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.