Friday, December 26, 2014

Con, Sense And Us

Dear Consensus,

Why dost thou so tormentest us so sore?
Our destiny is so inextricably tied to your appearance. At times, you have been within our grasp, only to slither away into oblivion.
We’ve heard so much about you in the last eight years. But do we really know you?
General agreement, we thought you were. Or was it concord? The variants – harmony, concurrence, accord, unity, unanimity, solidarity – all have that positive ring.
What is it that you actually embody – general opinion, majority opinion, common view? Or do you arrive – to paraphrase Abba Eban – when everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually?
We’re not the only ones debating your character, you may say. Take climate change, and humanity’s role in it. The world is still unable to agree on how conclusive computer models are that they should be allowed to regulate our behavior. But that’s all in the future.
We’re in the here and now. Our new constitution is struggling to emerge on account of your adamancy. The ruling parties have the votes to promulgate the statute by a two-thirds majority. We can understand why the Maoists don’t want that to happen. But why are the two principal democratic parties appeasing the former rebels?
The Indian prime minister, too, tells us not go for a majority-backed constitution. Loyalists in his country are acting as if they represent a one-party theocracy. But, no, we have to have everyone on board.
Forget the number of provinces, for a moment. We have a polity that spans the hard secular left to the religious right. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal may or may not want a return of the monarchy, but it certainly wants the reinstatement of Hindu statehood. The leader of the original Rastriya Prajatantra Party has gone on record that he wants a Hindu republic.
The ranks of anti-secularists are said to be burgeoning in the Nepali Congress, while a few luminaries close to the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist have been spotted at pro-Hindu-state conclaves. (And who knows how many Maoists in their splintered existence might acquiesce in Hindu statehood just to settle scores with rivals?)
As a non-party polity, the Panchayat system could not enforce its every-Nepali-is-a-Pancha-and-every-Pancha-is-a-Nepali credo.  Nor could the repression of the Rana regime, before that, enforce conformity in perpetuity. Yet, we are told that a popularly elected multiparty assembly cannot promulgate the new basic law without your august arrival.
Pity our leaders. They got what they wanted without really wanting it. They play-acted their way toward opening that Pandora’s Box fully realizing what lay within. Today, they are ready to acknowledge failure, but only after devising a formula that equitably apportions responsibility.
That’s not likely to happen soon, especially when the parties are using their last fig-leaf: a new power-sharing blueprint.
So, as hard as it is to say, it’s up to you to make a grand appearance. Tell us, unequivocally, that you are entirely unachievable. The pols would be forced to deliver or craft a more credible excuse. As for the people, our belief that we have been conned for so long will have been validated.
And the constitution, you might still ask. With you out of the way, we’ll keep trying with a new sense of earnestness.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Finding Faith In Alien Encounters

There are times when you wonder whether our foreign friends really want us to get a new constitution. British Ambassador Andrew Sparkes’ recent open letter advising the drafters to ensure that religious conversion is enshrined as something approximating a fundamental right is one of those times.
The substance of his letter is not the point here, conforming as it does to Western nations’ eagerness to promote Christianity and its Good News in our hapless homeland. Nor is the question why the top representative of a putative ‘Englistan’ emerging from fertile ground of hedonistic secularism would so brazenly ignore developments at home.
The timing of the ambassador’s letter is what inspires Maila Baje to question his motives. Our political class has enough on its hands with its self-imposed constitutional deadline looming. The Hinduism/secularism has the potential to create problems that would dwarf those stemming from federalism. In fairness, the British envoy advocates religious freedom in general. But you don’t need special skills to detect the Christian tone of that dog whistle.
Sparkes wasn’t the only alien muddying our waters. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did that by advising us to devise a consensus-based constitution instead of a numbers-driven one. That pleasant plea basically provided a paradigm for prolonging the stalemate, given that each political party in the constituent assembly won seats on the basis of their own manifestoes on the constitution.
With such incongruities having stepped in, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) have reverted to what they do best: devising a new power-sharing platform. In other developments, Nepali Congress leader Khum Bahadur Khadka has seized the Hinduism banner from Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN). The latter party now has only the monarchy as its exclusive agenda. With RPPN President Kamal Thapa’s personal relations with the last monarch said to have cooled, factional rivalries have overtaken that organization. Leaders have taken to defending their lethargy to the former monarch’s apathy toward a restoration.
So entreaties for the status quo ante have started coming from the ostensible purveyors of newness. Weeks after Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel publicly defended the intrinsic virtuousness of the 1990 Constitution, CPN-UML leader Oli advocated its modification into the new one.
Although both leaders tried to walk back their comments, the mere articulation was enough for the Maoists to begin twisting themselves into pretzels. Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal claims that he is shrewdly manipulating the two principal parties, while his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, insists having a basic outline of the constitution by January 22 would be an achievement.
The teeth have long since come off the Maoist tiger, and it will ultimately accede to anything as an act of self-preservation. But comrades have to act as if they are putting up a fight. Bhattarai thus claims his people can accept the Nepali Congress-UML concept of federalism so long as the two main parties can persuade the janjatis of its merits. (What about the madhesis, comrade?)
A President Sushil Koirala and a Prime Minister Oli might even try doing that in earnest, if only those pesky foreigners just knew when to shut up.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Speak Up, Dear Leaders

By now, it is pretty much clear that if we do indeed get a new constitution by January 22, it will have been merely because of our political class’s fealty to its self-imposed deadline. The document will not be able to appease every constituency, address every grievance, and anticipate every impediment to future we all want.
Why let the perfect stand in the way of the good, right? Why indeed. But what after January 22? Will we have a mechanism in place to revisit constitutional issues, say, every ten years? If so the number and structure of states should not be too big of an issue. Maybe we can try either a presidential and prime ministerial system first and come back to change it if we don’t like it. But will mere pledges made today be enough to placate the disaffected, whose ranks are only bound to grow?
Then there’s the school of thought articulated most recently by Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. What is so sacrosanct about January 22? After all, it was a deadline imposed by lawmakers, chastened by their failure to complete their job the first time around. Call it a case of entanglement by eagerness.
No, the sky didn’t fall when the last constituent assembly repeatedly missed its deadlines and eventually died on us. But, then, Dahal, too, needs to address a couple of things. Why is consensus being forced upon a political process that has, at its roots, multiparty competition? Wasn’t conformity and the other cousins of consensus supposed to be the hallmark of polities like the maligned partyless Panchayat system we had long ago cast aside?
The numbers game need not necessarily be bad if what the Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist and others are intent on push through corresponds to their respective platforms during the election campaign. Shouldn’t elections have consequences?
But, more importantly, why does Dahal think the ruling parties are so averse to consensus. Forget the master-slave routine he is spouting at every turn and focus on the substance. If the insecurities of political parties revolving around state restructuring and mode of governance have become so entrenched, what is to say that those same fears won’t perpetuate a stranglehold on the new system? If the fate of districts like Jhapa and Kailali are so stuck on considerations related to the commingling of India’s state and international borders today, what else might go up in the air tomorrow?
But who are we kidding, right? Such questions became irrelevant about two years after the first constituent assembly was elected. After that, we bungled into a series of side deals to keep up the fiction that the 12-Point Accord was alive, primarily for the benefit of its sponsors.
Maybe our politicians should finally come clean and throw at us what resembles a constitution on January 22. Before we can catch the booklets to start burning or ripping them, our pols should scream at the top of their lungs: “As your elected representatives we tried our best to reconcile everything you’ve been asking for. This is what we’ve got, and we’re sick and tired. Now, take it or leave it, coz we’re going home.”  How newer could Nepal get?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Modi Act II: Advise And Dissent

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised our political class to draw up the new constitution by consensus – not brute numbers – the Maoist leadership immediately rose up exuding a profound sense of vindication.
Individual Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leaders immediately began muttering and moaning against Modi’s gratuitous advice.
Rastriya Janamorcha Party President Chitra Bahadur KC, reflecting the schisms in the hard left, issued a statement deploring Modi’s stance, saying he had not only interfered in the internal matters of Nepal but had also crossed all diplomatic limits.
And KC didn’t stop there. “[Modi] is clearly against drafting constitution by the constituent assembly. He has stood against world acclaimed democratic process but has also dared to undermine Nepal’s constitution. His statement has pushed Nepal’s constitution drafting process to uncertainty.”
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, being the good host, reacted only after Modi’s departure. And that, too, after scribes quizzed him. Rejecting suggestions that Modi had applied any pressure for consensus, Koirala stated that how the constitution would be promulgated and what would be in it were entirely within the remit of Nepalis.
Before the original exultant Maoist leaders could hit back with their rebuttal, one functionary struck a cautionary note to the organization and the nation. Gopal Kiranti believed Modi’s remark was part of grand Indian conspiracy to defuse the protest programs planned by the opposition alliance to pressure the ruling parties to heed their demands. “Outwardly, it seems that [the Indians] favor unity between Nepalis but in reality they are there to strangle us,” Kiranti said in public comments.
When Modi insisted, at the inauguration of a trauma center in Kathmandu, that the constitution should be built through consensus and then could be amended through a two-thirds majority, it left many Nepali scratching their heads. How could you talk about a consensual document and a two-thirds-majority-based amendment in the same breadth? Perhaps someone somewhere on the Indian side bungled big time while were neck-deep in the Janakpur-Lumbini Modi itinerary fiasco.
But Modi seemed to double down in the evening. During individual meetings with leaders of the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML, the Maoists and the Madhesi parties, Modi said he hoped to get telephone calls from them on the morning of January 21 so that he could congratulate them on the successful completion of the process.
No, that was not something leaked from the meeting room. Indian Foreign Office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said so briefing reporters, although he was careful to assert that India was not prescribing any bottom line to an independent and sovereign country.
Other sources, however, let it be known that Modi had fine-tuned his message for his audience. While impressing upon Nepali Congress and CPN-UML leaders the virtues of consensus, he expounded on the merits of compromise with the Maoist and Madhesi leaders.
With the Indian prime minister so ebullient in his bilaterals with Nepali leaders, could he have restrained himself during the SAARC retreat? No wonder Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the only leader in Kathmandu not to have held a one-on-one with Modi, is wearing that exception as a badge of honor.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Up, Down, Round And Round

It looks like Ram Chandra Poudel has really had it with Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
The Nepali Congress vice-president has almost begun attributing the nation’s precarious plight to the sordid mental faculties of Dahal, or something like that.
At a personal level, Poudel probably resents Dahal for having blocked what he considered his easy ascent to the premiership a couple of years ago. Over a dozen rounds of balloting in the last constituent assembly to succeed Jhal Nath Khanal, Poudel diligently soldiered on against the Maoist chairman.
When another Maoist got that job, Poudel described his valiant stand as one that saved the democratic process. But deep down, he probably is still convulsed by bouts of politicianitis: an obsession with how he could have done things better than Baburam Bhattarai and how the country lost out.
Dahal, for his part, has become increasing acerbic in holding Poudel responsible for the current deadlock. The Maoist chairman obviously ranks the Nepali Congress VP, although a decade older, as his most formidable rival in that party going head. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had entered his twilight even before entering Singha Darbar.
Sher Bahadur Deuba has the ‘doubly incompetent’ tag around him that his rivals will ensure outlasts the monarchy. With the Koirala clan embroiled in a bitter succession struggle, Poudel boasts a formidable record in the party that the country might want to test in the premiership.
For now, the bone of contention is the 1990 Constitution. Dahal has accused Poudel of conspiring to reinstate that document. Poudel has fought back, saying he never meant restoring the status quo ante.
The 1990-2006 system did not fail, the Nepali Congress VP explained in a recent newspaper interview. “If we are still trying to produce a constitution written by leaders, even after having elected representatives for that explicit purpose, then what’s so bad about the 1990 statute?” Let’s just remove the monarchy, add federalism and inclusiveness and everybody go home.
Now, Poudel knows that even if every party inside the assembly amended the 1990 Constitution to the point where it would be the founding document of a one-party Maoist state, it would still not be acceptable to Dahal.
The Nepali Congress VP thinks he stands on strong ground. His party abandoned its demand for a constituent assembly for a good reason in the late 1950s. B.P. Koirala calculated that even if King Mahendra got the constitution he liked, he certainly would not get the parliament he wanted. B.P. was correct – up to a point. But, then, geopolitics was not his strong suit. The mercury had barely begun falling on the Cold War thermometer. It would take years of incarceration and exile for Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister to figure out what really hit him on that cold winter mid-morning in 1960.
For political convenience, Poudel still has to hold King Mahendra solely responsible for the demise of Nepal’s first experiment with democracy. But he recognizes the staying power of geopolitics. In the grand scheme of things, what Nepal and Nepalis desire may not conform to what our two powerful neighbors and others beyond want us to have. During their insurgency, the Maoists promised too many things to too many constituencies without recognizing that core reality. If the ex-rebels are struggling to keep at least some of those promises, then that’s their problem.
So here goes the Nepali Congress again: It is actively participating in the constituent assembly because it believes in the democratic process. If that process fails, you can’t blame the party because it was the first to come out with the Pandora’s Box Theory of Constitutionalism. Dahal, then, would find himself in the ranks of Kings Mahendra and Gyanendra.
If the Maoists, somehow recognizing reality as well as their responsibility to history, give accede to a consensus document, it will have been so because the Nepali Congress exercised excruciating moral pressure. And if that document were to fail, the Nepali Congress would just mount the next struggle for democracy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mugged By Reality

For a country whose future was traditionally discussed around the constrained sovereignty of the two other Raj-era Himalayan buffer states, we have come a long way. Forget Sikkimization or Bhutanization. Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala has begun drawing parallels with more far-flung climes like Crimea.
That’s not the only way in which the Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest democratic party, has been exuding its creative side. Khum Bahadur Khadka, a one-time stalwart who many had been tempted to dismiss as a has-been, warns of an impending religious war, if not now then in 20 years’ time. All this comes after Shashank Koirala, in an acclaimed address to the Nepal Council of World Affairs, sought to hold his own party accountable for at least part of the national malaise.
Promulgating a constitution – or whatever can resemble one – has become a prestige issue for the prime minister of a party that claims to have spearheaded three revolutions but doesn't want to talk about how it squandered it all each time. Sushil Koirala’s cabinet colleagues from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist sound quite confident too. (How could they afford not to be?)
Those arrayed against a half-done document are quite formidable. Yet their divisions have provided strength to the proponents of meeting the January 22 deadline.
As frustrated as we might be, let’s not pretend we were not forewarned. After all, the mainstream parties were rejecting the Maoists’ demand for a constituent assembly on the ground that it would open a Pandora’s box until King Gyanendra began sidelining them. Antipathy toward the palace need not have translated so cavalierly into fissiparous alacrity.
Geopolitical realities conspired to take Nepal is’ aspirations for change in a different direction. The three principal external powers – India, China and the United States – were principally hedging their bets. Our wizards of smart stuck their necks out too far. Eight years down the road, the parties that could so easily agree on what was not part of the mandate of People’s Movement II – the abolition of the monarchy – cannot agree on ways of meeting its principal demand – inclusiveness.
How could they, when we are still in the process of manufacturing newer victims and victimizers?
The geopolitical equations have shifted since when an Indian coalition government trying to negotiate a strategic partnership with the United States had to appease its communist allies by outsourcing Nepal policy to them. Nor are the Chinese and Indians engaged in a zero-sum game over Nepal or South Asia. After all, the Chinese President was fraternizing with the Indian prime minister while their border guards were trading fire.
And the Americans? Tibet is a useful pin to prick China. But when the US President on Chinese soil says that he is not in favor of Tibet’s independence, you know how much the ground has shifted from 2005-2006.
One Nepali newspaper editorially suggested the other day that Nepal had moved beyond the divisive issue of the monarchy and must be allowed to reach out to the future. Six years after Gyanendra Shah left Narayanhity Palace, his private visit to New Delhi has all of us in thrall. What might be cooking the Indian capital, where legions of dishes have been produced over the decades suiting all kinds of taste buds out here?
So this is where we are. A multiparty constituent assembly is being asked to develop consensus when all of its constituent parties fought the elections on their own manifestos. Yet when the two principal ruling parties and their minor allies can muster over two-thirds majority behind their constitutional roadmap, that is called undemocratic.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when reality mugs you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Take It Or Leave It

If you are infuriated by the political establishment’s obsession with how the new constitution should be settled, It is time to cut them some slack. There is not much by way of content that they can show. Well, maybe they can show a lot in the new document. But it won’t be what too many of us will like.
Clearly, the wrangling over the number and nature of provinces serves a purpose. Blame Indian and Chinese geopolitical sensitivities and throw around all kinds of ideas. Madhav Kumar Nepal gets to yell at Khadga Oli at the top of his lungs. Pushpa Kamal Dahal gets to head both the mechanism to manage political affairs and the alliance menacing it.
On the religious right, the Hindu state standard-bearer – Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN) – is being forced to cede some ground to a group of Nepali Congress leaders. How and when Khum Bahadur Khadka decided to take up the mantle remains unclear. After all, he was on record rallying for republicanism in the early 1990s when Girija Prasad Koirala was still best buds with King Birendra. If incarceration and insulin somehow transformed him, it was a quiet one.
For all its posturing, this Nepali Congress faction has not been able to tell us how a Hindu republic would fare any better than the secular one we have now. The appellation certainly has some implications. A Christian or Muslim president attending the hymnal advent of spring at Hanuman Dhoka might not be palatable to many Hindu ears. But if you start barring non-Hindus from the highest office of the land just to prevent that awkwardness, wouldn’t that constitute non-royal regression?
Or are we just trying to call Nepal the world’s only Hindu republic and leave things at that just to make some of us feel good?
That’s the kind of inanity you would expect the RPPN to pounce upon. There was a time when Kamal Thapa was thought to have abandoned his campaign to restore the monarchy. For a while, he, too, blew hot and cold – and seemed to enjoy it. Now he’s angry – at the deputy prime minister for now. If passions don’t cool soon, well, don’t even think about what might come next.
It’s easy to fall back on the oh-we could-still-restore the-monarchy line. What if Mr. Gyanendra Shah likes being ex-king so much that he won’t budge from where he is? The son, despite the recent outpouring of public sympathy over his travails in Thailand, is still considered too toxic to be throne-worthy. The grandson? He’s too young and running against time to grow up. King Birendra’s daughters? The Basanta Shrawan conundrum would persist in a different way, especially if it happened to be that time of the month for the Queen.
Perhaps our political leaders’ public confidence is genuine and the constitution will be promulgated on time. Those dissatisfied will erupt in protest, but there will be too many howls from far too many directions to pose a cohesive threat to the establishment.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could address the nation: “Brothers and sisters, this is the best we could do. Now, take it or leave it.” He could decide toward the end of the speech whether to throw in his resignation, depending on the intensity of the fire and smoke.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

So, Which Way Is It Again?

It’s that time in the political calendar where political prestidigitations on the surface seek to convey a state of the nation that is hale and hearty.
As the first deadline for the promulgation of the new constitution under the new constituent assembly – January 22 – approaches, the political parties are making the right sounds and moves. “Sure, it’s crunch time, but we’re up to the job.” Expect more point-wise compromises ostensibly to push things forward. If certain things have to be put off to promulgate the basic law, than so be it. That sentiment is gaining some ground.
The political establishment seems so eager for a breakthrough that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala realized only later that protocol would not permit him to serve on the High Level Political Committee led by the leader of the opposition and demurred.
Employing a mixture of school-yard bullying and bellowing, Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal got what he wanted: a seat at the top table. With the Maoist chief now leading the charge, his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, must be heaving a sigh of relief. As the person entrusted with ironing out differences on contentious issues, he had begun throwing up his hands in desperation in all directions. In the event of another fiasco, Bhattarai won’t be the only Maoist open to opprobrium.
At the other end of the spectrum, barely a year into its electoral feat, the royalist right is down in the dumps. The former king, who has outlived his ancestors, is in poor health. The former crown prince’s latest arrest in Thailand on charges of drug possession (trafficking?) has left the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal wondering whether its campaign for the restoration of the monarchy is even worth the trouble.
Kamal Thapa and Co. find themselves in the most unenviable position. Restoration of Hindu statehood – that other plank of the RPPN platform – has now been all but taken over by Khum Bahadur Khadka’s faction of the Nepali Congress. And that movement is drawing support from people associated with the atheist left.
Isn’t it funny, though, that every time the republicans’ folly is on the verge of furthering the chances of the monarchy, the dude in Thailand seems to step right into it? This is not being insensitive to the former crown prince, whose latest visage resembles almost nothing of his former royal self.
Consider how fate is playing with the nation’s collective emotions. If you want to be honest, the monarchy has not disappeared from the people’s hearts and minds. Sure, the political establishment has been kicking the ex-king around. Deep down, every Nepali these past years has known that, if pushed to the brink, there was some place to turn to.
If we want to restore the monarchy formally, time may be running out. No adult might be available to wear the crown. (Since we know how baby kings worked out for us in the past, can teen queens be expected to fare any better, notwithstanding our gender blindness?) And the irony of ironies? Greater hastiness might have to be employed to restore the monarchy than what was put into abolishing it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pulling A Fast One In Slow Motion


In a little over two years of existence, Mohan Baidya’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) has succeeded in elevating the mother organization as a responsible political stakeholder.
Even in the topsy-turvy world of Nepali politics, the inconsistencies of Baidya’s men and women have stood out sharply. The party not only boycotted last year’s constituent assembly elections but also actively – and often violently – worked to subvert the exercise.
Having failed in that enterprise, CPN-M leaders rather brashly began demanding ‘respectable presence’ in the assembly, ostensibly through the proportional-representation quota won by Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) or the government-appointed lot.
When that kind of fizzled, you would have expected the comrades to sit back and take a deep breath. Instead, they began demanding a round table conference on the new constitution. And that, too, with an urgency bordering on alacrity to usurp the prerogative of the body elected for that express purpose.
Once three major parties worked out the parameters of such a conference, Baidya & Co. refused to participate. In the ensuing blame game, they are projecting themselves as the victims.
“We are an inalienable part of the entire peace process,” Baidya claimed in an interview the other day. “Thus we maintained that all important issues, including those related to the peace process, needed to be discussed at the conference. Secondly, the conference should be provided with full authority [to implement the outcome].”
In the beginning, according to Baidya, the big three parties made verbal commitments to all of the CPN-Maoist demands. He balked when the leaders refused to provide a written commitment.
On the first point, Baidya represent a part of one party to the peace process. He probably has lost track of the parts of the peace process he likes and those he doesn’t. Like the Dahal-led Maoists, Baidya & Co. has shifted the goalposts so ruthlessly that setting boundaries has become meaningless.
In the eyes of the people, the culmination of the peace process would be symbolized by the promulgation of the constitution. With a legitimate and popularly elected venue already in existence, the three parties were under no obligation to commit to actions and opinions emanating from the round table conference. (And what kind of leader works on verbal commitments anyway, in this day and age?)
From the outset, the only thing the CPN-M had going for it was the claim of ideological purity. Baidya criticized Dahal and his loyalists for abandoning the principles of the ‘people’s war’ for sheer personal political gain, which resonated among the faithful. It turns out that the ideological veneer was skin deep. Who would have thought Dr. Baburam Bhattarai would have a key ally in the Baidya group in the form of Netra Bikram Chand?
Since Baidya and Chand have now issued separate exhortations to the people to rise up against the government’s power agreement with India, we can expect the intra-CPN-M fissures to sharpen.
The politics of it all is delectable. Although the principal parties continue to promise to promulgate the constitution by the January 22 deadline, their ability to do so is diminishing by the day. If anything, they needed a convenient excuse for failure.
Baidya, on the other hand, recognized the growing marginalization his party was likely to suffer outside the corridors of power. If the constitution should come out, it should be one his party could denounce as tainted. In retrospect, his demand for a round table conference gave the mainstream parties the perfect excuse.
Try as it might, the CPN-M now cannot distance itself from the constitution, if it does indeed emerge by the stipulated deadline. In case the mainstream parties fail to deliver on their pledge yet again, they can spread the blame evenly to the CPN-M for its having squandered time and resources on convening a conference the party ultimately lacked the confidence to attend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Art Of The Visit

It was a stretch to have expected Chinese President Xi Jinping to land in Kathmandu as part of his current South Asian tour. Still, Maila Baje couldn’t avoid those should’ve- would’ve-could’ve gyrations.
Good neighborliness wasn’t the primary sentiment driving yours truly. It was a quest for an assurance that Nepal-China relations were moving in a positive direction.
Admittedly, China’s engagement in Nepal has steadily deepened and become more diversified since the collapse of the monarchy. But a palpable negativity has crept into the process.
Regional and international rivalries always simmered and stirred under the current in terms of our bilateral engagements. Yet, during the second half of the 20th century, there was a sense that Nepal and China had crafted and started enjoying relations as sovereign and independent nations.
Measured against the fact that it took 17 years for an Indian prime minister to return to Nepal, President Xi’s current itinerary is perhaps a bit understandable. How events on the ground can affect high-level visits was borne out in the case of Pakistan, where Xi was forced to put off his arrival amid the country’s political turmoil.
Bold Indian reiterations of New Delhi’s abandonment of its ‘one China’ policy ever since the election of the Narendra Modi government certainly have implications for Tibet and thus Nepal. China’s reluctance to overtly challenge India while having made such remarkable gains in encroaching upon India’s strategic space in Nepal is understandable, even within the ambit of Beijing’s unsentimental foreign policy.
The opportunities and ambiguities surrounding Sino-Indian relations against the backdrop of Washington’s pivot to Asia and India’s warming up to Japan and Australia point to the wider dynamics at play. All these engender tensions that should alarm Nepalis.
The current political establishment long castigated the monarchy for having brazenly played the China card at every opportunity in an ostensible effort to achieve its autocratic ambitions. That canard suited New Delhi well, as it was the principal party aggrieved by growing Nepal-China engagements.
Oppositional elements in Nepal no doubt were instinctively tempted to parrot the Indian line. But perhaps they should have been cognizant of the imperative of preserving their freedom of action if and when they assumed power.
If today’s leaders have allowed the relationship to devolve into one where Beijing feels comfortable in asserting Nepal’s independence and sovereignty only as part of its engagement with India, they have only themselves to blame.
In the best of times, democratic maturity has not automatically translated into geostrategic vision. Amid Nepal’s political puerility, foreign policy foresight remains elusive. After all, who can forget the mishandling of then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit by the Baburam Bhattarai government from start to finish two years ago?
As Beijing makes more demonstrable displays of how higher South Asia has climbed on its diplomatic priority list, Sri Lanka and the Maldives host the Chinese President for the first time. We are still in thrall over what the Indian prime minister said about our duty to constitutionalism without paying much operational heed.
Who knows? Bhutan might end up on the next Chinese presidential itinerary, while we might still be stuck with the interim constitution, condemning our tangible past and chasing a tenuous future.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Shapes Of Things To Come

The constitution-drafting process, stymied in its legitimate venue despite a second popular mandate, is now set to be pursued at the Track II level.
How the putative round table conference might be able to iron out contentious issues when there are so many more wrinkles outside the constituent assembly is anyone’s guess.
But the mainstream parties have demonstrated that they at least care. And in today’s liberal/left milieu, that touchy-feely approach counts for good optics.
Not to everyone though. Kamal Thapa, the leader of the conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, blasted the Big Three for trying to impose their decisions on the country.
Normally, the majority vote – which the Big Three more than represent – carries the day. As a political practitioner across three system, Thapa knows the numbers game. But, then, there’s that pesky concept of ‘consensus’ that stands in the way. Everyone inside the chamber believes he or she should have a finger in the pie.
The non-party polity could not advance the notion of every-Nepali-is-a-pancha-and-vice-versa and had to give way to groups, coteries and factions long before we restored multiparty politics. Now the purveyors of newness are striving for conformity.
Thus, while castigating the Big Three, Thapa came to the defense of the Baidya Maoists, whose political chutzpah has been startling, if anything.
To be charitable, you could argue that the political establishment has heeded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Applauding Nepali lawmakers for having embarked on what he called an exemplary mission for the world during his address to the house last month, Modi also cautioned them to make sure no comma, full stop, presence or absence ever came back to haunt them.
That exhortation was a given when Nepalis voted in a second constituent assembly after the first fell flat. Somehow, the message was deemed so much more significant because the messenger was so mesmerizing.
The Baidya Maoists who not only boycotted the last election but also tried to subvert are going to have a say in the document. We can expect disparate groups and organizations to get a patient hearing.
This will provide another opportunity for our grievance industry to churn out new groups of victims to overwhelm the system. Saul Alinsky would certainly be proud.
To their credit, Deputy Prime Minister Bam Dev Gautam and Nepal Workers and Peasants Party leader Narayan Man Bijukchhe have pointed to the absurdity of the situation. But they are lonely voices on their perch.
Deeper down, they, too, need to expand the culpability base once the day of reckoning arrives. Still, our quest for nebulous newness can be expected to continue as long as the external sponsors of the search refuse to concede failure.
And they won’t concede because they have invested so much for diverse reasons. Those who pay the pipers will continue to call the tunes, regardless of how jarring the sounds may be to the rest of us.
So the operative question is this: Since we are a work in progress in perpetuity, why quibble over whether the table is round, square, triangular or even turned upside down?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bonfires Of Inanities

It’s getting down to crunch time for Comrade Baburam Bhattarai.
Our Doctor of Eternal Innovation is actively tamping down public expectations, as the deadline for the promulgation of the constitution looms.
A basic law promulgated through majority vote of elected representatives would not be able to address all sections of society and therefore the nation’s needs, Bhattarai sagaciously informed us the other day.
The chairman of parliament’s Constitutional Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee also spoke of efforts under way to convene a round table conference to ensure consensus behind the document. True, such an event would go a long way toward assuaging the likes of the Mohan Baidya-led faction of the Maoists and the assortment of small armed groups. But, then, C.P. Gajurel, a luminary in the Baidya lot, has already shifted the goalposts. A few days earlier, he dismissed federalism, democracy and republicanism as India’s agenda, ostensibly pushed for diabolic purposes.
Tempting as it certainly is, there’s no time to dwell on the shamelessness of the contention of a man whose party waged a 10-year bloody war to advance that trifecta. For now, Gajurel has zeroed in on the conflagration likely to consume the country should a tainted statute be foisted upon it.
Even if Gajurel is indulging in usual theatrics here, movements on the wider stage are hardly encouraging. Bhattarai’s boss, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, continues to warn that the Maoists might pull out of the constituent assembly altogether. You can’t imagine what a man so desperate to keep his house in order might wreak.
The talk of replacing one perpetual convalescent with another in the premiership had already weighed down the process before the government finally came out with a partial list of nominated members of the constituent assembly. For one thing, the assembly is still incomplete. For another, even after such inordinate delay, one lady’s name had to be scratched out because it later emerged she was already on the proportional representation list of her party. With that kind of inattention to detail, you wonder…
From the details emerging from the drafters – and those close to them – everything the Nepali people were promised would be in the statute of New Nepal is now being deemed amendable. Republicanism, the first gift of the first constituent assembly bestowed under the aegis of an unelected, interim prime minister, will be in the preamble. So that should be unalterable, right. Well, not quite. The drafters are not sure how to deal with the beginning, so they’ve decided to leave it till the end.
Bhattarai, whose prime ministerial tenure will be remembered for the capital’s road-widening project, has stopped taking credit for single-handedly turning Nepal into a republic. Instead, he’s talking about the urgency of building a new political force. Yet we seem to be decaying.
With no constituent assembly, the interim constitution of 1951 lasted nine years. With two such bodies elected already, the current temporary statute seems set to last quite that long.
No wonder men like Chitra Bahadur K.C. and Kamal Thapa have stepped down from their respective anti-federalism and pro-monarchist perches, and want the constitution promulgated as soon as possible. Putting out those bonfires of inanities might be our more pressing task.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

In Whose Book, Fellas?

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems most aggrieved from the recently published memoirs of General Rukmangad Katawal.
The former supreme commander of the “People’s Liberation Army” has used at least two occasions in public to demolish the credibility of the former Nepal Army chief. Like most people on the defensive, though, Dahal has focused less on the substance of the general’s revelations.
At an institutional level, the bad blood between the two can easily be surmised. The army could not defeat the Maoists, nor could the rebels vanquish the state. Yet Dahal emerged stepped into the public spotlight in 2006 as if he had won the world. The hatred he spewed against generations of soldiers, in the presence of the prime minister and all senior democratic leaders, could not have been easily forgotten by anyone familiar with the force.
At a political level, Dahal lost the premiership because of his failure to see through his decision to sack Gen. Katawal for insubordination. The general, who opens with a gripping narrative of that episode, portrays his complicated relationship with Dahal.
But that is a side story to the vigorous defense of the military Gen. Katawal mounts. To those who sought to establish a philosophical and practical equivalency between the state and rebel armies, Katawal makes a key point: the military was intent on pressuring the Maoists to join the political process, whereas the rebels were going for the kill. The guerillas inflicted massive losses on the soldiers and state, but the conventional army always held the ground.
Amid this stalemate, the political process took center stage, laced with the unsentimental rigors of geopolitics. Thus, a movement that began with objective of ending ‘autocratic monarchy’ ended up ushering in a republic.
Katawal’s reminiscences on the disparate personalities involved in that process are revealing. For instance, it’s hard to believe that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, miffed by the Maoists, would urge Gen. Katawal to take over. But that goes with the genre.
On Katawal’s pages, Dahal emerges in the same way he has been seen in public. At times, daring, flexible, blustery, obsequious and adamant – in no particular order. Clearly, his self-described ‘chemistry’ with Katawal was a compulsion of the times. Since it’s Katawal’s book, the general gets the last word on Dahal’s moves and motivations. And Dahal has every right to resent Katawal’s characterization. Case closed.
But Dahal took a curious route to press his case. He castigated the general as despicable and unreliable for having ditched the monarchy.
On that score, Katawal makes fascinating revelations beginning from his first contact with King Mahendra in his home district and subsequent arrival in Kathmandu for studies under royal sponsorship.
Over the years, his admirers and detractors stretched that instance of royal sponsorship into something akin to enduring royal guardianship. But Katawal, who by chance had ended up in King Mahendra’s office on the eve of the 1960 royal takeover with barely an inkling of what was about to happen, never met Queen and later Queen Mother Ratna. He was hardly a palace boy, by that reckoning.
The country didn’t know that when Katawal rose to the top and the monarchy was in its last gasps. The national focus was on how the army – traditionally loyal to the palace – would react to the push for republicanism under a general the public deemed was all but a brother to the suspended king.
In an effort to save the monarchy, Katawal, among other things, pushed the idea of enthroning a ‘baby king’. King Gyanendra rejected that outright. (“Over my dead body,” the general quotes the monarch as saying.)
Katawal doesn’t say so explicitly, but he seemed hurt by the royal snub. Maila Baje always felt King Gyanendra had a point: You can choose between a king and a president. But you can’t choose who you want as king.
Although he emerges as a strong monarchist still – at least within the demands of Nepal’s geo-strategic precariousness – Katawal quotes Nepali politicians as well as foreign diplomats casting aspersions on the ex-monarch’s personality and predilections. His general characterization of King Gyanendra’s rule is not flattering.
Did the king drag the army along kicking and screaming on February 1, 2005? Or did the generals advise the king of their ability to take control of the situation sufficiently to put the political process on track? Katawal maintains there were two armies – the palace guard and regular force. If the national army headquarters could not prevent that infringement on its jurisdiction and scope, then all his talk about professionalism becomes moot.
Those who wonder why the palace would want to keep GHQ at arm’s length might want to go a little back in history. Our army takes pride in its roots in the national unification campaign of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Yet, decades later, when a junior officer seized power and managed to monopolize it within his immediate family for over a century, keeping successive kings virtual prisoners in the palace, the army continued to back the usurpers. Surely, Dahal knows that the army-monarchy debate transcends the Katawal-Mahendra dimension. There were other ways he could have rebutted Katawal’s version of current history – including announcing that he would write his own book.
And even if the general did betray the palace and side with the republicans, shouldn’t Dahal be hailing Katawal?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Bit Of The Man For All

When an Indian prime minister’s visit to Nepal lands him in hot water on his side of the border, you know that bilateral relations are on the cusp of change.
The questions came rolling out right away. Why did Narendra Modi have to make such a grandiose show of his devotion to Lord Pashupatinath, when he couldn’t remember to offer Eid greetings to India’s Muslims?
And that drama about reuniting his godson with his birth parents? Hadn’t the young fellow already expressed his elation over a reunion on Facebook a few years ago?
Yet here we are still in disbelief over what a difference one speech can make.
Sure, there have been murmurs of criticism locally in recent days. Modi made fun of our hills’ inability to restrain the fluidity of water and youth. (As if the plains were significantly better at doing so.)
The $1 billion credit line he HIT us with? The strings were pretty clear from the outset: infrastructure development related to water resources would get priority. Since there aren’t too many builders on this side of the border, you know which way to follow the money until the card’s maxed out.
The general drift about Nepal selling and India buying electricity? Been there, done that. And yet the waters flow on, calmly and cruelly at will.
Modi welcomed Nepal’s long-standing aspirations for changes in the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. But not before implying that Nepal has only made noises so far, with little substantial contribution toward what it really wants and expects to get.
Overwhelmingly, though, we are still in a state of thrall. Modi affirmed that Buddha was born in Nepal. Rarely has someone reaped so much by emphasizing the obvious.
He placed the drafters of our constitution almost on the pedestal of the likes of B.R. Ambedkar. The Maoists – man oh man – they left Emperor Ashok so far behind in war and peace.
The genius of Modi lay not in his oratory. It was in his ability to reach out to everyone – or, more accurately, make them think he did. Within the august ambience of the constituent assembly, he admired Nepal’s march toward a federal democratic republic. But not without conveying a sense of tentativeness and tepidness through his body language.
Moreover, Modi reminded our elected representatives to make sure they did not omit or include something in the hallowed document today that might come to haunt us a century hence. Again, he obfuscated enough in that noble sentiment to let everyone read whatever they wanted.
When he praised the Maoists for so magnanimously laying down arms and adopting peace, the former rebel leaders didn’t seem so enthused when the cameras panned their way. Maybe they felt Modi was conniving to pre-empt what they considered their inalienable right to return to jungle.
Or perhaps they – true to form – were just busy trying to figure out how to use that opening to their advantage. (Modi seemed so enamored by that line that he did a reprise in his Independence Day address the other day.)
Modi reportedly was undecided until the last minute whether to meet former king Gyanendra, someone with whom, we understand, he has built a personal rapport. The Indian establishment, we are told, was split on the wisdom of such a meeting, largely along the lines drawn in 2006. The Indian ambassador in Kathmandu, the Ministry of External Affairs’ Nepal pointman when the 12-Point Agreement was struck between the mainstream parties and Maoists, reportedly threatened to resign, claiming he couldn’t face the fallout from such a get-together.
That settled it. Still, Modi’s meeting with Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal president Kamal Thapa seems to have assuaged the royalist right.
The Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Pakistanis, everyone is playing the guessing game as far as Modi goes. At least he has graciously let each Nepali make him out in his or her own image.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Flashback: Maoist Model Of Hostile Coexistence

Abandoning his recent penchant for band-aid solutions, United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal is preparing to confront head-on his rivals in the party. Well, that’s what Dahal loyalists are letting on ahead of a crucial party meeting later this week.
The rival camp, led by Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, isn’t cooling its heels either. Bhattarai has, with increasing acerbity, taken to describing the party as a personal fiefdom of the chairman. His confidante, Devendra Poudel, has taken on Dahal by pressing him to own up to the party’s disastrous performance in the November election.
At the upcoming meeting, separate factions led by Bhattarai and Narayan Kaji Shrestha plan to forcefully raise the issue of democratizing the party leadership’s working style and transforming the centralized leadership into a collective decision-making system. Claiming that perpetual dissidence was undermining the party, Dahal is preparing to firmly implement the principle of ‘democratic centralism’, i.e., retain the party chairmanship while containing his rivals.
As someone who has basked in the party’s glories – mythical and mundane – Dahal probably knew what was coming his way after the electoral drubbing. He has blamed the installation of the non-party election government for the party’s debacle, a position Bhattarai shares.
But Dahal is too human to forget that it was then-premier Bhattarai who, by consistently opposing a successor government by political parties, paved the way for the rise of the technocrats/bureaucrats. Understandably, Dahal is in no mood to be pushed around.
Eager to establish the election results as a dilution of Dahal’s long influence, the Bhattarai faction had hoped to use candidates in the proportional representation category in the new assembly to increase its foothold in the parliamentary party. When Bhattarai and Shrestha absented themselves from a meeting convened to finalize the list of candidates, Dahal dispatched one packed with his loyalists to the Election Commission.
It’s not hard to see that Dahal’s confidence stems from his recognition of the battering Bhattarai’s image suffered as premier. In retrospect, if Dahal had really ever felt threatened by Bhattarai during their tumultuous partnership during years of war and peace, he addressed them fully by acquiescing in his rival’s elevation to the premiership. And he knows he can count on those party members who are not necessarily devout loyalists but are nevertheless miffed by Bhattarai’s ostensible efforts to establish that, in the end, the pen has proved mightier than the sword for the Maoists.
Still, it would be foolhardy to contemplate a formal parting of ways between these two men. (Maila Baje is excluding Shrestha from the broader internecine rivalries largely because of his enigmatic and erratic role in all of this.)
For one thing, throughout their partnership, Dahal and Bhattarai each have been known to encourage all kinds of compromises to keep the other in check. Dahal’s readiness to collaborate with the palace in the run-up to the February 1, 2005 royal takeover and the short-lived Dhobighat alliance between Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya to rein in Dahal are but two illustrations of their capacity for contortions.
For another, the country may not have enough room for the emergence of a viable third Maoist party. On the other hand, any realignment between the existing factions precipitated by a fresh split would no longer carry the necessary ‘oomph’ value, considering that the party has been relegated to third place in the national arena.
The upshot? Count on the factions to continue to press ahead with their crude public spectacle by conflating the personal/political, individual/ideological and procedural/practical.

This post originally appeared on January 04, 2014.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

In The Long Shadow of History

Portrait of a Nepal-Tibet battle. Courtesy: Nepal Army
The controversy sparked by Nepal’s flip-flop over the cremation of a revered Tibetan monk ended, mercifully, with another flip.
Mipham Chokyi Lodro, the 14th Shamarpa of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, eventually had his wishes fulfilled and was cremated in a special ceremony at the Shar Minub Institute he built in Kathmandu.
After the lama’s death in Germany in June, the Nepali government permitted his followers to bring his body to Kathmandu for cremation. But the government immediately withdrew that permission amid purported concerns that Tibetan exiles would use the funeral to protest Chinese rule over their homeland.
Denying reports of Chinese pressure, the Nepali government explained the reversal on account of the deceased holding Bhutanese citizenship, something it had not been aware of while granting the initial permission.
Amid growing international media coverage – mostly negative – the government restored the original decision, citing the Shamarpa Lama’s great contributions to Buddhism. In the end, there were no protests at the funeral. The geopolitics of it all turned out to have been hyped.
Does that mean the concern was wrong? Throughout the controversy, Maila Baje ruminated on the life and times of an earlier Shamarpa Lama, Mipam Chödrup Gyamtso (1742-1793).
The 10th Shamarpa Lama, a stepbrother of the 6th Panchen Lama, had hoped that the Tibetan government would reinstate his sect’s monasteries seized in the preceding century. Before anything could happen, the Panchen Lama, away on a visit to Beijing at the invitation of the Qing emperor Qianlong, died of smallpox there.
Out of reverence for the Panchen Lama, his spiritual teacher, Qianlong offered a large quantity of gold coins to the brothers and sisters of the deceased. The keepers of the Panchen Lama’s Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatze, for their part, claimed the gifts were the property of the shrine. They went on to accuse the Shamarpa of plotting a rebellion against the Tibetan government to regain his monasteries.
Breaking house arrest, Shamarpa fled to Sikkim and subsequently arrived in Kathmandu, where tensions were already brewing with the Tibetans over debased currencies and other commercial and political issues.
Prince Bahadur Shah, the regent for King Rana Bahadur Shah, appointed the Shamarpa an adviser as part of efforts to resolve those disputes. According to British and Tibetan sources at the time, the Shamarpa was said to have strenuously urged Bahadur to invade Tibet and seize Tashilhunpo’s riches in compensation for Nepali grievances.
After a series of failed negotiations, Bahadur ordered the invasion of Tibet in 1789, which soon resulted in the Kerong peace treaty. After a brief lull, Nepal accused Tibet of reneging on the terms of the treaty and sent the Shamarpa as part of negotiating team. The Tibetans, firm on their interpretation of the treaty, promptly arrested him.
Bahadur ordered a second invasion of Tibet in 1791, and this time the Nepalis sacked the Tashilhunpo monastery. An infuriated Qianlong sent troops to repel the Nepalis, chasing them all the way back to the outskirts of Kathmandu. Realizing that its appeals for assistance from British India were not forthcoming – at least not until Kathmandu granted concessions to the East India Company – the Nepali court sought peace terms from the Chinese.
As peace was being negotiated in 1792, Beijing demanded the return of the Shamarpa, his family and loyalists, as well as the plunder from the Tashilhunpo monastery. By this time, however, the Shamarpa had died. Some claimed he committed suicide, others said he had succumbed to jaundice.
With that kind of history hovering over us, were our latest fears all that irrational?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Between Babudom And Netaland

After obliquely chiding us – for all of a day – that he might have no time to visit Nepal immediately, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is officially slated to come calling early next month.
Although the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government finds itself mired in controversy over New Delhi’s latest proposals on harnessing our waters, Modi himself is the beneficiary of the doubt. It probably took a day for the man to realize that.
Those proposals, which are perceived to tighten India’s already asphyxiating grip on us, were purportedly drawn up and communicated during the fag end of the Manmohan Singh government. Moreover, as former water resources minister and engineer Dipak Gyawali suggested in a recent TV interview, the entire episode – its secrecy as well as revelation – may be a plot by India’s bureaucratic establishment to subvert any positive thrust Modi might be contemplating vis-à-vis relations with Nepal.
Gyawali concedes that his apprehensions might turn out to be nothing more than political conjecture. Surely, events will have the ultimate say there. But, Maila Baje wonders, can we afford to wait?
The Indian bureaucracy will zealously guard its ‘privilege’ to conduct relations with Nepal, which a cursory examination of recent Indian commentary reveals. Those cautioning Prime Minister Modi against listening to anyone besides the architects of the post-April 2006 framework invariably happen to be ex-babus institutionally or individually involved in the process. Particularly apprehensive at this juncture are elements once associated with India’s intelligence agencies, today populating academia and other ‘non-government’ perches.
By now, Nepalis recognize that we are living under the post-monarchy vision the Research and Analysis Wing began framing in the 1960s. It took a while for the spooks to persuade their political bosses that the palace was the problem, as far as India was concerned. The bureaucracy salivated at the prospect of widening its jurisdiction. The halfhearted faith of the Indian political class in babudom’s prescription has been evident from the outset.
The successor regime in Nepal has not proven itself capable to correct the purported flaws of the palace. It’s not just that Nepal has failed to fall in line. Too many bidders with too deep pockets are proliferating from all directions all the time.
RAW and its narrow band of benefactors, struggling for a success story after Bangladesh and Sikkim receded into the background, are intent on making sure this process lingers on. At some point, as they see it, the collective will of the Nepali nation must succumb.
The political class in India, who enjoyed the respite provided by babudom on a vital frontier as they articulated their great-power aspirations, has a different psychology. True, they don’t want to know the details of covert operations as long as the analytical and operational players produce the right results. But they certainly don’t want to have to clean up the mess in full public glare.
The former monarch, who has bucked the chronological record of his ancestors, cannot be expected to keep doing so forever. His son has publicly ruled himself out of the succession, thus sparing the people much disquiet. The grandson is still too young to be anointed the royal successor in a way that would carry much meaning in either side of the debate.
Normally, this should be something worrying Nepali royalists. But you get a sense that the architects of our destiny down south are more petrified. The restoration of the monarchy is a prospect that lives on in Nepal not because of some nefarious design of the disempowered royals and courtiers. It does so because of the inability of the successor regime to establish itself as a viable successor amid Nepal’s geostrategic precariousness. RAW officers – current or former – already have a fair idea of what they are up against here. When direct beneficiaries of India’s covert policies – such as our Maoists – begin demanding that Indian politicians should drive their country’s policies toward Nepal, you can imagine the extent of the babus’ collective mortification.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Now, What Really Ails Us?

Those petrified by the possibility of the newly elected chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leading us on a rightward lurch to the past probably should start pushing the panic button just a bit harder.
Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, citing his fragile health, has let us know quite clearly that he is a man in a hurry. Those of us wondering why he was so desperate for the top job – and could band together such a loyal following – have not got our answers yet. So there must be more excitement in store.
Among the first non-Nepalis to congratulate Oli were Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ally, Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah. While the alacrity of their gestures must have raised the fears of our anti-rightist camp, the Indian premier has waded into fresh controversy over his country’s putative plan for our waters. The story remains the same. Topography dictates that our rivers flow south, which we can do nothing about. But surely we don’t want the Indians to be the only non-Nepalis fishing in it, even though no one else seems to be seriously interested.
As the maneuverings on that front unfold, there is no telling what a man so conscious of his mortality can wreak. Oli and his principal ally Bam Dev Gautam once had a soft corner for the monarchy. We don’t know how the consistency of that sentiment has changed over the years. On the other end of the spectrum, Oli isn’t quite thrilled about the Maoists, either. Thus his public quest must be to conquer the middle ground of national politics from the Nepali Congress.
Madhav Kumar Nepal, mocked for mounting what was perceived as a futile challenge, actually presented a vigorous show. In the end, the votes from western Nepal seemed to have made the difference. A Ukraine-like polarization might not be in the cards here, but the fissures have opened up in a traditionally fractious party, which are bound to be felt outside.
Oli sounded magnanimous in victory. “Running a party is not akin to taking part in a marathon and party leaders are not marathon runners,” he said. “It is rather a team spirit and mainly the party leaders unitedly take the party ahead while adhering to the party’s ideology and keeping the organizational setup intact.”
Congratulating Oli, Nepal said he had begun feeling that it was a mistake to take part in the election by forming panels and groups. “I sincerely hope that those who have won will not marginalize the defeated and those who have lost will extend their helping hand to the victorious.”
Having made a campaign push to modernize the UML, Oli got an early taste of the extent of his challenges at the first post-election meeting of the party. The new leader might not be able to empower his panel to the detriment of his rival’s.
Still, that might not pose too much of a problem. Going by the past, it’s hard to see panel members suddenly become firm in their loyalty or conviction. With proper blandishments, the balance can always shift toward Oli, especially with Gautam on his side.
Despite all this, you’re still forced to wonder. An ailing prime minister and an ailing prime minister in waiting. And we’re still asking what ails our country?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It’s All About Optics

The realities and restraints of open and competitive politics have considerably chastened our one-time Fierce One.
Sure, Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal still tends to breathe rhetorical fire at times. But the chairman of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is no longer capable of persuading us of the limitlessness of our possibilities.
In general, hopey-changey politics simply doesn’t have sufficient constituency of suckers to ensure an extended shelf life. Bitten ever so often, Nepalis possess more pronounced skepticism than the rest.
However, it was hard not to give Dahal the benefit of the doubt in the spring of 2006. When he first emerged in public as the leader of a violent rebel movement who was now committed to waging peace, Dahal seized the country’s imagination – because there was so much we didn’t know about him.
As prime minister, we remember how he insisted on visiting China first, insisting that the circumstances warranted a sovereign nation’s making its choices without fear or favor. We tend to forget that within his first 100 days in office Prime Minister Dahal had met the presidents of the United States (even if in the form of a brief handshake on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly) and China as well as the Prime Minister of India. Nepal was on its way to making a clean break from business as usual, we were told. It started to look like it was.
Confronted with his first major crisis – President Ram Baran Yadav’s decision to reverse the prime minister’s decision to sack the army chief – Dahal chose to resign. His party had the best-organized cadre base on the streets and retained a distinct fear factor. By resigning, though, he sought to burnish his democratic credentials. You couldn’t say he failed.
In interviews with the Indian media, he sought to dispel the notion that he was somehow stepping into the same spiral of anti-Indianism popular with Nepali politicians out of power. Although skepticism had deepened by his tendency to speak in keeping with the audience, Dahal still enjoyed the support of those who considered his post-premiership remarks as a good-faith effort to explain the geo-strategic dimensions of governance.
Soon after, things began going downhill. Once he realized that his return to the premiership was now hopelessly encumbered, Dahal began publicly regretting his decision to step down.
Now, instead of advancing the search for the right balance between our two neighbors, Dahal began pitting Beijing and New Delhi against each other in order to bolster his personal politics.
The Chinese, having invested so much in the Maoists, tried working with second-tier leaders. The Indians, who were still seething at what they considered the monarchy’s brazen tradition of waving of the ‘China card’, turned nostalgic for the decency and dignity with which the palace pressed on that course.
Dahal eventually allowed his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, to become premier thinking that it would be the second best thing. Instead, the party split, the Maoists lost considerable ground in the second Constituent Assembly elections and Dahal was almost left without a job. The Maoists became just another chapter in the sordid history of fusion and fission of Nepal’s communist politics.
The Maoist interregnum did serve to bolster the credibility of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. Maybe their kind politics is the norm. The two parties, having squandered the public trust, are living their second lives with reasonable élan. (Life on the sidelines has been an extremely useful popularity booster for our ex-monarch as well.)
Dahal must have learned a lesson or two here. But his fighting words? He is just too much of a political animal to restrain himself. The other day, the Maoist chief insisted that he was ready to go to jail and even lay down his life for the cause of identity-based federalism. In fairness, he probably still believes in the cause. But he surely can’t believe much of the country still believes in it as well.
He can’t abandon the idea in the same way he can’t abandon the constituent assembly, republicanism or secularism. Going to jail or getting out of this world wouldn’t place the burden of achieving identity-based federalism on Dahal. The optics would be good. And, yes, to be a successful Maoist these days, you have to be careful about appearances.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Tightening The Tent Of Tentativeness

Now that a top leader of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has publicly ruled out the return of the monarchy in Nepal, you would expect our political establishment to redouble its efforts to promulgate the overdue republican constitution.
Some leaders, to be sure, have been issuing remarkably upbeat prognoses on the process. Beneath the surface, however, you get a palpable sense that the stars still have not yet aligned properly.
Superficially, the issue of federalism continues to haunt our march towards New Nepal. Everyone knows that without addressing the expectations of inclusiveness the Maoists heightened – and the other parties jumped onto as a political ploy late in the day – the document is doomed. Yet no one seems to be able to find that formula for fullness that would also be in keeping with the principles of national and geopolitical viability.
While federalism has come to embody the quest for completeness, it only masks the other dimensions of our identity and institutional crises. In recent weeks, we have been rudely awakened to the appropriate role of the courts and the media in our emerging polity. International lessons abound when it comes to establishing a dignified relationship between the citizen and the state. The much-maligned air-and-water theory of adaptation still hovers over the national discourse.
Here’s the rub. A new constitution would set the parameters of our politics in ways that cannot be fully grasped today. Deep down, this uncertainty haunts every political party and player, major or minor. The people may be clamoring for finality, especially considering the repeated upheavals they have endured within a single generation. The political establishment cannot be ready for conclusiveness unless each constituent can be assured of its place and prospect.
Still, politicians feel obliged to assure us of their abiding commitment to fulfilling the mandate of Constituent Assembly II. And they are looking for novel ways of doing so. So much so that politicians whom you would not normally consider weirdoes end up making wild assertions.
Speaker Subhash Chandra Nembang said the other day that enacting the new constitution by January 22, 2015 would be the greatest tribute to late prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala. Nembang, in fairness, was addressing a program commemorating the 90th birth anniversary the Nepali Congress titan and thus had to be polite. But personalizing the vital undertaking as an act of homage to Girija babu? What happened to the martyrs? Or our collective wisdom as a nation?
Minister for Law, Justice, Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Affairs Narhari Acharya, for his part, claimed that Nepal would witness political stability once the new constitution was promulgated. But political instability is not exactly our problem, is it? At least not compared to the 1990-2002 period of parliamentary democracy.
The political class has been remarkably subdued now when it comes to pursuing the proverbial warfare by other means. Perhaps this is because each party is mired in internal battles. Surely, Acharya could have been more convincing by conveying the urgency of completing a task long overdue at considerable public expense.
In order to comprehend the tentativeness of our political class, Maila Baje chose to re-read BJP leader Vijay Jolly’s remarks, which one English daily had headlined: “Monarchy won’t make a comeback: BJP leader”.
Professing respect for the Nepali people’s desire for change in 2006 – which he said he had personally witnessed in Kathmandu at the time – Jolly said the BJP had actually supported the removal of the monarchy. Yet when it came time to be categorical in our midst about the future, Jolly’s precise words were: “I don’t think monarchy will make a comeback in Nepal”.
How many provinces are we contemplating, again?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Generalspeak: Platitude Or Portent?

An already ailing prime minister diagnosed with another serious malady has reignited a leadership struggle in the principal ruling party, pitting its dynastic claimants against the plebeians.
The other major coalition partner is mired in a party convention wherein the two prime contestants for leadership are slinging mud over who brings more royalist baggage to the ring.
The once-feared rebels, splintered, exhausted and relegated to third place, insist the two ruling parties are bent on restoring the monarchy and unitary state by reinstating the previous constitution.
And when the only avowedly royalist party in the elected assembly insists it would not accept any constitution that did not formally accommodate the monarchy and Hinduism, even the most committed republicans do not pretend to rise up to offer a rebuttal.
So when Gen. Gaurav Shamsher Rana, chief of staff of the Nepal Army, reminded us other day that the armed forces were the last line of defense, he created a flutter.
In the best of times, such platitudes would have been easily shrugged off. Even in the worst – like today’s – a been-there-done-that attitude should have sufficed. Yet the attempt to read between the top general’s words persists. It’s an age-old syndrome: When you don’t know what you really want, you try to seek meaning in everything.
A little history lesson may be in order. The last time our top general gave the same message, stirrings of change were in the air. Except it wasn’t the kind we expected. When the entire family of the supreme commander of the then Royal Nepal Army perished inside the heavily fortified palace perimeter, the same army chief wanted us to be believe that his organization was not responsible for the royals’ security.
Clearly, army bosses pushed then king Gyanendra to seize full control of state powers in February 2005, confident in their ability to control the situation. Superficially, the monarch confronted a two-front battle. In reality, though, the mainstream parties were still discredited and the monarch initially had the people’s palpable – if wary – support. Why then could the army, unencumbered by the political imperatives inherent under party rule, make no dent against the insurgents? If the shortage of arms and ammunition resulting from the post-takeover embargo was the reason, what did that say about the generals’ political acumen?
Admittedly, you could accuse the monarch – as so many continue to – of squandering the brief window of opportunity by packing his cabinet with discredited politicians from the partyless and multiparty past. What else could he have done amid the sustained boycott mounted by the mainstream parties? Name key generals to top cabinet positions?
In the end, you could say the generals persuaded the monarch of the impossibility of his enterprise and encouraged him to step back. To assert that claim, the generals would have to inject some honesty to the discourse.
The army ultimately absolved itself by undergoing a name change and distancing itself from the palace. Any new such adventure would be far more perilous to the armed forces and, by extension, to the nation.
Now, if Gen. Rana’s intention was to assure us that the armed forces, which unified Nepal, sustained Bhimsen Thapa’s thirty-year autocracy before underpinning a century of the Ranas’, and went on to bolster the democrats, the panchas, multiparty practitioners, royalists and republicans of a still independent nation, then he should not have taken the trouble. If anything, we’ve wizened up to our history these past few years.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Consensus On Sharing Censure

Those of us scratching our heads so hard the past few days as to why our fragmented and fuming Maoists have suddenly chosen to forge a working alliance now have something to work on.
The major objective of the emerging alliance is to pull Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist out of Constituent Assembly, Chandra Prakash Gajurel, vice-chairman of the CPN (Maoist) said at a public interaction program the other day.
Published reports suggest Matrika Yadav’s CPN (Maoist), Mani Thapa’s Revolutionary Communist Centre and Pari Thapa’s CPN (United) also desire a common voice on key contentious issues before the new constitution is drafted.
Come to think of it, our Maoists are in a real fix. The parties inside the constituent assembly have emerged as the biggest impediments to the promulgation of a new constitution.
No single entity is prepared to assume full responsibility for this impending failure. Collectively, though, they are willing to share the blame. (Provided, of course, each party/faction/coterie reserved the right to point fingers at its rivals.)
This shared stance within the assembly has deprived the parties outside of a credible and coherent agenda. Since they cannot play spoilers, they have projected themselves as saviors.
“Yeah, we thought the constituent assembly, as the ultimate embodiment of popular sovereignty, would salve the Nepali soul,” your average Maoist comrade might assert. “But little did we know that a butcher selling goat meat behind a display of goat heads still had several tricks up his sleeve.”
“On top of that,” another might add, “it takes guts to accept where you went wrong.” If the street is where sovereignty of the people resides, then let’s try to ensure its triumph from there. That’s the philosophical part, more or less. What about the operational side? That’s what Gajurel is talking about.
Dahal recognizes that his war and peace were dictated largely by factors extraneous to the so-called objective conditions inside Nepal. The set of these external circumstances across the southern border circa 2005-2006 that culminated in the advent of republicanism here have largely dissipated and the drivers no longer possess the power to push the agenda forward.
On the other hand, the new handlers, while cognizant of their own national-security imperatives and core interests, are not necessarily wedded so sentimentally to republicanism and secularism in Nepal. Truth be told, who really knows how many people there, or elsewhere in the near abroad and beyond, continue to see those two attributes in Nepal as conducive to their national interests?
Despite Baburam Bhattarai persisting as the perennial thorn on his side, Dahal must continue pretending that he is still the ‘fierce one’ of lore. So he threatens to pull out of the assembly, decrying the ‘regressive tendencies’ of the ruling Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML).
However, if Dahal were to withdraw from the assembly unilaterally, Nepalis would feel vindicated in seeing him and his party as escapists. If parties outside the assembly could pull him in their direction, Dahal and Co. would be exposed to an acceptable, if not equal, distribution of denunciation. The core of political consensus, if you will.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Stray Thoughts On A Stirring Celebrity

She seemed to fit in the ambience so perfectly. Specifically, whatever she wore – her clothes or ours – she looked like one of us.
As the international media zeroed in on Selena Gomez’s personal travails while covering her recent visit to Nepal, we were happy to find the country on the entertainment pages for a change.
As a UNICEF ambassador, Selena arrived for an in-depth observation of the organization’s work in Nepal focused on education, nutrition, health and protection. “This visit to Nepal was extraordinarily powerful – at times, devastating and heartbreaking, but also incredibly inspiring,” she said in a press release.
For Maila Baje, the visit offered an opportunity to gaze beyond the daily grind. Selena Gomez has grown up into what an earlier Selena might have become, had she not been murdered on a March morning in 1995 by someone who was supposed to have taken care of her.
Some years hence, Selena Gomez popped up in the PBS kids show Barney & Friends. Parents and grandparents who turned to the purple dinosaur for early life lessons for their young ones began bonding with her. It was pleasing to learn later that Selena’s mom had named her daughter after the Tejano singer.
With Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place, we could now identify with Alex Russo’s magical antics as she and her two siblings competed for the slot of Family Wizard of their generation. The carefree, anything-is-possible attitude of children of men and women who wake up every morning and make America work gripped audiences episode after episode.
Much as they delighted adults, kids like Selena, her one-time Barney colleague and fellow Disney star Demi Lovato, and Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus also disturbed parents, especially those with daughters. How would they – and our children – turn out as young adults? And what would that say about us?
Demi began struggling with drug problems, walking in and out of rehab a few times, before speaking publicly about herself with courage. Miley grew into a raunchy entertainer pushing the boundaries of public decency harder than Madonna or Lady Gaga ever dared to.
Selena seemed to have transitioned with much – for lack of a better term – stability. Her side of the relationship with Justin Bieber contained nothing of bawdiness the Canadian heartthrob began showing with the first flush of success. Sure, there were stories of personal distress here and there, but Selena and the family handled them with much dignity and grace. She stands out as one of the few celebrities who are comfortable talking in public about her family values and faith with candor.
Selena’s visit to Nepal brought up troubling aspects of her love and life. Just looking at her pictures while she was here (such as the one above), you wouldn’t know what was – or was not – going on with her. What you did see was how she uplifted the spirits of kids here – even if briefly.
“At first when you witness children living in extreme poverty you wonder how it is possible that they can be deprived of their basic human needs and rights,” Selena said in her press release. “Then you talk to these children and you see hope, promise and a bright future.”
It would have been nice to see more international stories on how Selena Gomez inspired children in Nepal. But, again, that’s not what the entertainment pages are for. To writers and editors on that beat, well, everything comes naturally.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Our Indispensable Comrade?

The question is quite overdue. What makes K.P. Oli so indispensable to the success of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML)?
The party, afflicted by an identity crisis since birth, is struggling to maintain its relevance between the Nepali Congress and the Maoists. The eggheads in the party are deploying their entire erudition to craft a coherent party platform conforming to the times. Oli spends half his time in the hospital or in convalescence somewhere here or abroad. Worse, we don’t know what it is that really ails him. Yet, his party – at least a substantial chunk of it – sees in Oli its savior.
Yeah, yeah, he was among the earliest head-hunters in Jhapa, long before the Maoist perfected violence as a means to acquire power. We are also familiar with the legend of how Oli got to live when the Panchayat-era police ran out of bullets right when it was his turn to ‘flee to freedom’.
In the post-Madan Bhandari era, Oli is credited with providing organizational sturdiness to a party suddenly and tragically robbed of a charismatic leader. His tenure as home minister in the first UML government in 1994-95 is remembered as reasonably efficient.
Amid the party split three years later, Oli worked hard to contain the hemorrhage. (We don’t know how true reports were of his more personal involvement in restraining more would-be ship-jumpers.) Despite the war of words between the factions, Oli was instrumental in bringing back a chastened Bam Dev Gautam to the party with some respect.
During the years of royal assertiveness, Oli seemed to have a soft spot for the palace. At one point, party leader Madhav Kumar Nepal had to cut short a visit abroad to restrain Oli from joining the royal cabinet (even as its head).
Once the Maoists entered the mainstream, Oli was one of the few luminaries of the Seven Party Alliance who consistently questioned the former rebels’ commitment to peace and democracy. As deputy prime minister and foreign minister, he pushed that misguided attempt to get Nepal elected to the United Nations Security Council, almost equating it with a vote for peace and democracy.
Once the impossibility of that endeavor dawned upon him, he was palpably humbled. But Oli remained relentless against the Maoists. When Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal awarded the home portfolio to Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara while Oli was out of the country, Oli returned home to describe the move as a conspiracy against the party. But, then, others had indulged in far worse demagoguery.
Make no mistake. Oli’s background and experience make him a credible candidate for the party leadership. That he has so energized the rank and file is a tribute to his leadership qualities. But what about the rest of us? Don’t we need to know more on, say, where is he likely to lead from, especially since the premiership couldn’t be far off his sights? At least Girija Prasad Koirala was in his eighties when he wore that oxygen mask.