Sunday, May 26, 2013

… And The Questions Keep Piling Up

Word that our two Maoist factions are planning to unite ahead of the elections is getting on nerves of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninists.
The two mainstream parties, which jointly drove Nepal’s second democratic experience (1990-2002) to the ground but ended up blaming the monarchy, have been struggling for sustenance in the emerging scenario.
The Maoist crutch that helped them surmount the palace’s snub ended up debilitating the two mainstream parties. Instead of bragging how they brought the Maoists from the jungles to the mainstream – their default mode during much of the post-April 2006 delirium – Nepali Congress and UML leaders are today reminding us what kind of incorrigible barbarians the ex-rebels really are. From their incessant criticism, you kind of feel sorry for the Maoists. How much easier it must have been rebelling against the existing order with utopian promises.
What really led the Maoists to split remains unclear to this day. The ideological differences the Mohan Baidya camp cited were not compelling then. Since the split, the Baidya-led Maoists have been trying to define themselves as something different. And how times have changed. Baidya and his loyalists can’t hope to foment an uprising aimed at capturing the state when more and more Nepalis are feeling the absence of any state to speak of.
At the beginning, the Chinese seemed to be patronizing the Baidya group, but the party does not seem to have established its viability in terms of Beijing strategic purposes. In retrospect, the mandarins up north probably used the Baidya faction just get southern-tilting Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Co. to straighten up a bit.
Now that Baburam Bhattarai’s infatuation with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘dream’ has sections of the Indian press worked up, Baidya probably detects an opportunity. But weighing that against the potential blowback from the Chattisgarh massacre – perpetrated by Nepali Maoists’ ideological soulmates down south – will not be easy for a man who has regretted abjuring armed action.
Fearing marginalization, pressure is ostensibly building among some Baidya loyalists to return to the mother party. Others have engaged in so much name-calling that they figure they can’t go back with a straight face. On the other side, many have prospered in the post-split Dahal organization. They would be hard-pressed to crowd the deck without palpable potential electoral gains. All of which would, then, depend on how many Maoists actually feel elections are a near-term possibility.
The Nepali Congress and UML, no fans themselves of immediate elections, could find themselves baiting and badgering the two Maoist factions as long as they can. If Khil Raj Regmi were a traditional politician, our political class would already be demanding his head. All the Nepali Congress and UML can do now is ask Regmi to resign as chief justice.
Regmi was deemed a credible candidate for the premiership, Maila Baje recalls, precisely because he was the serving chief justice. Why, then, do the principal mainstream parties consider Regmi’s real constitutional post as an obstacle? This, to be sure, is a question no less vexing than why the Maoist factions split and now want to reunite.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

United For What, Again?

After fits and starts, the Rastriya Janashakti Party (RJP) of Surya Bahadur Thapa and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) of Pashupati Shamsher Rana have held a unity convention. Thapa, whose acceptance of the premiership during the first phase of King Gyanendra’s direct leadership led to the RPP’s split, has been trying to justify the new organization’s abandonment of the monarchy.
“Yes, we have nostalgia for the monarchy,” Thapa told reporters the other day. “But so do we for the days we used walk around without clothes during childhood. That doesn’t mean we get to do that today.”
In terms of pastoral pithiness, Thapa has offered by far the most powerful defense of his shift. But that does not answer the manifold questions surrounding his persona and politics. (Given the dress code of today’s younger Kathmandu, Thapa’s analogy might not be entirely apt, either. But that’s a different matter.)
Thapa and Rana were pillars of the palace-led partyless Panchayat system. By temperament and ambition, many perceived Thapa as having harbored Jang Bahadur-like authoritarian tendencies should such an opportunity arise. We don’t know the full story behind the ‘84 cases’ controversy of 1982 and the chain of events that led to appointment of the outgoing army chief to the ambassadorship of a country where we heard whispers that he was being held in virtual house arrest and re-education by the host government. But the whispers were powerful enough to those who remember having heard them.
In the end, Thapa, who tried to cash in his ‘contribution’ to the victory of the partyless camp in the 1980 national referendum, sought to project himself as a firm democrat. He wanted a confidence vote. When he got one in the summer of 1983, fewer than half a dozen loyalists stood with him to the very end. Thus was born the narrative of the emergence of an underground cabal led by the two brothers and the mother of the king who wanted to turn back the clock of time.
Rana, for his part, had been unceremoniously ousted from administrative service under King Birendra. On the surface, at least, he overcame any bitterness to master the Nepali language, nurse his constituency, and build a vibrant political future under that same king. But could he have really forgotten that he was born a general and would have automatically been a hereditary ruler had Jawaharlal Nehru fully continued with the British Raj’s foreign and regional policies.
In private, Pashupati had none of the humility and goodwill his father, Bijay Shamsher, possessed in remarkable abundance. In public, Pashupati’s persona was one of a firm adherent of an active monarchy, more than what Thapa was willing to contemplate.
Thapa and Rana were on opposite camps before and after the no-confidence vote. For those sitting in the gallery, their exchanges, some drawing from the Bhimsen Thapa-Mathbar Sing Thapa-Jang Bahadur Rana parables, was not only entertaining but enlightening in terms of the turn Nepali politics would subsequently take.
Although Rana became part of the effort the led to the transition to multiparty democracy during the 1990 People’s Movement, his group had already lost any relevance to the process.
During the multiparty decades under Kings Birendra and Gyanendra, neither Thapa nor Rana found it inconvenient to be identified as royalists. And why should they? At a time when the CPN-UML and even the Maoists were trying to win the palace’s backing for their partisan endeavors, the ex-panchas were prudent enough.
After another cycle of fission and fusion – and stints in and out of power – Thapa and Rana found themselves together in the united RPP. In the aftermath of the June 1, 2001 Narayanhity Massacre, Maila Baje was struck by Rana’s ability to disassociate himself with his daughter, Devyani, that mysterious but central figure in the narrative peddled after the carnage. How many fathers could have expected to escape the probing questions of investigators or reporters or concerned citizens given the scale, scope and implication of that tragedy?
Sher Bahadur Deuba, whom King Gyanendra sacked as incompetent in October 2002 before taking executive control, still blames Thapa more for egging on the palace. When Thapa himself got the top job, he couldn’t even win the support of his own party, now headed by Rana. Thapa then broke away to form the RJP.
In retrospect, the turning point for Thapa and Rana must have come when King Gyanendra took over full executive control in February 2005. Thapa and Rana found themselves lumped together with the rest of the political class in detention. Evidently, in their view, the king made no distinction between supporters and opponents.
But could that one episode really have been enough to embitter these people with the palace? They were, after all, detained in the comfort of their homes and not in real prisons or thrown into exile as the other democratic leaders were.
Or is all this part of a ruse? If the monarchy were to be restored in Nepal, it will have been done so with the support of the major parties. If the Maoists, Nepali Congress and UML could do so, how difficult might it be for these ex-panchas?
Or maybe there is something really sinister here? Perhaps Thapa, Rana and the other republican panchas of today had actually infiltrated the palace-led system for some other purpose? With public attention focused on opponents of the system who were in incarceration or exile, could these ‘loyalists’ have found it easier to do what they were ‘assigned’ to do?
B.P. Koirala often claimed that, with enough time and effort, the monarchy could be trained to coexist with democracy. Asked by Maila Baje once to explain the real challenge he felt here, B.P. replied: persuading the king who his real friends and his real enemies were.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Living With Loktantra’s Lok Mans

The domestic drivers of the April 2006 uprising tried their best to portray the appointment of Lok Man Singh Karki as the chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority as the greatest threat Nepal as a nation has faced in the last seven years. But, apparently, best was not enough.
Why those who proposed Karki – given his controversial background in the civil service going back decades over three political systems – saw him as the only person fit for the job remains intriguing. No less mysterious is the fact that those who opposed him so vociferously failed to stop the formal appointment.
If the notorious foreign hand indeed played the major role here, it would not be hard to understand. After all, what area of Nepali life has been spared the insolence of incessant external interference as we continue on our journey toward a nebulous newness?
Come to think of it, Nepalis are a distinctive breed. When we feel under siege domestically, we anxiously beseech foreigners to bail us out. When foreigners, having lent such support, try to recover their return on investment, we scream mad.
What makes us expect anyone to help us so selflessly in the first place? A national sense of entitlement stemming from a notion that our very existence is somehow a favor to the rest of the world? On the other hand, if we recognized that every offer or action came with a price tag, would we stop seeking foreign support?
Alas, our collective choice is not so clear-cut, especially considering how our geography has shaped our history. Ever since our emergence as a modern state, if we have tried to balance our place precariously between our two mighty neighbors, we have merely engaged in self-interest. Yet we have been quick to denigrate those pursuing such a policy – in the past and in the present – as merely wanting to perpetuate their personal power.
After 1950, when the active monarchists, Nepali Congress and the communists embarked on a campaign to denounce the Ranas as an oppressive oligarchy, they were not telling the whole story. Jang Bahadur and Chandra Shamsher may not have been your ideal democrat. But they did succeed in preserving Nepal’s independent identity during those turbulent times in our region.
Now, Maila Baje concedes, we can argue whether this independence was well worth the asphyxiation. But it would be dishonest to continue to take pride in our unbroken history of independence while condemning those who helped us achieve that feat. The Nepali Congress, like the monarchy, the CPN-UML and the Maoists, has learned how selective interpretation of the past can come to haunt the present.
The Yam Theory, isolation, democratic internationalism, Zone of Peace proposal, equidistance, equiproximity, transit hub, trilateral cooperation all stem from a realization that Nepal’s well-being lies in a stable region. The flipside of that recognition is that there are three countries involved that are individually defined by their own values, attitudes, needs and expectations in an increasingly globalized world that exerts it own set of pressures.
If Nepal feels its sovereign options are being undermined, it has the choice of trying to build the requisite response. That does not mean we are obliged to obey everything would-be allies say. Yet we expect China to help us loosen the grip of India, only to discover how tight Beijing’s own grasp has become. (Tibet, anyone?)
The international system is in a constant state of flux. But we act as if every country is automatically entitled to exercise sovereignty AND democracy without making painstaking investment in either. And then look what happens. The prize of loktantra comes at the price of Lok Mans.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

It’s Going To Be His Way

Khil Raj Regmi, the chairman of the Interim Election Council, looks and sounds like someone who is madly in love with his first job. Ever since taking on the second one in March, the chief justice – at least to Maila Baje – has seemed remarkably ill at ease off the bench.
Yet there comes a time when one must perforce feel comfortable where one is. That time has come for Regmi. One way he is showing it is by answering the antics in the political establishment.
Seeking to quell the criticism swirling since his appointment as head of government, Regmi chose not to take on the specifics, like, say, the failure to set the election dates. Instead, the other day, he reminded us how he was minding his own business when Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal sprang up his name as the next premier.
As the proposal gained traction, Regmi told an audience last week, he twice declined the offer during meetings with political leaders. He subsequently relented, Regmi said, in deference to the international community’s repeated requests. (Which goes on to show how a lot depends on who’s asking.)
Now that he is here, Regmi insisted that he would not resign as chief justice, not even on the hallowed grounds of separation of powers. The current situation, he implied, was abnormal enough to nullify such constitutional niceties. Although Regmi did not say so, keeping both offices was probably the principal condition he laid out before our foreign friends.
Regmi’s revelation of an external role in his elevation is not as startling as it might sound. How parties and politicians that had consistently opposed his candidacy caved virtually overnight said all that needed to be said. In any event, the post-April 2006 enterprise largely has been foreign driven. It’s the resources and reputation of foreign forces that is on the line. So far, they have been guided by what they know they don’t want to happen in Nepal. Until they can figure out what it is that they do want – or, perhaps more importantly, what is most viably possible within the specific geostrategic context – they have to keep up the narrative of normalcy.
Yet many of these same flimsy parties and politicians tried to portray their turnaround as being rooted in some kind of indigenous altruism. And that, they perhaps thought, would let them drive the new government’s agenda – or at least keep up the appearance to their followers and flunkies.
Minister for Federal Affairs and Local Development Vidyadhar Mallik’s assertion last week must have come as a blow to the political class. Mallik described the High Level Political Committee as merely an advisory body, which the government would listen to but was not obliged to follow. (Could it be merely accidental that some leaders have now started demanding Regmi’s resignation as head of government?)
There can be little doubt that Mallik was expressing the sentiments of his boss. Days later, Regmi himself broadened that message by urging the political parties to move ahead by learning from their past mistakes.
So this much is clear: if Regmi succeeds or fails, he feels it will have to be on his own account. He will not let the parties, which failed spectacularly when they were directly in charge, to pull the strings from behind in any direction.
In this phase of our Age of Perpetual Experimentation, Chief Justice and Prime Minister Regmi is going to do things his way – whatever way that is.