Sunday, February 24, 2013

Cold Feet Or Part Of The Script?

Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi
For nearly a month, as Nepal churned in controversy over the political establishment’s attempt to entrust the government to Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi, the man himself remained tight lipped.
The silence was far from dignified. Some speculated that Regmi’s refusal to speak on something that split the political class, including the four principal parties pushing the initiative, bespoke his covetousness for the top executive position.
When the proponents finally got around to formally requesting Regmi to head an election government, the chief justice turned ambivalent. First, he seemed to loathe the specific – albeit still-unspecified – conditions set by the parties. Then he thought of the reputation he had built during his long career in the judicial branch. One more excuse or the other has popped up since.
While Regmi has not pronounced an emphatic final no, the advocates of a chief justice-led government have started looking like lily-livered clowns. From the outset, the proposal was an admission of failure by the political fraternity. Now, leaders had to virtually supplicate before the man to save what remained of their reputations.
Maila Baje agrees that Regmi could have saved us a lot of time and energy if he had been more upfront about his intentions from the beginning. In fairness, though, he didn’t really have that much explaining to do. He didn’t step forth and present himself as a potential head of government. Some leaders of the principal political parties were bent on installing a ‘non-political’ government from all angles.
There was much politicking going around within these four parties before they settled on the chief justice. While the ruling faction of the Maoists seemed more united behind the idea, the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and the Madhesi parties were deeply divided. Traditional factional maneuverings guided individual leaders’ position. If Regmi refused to become part of this sordid play, you could hardly blame him.
It has since emerged that the intrigues ran deeper. Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal was credited with the idea of amalgamating the executive and judicial branches in the legislative emptiness as part of some dazzling conspiratorial design. Dahal endured much opprobrium, too, before and after the Maoist party convention in Hetauda.
Then Nepali Congress leaders Ram Chandra Poudel and Krishna Prasad Sitaula separately insisted that the idea of a chief justice-led election government was really the brainchild of President Ram Baran Yadav. Yadav, for his part, conceived of the notion during his visit to India.
Then things got a bit outlandish. After the Maoist convention, Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad reportedly reprimanded Dahal for having uttered such an inanity. The Maoist chairman then did a 180 and, with a straight face, claimed he had never made the suggestion. By then, the leaders of the other three parties/groupings had considerably warmed up to the idea, despite continuing turbulence within their own respective organizations.
Where did this leave India? Its widely assumed principal spokesman Surya Bahadur Thapa of the Rastriya Janashakti Party spoke against the proposal with all the scorn he could muster. But K.P. Sharma Oli of the CPN-UML, another voice believed to convey Indian thinking, took his own U-turn to support the idea.
While the Indians are known to play from all sides of the field, the Europeans stuck out their necks the farthest, urging Nepali leaders to suspend constitutional subtleties to hold elections. That forced Nepali Congress President Sushil Koirala – the most aggrieved man in the race to succeed Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai – to reveal that the parties accepted the proposal amid mounting international pressure. Now C.P. Mainali of CPN-ML – never one to fade into oblivion – suggests that Dahal be given leadership of an election government.
Something crucial is lost amid the wrangling over who should lead an election government. Let’s assume that free and fair elections were held in time. How long might the new house be able to hold on to its mandate?
Coming back to the original question: did Regmi get cold feet or was his stance part of the script all along? Does it really matter?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Camouflaging The Real Contestations

If you thought the latest contortion in our national jiggery-pokery lacked characterization or content, listen to Johan Galtung. The ‘partyocracy’ that Nepal embarked on circa April 2006 is turning into a ‘technocracy’, in the words of the esteemed Norwegian professor.
In a recent interview with a Kathmandu daily, Galtung asserted that there had been little substantial change since the Maoists joined the political mainstream. The internationally acclaimed ‘father of peace studies’ lamented how Kathmandu remained pitted against the rest of the country in a spiral of exploitation.
The Maoists, despite their war-era rhetoric and response, have failed to empower the people at large. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly without adopting a new constitution was a symptom of the perpetuation of Kathmandu’s preponderance. The effort to create a government under the chief justice is, in Galtung’s view, is a reaction to this ‘partyocracy’.
Having for weeks railed against the concept of a non-politician heading the government, the major non-Maoist political parties now have relented. Their concession also stems from their own failure to make a credible case. How would a government led by another party leader – in the absence of any elected mechanism – be any different from the incumbent one?
Despite his evident interest in assuming a more assertive role, President Ram Baran Yadav seemed to lack the critical support of the military. You can’t really blame the generals. The last time they stepped out of the barracks, they had merely the Maoists and – later – the mainstream parties to contend with openly. And that must seem like a picnic to them today.
A more ominous – and no less plausible – argument holds that Yadav, by tradition and temperament a Nepali Congress man, was deterred by the same external factors that worked against party president Sushil Koirala’s candidacy for the premiership. Then, of course, a ceremonial head of state appointing a prime minister in the absence of any popular sanction could hardly be countenanced, given the sanctimonious outrage the constitutionally sounder royal rule had precipitated.
To be sure, a chief justice-led election government contains a veneer of legitimacy in our neighborhood. Our legal fraternity has concluded that while such an arrangement would lack constitutionality, it could be deemed a political necessity of last resort.
A political mechanism comprising major parties has been proposed to maintain political oversight over a ‘non-political’ government. Clearly, such a mechanism is intended to ensure that parties remain in control of the political process. Yet there is a downside. The same parties that failed to deliver their promises directly would be able to rule by proxy and then to heap their failures on the peculiarities of the government.
Efforts to ensure automatic dissolution of the chief justice-led government should it fail to hold elections on schedule would mean little without basic clarity on what would then take its place.
In the end, these arguments, Maila Baje contends, are futile. They only camouflage the external geostrategic choreographies that have intensified in the aftermath of Narayanhity Carnage in 2001. The brinkmanship that has been played out in the name of war and peace ever since could hardly be expected to run its course at a time of ever deepening flux in the region and beyond.
Diverse countries and quarters are not only competing for influence in this critical state for their own futures but are also feverishly engaged in limiting their rivals’ options. Some geostrategic issues have acquired an urgency bordering on desperation, as exemplified by the self-immolation by a Tibetan in Bauddha the other day. Be it federalism, secularism or the many facets of social liberalism, the contours of geostrategic contests are visible. As this multifaceted jockeying continues, Nepal, despite public protestations, can hardly be permitted to resemble a stable state.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Viciousness of Victory

Fresh out of an ostensibly historic convention that supposedly reinforced his position as party supremo, Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal is having a hard time standing his ground on something less pivotal.
Dahal’s proposal to have Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi head a caretaker government and pull the nation back from the political abyss found few takers where it really mattered. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), salivating to salvage the Maoist misadventure, are infuriated by this perceived bid to delegitimize professional politicians.
Legal eagles, too, are bewildered by Dahal’s prescription. Those supporting it seem to be doing so out of ideological fealty of sorts. Blistered by the all-round derision, Dahal did what he does best: he denied he had ever etched such a proposal in stone.
Clearly, the man thinks he is still waging war. It’s been close to seven years since his side triumphed against the monarchy – not fair and square, though. But that didn’t seem to matter. The Maoists went on to become the largest party in elections deemed largely free and fair by the international community.
Prime Minister Dahal, within his first 100 days as premier, had met the presidents of China and the United States and the prime minister of India, each of whose governments had once armed the palace and mainstream parties to crush the Maoist rebels.
The ‘people’s war’ glorified and romanticized in contemporary literature as the second coming of Mao Zedong was, in reality, a patchwork of audacious armed offensive, crafty prevarication and outright obfuscation. We now hear stories of how easily Dahal melted away physically and psychologically on the battlefield. His top lieutenant, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, bore his pen with such lethality that at times the swords seemed to drip with far less blood. The chief ideologue is exhausted to the point where he can’t pretend to defend his government.
Maoist tomes on the inevitability of radical change were literal translations of the international revolutionary movement that invigorated the ideologically attuned with their mandatory catchphrases and cadence. Those uninitiated in such weighty matters were impressed by the obtuseness of the prose because it extolled class hatred and havoc.
The monarchy with its old roots, baffling ritualism and purported remoteness was easily discredited by the votaries of revolutionary change. The mainstream parties were deemed conflict- and corruption-prone, even by those who were in a position to recognize that their shenanigans were thrust upon by the compulsion of electoral politics and that multiparty democracy was not going to operate free. Ethnic, linguistic and regional fault lines made the ground more fertile for geopolitical machinations. The international non-government sector possessed more than enough resources to uncover new injustices and install them in a cantankerous echo chamber.
In a sense, all this was beside the point. The Maoists got the opportunity they had sought and were now supposed to implement their vision of a new Nepal. Instead, they have kept us all on edge. Was the party split manufactured to avoid having to deal with Nepal’s real problems? Was their anti-foreigner tirade merely a ruse to attract interest parties and then make their own compromises to stay in power? Is the party’s new commitment to economic growth under a democratic framework a camouflage for, well, who knows what?
Even dissemblers need a modicum of credibility to ply their trade. Padam Kunwar, the Maoist cadre who slapped Dahal in public a few months ago, had no money to bail himself out of the episode. In his magnanimity, Dahal ended up paying for the man’s freedom. Kunwar thanked Dahal for coming to his rescue, but seemed not the least bit remorseful for his original action. A fitting metaphor for the Maoist chairman’s plight, indeed.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Give Us The Back Story, Comrade

Madhav Kumar Nepal
From the way Madhav Kumar Nepal is berating Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and the Maoists in general these days, it is becoming hard to avoid the sense of betrayal ostensibly gripping the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leader.
Each step Comrade Madhav takes up on the denigration ladder, however, raises questions about his own contribution to the emergence of the former rebels in their present incarnation.
Practically, the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s claim that it brought the Maoists to the mainstream was ludicrous from the outset. Without the organized strength of the Maoists, the SPA, at best, would probably still be agitating in and around Ratna Park for the restoration of democracy. The Maoists piggybacked on the SPA to stake out and solidify their space in the political mainstream. If the SPA is talking about providing that vital cover, then, yes, Maila Baje thinks it has a credible claim.
No amount of vilification from SPA constituents can obscure the reality that the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, even in its truncated current form, remains the most potent political force in Nepal. And credit for this goes to the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, which legitimized a rebel force languishing in stalemate with the state as a partner against the monarchy.
Yet this could not have been done without the facilitation of India. As many Nepalis had suspected all along, New Delhi carefully nurtured the Maoists with just the right mix of plausible deniability. For those who saw Nepal-India relations hit their lowest ebb in 1999-2000 under a Hindu nationalist-led government in India were not surprised to subsequently learn that the Maoists and New Delhi had reached some kind of settlement in the aftermath of the Narayanhity Carnage.
Of late, we are also hearing how the CPN-UML was a far more active player in what became the 12-Point Agreement of November 2005. The fact that Madhav Nepal held a number of ‘secret’ meetings with top Maoist leaders on Indian soil was enough to tell us how his party just didn’t tag along behind Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala in New Delhi. With Girija Koirala no longer available to explain what really went on in the Indian capital, Madhav Nepal has an opportunity to provide an answer to history.
How did the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML conclude that cooperation with the Maoists was better for Nepal than contesting the royal government’s elections and holding then-King Gyanendra to his pledge to restore democracy within three years?
Was Nepali society that far along the continuum of history that the monarchy was deemed a greater threat to the nation’s well being than the rebels who were dexterous in articulating grievances but duplicitous when it came to providing viable solutions?
If so, what specific undertakings had the Maoists provided to the SPA that persuaded the mainstream parties of the democratic conversion of the Maoists?
Did the SPA leaders really believe they were in the driver’s seat? Or did they believe their democratic credentials were enough to constrain the Maoists’ underlying obfuscation and prevarication. And why wasn’t a signed joint statement/declaration issued?
If Indian facilitation was the dominant factor, what specific and credible commitments did New Delhi provide toward a positive transformation? How did the SPA end up shifting the goalposts even after striking that deal with the palace on the restoration of the House of Representatives? 
Were the mainstream parties so alienated by the palace’s supposed intrigues that they could not overcome the predisposition that an amorphous future with the Maoists was preferable as long as the crown was cast aside?
Given all that has happened over the last seven years, Comrade Madhav is certainly entitled to vent his frustrations. But Nepalis have a far greater claim to the full back story.