Sunday, September 29, 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.

Originally posted on May 26, 2013

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Annals Of An Unapologetic Pancha

Of the stalwarts of the Panchayat system who soldiered on until the very end, Navaraj Subedi largely faded into oblivion after the collapse of the partyless edifice in 1990. Admittedly, the name continued to command some political attention during the multiparty era, but it belonged to a radical communist.
Marich Man Singh Shrestha, the last prime minister of the partyless system, emerged four years later to contest the second parliamentary elections, which he lost. Niranjan Thapa, the state home minister in that much-reviled cabinet, returned several years later to serve as King Gyanendra’s law minister. However, Subedi, chairman of the Rastriya Panchayat and the Panchayat Policy and Evaluation Committee, receded into the background.
Maila Baje always thought Subedi, if he wanted to, could make one more important contribution – to history. The man was in the higher echelons of politics during those tumultuous final weeks of spring. As part of King Birendra’s entourage during the monarch’s inordinately extended regional tour, Subedi was ostensibly privy to the palace’s discussion of the available options vis-à-vis the burgeoning ‘people’s movement’.
Moreover, he had served under King Mahendra, having joined the Panchayat system straight out of university, unlike the former party workers who formed the bulk of the early panchas. And he had a flair for words.
So when Subedi’s memoirs, Itihaas Ko Kalkhand, (An Epoch of History) came out earlier this year, yours truly’s delight knew now bounds. The book, which found some unsympathetic early reviews, is a remarkable read on several levels. For one thing, it provides a rare contrast between the working styles of two monarchs, so different temperamentally yet united in their vision of Nepal’s independent and sovereign place in the world.
In the public realm, King Mahendra died an autocrat, while King Birendra got to reinvent himself as a democrat before suffering a tragic end. In Subedi’s portrayal, the efficiency of one-man rule and confusion of the consensus-seeking are sharply juxtaposed: take your pick.
Someone who became a pancha by ‘accident’ – in his accounting – Subedi concedes it took him a while to develop loyalty to the system. Working under King Mahendra, he explains how he saw the monarch listening to everyone but making his own decisions. In Subedi’s telling, Mahendra never saw partylessness as permanent.
Under King Birendra, who was more forbearing than his father, political parvenus gradually gained the upper hand. Subedi saw a system atrophying, ironically at a time when it had emerged strong through its referendum victory.
In blaming the ‘mandale’ hardliners for the demise of the system, Subedi joins a legion of panchas led by Surya Bahadur Thapa. There is a broader point that comes out. Under King Mahendra, panchas were more likely to be self-assured individuals who, reconciled with the existing political reality, believed they could do something for the country. And they found a monarch they felt respected their views.
King Birendra, too, had an abiding capacity for listening to others. But the multiplicity of opinions seemed to confound him, giving the queen’s camp a greater say in affairs. Even when the royals were persuaded of the wisdom of a particular course of action, there was no guarantee it would past muster with the king’s secretaries and ADCs intent on preserving their own fiefdoms.
Despite all this, Subedi has fulsome praise for the intentions of King Birendra. Many today revel in denouncing wholesale the system they prospered under and expect to retain credibility. Subedi does not denigrate the royals in a holier-than-thou tone. Critical of influential albeit unaccountable individuals who derailed what could have been a less turbulent transition, Subedi doesn’t set himself apart from the system. With unusual candor, he concedes he failed to save a system he had invested decades nurturing. Yet he remains as unapologetic a pancha as he can be.
The book is replete with interesting tidbits. Subedi recounts with almost comical flair how he was coerced to switch constituencies (and districts) during the first Rastriya Panchayat election. He speaks of how he raised money from controversial businessman Choth Mal Jatiya to fund the Panchayat camp’s electioneering, conceding the existence of a quid pro quo. But he also laments how, once victorious, his side ended up reneging on its promise to the man. Examples of personal vendettas and family tragedies are sprinkled with acts of kindness and consideration to give the book an eminently human touch.
There are times when Subedi reveals a hard-to-believe proximity with Kings Mahendra and Birendra. Some of the conversations he recounts do not seem to be of the kind that royals would engage in so easily outside the family. At other points, the writing appears breezy and disjointed. Subedi claims credit for quite a few positive decisions. Yet he does so not with brazen self-righteousness but with the pride of having been part of the system.
The record of the Panchayat decades – particularly the Mahendra years – has been distorted. The obsession with the undemocratic nature of the system has largely overlooked the global context and the domestic realities in which it arose. By definition, a system that outlawed political parties could not be considered democratic. Yet Panchayat-era Nepal never resembled Mao’s re-education camps or Stalin’s Gulag. The foundations of a modern and viable state were laid during those partyless decades, when Nepal could firmly establish its independent identity in the world.
Mercifully, time is slowly permitting a more dispassionate view of the Panchayat decades, enabling a separation of the wheat from the chaff. Subedi’s book is great addition to the literature both in terms of content and comportment.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What’s So Foreign About These Agents?

Ostensibly fed up with Nepali leaders’ typical propensity for blaming the ‘foreign hand’ for their basic inefficiencies and/or inadequacies, former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa made a fascinating observation last week.
“Foreign agents easily seem to recognize their kind, whereas the average Nepali has no such power of discrimination,” the veteran politico told reporters at Biratnagar Airport, careful to include himself in the latter category.
It was not hard to guess that Thapa’s target was Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who has been suggesting with some regularity that foreign agents are trying to foil the November elections.
To his credit, Thapa has been among that rare breed of Nepali politicians who have studiously desisted from blaming the ‘foreign hand’ for our ills. You could argue that the wily politician has done so because he does not want to invite needless attention to himself.
After all, Thapa has been considered a confidante of the Indian leadership since the period of Indira Gandhi. Moreover, he has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to become prime minister at crucial times vis-à-vis Nepal’s relations with its southern neighbor.
But this proximity, Maila Baje feels, is something others have conjectured. Thapa has never flaunted the strings he can supposedly pull in India, or can have pulled on his behalf from there. Nor has he been tempted to complain when countervailing external forces have purportedly intervened against him. If there was something that he ever railed against single-mindedly, it was the ‘underground cabal’ of the 1980s. And that was a purely domestic configuration.
Contrast that with Dahal, whose like or dislike for particular foreign powers seems to vary not only with the issue at hand but the political alignments of the moment. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, too, tends to forget the iniquities of the Sugauli Treaty when in power, i.e., precisely when he is in a position to do anything about them.
The Maoists are merely the most recent practitioners of this duplicity. Politicians across the spectrum have been selective about their expostulations on where foreign benevolence ends and interference begins.
If the Maoist chairman really hopes to thwart the elections and then blame the rival Mohan Baidya camp, Thapa’s latest comments would hardly be a deterrent. Thapa’s wing of the former panchas may be struggling to impress Nepalis that they have become real republicans. In fact, they may have established themselves more as Nepal’s premier ingrates. But Thapa himself has succeeded in cementing his relevance across political systems through his temperance, as far as our own responsibilities go.
Thapa, to be sure, knows that Nepal has been a traditional playground for foreign powers and that his own tenures in office have conformed to that rule. He is much too skilled a politician not to recognize that these powers have grown more assertive since the political changes of 2006. It’s not difficult to imagine that Thapa likes some of these developments and wishes others did not turn out the way they did.
The difference is that Thapa knows that our political class is far more complicit in this situation than it will ever be prepared to concede.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Maoists Divided, Maoists United…

Netra Bikram Chand
Seven years into our former Maoist rebels’ grand entry onto the political center stage, many Nepalis are still intrigued by what their real motives might be. So much so that, on the eve of elections deemed so crucial to saving our souls, we’re still debating whether this constellation of comrades – formally arrayed today as pro- and anti-election parties – had ever really split.
Netra Bikram Chand, secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – the poll-boycotting, more hard-line adherents of the Great Helmsman – has reignited that question through a spate of sizzling public speeches.
Exhorting us to forego the notion that the foot soldiers of Nepal’s bloodiest political movement had split in two, Chand kind of stepped back a day later, stressing the possibility of reunification between the leadership. (Okay, the leaders parted ways, but the followers stayed put.)
Yet his formulation was provoking enough, at least to Maila Baje, to suggest that his party is not on the defensive. Any unity, Chand insisted, must rest on a clear acknowledgement by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chief of the establishment United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, of the leadership (supremacy?) of the group led by Mohan Baidya.
Dahal, who until the other day was gleefully proclaiming how the Baidya faction was ensuring its oblivion through its boycott call, conceded that talks were being held, but ruled out imminent unity. So something must be going on, right?
What makes this flicker of camaraderie particularly fascinating is that it comes amid feverish reports of another game plan the establishment Maoists have purportedly hatched against their rivals.
By depicting the Baidya-led Maoists as anti-democratic, by dint of their vow to actively boycott the November elections, Dahal and Co. are said to be contemplating state suppression as their ultimate option. That way, the establishment Maoists not only get to ‘prove’ that they have transformed into a peace-loving and democratic entity but also get to heap accountability for all the insurgency-era atrocities on their rivals all the way to The Hague.
Chand’s remarks came upon his return from a recent ‘mysterious’ trip to China, fueling speculation that the mandarins up north, even in the midst of their own factional bloodletting, might have something up their sleeves.
The fact that India has sent a new ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae – someone who was said to have been actively involved in the signing of the 12-point agreement between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists – may or may not have energized the Chinese at this particular moment.
Since Beijing can be more far more inscrutable than any of our Maoists could ever hope to be, it makes sense to pursue this line of inquiry all the way. But before you think you have finally figured out what may be going on in dark corridors, don’t forget that Chand is one of our few Maoists who reportedly enjoy strong links in both Beijing and New Delhi.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Not So Murky LTTE-Maoist Links

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, almost out of the blue last week, volunteered that his Maoist party had established links with Sri Lanka’s once-dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgents during the height of the ‘people’s war’ in Nepal.
Capable of shooting from all sides of his mouth, earning all-round scorn and derision, Dahal has also demonstrated a capacity for reaping some subsequent reward from the same supposed silliness. Thus, it is unwise to dismiss out of hand the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman’s latest disclosure.
Now, Dahal didn’t elaborate on what kind of relationship his party had maintained with the LTTE. Was it training, logistics, weapons, cash, all or either of the above? Stressing that the LTTE was fighting for ethnic liberation and the Maoists had waged a ‘movement for national liberation’, Dahal indicated that the LTTE had also sought help from the Maoist side.
Although Dahal conceded that this was the first time he was revealing the existence of a relationship, reports of a nexus often made the rounds during our decade-long insurgency, especially after the fighting got particularly vicious. Still, they were more likely to be dismissed as desperate attempts by two tottering states to discredit the ‘heroic struggles’ of these respective peoples seeking total liberation.
There were tell-tale signs, nevertheless. At times, after heavy battlefield operations, Nepali soldiers would recover non-Nepali-looking dark and headless bodies purportedly belonging to the non-Aryan stock native to the southern South Asian land mass. The Maoists and the LTTE both used peace and war as part of a strategy to confound the state vis-à-vis their strengths and motives, while amassing a considerable war chest through coercion, extortion and a plethora of multiple dealings.
With the suppression of the LTTE and the mainstreaming of the Maoists, you would have expected Dahal to studiously avoid resurrecting any memory. Dahal’s comment become all the more intriguing considering his organization’s links with India’s Research and Analysis Wing spooks and the Norwegians, the main two external groups also involved in the evolution and growth of the LTTE.
This connection led some Nepali analysts to immediately wonder whether Dahal was attempting, ahead of our elections, simultaneously to woo RAW and assure the Norwegians that he still remains firmly behind ethnic federalism, something so palpably dear to the Oslo mediators’ hearts.
What Maila Baje found particularly revealing was the seeming contradiction inherent in Dahal’s praise of the LTTE as an ‘organization of the brave’ and his reminder that Chinese support eventually helped Colombo snuff out the insurgents.
Dahal, at this point, is probably not troubled by the apparent provocation of a fellow member state of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation through his gratuitous glorification of the rebels. His remembrance – almost lament – that Chinese support ultimately helped to crush the LTTE probably wouldn’t anger Beijing. In fact, the Chinese communists might even be tempted to take pride in their sparkling credentials as master insurgents as well as counterinsurgents.
But maybe Dahal had another purpose in resurrecting the past. Did our Maoists’ use their proximity to the LTTE to funnel intelligence to the Chinese that aided Beijing in assisting Colombo to ultimately suppress the rebellion?