Sunday, December 29, 2013

Unfair, But Still Fun To Watch

It turns out that Kamal Thapa was ahead of the pack in more ways than one.
The president of the pro-monarchist, pro-Hindu statehood Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), who led his party into fourth position in the newly elected constituent assembly, became the first leader to name members in the proportional representation category. But he ignited a firestorm within.
Disputes over how the 24 members were chosen have reached a point where the principal dissident, prominent constitutional lawyer Bal Krishna Neupane, has taken the party to court. Ordinarily, the episode would have provided ample opportunity for rivals to ridicule the RPP-N as a repository of reprobates irrelevant to new Nepal, notwithstanding this last gasp. But, then, Kamal Thapa chose to dispense with early on what would rankle the three bigger parties a little longer in the game.
When the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) submitted its list of 84 names the other day, key aspirant Ram Kumari Jhankri was aggrieved by her exclusion. If anything, she said, the experience confirmed to her what she had long heard others say: politics is a dirty game.
Actor Bhuwan KC was more sanguine. Insisting he would not leave the UML, he pledged to continue to toil for the party and its cause. Yet he couldn’t help preface his reaction to the list with this brazen declaration: “It is natural that citizens are angered as their dream of seeing Bhuwan KC as a lawmaker could not be fulfilled.” The Nepali Congress and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist won’t fare any better when they submit their lists.
Now, don’t get Maila Baje wrong. Politics is no charity work (although the analogy for these purposes has long lost its bearing). People join campaigns and work their rear ends off to elect parties and leaders in the expectation that their contributions somehow would be recognized later. Yet there’s only so much that can fit the goody bag. Everyone is free to harbor the level of ambition they desire. But no benefactor is obligated to accommodate everyone and everything, simply because the sheer impossibility of doing so.
If Jhankri is miffed that she lost out to a moneyed lady, she can hardly be faulted. In 2008, Jhankri declined the party’s nomination to focus on her responsibilities in the UML’s student wing. She then made history by becoming the first woman to lead a student organization. This time around, UML leaders considered it fit to keep her out of the whittled-down list.
These same leaders also thought the party would be served better by political actors than by a celebrity like KC. And, as for Neupane, those familiar with his road to fame would probably better understand why he chose to drag the party all the way where he did.
In making their decisions, RPP-N and UML leaders were guided by all kinds of considerations, shady and stellar alike. The outcome may have been controversial but it is not criminal.
To be sure, those who made the decisions recognized the risks to their own reputations. But they also understood how much damage the complainants would do to themselves by breaking out sulking and moping.
Now, is this fair? No. But let’s not pretend it’s not fun to watch.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Let Not The Confusion Confuse Us

With all the ‘sky-will-fall’ urgency that gripped the November elections, you’d think that by now we already would have a full and functioning government at least attempting to put things back on track. The political vacuum Nepal found itself in was so untenable, the argument within and abroad went, that elections had to be held at all costs. The scale and scope of those boycotting it was an unpleasant reality, but one that had to be bravely endured under military-grade security.
Nepalis did heed that call in record numbers. Yet almost a month after the results emerged, we’re no closer to institutions and individuals representing the fresh mandate. The two principal victors – the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) – are mired in internal factional struggles, even as they are at each other’s throats. The vanquished – the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-Maoist) and the assortment of Madhes-based parties – still cannot comprehend what really hit them.
India and China, the principal external guarantors of our security and stability – and by extension their own – now warn us of the risk inherent in keeping the breakaway Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) out of the political process.
The persistent allegations of electoral fraud lacked sufficient credibility from the outset. But that, Maila Baje felt, never really mattered to the parties making them because it provided a camouflage for political bloodletting within amid the shifting political contours.
Among the victors, the abject chaos pervading the surface, alienating a populace already at wit’s end, has allowed leaders, factions and interests an opportunity not only to project their claims but also to preempt those of rivals. On such shifting ground, the fraud allegations provide an excuse to continue their battles under a noble guise.
Inanities, meanwhile, continue to add up. Parties that boycotted the polls began seeking respectful representation in the new assembly. That impelled parties that did participate but failed to win a single seat also to pursue their place. The head of the election government is finding it difficult to return to his full-time job as chief justice, so he will have to be adjusted respectfully within the assembly. The future of President Ram Baran Yadav, hardly an issue in the election campaign, has become numero ono. The latest absurdity making the rounds is the suggestion to make CPN-Maoist chairman Mohan Baidya – the titular head of the alliance that boycotted the elections – president of the republic as a way of calming the streets as well as less agitated senses.
Adding to the general uncertainty is the parallel process that seems to be playing out in different directions. In whispered albeit audible tones, the twin-pillar theory has begun to reappear across the southern border – and not in pejorative terms. Baidya himself has intimated that the country has reached the pre-2006 phase, amid calls for the dissolution of the newly elected assembly.
Former king Gyanendra, whose silence during the entire electoral exercise acquired much significance, has embarked on an extended private tour of the south, during which it may be difficult to separate the personal from the political. The 1990 constitution – particularly with respect to how it was the best political document Nepalis had ever crafted – has never really left the political discourse.
Taken individually, these strands may not mean much. Together, they suggest that the formal political course will assume shape and speed once the informal dynamics are substantially set in motion. So let the confusion continue, without letting it confuse us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Remorse, But Not Quite…

For United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader Baburam Bhattarai, this is the season for lamentations. In a recent post on his Facebook page, the social-media-savvy former prime minister lamented his failure to enforce his well-known ideology and commitments, to the point of owning up to a lack of will power.
That attribute was on full display when he congratulated the country for the successful November 19 constituent assembly elections, only to join a day later party colleagues who alleged massive fraud.
“Personally, I have raised relevant issues on prosperity and development time and again”, Bhattarai said, recalling that doing so earned him a ‘decent amount’ of public trust. “However, I couldn’t take control over my own will power at the disposal of feeble strength of my own party.”
On the night of May 28, 2012, Bhattarai said, he made the biggest mistake of his life: backtracking on his intention to extend the term of the constituent assembly yet again by imposing a state of emergency. Now, Maila Baje wonders, would our erudite comrade have volunteered such remorse if his party had won an outright majority in the recent elections?
He blamed other forces within the country and outside for his failure to extend the assembly. Forget the totalitarian thought at the root of that contention. The attempt to blame others carried the same political infantilism many educated leftist elitists at the helm in countries – developed and developing – have been prone to exhibiting. When things go south, it’s always the other guy’s fault.
Yet, in fairness, Bhattarai conceded that his party could not stand out from the contemporary political powers and leaders, despite its vaunted promises. But, again, that sounded less a personal dirge than a public indictment of party colleagues.
The former premier said he would move forward coordinating with people, institutions and parties with similar ideology within and outside the UCPN-M. But we know better than to expect sudden outburst of cooperation and consensus from Bhattarai.
This is wounded pride speaking. A man who virtually sought credit for singlehandedly turning Nepal into a republic now warns despairingly of the restoration of the 1990 constitution his party rose up against. But isn’t there more an air of having been victimized than an acknowledgement of having been defeated?
The victimhood the Maoist leader seeks to project was evident in his earlier reaction to the arrest of a party cadre on a charge of murder. Bhattarai challenged the government to arrest him instead since he was the head of “revolutionary government” during the time of the alleged crime.
Bhattarai is smart enough to know that if his wartime status were the issue here, the arrest of a murder accused should be the least of his worries. Sure, the lack of a Truth of Reconciliation Commission has impeded efforts to address some of the central wartime issues in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. But wasn’t it the Bhattarai government’s insistence on a blanket amnesty for Maoists what stymied the process? Why, then, should justice, in this case, be held in abeyance?
It’s reassuring to know that national independence and inclusive nationalism, inclusive democracy and inclusive development will remain Bhattarai’s personal political commitments. What he should know is that his tenure in power was not in vain. He has wizened up Nepalis in no small measure. They will remain most vigilant of leaders who make the grandest claims about their powers and purposes.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Kingly Craft Of Conjuring Compromise

As the country continues to decrypt the November 19 election results, the subplot has suddenly thickened. Pundits of all persuasions were twisting themselves into pretzels trying to make sense of the 24 seats the pro-monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) won exclusively in the proportional representation category. Now party chief Kamal Thapa has given analysts an opportunity to undergo even more contortions.
The RPP-N was ready to compromise on its agenda to ensure that the country got a democratic constitution, Thapa said at the Reporters Club the other day. That remark set off a flurry of suppositions. Let’s focus on the three major strains. Did Thapa mean that the party would abandon its restoration-of-monarchy line, somehow conceding that a singular focus on reviving Hindu statehood might have produced it more seats?
Or was Thapa expressing displeasure at former king Gyanendra, who, it was rumored, financed the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), to the disadvantage of the clear claimant, the RPP-N?
On the other hand, was Thapa merely establishing his credentials as a pragmatist once he figured out how high he would have to roll up his sleeves? The RPP-N, after all, does not have the numbers to press ahead with its distinctive twin line, either through the consensus or majority route. Logically, it would not want to be blamed for the deadlock most analysts are predicting would grip the new assembly from the outset.
On the first count, it would be foolish to expect the RPP-N to be identified as a republican pro-Hindu-state organization. At the popular level, the monarchy and Hindu statehood are so interlinked that even if Thapa had run on a republican-religious platform, he would have been accused of stealth royalism. Just ask leaders of the rival RPP, whose avoidance of Hindu tag has done nothing to bolster their avowed republicanism.
There is no way Maila Baje could fathom whether the former monarch funded any parties or candidates, or, if he had, whether he favored one or two over the rest. But it would be entirely understandable if Nirmal Niwas bestowed its financial blessings on the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML. The restoration of the 1990 constitution would be the easiest route to restoring the monarchy on the ex-monarch’s terms. Since the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML were two of the three architects of that document, their empowerment would only make sense for Nirmal Niwas. As for the RPP-N, some of Thapa’s pre-election remarks implied a heavy tilt towards India’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, whose private conduct in power, as recent revelations suggest, was detrimental to the palace.
The pragmatism explanation seems to make most sense. Even if the constituent assembly managed to produce a document this time, it is very unlikely to win sufficient endorsement from the street, considering the noises already being made. By appearing to compromise on his electoral agenda, Thapa has set out to preempt himself from disproportionate blame.
The outright failure of the second constituent assembly to produce a document, on the other hand, would bolster those seeking to pronounce the post-2006 march as a drag on the nation. The case for restoring the status quo ante, which has vocal advocates in the Nepali Congress and more stealthy ones in the CPN-UML, would thus be bolstered. Should the domestic realities so crystallize, segments within both flanks of the regional power system, who saw the period so far as an opportunity to rein in both the Maoists and extra-regional mischief-makers, would be impelled to enter the next political act.
All of this, to be sure, could be easily dismissed as pointless conjecture. Yet when every breakthrough in our recent political experience has had the tendency of raising immediate and dire questions, conjuring every conceivable scenario at least should have some soothing value.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Consensus By Any Other Name

For starters, can we dispense with the Great Myth?
No, Nepalis, in their collective wisdom, did not elect the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) as the two largest parties in a fractured constituent assembly so that they might work together to achieve some amorphous consensus on our behalf.
The electoral verdict was a mere reflection of that weird amalgamation of the fluid popular mood, mixed electoral system and disparate appeals of candidates and parties in the common consciousness.
So if the UML wants to put the presidency to a new test against the new realities of the day and the Nepali Congress doesn’t, all this should be seen as pure politicking. If the UML demands an equal share of power and privilege, in view of the narrow gap between the Big Two, the Nepali Congress is well within its rights to say no.
Few scholars, scribes or citizens had divined the imperative of a second constituent assembly and enjoined the rest of us to prepare the paraphernalia. The peace process was no elaborate road map brilliantly conceived or flawlessly executed. Let’s not forget that the whole thing began with a 12-point agreement between two principal signatories who actually did not deem it necessary to affix their signatures jointly on a piece of paper.
It has long ceased to defy the imagination why the international community would want to continue legitimizing a march toward some nebulous newness where the destination is hazier than the road. Yet this is where we stand at this juncture of history.
The presidency is just the beginning of a plethora of questions that must be addressed in light of the new political dynamics. On drafting the new constitution, should the assembly start from scratch or resume from where its predecessor had left off? The Maoists want to preserve every iota of what they believe is their legacy and build political capital for the future. Those in the mainstream counseling that the presence of the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal must be taken into account are equally preparing for the prestidigitations ahead.
As we proceed, we can pretty much write off constitutional niceties at every turn. The politics of it would be more defiant. And let’s not even consider how profoundly popular acceptance of the final document will come to rest on the political realities of that day.
Nevertheless, those who won the most seats in the assembly have the greatest responsibility to smooth the way ahead. And, rest assured, they will find a way to do so. Last-minute late-night numbered agreements mediated by shadowy foreign hands have become standard operating procedure. Sure, Nepalis will continue to grumble and grieve. If we can’t do anything about it, as they say, we’ve learned to enjoy it. At a minimum, this default mode allows us to detach ourselves from the process, blame our politicians, and then keep electing them.
It seems our politicians, too, are learning to enjoy the gig. The party that boycotted the election and vowed to sabotage it is now signaling its acquiescence to a respectful presence in the assembly and government. The victors give that sentiment a sympathetic hearing. Everybody gets something to get on with their lives.
Come to think of it, it’s consensus by any other name.