Saturday, July 27, 2013

Partial Truths And Selective Outrage

The back-and-forth between Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai and Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) president Kamal Thapa is becoming a delight for those of us who love to take a long look backwards.
Dr. Bhattarai’s outbursts against former king Gyanendra for his alleged attempts to revive the monarchy through his current regional tour are understandable. As someone who still claims with a straight face almost exclusive credit for having turned Nepal into a republic, Dr. Bhattarai is by far the most aggrieved Nepali on this count.
Where Maila Baje finds Dr. Bhattarai rather duplicitous is in his assertion that he would have arrested (even hanged or exiled) the ex-king if he were prime minister today. Come on, this is not the first time the former king has embarked on high-profile regional tours. Moreover, the former monarch has been more outspoken politically during previous outings, including when Dr. Bhattarai headed the government. As an acclaimed propagandist, Dr. Bhattarai should have come up with something better.
This blast from the past has acquired added urgency precisely because of Dr. Bhattarai’s antecedents. In his famed Kantipur essay in June 2001 urging Nepalis not to legitimize what he called a “new Kot Parba”, Dr. Bhattarai accused the new king of virtually pulling the trigger on King Birendra and his entire family to seize power. As prime minister, Dr. Bhattarai hardly resembled the author of that polemic, even after the ex-monarch’s open challenge to his accusers.
Of course, Dr. Bhattarai had also indicted then-prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala for complicity in the Narayanhity Conspiracy. So when the Maoists joined hands with part of the ‘Gyanendra-Girija clique’ to overthrow the monarchy, Nepalis thought the rebels were merely being pragmatic. Given that a one-party Maoist state was an impossibility in our day and age, the comrades needed a veneer of legitimacy that the Nepali Congress leader could provide.
Now it looks like Dr. Bhattarai had wanted to do a deal with King Gyanendra first. In Thapa’s recollection of a key phase in the peace talks, Dr. Bhattarai offered the king to become Nepal’s first president. (In retrospect, that was not quite a downgrade for the king considering the Kims in North Korea and the sheikhs in the United Arab Emirates.)
But the palace rebuffed that offer. The Girija alliance was an afterthought nurtured by a bruised ego, inflamed by foreigners outraged by the palace’s effort to find an indigenous solution to the conflict. (Just go back and read the Indian press commentary during this period.)
Kamal Thapa will perhaps come out with further tid-bits to fill the gaps Dr. Bhattarai has left out vis-à-vis the monarchy. Since the RPP-N leader has been dissected minutely enough since his student years, we can afford to set him aside here. But there are enduring mysterious aspects of the Maoist leader that need to come out from the man himself. His penchant for selective outrage must not be allowed to obscure some key questions:
How many times did Dr. Bhattarai and other senior Maoist leaders escape death when Nepali soldiers were asked to call off their offensives at the last minute?
Who in India bailed him and the missus out of Prachanda’s labor camp in 2005 and forced a patch-up in time for the 12-Point Agreement with the Seven Party Alliance? What specific undertakings had the Maoists (and Dr. Bhattarai as the prime interlocutor) made to the Indian government between November 2005 and April 2006?
How come the consistently tempered, coherent and elegant prose Dr. Bhattarai produced during his underground years turned out to be so inconsistent with the spoken language he has been employing since 2006?
Based on the preceding, what will Dr. Bhattarai do in the event the monarchy is restored?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Seduction Of The Senior Leader

Confronting the surprise resignation of vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) seems to have resolved to go the way of its two leading peers.
Whether party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s offer of the position of ‘senior leader’ would do much to appease Dr. Bhattrarai or ameliorate the UCPN-Maoist’s underlying identity crisis remains to be seen. But the senior leader’s position does represent a remedy that has worked reasonably well with the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML).
Former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Madhav Kumar Nepal are ordained as senior leaders in their respective parties. By proffering such structured obeisance, Maila Baje feels the parties have tamed internal dissidence to a tolerable level, allowing both the Nepali Congress and UML to negotiate their wider and ostensibly interminable churning processes.
Neither man needs to investigate or invoke his organizational strength at any given moment or on any given issue in order to maintain his preeminence in the political discourse of the day. Through due deference, the official leaders feel they have done enough to contain any threat to their own positions.
The UCPN-Maoist’s position is more analogous to that of the UML than to the Nepali Congress. Each of the two major communist parties is today led by a former prime minister who, in turn, has to accommodate the pride and predilections of another ex-premier.
But there is also a key difference. While UML senior leader Nepal has already led his party, Dr. Bhattarai has never had such exclusive organizational dominance. For his part, Deuba, a three-time premier, has the good fortune of working among men who have never held the top job.
Narayan Kaji Shrestha, the other vice-chairman of the UCPN-Maoist, is not too happy with the prospect of Dr. Bhattarai’s elevation. His own ambitions – and the back-story of his rapid rise in the party – are too strong to overcome.
Then there is that possibility of reunification of the Maoist factions. Cutting through momentary alliances of convenience, it is pretty clear that Dr. Bhattarai is by far more polarizing to the breakaway group than anyone else.
What really compound the UCPN-Maoist’s challenge, though, are the persona, temperament and attitude of Dr. Bhattarai. He still has a penchant for taking almost exclusive credit for Nepal having become a republic, despite the fact that he was the last man to speak of a cultural monarchy so late in the day.
Rarely, if ever, has the persona of a politician taken such a precipitous plunge before and after his stint in Singh Darbar. Yet Dr. Bhattarai doesn’t believe he can be held responsible for his government’s failures. As all true leftists asserts, he feels his motives and intentions should count the most.
In search of the greatness that he seems convinced fate has thrust upon him, Dr. Bhattarai’s iconoclasm has taken startling forms. The other day, he became the only ex-premier to urge the government take responsibility for the medical treatment of former prime minister Marich Man Singh Shrestha, who is battling lung cancer in a New Delhi hospital.
When reports emerged recently that Dr. Bhattarai might be joining the Nepali Congress, they sparked guttural gasps of incredulity. Yet they were immediately succeeded by an acknowledgement that there might be some method to such madness, precisely given the man so afflicted.
Hey, it’s even tempting to believe that the elevation of Dr. Bhattarai may have something uplifting for all of us.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Time For A New Tack

The Chinese media were quick to cover the firestorm kicked off by the dash six of our former prime ministers made toward visiting Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid. “Many perceive that Nepali leaders should abandon the tendency of bowing their head to low-ranking Indian officials,” Xinhua news agency gleefully reported in a dispatch widely covered by Chinese outlets.
The Indian media ran equally fast with that Xinhua report, and with that additional subtext: No matter how loud these men might rail against us at times, in the end…
Then came the blizzard of editorializing and opinionating in the Nepali media. What these six hapless men may or may not have discussed with the esteemed visitor was drowned out.
Doubtless, the sight was unseemly – before and after. One ex-premier cut short a trip to Singapore to be with Khurshid, who himself had abbreviated his trip. A former deputy prime minister later publicly regretted having met with the Indian dignitary.
Maila Baje recognizes that the affair represented an egregious breach of the code of conduct introduced by the previous government, which barred former prime ministers from meeting lower ranking foreign guests at their hotel. Moreover, the former prime ministers did not take consent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the meetings, which the code also stipulates. Making matters worse, Khurshid asserted that he had not invited anyone to his hotel.
Yet, in the end, what we all saw was perfectly understandable in its wider context. Khurshid and his interlocutors merely underscored the basic reality gripping Nepal since we started out on our rapturous march toward national renewal.
Throughout this process, the Indians have carefully avoided reminding us directly who’s in the driver’s seat. But to a different audience – and for a different imperative – they continue to take great pride in having forged the alliance between the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels against the monarchy.
Then foreign minister (and now President) Pranab Mukherjee was only among the more candid Indians when he pointed out this ‘feat’ of Indian diplomacy during that interview on Al Jazeera a couple of years ago. (And that discerning assertion of the Indian version of the Monroe Doctrine became part of a resume enhancer for Mukherjee.)
The Wikileaks cables covering the 2005-2006 period bear out what was known all along. Yet we still have Indian apologists in our politics and media asking us: “Do you really think Indians spend their entire waking hours plotting how to destabilize Nepal?” Ridicule your critics, and no rebuttal is necessary. Alinskyites are ensconced everywhere these days.
The Indians made a rather safe bet on the Chinese vis-à-vis Nepal. Since familiarity eventually breeds contempt, New Delhi thought it would let Nepalis themselves figure out whose stifling embrace they abhorred more.
The crux of the matter is very much within. After our 2006-2008 hopey-changey high, we went downhill. We began hating the Maoists for being Maoists and the Nepali Congress for being the Nepali Congress, and so on. Sensing the ifs and buts running through our collective DNA, the political parties, largely under Indian tutelage, began assembling a patchwork of compromises and foisting them as bold turns in the peace process. And we went along, still wailing and moaning. Ultimately, the parties can’t change who they are. Nor can we change who we are.
So maybe it’s time to try a different tack. Let the Indians take open charge of the process. And let us wholeheartedly welcome it. If the Indians help us reach where we Nepalis think we should get to, then what would we have to complain? If not, it’s not as if we’d ever have to stop castigating them for constantly pushing us around.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Nepal Needs To Be Nepal First

The hubbub generated by Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi’s recent visit and Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s impending arrival gently nudged Maila Baje toward the past.
Images twirled of an era when monarchs, presidents and prime ministers – from countries near and far – graced Kathmandu on a fairly regular basis during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
During those decades, we were not – by any definition – a democracy. Political parties – the lifeblood of an open political system – stood proscribed. Anything approximating an organized challenge to the partyless regime then in place was forbidden. Nepal was a firm administrative state – with the palace at the apex – and one that worked well in establishing its presence in the international community.
Statesmen like French President Francois Mitterrand (1983) and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1986) visited us as did figureheads like Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (1961 and 1986) and Spain’s King Juan Carlos (1987).
Leaders like Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (1974) and Nicholas Ceausescu of Romania (1987) may not have been ideal dignitaries of their time. But their visits did underscore Nepal’s established place within the confines of the raging East-West rivalries.
Indian and Chinese presidents and prime ministers were more frequent visitors. The arrival and departure of foreign ministers of those two nations – as of other nations – were noteworthy events, but not the kind of epochal ones those of their modern-day successors are made out to be.
It was a different world then, you might say. True. But the era had its own set of geo-strategic challenges, which Nepal managed to navigate commendably. The world’s two largest democracies were at loggerheads. Its two communist giants were in an even greater state of enmity. Yet they built our roads and factories.
Today Nepal is a democracy, albeit one struggling to find its berth. Not only are the democracies philosophically on the same side. Authoritarian regimes that shun their own people are actively encouraging Nepalis to hold free elections. The world gives a premium to democracy – or at least the quest for it – as a basic etiquette of international engagement.
In secrecy and under cover of darkness, presidents and prime ministers land in danger zones to convey their commitment to rebuilding places like Afghanistan and Iraq. But here we are in virtual wilderness, as far as foreign dignitaries are concerned.
To be sure, the international community continues to affirm our non-failure as a state. The sanctification of questionable consensus, generous disbursement of assistance and copious expressions of goodwill all come under the rubric of the international community. Yet individual countries that matter do not want their fingerprints here. When that odd dignitary does happen to arrive (Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2012), we treat him with shabbiness directly attributable to the sordidness our politics has acquired. Mercifully, the Indians still consider us worthy of their foreign minister and not within the ambit of their home minister.
In a way, you can’t blame foreign leaders for so studiously seeking to avoid us. As Nepal gropes for a nebulous newness, no one wants to be seen interfering with this seemingly interminable process. Amid our polarized politics, action and inaction have their share of supporters and detractors. What is genial counsel to one man is gratuitous intrusion to another.
In varying degrees, normal nations have their own challenges of exclusion, exploitation, marginalization and machination. In attempting to narrow those negatives, nations ordinarily do not lose sight of what works to unite them and propels them to forge ahead. The principal international stakeholders probably think it best that we figure that basic lesson ourselves.
To us, ‘unity in diversity’ may still be reminiscent of an autocratic era’s clarion call. But its enduring rationality is established by the reality that Nepal cannot return to becoming a constellation of microstates between two regional behemoths, just because we cherish the fullest devolution possible. Indeed, those in the past who stretched nationalistic sloganeering too far bear much responsibility for the fraying of our basic cohesion. Those who sought to denigrate the imperative of commonness by incessantly playing up our divisions are today paying the price for their shortsightedness.
Ultimately, foreign visitors – regardless of rank, temperament or predilection – will continue to push their respective national interests. Nepal just needs to be Nepal first.