Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Yin And The Yang Of It

The Chinese, as usual, have left it to us to decipher what Beijing and we achieved through State Councillor Yang Jiechi’s recent two-day visit. Still, as the affable and gracious visitor, Yang needed to sum up things.
Thus were born new platitudes such as: “China-Nepal ties have entered a new phase” and “From dear friend to excellent partner”. These assertions, Maila Baje feels, are as banal and as cryptic as anything else that is coming out of Beijing vis-à-vis the outside world, as the new communist leadership settles deep inside its Zhongnanhai redoubt.
During his visit, to be sure, Yang extended generous economic cooperation, supported Nepal’s quest to hold elections, and dangled the promise of much prosperity in the future. But he offered no ‘red meat’ that in the past has won China much Nepali admiration at relatively no cost.
Contrast that with the remarks had Yang made during his visit as foreign minister in 2008. He pledged China’s help to Nepal in its effort to strengthen its sovereignty and independence. Furthermore, he envisaged bilateral relations based on ‘real equality’ so that it could become a ‘role model’ for relationships between big and small countries.
Then, Nepal had just elected a constituent assembly and, having abolished the monarchy, was on the giddy road to writing a republican constitution. Now, Yang expressed hope that elections would be the best way for Nepal to strengthen itself.
Something must have happened in the intervening years to bolster China’s confidence in Nepalis’ ability to sort things out themselves. And surely, that something did not happen inside Nepal, because China’s Tibet ‘headache’ – in Beijing’s own estimation – has not receded in these years.
The hardline geopolitical rhetoric China espoused vis-à-vis Nepal then – during Yang’s 2008 visit and manifesting in the expressions of successive Chinese visitors to ambassadors in Nepal – was emblematic of Beijing’s overall international public posture during those ‘years of assertiveness’. The period between 2008 and 2010 witnessed a sharpening of Chinese rhetoric, political disagreements and confrontations bilaterally and multilaterally. Nepal was merely a front where China felt it could flex its political and diplomatic muscles against India.
For our purposes, it remains immaterial whether that harshness came from assertive Chinese nationalism, domestic imperatives in the run-up to the feverish – and we now know highly contentious – leadership transition in a regime facing rising domestic social unrest, hubris over the western financial crisis, or a combination of whatever.
What is important for us is that Chinese commitments are to be viewed for what they are: another nation’s undertaking that it has constructed in its national interest and which it can freely recast in keeping with those interests.
Yang arrived in Kathmandu last week at a time when the new leadership in Beijing is busy recalibrating its international distinctiveness in accordance with the evolving dynamics. Specifically, for our purposes, China needs to keep India away from both an Asia-oriented United States and an increasingly regionally assertive Japan as far as those dynamics could potentially harm China.
Should events evolve differently and Nepal reverts to figuring more openly in China’s public pronouncements on regional strategy, we should not careful not to lose our poise. In an ideal world, Nepal would long to prosper amid growing interactions between the two great Asian civilizations and economic powerhouses. The enrichment powers farther west and east could bring to this engagement is, theoretically, immense. Alas, such utopianism thrives only in the leftist-liberal mindset.
Amid the volatility of the international system, countries like Nepal must be constantly on the defensive, not because of some innate national inferiority complex but because of the realism imposed by the attributes of our existence.
The Chinese, Indians, Americans, Europeans, Japanese, or anyone else for that matter can take turns and accuse us of playing one power or group off against another. They can be forgiven, especially since they are part of the currents we are constantly adjusting to.
We falter when we somehow start feeling we have to apologize for what has become our basic strategy for survival. Thus, we are left twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to figure out what Yang might have meant when he said this or did that…

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Appraising The Average Indian And Us

Breaking out of our cross-institutional indignation in the aftermath of last week’s devastating floods in western Nepal, it’s hard not to feel for the average Indian.
The Indian Embassy rejected the mounting contention from our political class that the floods in Mahakali River were caused by release of excess water from Dhauliganga Dam in India’s Uttarakhand state.
Significantly, Nepal’s top bureaucrat, Lila Mani Poudel, after inspecting the area with Interim Government Chairman Khil Raj Regmi, appeared to back the original Nepali stance. “Since the matter was related to a project in a friendly country, the chairman didn’t make any comment (on the accusations),” Chief Secretary Poudel said. He, of course, hastened to add that his comments were based on the local people’s views.
Still, when Nepali civil servants begin expressing such candor, regardless of the immediate veracity of the claim, you get a greater sense of the sordidness of the bilateral state of affairs.
To the average Indian citizen, our political-bureaucratic-popular contention must have sounded particularly inopportune. For one thing, Indians are also the victims of the recent regional floods. For another, this caustic outspokenness comes barely days after former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s high-profile visit to New Delhi, during which he assured Indian journalists that no widespread anti-Indian sentiment prevailed in Nepal.
While we have long complained about India’s constant meddling in all aspects of our national life, the average Indian has remained flustered by the sheer lack of gratitude on our part. During times like these, even Maila Baje cannot help commiserate with the average Indian.
Think of it this way. We hardly seem to recall that it was the Indians who gave us our first airport and first highway and a plethora of other things. Those who do remember are more likely to see the airport as a carefully contrived tool of ensuring more direct Indian interference. The highway? Well, we are apt to say, the Indians built it in a way that would increase consumption of Indian products and parts. Remittances started flowing into Nepal long before we discovered the Gulf countries. The sheikhs hold on to our passports, while the Indians do not require us to even possess one.
Big brothers do recognize the disadvantage that comes with size. But they don’t like having to apologize for it. In fairness, even they were capable of grasping how prickly their very preponderance is for the little guys, there is scarcely anything they – or we – can really do about it.
But sometimes we make matters worse. Infuriated by Indian assertions of ‘special relations’, we do not hesitate to beseech India to bail us out from our inherently internal predicaments. When the Indians do so, they proceed in accordance with their own national interest. So when Nepal’s political future is charted in the Indian capital in 1951 or 2005, the nature of the political structure advanced is secondary to the understanding of how that structure advances India’s broad national interests.
In their exuberance, our leaders rush to explain that India’s role in advancing Nepali democracy should not be considered detrimental in any way. The duly anointed new regime sets out to work as if there is nothing more to do. Their failure to deliver, so obvious to so many Nepalis so soon, begins to rile their Indian patrons. New Delhi can’t go back, so it starts picking and choosing leaders within parties; those sidelined are the first to start blaming India.
This cycle is perhaps understandable to the average Indian. He or she probably also recognizes how successive governments in New Delhi have contributed to botching relations. When they see RAW – a pale shadow of Pakistan’s ISI in the annals of international espionage – blamed for everything that goes wrong in Nepal, the average Indian probably tends to blame his or her own government. Presumably, the average Indian – global in approach and ambition – is more tolerant of Nepal’s quest for sovereign existence. If official India tends to equate every Nepali assertion of its sovereign rights as anti-Indianism, then average Indian might perhaps be tempted to hold New Delhi answerable for a lot.
But then he or she sees us rooting for Pakistan in sporting events. We seem to be opposed to India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council not because we don’t think India possesses the requisite qualifications, but because of some quirk in our collective national DNA. If a Bollywood flick makes a slight misstep in terms of history or geography, the distinction between cinema and subversion disappears.
Bilateral relations are capable of withstanding all manner of pressure as long as the people are able to rise above their respective governments’ shenanigans. The average Indian might still ask his or her government for answers. Will he or she be able to do so without turning against the average Nepali, though?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Stringing A Story From Bits And Pieces

Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister did not, after all, succumb exclusively to a supposedly power-hungry feudal tyrant.
Shashank Koirala, whose attempt at inheriting the political mantle of his father B.P. Koirala has so far sputtered, has prodded us deeper into the murkiness of that era.
In an exhaustive interview with a leading Kathmandu daily, Shashank all but accused then Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru of instigating King Mahendra to oust B.P. in December 1960.
Nehru’s relations with B.P., according to Shashank, turned frosty after B.P. established diplomatic relations with Israel, then a pariah in much of the developing and communist world. When Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito called B.P. the “rising star in the Asian horizon”, the Nepali monarch simply flipped out.
Shashank should know – his side of the story. B.P. must have repeatedly recounted those tumultuous times amid his family and friends. Yet, B.P.’s first elaborate explanation on the subject could have come only eight years after King Mahendra’s takeover, when the ousted premier was freed from incarceration in 1968. (Unless, of course, father, son or whichever relative discovered some code to evade the royal eavesdroppers during the jail visits.)
Admittedly, the love-hate relationship between King Mahendra and B.P. Koirala did much to define a crucial phase of Nepal’s political evolution. As someone who happened to witness some of it from both sides, Maila Baje can affirm that the full story, once it emerged in public, would help us understand our national plight better. For now, piecing the bits and pieces emanating from the two sides (mostly, though, from B.P.’s side) into a coherent whole is the best we can attempt to do.
It is no secret that Nehru had a difficult relationship with B.P. While admiring some of B.P.’s ‘excellent qualities’ like ‘push, drive etc.’, Nehru also saw him as ‘far too impulsive’. “But by over-reaching himself [B.P.] might not only injure his own changes but, what was important, injure Nepal’s interests.” (quoted from Nehru’s letter to M.P. Koirala dated February 28, 1952).
B.P. himself felt India had a role in denying him a prominent role in power after his resignation in 1952 as home minister in the Rana-Nepali Congress cabinet. (This was a controversial and highly suspicious contrivance in itself, which Maila Baje has detailed in previous posts).
After Nepal’s first democratic elections in 1959, when King Mahendra took his time in inviting the massively triumphant Nepali Congress to form a government, B.P. recognized how the delay might have had to do with the monarch’s reluctance to work with him. Nehru, too, was said to be more amenable to the king’s choice: Subarna Shamsher Rana, the more soft-spoken leader of the election government and principal financier of the party.
But after B.P. lobbied hard with Nehru through intermediaries, the Indian premier openly advocated his candidature with the palace. How that came about is not entirely clear. But certainly all three personages involved must have recognized the incongruity of depriving the most popular leader of the majority party – and one who won a seat in parliament – from heading the government.
Despite their mutual admiration for one another, the Mahendra-B.P. experiment was bound to fail on account of their divergent outlooks and temperaments. B.P. had a modern and reformist – and even an historic – vision of his role, but one, in retrospect, that was far ahead of what cold war dynamics would have permitted to be viable in Nepal.
King Mahendra’s own idea of the monarchy’s supreme and personal role in defining Nepal’s independent and sovereign identity was shaped not only by his isolation during Rana rule but also the machinations under way during his exile in New Delhi in the winter of 1950-51. In his view, B.P. was moving too fast for Nepal’s good.
Externally, during B.P.’s premiership, the issue of Israel meshed with that of Tibet and growing Sino-Indian rifts to create a geopolitical maelstrom that was propitious neither to B.P. Koirala nor Nepal’s nascent democracy. This was a time when the world’s two communist behemoths, the Soviet Union and China, had opposing interests in Nepal, as did the world’s largest democracies, the United States and India.
Before his takeover, King Mahendra had completed visits to the United States and Britain during which, according to subsequently declassified documents, both western powers were stepping up their campaign to use the Tibet issue as a tool against international communism (both through covert armed action and more public political-diplomatic maneuverings.)
India, whose relations with China were deteriorating after the rosy expectations of Asian solidarity, had granted the Dalai Lama asylum in 1959 but was not ready to go all out with the West on the larger Tibet issue. Moscow, which was in the early years of the split with Beijing, was wooing countries like Nepal also as part of its larger campaign to prove its ability to coexist peacefully with countries possessing different traditions and political systems.
It would be preposterous to conclude that Nehru perceived any kind of threat to his international persona from B.P.’s emergence as democratic Nepal’s face to the world. (That delusion, however, is widespread in the Nepali Congress to this day). It was all about Nehru’s policy and practical expectations from Nepal and from B.P. at that crucial moment against the background of a wider cauldron.
Even if Nehru had wanted only B.P.’s removal from the premiership but a continuation of the political structure – the conventional wisdom – the pressures against Nepal’s open and democratic political system were far more pervasive. It’s easy in today’s Nepali political discourse to forget how Nepal was part of a cold war pattern in Asia, Africa and Latin America where democratic governments fell like dominos to authoritarianism of the right and left.
Throughout his life, B.P. was willing to absolve only China from any role in his ousting. King Mahendra, for his part, would stun quite a few interlocutors by asking whether they really believed he alone bore responsibility for B.P.’s incarceration. For years after the ex-premier’s release in 1968, B.P. and King Mahendra both could be heard wondering aloud in their disparate settings how differently events might have turned out had they been able to surmount in time the efforts of the likes of Surya Prasad Upadhyaya and Surya Bahadur Thapa to push them apart, resulting in B.P.’s flight into exile in India. Nehru, of course, was long dead.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Let The Fun Last A Little Longer

Maoist vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai describes western powers and their pliant non-government organizations as the biggest obstacle to fresh elections. His boss, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, holds the Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist and the breakaway Maoist faction responsible for pretty much the same offense.
Collectively, constituents of our political class take turns each day chastising Interim Election Council Chairman Khil Raj Regmi for failing to even set an election schedule. Regmi, for his part, points to the parties’ stalling tactics.
Civil society leaders are mad at everyone. Their principal gripe, though, is a little weird: seven years after entering the mainstream, the Maoists are still behaving like the Maoists. But, then, what good is the grievance industry without grievances?
In the midst of this quite enjoyable mêlée, the Americans were stung the deepest by Dr. Bhattarai’s censure. Ambassador Peter Bodde, according to published reports, rebuked Dr. Bhattarai, but apparently not to his face. The ambassador chose to vent his ire during a meeting with Dahal (who, Maila Baje might add, must have relished every string of words the ambassador managed to construct).
Bodde has been insisting that elections are the only way forward for Nepal. It’s easy to say so when you’re representing a government that has – we now know – a prism to snoop on your own people – supporters and opponents alike – 27/4. Nepalis just want to be sure we don’t trip on the same stone twice without some redeeming purpose.
Dr. Bhattarai, too, agrees that elections need to be held at the earliest. In a sense, he can claim that he had resigned precisely in that expectation. But he prefers these days to insist that the Chinese and Indians both want us heading to the ballot boxes as soon as possible.
It’s easy to understand how badly our northern and southern friends want our western ones out. (When it comes to the eastern ones – the Japanese and Australians, in particular – the north-south convergence tends to get fuzzier, though.)
However, is neighborly concern for their own geo-strategic well-being good enough reason for Nepalis to keep proving how committed we are to the exercise of our inalienable democratic rights?
If the Chinese are so enamored of the people’s verdict, how come they don’t like to test it on their turf? The Indians, too, marvel at the opportunity available in Nepal for widening the political mainstream. Yet their own Maoists find it so hard to make themselves heard through anything less baleful than bombs and bullets.
Deep down, the federalism debate is said to be scaring our neighbors the most, and animating those farther afield. Whether or how Nepal needs to be federalized is something we should be allowed to settle internally. If our neighbors and friends have a problem with this notion of self-determination, then maybe we should quit feeling helpless and start using it to our advantage.
If we can turn any pulsating peril of deeper instability around to something that ends up saving us, that shouldn’t be castigated as extortion. The Chinese and Indians, after all, find that trade-off perfectly fine when it comes to the North Koreans and the Iranians, respectively.
For now, we’re kind of enjoying the touch and tenor of the blame game. Let’s not interrupt the players.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sharpening of the Sikkim Meme

Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad is concluding his tenure in Nepal on a far more placid note than his immediate predecessor did. In retrospect, the consistently bad press Rakesh Sood got here could be partly blamed on his own personality, and partly on the circumstances of Nepal-India relations prevailing at the time. In any case, Sood’s tenure did underscore the wisdom of at least trying to match the person with his period.
Prasad, perhaps also mindful of the sometimes controversial role of his father, Bimal Prasad, during the early phase of Nepal’s restored multiparty democracy, remained careful not to ruffle feathers. (Remember how Nepali Congress President Krishna Prasad Bhattarai had to hear from Ambassador Bimal Prasad how Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala was reshuffling his cabinet and dropping Bhattarai loyalists?)
Yet Jayant Prasad had to reconcile the imperative of perceived neutrality with his overall brief to speak candidly on matters he considered supportive of his nation’s interests in Nepal. Since ambassadors generally feel they can afford to speak more openly at the end of their tenures, Prasad seized the opportunity.
In interacting with Nepali journalists – the fraternity with the influence and inclination to give him the most grief – Prasad chose a broad swath consisting of democrats, communists and royalists.
The ambassador insisted that India was genuinely interested in helping Nepal. New Delhi, he averred, paid great attention to ensuring that its assistance and modes of delivery were compatible with Nepal’s pressing requirements.
When Prasad interjected Sikkim into the conversation – specifically, how it is now the fifth richest state in India – Maila Baje doesn't think he somehow tripped. His Excellency embarked in his own way toward exuding his country’s soft power.
In Sikkim, Prasad explained to his audience, the Nepali language could be used as a medium for appearing in examinations to qualify for government services in India. In fact, Nepalis could purchase land in and inhabit any state of India.
While he was at it, Prasad might as well have reminded Nepalis how there is no movement in Sikkim to restore its independence. Indeed, ‘Sikkimization’ is not even a pejorative there.
Nor does ‘Bhutanization’ seem to be in Bhutan. Sure, the country would love some extra breathing space, such as in regularizing relations with China and becoming a more active member of the international community. But what Nepalis perceive as India’s stranglehold on Bhutanese domestic and international relations is oblivious to the locals.
Of course, the section of the population most aggrieved happened to be chased out of the country almost two decades ago. Bhutan continues to be extolled as a model of gross national happiness, at a time when some ethnic Nepali Bhutanese families are divided across several countries as refugees. Ethnic cleansing seems to acquire much legitimacy when it is concluded relatively bloodlessly within a specific geo-strategic context.
The larger point here is how the Sikkim meme has entered a new phase in Nepal. When, under the Panchayat system, the palace perceived and pointed out threats to national sovereignty and independence emanating from the south, Indians easily portrayed such apprehensions as part of the crown’s sinister plot aimed at self-preservation. The surprising part was how easily the domestic anti-Panchayat camp was ready to parrot that line.
When democratic parties before and after the Panchayat era pointed to instances of Indian ham-handedness, they were dismissed as mere politicking. As that process persists, our pols undermine their case by voicing such concerns only when they are out of power. Unfortunately for Nepal, the Indians have been successful in ridiculing the very articulation of these grievances.
Today, when Baburam Bhattarai, the most India-friendly politician since Matrika Prasad Koirala in Nepali popular perception, praises Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideas in an interview with state-controlled Chinese media, the Indian media cannot resist giving a snarky spin to the story.
It is easy to say how times have changed and that Nepal’s full independence and sovereignty are realities that only irrational Indians can question. Sadly, the reality of the first part of that contention does not validate the second. India’s Nepal policy, sensible observers in both countries agree, is devised by a motley range of actors with variable opinions and outlooks. Even when the priorities of individual constituencies converge, it is not necessarily on account of an agreement on the premise.
One such constituency consists of Indians who have never reconciled themselves psychologically to the reality that Nepal has managed to remain outside the modern Indian federation. Since this is a state of mind, the presence of this constituency transcends Indian institutions.
Sikkim and Bhutan, the other Himalayan border states that independent India’s leaders saw as the unfinished business of 1947, have been enmeshed in their own strategically sound arrangements with the regional behemoth. Nepal, however, has slipped further away.
Our pesky sense of independence, regardless of the political system in place here, confounds this section of Indians. Questioning the value of that independence, then, becomes the next logical step. If Sikkim can lose its sovereignty but still strengthen its soul, who are Nepalis to complain? With the premise thus set, the discussion can take its course.