Sunday, April 28, 2013

What Really Irks Our Comrades

For a movement still spinning in a frenzied fission-fusion cycle, anniversaries tend to make little sense. So when our principal comrades used the backdrop of the 65th anniversary of the founding of Nepal Communist Party to exchange abuses, you couldn’t really say they spoiled the moment.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, freshly energized from a high-profile visit to China, boldly proclaimed the end of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). Having packaged his record of flip-flops
as pragmatism, Dahal also dismissed his dogmatic one-time mentor Mohan Baidya, saying the rival Maoist faction was leading a revolution on paper that was ultimately doomed.
Since Baidya himself has lately unleashed tirades on his erstwhile protégé, Maila Baje thought anything Dahal said at this point could not have meant much there. However, the CPN-UML was infuriated.
The leadership trio – Jhal Nath Khanal, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Khadga Prasad Sharma Oil – drew out their long knives on the Maoist chief, albeit from different angles. Khanal virtually called Dahal an idiot, while Nepal called him insane. Oli described Dahal and his party as outlaws.
Nepali communists are still arguing over whether Pushpa Lal Shrestha, the founding general secretary of our own communist party, was or was not a traitor – and why and why not. In the process, the original party has split into pieces too numerous to count – often as much on personality clashes as on ideological ones. Outrage is hallmark of our comrades.
It’s not hard to begin to understand why the UML is so mad. The Maoists were supposed to be a fringe group, living on the crumbs the UML deigned to offer. UML leaders, after all, were the ones who established the relevance of communism in a post-communist world. By pouring perestroika and glasnost into a Nepali brew called People’s Multiparty Democracy, the UML sat atop the world’s first freely elected national communist government in 1994.
Yet, months later, the Maoists emerged to challenge what they saw was a brazen dilution of the faith, beginning a decade-long spree of murder and mayhem. An amalgam of communists including the once-feared Jhapali headhunters, the UML considered the notion of armed uprising untenable in Nepal’s context.
Once the insurgency spread, the party joined the rest of the mainstream – which then included the palace – to suppress the warriors. At one point, Comrade Nepal even petitioned the palace that he was the best man to complete the task, although he was also furtively meeting with rebel leaders on foreign soil.
Miffed by repeated royal rebuffs, the UML and its six allies pivoted against the palace, but only after the Maoists forced them walk behind in an interminable journey toward nebulous newness. And insult of insults, the Maoists – who had disproved the UML on the validity of armed action – now reinvented themselves as peace messengers to dominate the left flank of Nepali politics.
Yet Comrade Nepal, who the Nepali electorate doubly determined did not deserve a seat in the new legislature, still managed to sneak in, as the Maoists threw another crumb his way. Today, Dahal might seem to have grown an inflated image of himself as the consummate Nepali geopolitician. Still, he looks better than his UML critics.
Admittedly, these two big communist parties have a major challenge in maintaining their claim to the brand name. If the Maoists become the next UML, caving and compromising on everything, that would further hollow out their diminishing reputation. If the UML becomes more radicalized in order to supplant the Maoists on the extreme end of the field, well, they don’t seem to have it in themselves to do so.
For now, each can try to be what it is not and hope to make some headway. But the basic contradiction of seeking to universalize an ideology meant for little more than twentysomething utopians will not have gone away. And that realization is probably what makes our ageing comrades the angriest.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Someone Had To Say It!

There was a conspicuous clang of condescension in United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s assertion that he was visiting Beijing in an effort to help Nepal maintain equidistance between its two giant neighbors.
Dahal’s meetings with China’s new President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders were widely covered by the state-controlled Chinese media. Yet this time, the Chinese media also covered how widely their Nepali counterparts covered Dahal’s trip. And Dahal, for his part, conveyed both Chinese and Nepali concerns during a candid interview with a Nepali reporter in Beijing.
That the Chinese would use Dahal to convey their concerns on Tibet and Nepal’s moves toward federalism can perhaps best be understood against Beijing’s demonstrable reluctance to be seen interfering in our domestic affairs (and thereby contrast itself with India).
The Chinese, according to Dahal, are not necessarily against federalism. They just want to be sure that the model Nepal seems to be favoring does not end up prolonging national instability.
Amid the predictable jeers back home surrounding the Maoist chairman’s undertaking – for instance, how he furtively met the Indian ambassador thrice before his trip up north – Maila Baje feels Dahal made a constructive contribution to the Nepal-China dialogue process.
What China wants and does not want from Nepal have largely superseded Nepal’s own aspirations and expectations in recent years. Nepal’s international image has been hit by successive government crackdowns on the Tibetan community here.
Nepali protestations that we are under intense Chinese pressure to abide by our commitment to a one China policy have not found favor among the other international stakeholders, which have legitimized almost every other action the post-April 2006 leadership has taken regardless of ideological orientation.
That the domestic drivers of ‘new Nepal’ are not emboldened enough to face up to the Chinese is, ultimately, a slap in the face of these other external stakeholders.
It is in this context that Dahal’s contention that a poor Nepal cannot abide by its commitment to a one China policy comes into sharp focus. The reality that Nepal will continue to be a base for Tibetan independence/autonomy movement is now as clear as the recognition that it was always so after the 1959 Tibetan uprising. That Nepal once exercised extra-territorial rights in Tibet may be a historical footnote at this point in time, but it does provide the context to our special position there, exemplified by the fact that we are the only country with a consulate in Lhasa. (For an exhaustive treatment of this angle, Maila Baje recommends Nepal and the Geo-Strategic Rivalry Between China and India, written recently by Nepali journalist Sanjaya Upadhyaya.)
Nepal’s full cooperation in China’s campaign to stabilize Tibet has become more imperative amid our own seemingly inexorable instability. The Nepal-China border may be topographically forbidding, but it is still porous enough to be an asset to those seeking to contain (or whatever you want to call it) an assertive China. Amid deepening turmoil, the political and economic incentives from China’s rivals for Nepal to water down, if not entirely discard, its one-China policy can become more expedient to our leadership.
Thus Dahal’s exhortation to the Chinese to put their money where their mouth was long overdue. Clearly, the Chinese must have recognized how badly they have mishandled the post-April 2006 situation. By abandoning the monarchy so visibly, Beijing probably had hoped to win over the new political players. (Let’s not forget how eagerly the Chinese ambassador became the first foreign representative not to present his credentials to the king).
Yet Beijing’s very public display of ‘unsentimental pragmatism’ led the newly ascendant political parties to doubt not only China’s motives but also its willingness to sustain its newfound overtures. The political quid pro quo within which the Chinese have preferred to conduct their economic diplomacy with Nepal over the past seven years has made this much clear: Nepalis’ congenital distrust of India does not necessarily translate into outright companionship with China.
Call it equidistance or equiproximity or the Yam Doctrine, Nepali aspirations have always been the same: retaining the ability to exercise its sovereign options without fear or favor. Now what’s wrong with that?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Teetering Amid Transitions

With the prospects of new elections in June now virtually vaporized, a new round of blame game has ensued among the government, election commission and political parties. In reality, our major politicians must be relieved at this postponement of their tryst with the people.
Much has been made about how the peace process formally came to a close last week, with the dissolution of the special committee entrusted with supervision, integration and rehabilitation of thousands of Maoist ex-combatants.
Peace more or less prevails across the nation. A process of sorts, too, has been under way for a while, averting several last-minute breakdowns. Nepal as a country continues to exists. We still breathe and bounce around, at home and abroad, as full-fledged Nepalis.
The international news media, however, is picking up bits and pieces to paint a portentous portrait. The specialized outlets are especially worried. Some are concerned about the future of homosexuals. Others are anxious about the fate of women. Non-Hindus are restive over their rights. Nationalities are edgy over the disrepute the word ‘federalism’ has been kicked into. (So much so they want to resurrect the constituent assembly that had already been on life support for two years.)
Under Khil Raj Regmi, our novel head of government, Nepal’s narrative seems to be moving from one of a politically fractious state to that of an administrative/bureaucratic variety. On the surface, the high-level political committee appears to be directing affairs. But even Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who heads the political mechanism, has started extolling the virtues of evolution. (Without his flip-flops over the past decade and a half, there would have been neither war nor peace, the Maoist supremo reminds us.)
Deeper down, the government of ex-bureaucrats is doing what it can only do best: consolidating the trapping of state. Enjoying the support of the international community and most of the political parties – albeit grudgingly – the Regmi government gives us the pretense of business as usual. When the world’s sole superpower and strongest democracy now is increasingly ruled by executive orders and bureaucratic regulations, there is little point in our feeling out of step.
As long as the political process that began in April 2006 shows no immediate sign of collapse, the principal political protagonists and their civil society cheerleaders should be satisfied with anything. They will shriek and shout about principles and propriety, but that is all part of the script.
Still, this transition, by its very definition, must be transitory. When will we ever see some sort of closure? First, it was the leadership transition in China, but that has moved apace. Next on schedule is the passing of the torch in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty down south ahead of national elections. The power equations within the Hindu nationalist fold, too, need to be reset. And regional forces, including those bordering Nepal, still have to undergo some realignment.
That will easily take us to 2014, for sure. Will we then have arrived anywhere? Maila Baje thinks not. We might have to await the transition in the Tibetan leadership, as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s walks deeper into the twilight of his life, setting off fierce geopolitical jockeying for years.
If the Chinese, Indians, Americans and Europeans are all absorbed in that direction, maybe we, too, should start paying more attention – for our sake.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Nepali Congress’ Crowning Catch-22

There seems to be an outbreak of nationalism angst in the middle rungs of the Nepali Congress. Be it on the asphyxiating hold of international stakeholders or the issue of domestic federalism, leaders of Nepal’s self-proclaimed single democratic party these leaders have awakened to the nation’s existential peril.
From Shekhar Koirala to Mahesh Acharya to Minendra Rijal, the imperative of an immediate course correction has come out in variety of ways. Some have belatedly recognized how they have used in a hasty plunge into national reinvention; others are suffocating on the sidelines.
B.P. Koirala, the party’s presiding deity, always excited the faithful. Yet today, when party members mouth his call for fusing democracy and nationalism, they do so by much more than paying lip service.
Congress leaders and workers may not say it aloud, but the torment is traceable to the party’s abandonment of its traditional commitment to constitutional monarchy. Whatever may have led the late Girija Prasad Koirala to hurtle toward full-blown republicanism – exasperation, a sense of history, ambition or an outright quest for revenge – there were those who were dubious of the rupture from the outset.
Forced to choose between fealty to democracy and monarchy, it certainly seemed fashionable for the party to ditch the palace. There was also a certain smugness about the separation. The idea that the party would require enough basic relevance in order to be able to hoist the banner of democracy was simply discounted.
What energized the Nepali Congress during good times and bad was its ability to combine its commitment to democracy and monarchy into a call for action. Even when the party attempted to murder two kings, it could assert with enough credibility that it was merely targeting autocratic monarchy.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal proudly insists that the Nepali Congress has lost much of its significance simply because Nepal is now a republic. Nepali Congress leaders and workers who thought they were doing the monarchy a favor are today feeling its absence.
What can the Nepali Congress do? Platitudes on peace and prosperity can only lead them so far among the people. At least the communists have the organization and regimentation to drag along a dead ideology. With the departure of Girija Koirala, the party has become an even more pathetic collection of individuals battling extinction.
Thus, the more important question is, what will the Nepali Congress do? Reversing its abandonment of constitutional monarchy will hardly seem credible, even with an overdose of contrition. Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal has a stronger case there.
Many Nepali Congress leaders, by virtue of their recent silence on the issue of monarchy, look more dignified than, say, Surya Bahadur Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana. (The first of these avowed republicans, Maila Baje recalls, once wanted King Birendra to hang B.P. Koirala, while the second, as education minister during the 1979 student protests, thought he could simply snuff out those on the streets before he finally resigned.)
Still, a Nepali Congress alliance with so-called nationalist forces will divert too much attention on the meanings of both ‘alliance’ and ‘nationalism’. Let’s say such an amalgamation does become the dominant political force – one that might even lead to the restoration of the monarchy.
What would the Nepali Congress do about the damage that has already been done to Nepal’s ability to exercise its sovereign options? Here, the onus would fall heavily on the Nepali Congress, too, because much of that damage was inflicted by its rash desertion of the monarchy in the first place.