Sunday, August 25, 2013

Perils of Trust Sans Verification

BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad
In seeking to defend his country against allegations of malevolent interference in Nepal, did a top visiting Indian dignitary end up confirming that the ostensibly pro-monarchy Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government actually conspired with the Nepali Maoists to turn the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular republic?
Dr. Prakash Chandra Lohani of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and Chandra Prakash Mainali of Nepal Communist Party-Marxist Leninist – representatives of opposite poles in Nepali politics – raised the clandestine Maoist-New Delhi relationship during an interaction with Ravi Shankar Prasad, a leader of the BJP, in Kathmandu the other day.
A visibly exasperated Prasad countered: “What is the harm if peace prevails in Nepal and the terrorists accept the democratic setup?” Nothing indeed, if the Indian government had been upfront about it all along.
In reality, the myth that the BJP was solidly behind the monarchy was demolished long before the Maoist-New Delhi concord. (The Maoists, under the terms of the understanding, pledged to keep their anti-Indian rhetoric limited to that, while New Delhi continued to offer safe haven and covert political and diplomatic support to the rebels.)
True, the BJP-led government had invited King Birendra as the chief guest to India’s Republic Day celebrations in 1999. This gesture, it was felt by some Nepalis at the time, underscored India’s final acceptance of Nepal as a full and sovereign nation. Yet those making that claim conveniently forgot that Bhutan’s monarch had already been an invitee.
It was under BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that India’s intelligence agents leaked a report that Nepal had become a virtual Pakistani proxy in the latter’s undeclared war on India. Then came allegations that Queen Aishwarya somehow had a role in the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
After the 1999 Christmas eve hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi led to an embarrassing denouement in Kabul, where the Indian foreign minister personally escorted the captives the hijackers demanded New Delhi free, India stepped up all manner of pressure on Nepal.
And there was the biggie: the Narayanhity massacre of 2001. The initial Indian media reports, Maila Baje recalls, suggested that were that there were no surviving claimants to the throne (Prince Gyanendra, too, having been killed in the gathering). CNN and the western media, however, insisted that Prince Gyanendra was very much alive to provide continuity to the monarchy.
Reports circulating then had it that the American and British ambassadors, along with Prince Gyanendra, had proceeded to Pokhara from their scheduled trip to Chitwan after bidding goodbye to their fellow sojourner, the Indian ambassador, who returned to Kathmandu, oblivious of the Pokhara excursion.
The Maoists, who the Indian media had suggested had been poised to take over Narayanhity, then disappeared among the mourners. If India was angered by the western plot, it was likely to see the Maoists as its newfound ally. (Much would emerge from any future memoir by RAW operative Ravindra Singh, who later defected to the United States, but that seems a long shot.)
Nepal’s entire subsequent saga thus could be understood as the trials of a monarch who was not exactly power-hungry but confounded by the wider machinations under way down south. The precise extent of King Gyanendra’s awareness of these maneuverings, while not entirely known, can be appraised by his interviews with Indian journalists before and during his first state visit to India in June 2002 – the same period the Maoist-New Delhi understanding is said to have been reached.
That the BJP should be accused of such villainy by a perennially irate neighbor is probably a badge of honor for a party hoping to spring back to power next year. For us, the chronicle reinforces the perils of trust without verification.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tribute To A True Son Of The Soil

To the very end, the man embodied Old Nepal.
Refusing the honors perfunctorily bestowed by the state, family and friends of Marich Man Singh Shrestha bid the former prime minister a tearful farewell to the tune of the old national anthem. What was ostensibly a lyrical paean to the erstwhile monarchy became an enduring symbol of a nation’s tribute to a commoner.
Shrestha, reconciling to his imminent defeat to lung cancer after a month-long treatment regimen in New Delhi, landed in Kathmandu to die on his native soil. The gesture merely capped a life that was laced with dignity and courage.
The longest-serving prime minister of post-Rana Nepal, Shrestha had risen through the ranks of the Panchayat system from the village up. In 1986, he defied the conventional wisdom that a Shah king would never appoint a Newar prime minister. Yet Shrestha was late addition to his long-familiar surname, Singh, an adjustment some attributed to the palace’s emphasis on its own propensity to change.
Still, many Kathmandu Valley-based Newars remained unimpressed by the royal appointment, especially since Shrestha was from distant Salyan, and not, say, Sankhu.
Shrestha didn’t seem bothered by the quibbling. From Maila Baje’s vantage point, the man seemed firm in his belief that the partyless Panchayat system was the political model most suited to Nepal’s innate socio-economic and cultural needs as well as the prevailing geopolitical realities. As soft-spoken as he could be, Shrestha was stern when it came to defending the partyless system.
As the People’s Movement for the restoration of multiparty democracy took a sharp violent turn in April 1990, Shrestha was dismissed for having employed unnecessary force against the protestors. Although many long-time panchas were appalled by how Shrestha was made the sacrificial lamb, he gracefully exited the scene to let history take its course.
It was that courage of conviction that allowed him to become a virtual recluse but rational observer of the emerging national scene. Maila Baje never detected an iota of bitterness in Shrestha, who seemed to be shunned by, if not the palace, his Panchayat colleagues.
Shrestha, like many recent associates of successive kings, could have blamed the palace for ignoring his wise counsels on dealing with the 1990 movement. He could have castigated any number of underground cabals for misleading the king toward their devious ends. He could have blamed foreign powers for engineering his political demise.
Yet Shrestha maintained a quiet dignity, never flaunting his ‘nationalistic’ credentials. He left his record to the ultimate judges, the people. They, in turn, helped him emerge third in a Kathmandu constituency barely four years after adjacent streets had reverberated with ‘Hang Marich Man’ slogans. No, he didn’t win a seat in parliament. But the country, quick to sense how its hopes had been belied, could not ignore the symbolism of his vote count.
Ultimately, Shrestha had to go to India for medical treatment. He could do so without a tinge of irony because he had not engaged in petty India-baiting before or after his premiership. He stood up to India’s trade and transit embargo while also seeking to preserve the partyless polity. From the outset, he must have sensed the hopelessness of the twin challenge, but Shrestha pursued it with all the commitment and assurance of the prime minister of a sovereign and independent nation.
The Shrestha family had to issue a public appeal for funds for his medical treatment in India. The public outrage at this official disdain of an ex-premier was so conspicuous that our current leaders thought it best to silently endure the collective slap on their faces.
In the annals of the lifestyle of Nepal’s modern political leadership, Shrestha was an aberration. What better tribute to the departed soul than that so many Nepalis belonging to a generation with barely a personal recollection of his premiership look upon his life and times with such deferential amazement?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Flashback: Crafting A Constitution With A Bill of Wrongs

We can’t turn back from a federal Nepal but can’t seem to agree on the kind of states to create. So one of our brilliant political minds came up with a dazzling idea. Let’s promulgate the new constitution, setting aside that contention issue, and any other ones, for that matter.
The Nepali Congress has an established tradition of taking half steps and then claiming to be the only party with the fortitude to go the full mile. Yet, Maila Baje thinks Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat’s proposal may not be as half-baked as it sounds. Nepal can’t put off indefinitely the culmination of that hopey-changey moment six springs ago.
To be honest, the political shenanigans have become too delicious to miss. The systematic mockery of constitutionalism is being supported by the paragons of democracy in the south and west, as the supposedly reactionary right finds itself the lone voice pleading for a semblance of legality on our march toward newness.
What makes things urgent for us, however, is the fact that our giant neighbors aren’t really smiling anymore. A modicum of political stability is required for the three political successions in our midst.
Up north, Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to hand over leadership to the next generation of communists at the party Congress later this year. However, Xi Jinping’s accession will only mark the beginning of the transition to the fifth generation of New China.
In India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is searching for that propitious moment to pass the torch to Rahul Gandhi. As the party traditionally most accommodative to the Chinese, the Indian National Congress cannot afford events in Nepal to provoke any Chinese reaction that might help to spoil things.
The crucial leadership transition intersecting the two relates to the 14th Dalai Lama. His Holiness has begun the Great Withdrawal in the full knowledge that his eventual demise is likely to set off rival claimants to Great Fifteenth. To preempt Beijing, the current Dalai Lama is toying with the idea of naming a successor, perhaps even one not born inside Tibet.
The succession struggle is likely to be waged not only from Dharmasala and Beijing but also from other traditionally assertive Tibetan sects who have been overshadowed all these decades only by Tenzin Gyatso’s larger-than-life persona.
A formal if incomplete Nepali constitution, an elected government and other indicators of domestic life can give sufficient stability for the next stage of the geopolitical maneuverings.
Of course, the risks inherent in jumping the gun are obvious. Members who adopt such a constitution will have done so with their reservations. That will make it easier for some of these same people to be among the first to burn copies of the document. At least there will be a document to set ablaze.
What’s more, not all will have been lost. We can attach a bill of rights – or, more appropriately, wrongs – as and when we deem necessary. It’s not for nothing that some alien quarters have prepared themselves for at least two years of ethnic conflagration before Nepalis can decide which group’s victimhood tends to run the deepest.
Should we then agree on the model of federalism – or any other form of the state – we can keep adding them to the main document. Finding that unworkable, we would have the option of changing that. That way, hopes of everything between a people’s democratic republic and Swiss-style confederation will have been kept alive.
Sound outlandish? We’ve made enough amendments to the interim constitution to breeze through the job.

(Originally published on February 13, 2012)

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Amitabh, Buddha, Us And Them

Intended or not, Amitabh Bachchan appears to have added several notches to his already stratospheric popularity in Nepal by asking one question on his popular TV show.
During a recent episode of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), Big B quizzed his male contestant: “Which of these events related to the life of Gautam Buddha happened at a place which is in present day Nepal?”
Sharing a name with one of the five ‘self-born’ buddhas (dhyani-buddhas) believed to have existed eternally, Maila Baje thinks Amitabh has delved deeper than most into the origins and growth of this faith.
But do we really know how much Amitabh recognizes or cares about Nepali sensitivities when it comes to the issue of Siddhartha Gautam’s birthplace? Nor do we know whether he had any role in choosing and/or phrasing the question. What is clear, though, is that even the most skillful attorney couldn’t have worded it better.
In fairness, the contestant should have been a greater focus of our appreciation. After all, he was the one who gave the correct answer (although it did look like he did so through a process of elimination, rather than through certitude).
Amitabh, moreover, had to confirm the answer with the machine before awarding the contestant points. There’s no question that the Bollywood icon’s show gave the issue such a high profile. Yet the host might have been deserving of greater credit had the contestant given the wrong answer and had Amitabh stepped in to correct him. But, then, there are better issues to split hairs over, such as … the issue at hand.
Prince Siddhartha Gautam was born in Lumbini, a kingdom that was not in Nepal (or India, for that matter) at the time. It was quite recently – in terms of the sweep of history, at least – that Nepal really expanded to connote anything outside Kathmandu Valley.
Buddha was a title bestowed upon the sage after he attained ‘enlightenment’ in Bodh Gaya, which, again, is part of modern-day India.
To call Nepal Buddha’s birthplace, therefore, is a political statement, which the aforementioned episode of KBC has addressed to many Nepalis’ satisfaction.
But even at the political level, should we really be so excited to have received this ‘seal of approval’ from what, when you boil it down, is an entertainment show?
Then there’s that other pesky reality: that Nepal’s communists are at the forefront of protests whenever Buddha’s Nepali birth is questioned. Isn’t it interesting how official atheists seek to ‘own’ religious leaders without caring to adhere to their message? At least the reviled mandales of the Panchayat era who jumped around in nationalistic fervor every time this controversy erupted were honest in that they were committed to Hinduism, which considers Buddha one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu. (The Nepali Congress doesn’t seem particularly riled by the issue.)
If the development of Lumbini as an international religious and tourist attraction could have moved apace in the spirit envisioned together by then secretary-general of the United Nations U Thant, famed Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and King Mahendra in the 1960s, this whole issue might have no longer been so contentious. If the recent stepped-up interest in this direction were to gain concrete shape, Nepalis would be able to better shed much of their insecurities.
Doubtless, some Indians will continue with their endeavors to ‘prove’ that Buddha was born in what is today the state of Orissa – or who knows where else outside of Lumbini. This shouldn’t bother us too much, either.
Even if they manage to muster enough archaeological evidence, they’ll still have to sort out how synonymous India, Bharat, Hindustan or Hind could be considered with one another, geographically, politically or any other way.