Sunday, October 20, 2013

Freedom Beyond The Frenzy

From the slosh and frenzy of the crowd of supporters who greeted Khum Bahadur Khadka as he walked out of prison earlier this month, you’d be forgiven for expecting him to head directly into Singha Durbar to take charge. From the vermilion-saturated, flower-heavy and motorcycle-driven festiveness, it was easy to forget that the man had just done time on corruption charges.
The Nepali Congress luminary, for the most part, sought out the future. Yes, a kangaroo court had hauled him in on trumped-up charges, he suggested. But incarceration had only steeled his inspiration. He had strong words of caution for the party leadership, across the factional alignments. And, predictably, he hoisted the mantle of B.P. Koirala and the party icon’s clarion call of national reconciliation.
Khadka, Maila Baje feels, has a strong claim to that legacy. And not just because he’s the only notable who disembarked that aircraft with B.P. in 1976 who is still breathing in our midst. Forget the brave face the Nepali Congress is putting up before the upcoming elections. The party may yet do the best among the principal contestants. But that will have been because its rivals have done a pretty lousy job in power.
Like it or not, the Nepali Congress needs a Koirala to survive. The children, nephews and nieces of B.P. staking their claim to the party’s soul all share the last name. Yet far from uniting the organization, none has been capable of rising above kindergarten squabbling or silliness. So the best the party can hope for is someone who can channel B.P.’s spirit, something Khadka has fully grasped. Could he be that person?
At one point, Khadka was the party’s kingmaker, having at least a quarter of the party’s legislators stashed into his pocket. If Sher Bahadur Deuba could break away from the Girija Prasad Koirala-led mother organization in 2002, it was largely because he had Khadka on his side. As home minister in the Deuba government, Khadka insisted he could conduct the parliamentary elections over the Maoists’ threats. Yet the prime minister thought otherwise. When King Gyanendra sacked Deuba and took executive control – in the relatively benign first phase of royal assertiveness – Khadka was among the handful of Nepali Congress leaders put behind bars.
His controversial and ostensibly corrupt ways had made him an open target, and the masses cheered on. If the criminalization of Nepali politics could be blamed on one person, Khadka critics contended, then he was the man. Then there were other throbbing questions, such as whether it was purely coincidental that the Maoists gained in lethality on Khadka’s watch.
At this point, Khadka began flaunting his republican credentials. He recalled his statement at a party meeting a few years earlier where he had suggested that the Nepali Congress might be better off offloading the monarchy. Years later, when Girija Koirala did just that, Khadka did not seem too happy. Careful to reject the monarchist label, Khadka nevertheless lamented the rashness with which his party had acted. When he appeared with former king Gyanendra at a religious function, people started speculating. But, then, the judges intervened.
As Khadka presses on with the B.P. legacy, he faces the same challenge other would-be successors have in defining the notion of national reconciliation. If B.P. had lived five or ten years longer, would he have had the same affinity for the monarchy? After all, B.P. was the head of a party that had tried to kill Kings Mahendra and Birendra. His version of the validity of the monarchy was rooted in local and geopolitical traditions he came to grasp largely after his release from Sundarijal in 1968. With so much internal and external change having gripped Nepal, could B.P. still be held captive to the same set of beliefs? These are only some of the questions Khadka would have to answer.
If national reconciliation today is in fact much more than a code word for the Nepali Congress’ imperative to return to its constitutional-monarchy roots, then Khadka has an even more onerous task. If anything, the party always has been a polarizing force when in power. In opposition, its sanctimony continues to rile its rivals. If the Nepali Congress really thinks it is Nepal’s only true democratic party and is prepared to bet its life on it, then it must learn to act like it. Khadka should begin anew by driving the point harder.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

So It’s In The Way The Stars Spin

In case you’re worried, our pre-poll apathy won’t immediately agitate the political atmosphere. At least not when it comes to deciding on the leader of the next elected government. But you have to put your full faith in the stars. They have aligned in favor of Sher Bahadur Deuba, according to veteran starwatcher Angiras Neupane’s latest estimation.
Deuba’s Nepali Congress is poi
Whether the new assembly, even having surmounted the boycott and bluster, would be able to address its principal task – drafting the new constitution – remains uncertain. In predictions made several weeks ago, if Maila Baje recalls correctly, Neupane didn’t seemed too thrilled with the November 19 date. Postponing the exercise by a mere three days, if you went by him, would have boosted our chances of finally flipping though the printed version of the articles and clauses fresh off the presses. But we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do to maintain the optics of a functioning political process.
Given the likely new configurations, there is no guarantee the assembly will even try to take up from where its predecessor had left off. A new mandate also means casting a new look at things. That could mean anything from a full reversal of the arbitrariness that has become the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, to a considerable tinkering around the corners, to a lightening leap in another direction few might have contemplated.
Granted, our record with such assemblies – nominated, elected, non-party, multiparty, first-past-the-post, proportional – is not encouraging. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. For that, we’ll need a new government. And there, at least, the stars provide some sunniness.
Deuba, according to Neupane, will head the government enjoying support from the key parties. This is biggie, considering that members of our political fraternity so hated one another that they had to saddle the Supreme Court Chief Justice with a second job to get to where we are now.
The interesting part of Neupane’s latest electoral analysis is geography. Or, specifically, the notion that the places the principal candidates are contesting from will determine our collective fate. Those choosing their birthplaces or traditional constituencies, barring Deuba and CPN-UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal, will have a hard time getting into the assembly. So would those who have veered a little west, north or south this time. Those venturing eastward have the best shot at victory.
Thus, UCPN-Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal would lose from Kathmandu, but win from Siraha. Nepali Congress President Sushil Koirala can forget Banke and focus on Chitwan. CPN-UML senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal is likely to be routed in Rautahat but may squeak through from Kathmandu. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai would triumph from Gorkha (he moved to an eastern constituency) but would lose from Rupandehi.
There is wisdom, after all, in all these candidates contesting from more than one constituency. All this is good until you consider those who call easternmost Taplejung, Panchthar, Ilam and Jhapa their ancestral or political home. Where can they go? But, then, nobody said elections were 100 percent fair.
sed to become the largest party in Constituent Assembly II, which we seem on course to elect November 19 under a heavy blanket of security and acrimony. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which dominated the last assembly – and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist are set to be distant second and third placed.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Comrade Nepal Covers His Bases

With every election season, Madhav Kumar Nepal seems to emerge ever more committed to the principles and processes of democracy. As ambivalent Nepalis prepare a second time to elect representatives to write a constitution, the senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) states his party is taking part in the polls to strengthen democracy and the foundations of nationalism.
At a programme organized by the Kathmandu Chapter of Press Chautari, a group of reporters and editors allied to the UML, in the capital, Nepal reaffirmed his faith in multiparty democracy’s spirit that communists should win the people’s approval.
“We do not believe in totalitarianism and nor do we advocate [maintaining] the status quo,” he said. “We want the people’s approval in order to fulfill their expectations of change.”
Nepal, who is contesting the upcoming elections from Kathmandu Constituency No. 2, said the UML election manifesto would specifically pledge to draft the new constitution within six months of the constituent assembly’s formation.
There are quite some words of assurance, coming from the leader of a party whose democratic credentials, if truth be told, are not entirely above suspicion among many Nepalis. Not much time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall for communists anywhere to be heard talking about democracy with any degree of credibility.
Nepal’s assurance was even more surprising to those who read or heard about what he had supposedly said at a closed-door party meeting a few days earlier. At that venue, Nepal had said he was privy to information that the country would soon be facing a veritable catastrophe, not any sort of vote counting.
A flustered Bam Dev Gautam, the party vice-chairman, asked Nepal who he thought was behind this purported conspiracy. “I do not have full information on this but you
keep watching,” Nepal responded. “I am certain something is going to happen here very soon. And there will be no election.”
Now, if that threat had emanated from the usual suspects, Nepal would have jumped at the opportunity to answer Gautam. The former prime minister, after all, remains the most inveterate critic of former king Gyanendra. Moreover, he sounds the most confident among the current leaders ruling out the return of the monarchy in Nepal. Clearly, Nepal’s circumspection suggests that the threat comes from “those who must not be spoken of”.
Nepal is preparing to contest the elections from the same two districts he had lost from last time. In Rautahat, report suggests he has already made unsavory deals with other local contenders.
With Nepal having covered his bases, Maila Baje is tempted to ponder what the man really wants. No one knows how each big party would fare vis-à-vis the others. Their internal polls, we are told, have kept them all on edge, not to speak of the deep factionalism within.
Also unclear is the effect those boycotting the polls would have and what form the disruptions would take. And, ultimately, would the results carry the kind of legitimacy those taking part would want to be proud of?
Like many leaders of the major parties, Nepal probably does want the elections to take place as scheduled because the external stakeholders of the post-April 2006 process say they must “at all costs”. But what if he could find someone else to blame for subverting democracy?