t kill us.
More tangibly, international stakeholders could apportion a percentage of their national budgets in unconditional cash transfers to every Nepali for their fortitude and forbearance. (Indeed, the West could pay us to let the annual March 10 Tibetan protests go ahead unhindered, while the North could then recompense us to stop them. May the highest bidder then triumph.)
With a guaranteed monthly check actively adjusted for inflation and more, we might even learn to enjoy these foreign power plays.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Not Quite The Victim Here

For someone who stands out for hurling his own share of scurrilous accusations, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is sure stung to the quick.
On the face of it, the trouble the prime minister took in issuing a 12-point rebuttal to allegations raised during his tenure fits with any reasonable man’s innate desire to defend his reputation. However, Dr. Bhattarai’s core contention – that the media erroneously played up his remarks, activities and events – undercuts his claims on the specifics.
No Nepali prime minister has escaped the harsh judgment of his times. It has become almost axiomatic in Nepali politics that every government, at least in the popular perception, is worse than the one it succeeded.
Admittedly, no head of government would like to be remembered in such a sordid way. But that’s the price of practicing politics in perpetually polarized times. If Dr. Bhattarai thought he could buck this trend, then that says quite something about him.
When Dr. Bhattarai ascended to the premiership, he brought along a reputation for probity and efficiency as finance minister. What was also true was that he established such credentials at a time when Nepalis were focused primarily, if not exclusively, on the peace process and new constitution. There, Dr. Bhattarai’s boss, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, was taking much of the heat.
The reputation of an efficient tax collector was going to be of little use to Dr. Bhattarai in the top job. He took the reins when the twin tasks were grievously faltering. Yet he and his aides seemed complicit in fanning expectations from his ministerial record.
Charges of corruption, nepotism and patronage take little time to set in and then speedily take a life of their own. When hopes – regardless of rationality – are belied, the costs become brutal.
Even seemingly genuine symbols of change – i.e., the adoption of indigenous vehicles or espousal of direct and regular interaction with the people – tend to be revisited with popular cynicism.
Over time, it became easy to juxtapose the circumstances surrounding the BIPPA agreement with India, the Tribhuvan International Airport development plan, the mismanagement of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit, and the split of the Maoist party with new revelations from Indian sources on the Maoists’ maneuverings with New Delhi officialdom all the way back to at least 2002.
Maila Baje recognizes Dr. Bhattarai’s longstanding penchant for dismissing critics as Goebbelsian fiends. If the Nepali media have misquoted people, it is not a new phenomenon that has somehow injured only the incumbent prime minister. Moreover, the people are far from gullible; they have their own quibbles with reporters and editors. But how long have Nepali politicians blamed the media misquotations to wriggle out of difficult situations?
And who has better manipulated the media for his own ends than Dr. Bhattarai? During the early years of the Maoist insurgency, when elements in the mainstream parties and the media accused the royal palace of directly running the rebels, Dr. Bhattarai did not see it fit to rebut the charges to preserve the purity of his ‘revolution’. In fact, he took the opportunity to malign the palace as well as scare the mainstream parties by playing up even minor contacts with Panchayat-era politicians.
When it suited him, Dr. Bhattarai praised all Shah monarchs before Gyanendra Shah, boldly proclaiming that Nepalis would eventually evaluate them highly. Yet when times changed, he sought to club the Bhimsen Thapa and Rana eras – a cumulative 134 years when the palace existed only in name – into 230 years of monarchical malevolence the country could no longer afford.
The upshot? A skilled practitioner of evasion, obfuscation and fabrication, Dr. Bhattarai could have helped his legacy by shunning this blatant victim card.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Upside of Distorted Reality

You have to admire the key national interlocutors for at least attempting to persuade us of the earnestness of the political conversation.
The major political parties implore the chief justice to head an election government as if they are really acting in ultimate acknowledgement of their responsibility to the nation and people.
A divided legal fraternity looks askance. One group tells the president that he should desist from what they call an utterly unconstitutional move, notwithstanding the grudging political consent it may have mustered. Other individuals turn to the Supreme Court for relief.
The rival school insists on the political validity of the controversial proposal in view of the exigencies of the moment, unabashedly allying themselves with a section of the political class.
Passions run so high that Bam Dev Gautam, of the CPN-UML, challenges Nepal Bar Association office-bearers to run the government if they were so adamantly opposed to the chief justice doing so. The president, for his part, pledges he will not go out of the bounds of constitutionality.
Foreign ambassadors counsel elections as the only outlet that would allow Nepalis to determine their fate themselves. Somehow we are supposed to forget that many of these same governments did their best to foil elections when Nepalis had a real chance of resolving their problems internally in 2005-2006. Or that the interim constitution, hollowed out by ceaseless political conveniences, makes the Panchayati Constitution look like a model of jurisprudential sturdiness.
It’s fun to watch all these conversers struggling to wear a straight face. Yet, Maila Baje feels, there is some virtue in their ever-widening reality-distortion field.
The external architects of change, more than the political parties per se, ran out of options once it became clear that the concept of ‘new Nepal’ was a mere camouflage for geo-strategic realignments. The elevation of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai to the premiership gave them the final cover. His reputation and persona – more designed than deserved, alas – were expected to buy time for the external protagonists to reconcile their wider contradictions.
Once the Bhattarai magic wore off, another façade had to be put up. The real job was nowhere near completion. Each external actor in Nepal today wants not only sufficient space to stand on but also enough energy to checkmate present and potential rivals.
A world in transition with constantly moving targets, after all, has to tend to all angles. The U.S. pivot to Asia propels the Europeans here, too. India’s Look East policy results in the Chinese looking south-west with a grander gaze. Yet global issues such as climate change and free trade – where the West has the upper hand – impels the Chinese and Indians to act together.
Nepal cannot escape the impact of these unresolved contradictions. Federalism, pushed by foreign quarters largely to denigrate the monarchy and the traditional order, now has to be delivered in ornamental doses, if at all. Local advocates, who campaigned in sincerity, cannot be appeased.
Issues like secularism and homosexuality, too, were tools to thwart tradition. By allowing non-governmental entities to push the agenda, foreign governments got to exercise plausible deniability. Yet when social engineering and the grievance industry overtook the political process, our immediate neighbors could not tolerate the spillover effects.
An exclusive Sino-Indian grand bargain to stabilize and shelter Nepal cannot be expected to go unchallenged, given the heavy investments countries and organizations farther afield already have made here.
All this is bound to leave our heads spinning. Yet we must also acknowledge how fortunate we really are. We may not be allowed to swim free out of these turbulent waters. But we also know that those around us cannot afford to let us sink.
So let’s keep ourselves wet, scooping and kicking the water, even if we’re going nowhere. Around us, sooner or later, something’s gotta give.