Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sushil Koirala And The Ethos Of Multi-Track Politics

With the election of Sushil Koirala as leader of the Nepali Congress parliamentary party, the organization now has a clear candidate for prime minister. As the numbers game continues to play out in a fractured constituent assembly, before an actual head of government is elected, we must get a better understanding of the man.
The Koirala surname alone will not establish Sushil’s authority in the party or government (if indeed he happens to lead it). Still, the man emerged from the November elections far stronger than many had expected. He not only led the Nepali Congress into first position in the assembly but also personally won from two constituencies. If Banke considered him a connoisseur, Chitwan didn’t see him as a carpetbagger, either.
As someone with no previous experience in the executive, Sushil will join men like Girija Prasad Koirala, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and Manmohan Adhikary, elected straight to the premiership, for good or ill.
Sushil’s public persona is one of a straight talker. (Maila Baje remembers how he summoned the then Indian ambassador to holler at him for this or that.). He also tends to evoke sternness in others (like in the way how a party member once slapped him).
A lifelong bachelor, Sushil has built a reputation for financial probity. While you could say he never really has had an opportunity to rake in riches yet, his financial stewardship of the party should assure us somewhat of his rectitude in that aspect of governance.
Sushil seems to have little in his personal life that has the potential to scandalize us later. Speaking of scandals, he was once designated a leading Nepali agent for Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence. But those who made the allegation from India did so in another time and context. In any case, they seem to have made peace with his ascension to party’s pinnacle.
Illness has forced Sushil to seek regular medical treatments abroad, without detracting from his ability to discharge his duties. Yes, he belongs to the anti-Rana regime class of politicians. But far younger politicians haven’t been able to match him when it comes to maintaining the ‘dignity’ of profession by way of word and deed (if that indeed is a qualification these days).
Sushil’s success in the days ahead will depend much on his party. Uncharacteristically for the Nepali Congress, the three senior leaders managed to keep their real skirmishes largely behind the scenes. In the end, Sushil made a deal with Ram Chandra Poudel to win the parliamentary party election over Sher Bahadur Deuba. For now, Poudel can be expected to rein in his ‘dissidence’ and focus on party matters, which Sushil has entrusted to him as part of the deal.
Deuba, who defeated Sushil for the parliamentary party leadership in 2001 and became premier twice (and both times sacked for ‘incompetence’), has been itching for a fourth innings.
Although Deuba has built an image as a consensus-seeker, his double-constituency win seems to have whetted his appetite. The assortment of loyalists behind him will no doubt instigate him at every opportunity. Both factions will keep a keen eye on how Poudel and his supporters maneuver themselves.
Sushil, then, can play upon the shifting factionalism in the party. People he picks for cabinet positions, the reshuffles that will be his prerogative, and the general public mood vis-à-vis the Nepali Congress as the weeks and month unfold will all be factors. Of course, the other two major parties – the CPN-UML and the Maoists – are in no better shape internally to mount much of a credible challenge. Sushil should easily be able to portray their machinations as part of a sordid power play. What if the Nepali Congress did not win an outright mandate to govern? Its numbers in the assembly must mean something, shouldn’t it?
Consider what Sushil might be like as the leader of the opposition, should he not become prime minister this time? Or in the event a non-Congress government taking power from him later, as the intricacies of the constitution-making process evolve. Would the imperative of keeping his own house in order constrain him significantly? Or would he cherish the spectacle of rival parties duking it out every step of the way? Either way, it’s going to be politics on multiple tracks for Sushil – as it will be for everybody else.

Monday, January 20, 2014

For Baidya Maoists, Majestic Questions Galore

For a country rumbling through republicanism for nearly six years, the monarchy has revealed remarkable staying power.
From the right, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal has reaffirmed its commitment to restoring the monarchy despite predictions of a dilution of the organization’s signature agenda.
On the left, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, which is on a relentless quest to undermine the legitimacy of the new constituent assembly it had vowed not to let come into existence, has once again returned to the June 1, 2001 royal palace massacre.
“Our leaders were [so] terrified after the incident [that] they began surrendering to foreign diktats,” party secretary Dev Gurung said in a conversation with a reporter the other day.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his No. 2, Baburam Bhattarai, replaced their ‘nationalism’ line with ‘republicanism’ immediately after the palace massacre, Gurung asserted. It was after the incident, moreover, that India stepped up interference in the party’s internal affairs, Gurung added.
Citing an ‘international conspiracy’ behind the murders of King Birendra and the entire line of his family, among others royals, has become a mark of political acumen in contemporary Nepal. Those who saw the carnage as an entirely local and inevitable outcome of the inherent despicability of the institution, Maila Baje feels, are today grasping at the slightest twist to the story. Many of those who still blame then-prince Gyanendra and his son, Paras, continue to do so because they want to believe what they believe.
The Maoists were among the first to advance the conspiracy angle, first, in Dahal’s reaction, and then Bhattarai’s celebrated newspaper article.
In returning to the conspiracy angle, today’s CPN-Maoist leaders – who broke away from Dahal and Bhattarai – clearly intend to embarrass their one-time comrades. But Messrs. Mohan Baidya, Chandra Prakash Gajurel, Dev Gurung and Ram Bahadur Thapa are in a position to shed light on much more.
What sort of dialogue was the party conducting/contemplating with the palace? Was the organization prepared to acquiesce in the continuance of the monarchy in exchange for specific guarantees of the crown’s implementation of the party’s ‘nationalist’ platform?
What was the relationship between the party and Indian officialdom before the massacre? Surely, New Delhi could not have acquired the influence Gurung attributes without having laid the groundwork. Even at the risk of exposing their own links with Indian officials and non-state allies, CPN-Maoist leaders should be prepared to explain what was going on behind the scenes.
Did our Maoist leaders feel they were being used by one segment of the Indian establishment? What sort of promises had they made and what types of assurances had they received in return? Within the broader international community, what kind of pressures did the Maoists perceive were emanating from different directions? Inside the party, what kind of deliberations took place between the ‘nationalists’ and the republicans – a schism that certainly seems to have persisted all the way to the organization’s split?
As to the massacre itself, was the monarchy intended to be wiped out on that horrific night (as the discrepancies in the reporting of American and Indian satellite news channels suggested at the time?) If so, was the period between 2001 and 2006 merely an impromptu manifestation of the reality that Prince Gyanendra happened to survive? Did the Maoists believe that Indian interference in their internal affairs (and supposed encouragement of the full-blown republican line) was linked to the unanticipated survival of the monarchy under a controversial but ambitious king?
Specifically, what was the Maoists’ view of Crown Prince Dipendra? Was former prince Dhirendra their conduit to the palace simply because his formal status of a commoner would allow both sides a measure of plausible deniability in the event the dialogue collapsed? Or did the Maoists, for their part, decide to avoid using Dipendra for other yet-unexplained reasons? This becomes important in view of the roles crown princes Mahendra and Birendra played on matters of national importance as part of their training for the throne.
Dipendra’s role (or lack thereof) on the Maoist question becomes important also in view of the extensive political consultations the crown prince had been hold at Nagarjun Palace in the weeks before the Narayanhity carnage.
The country may never be able to get to the bottom of the tragedy to the satisfaction of everyone. Yet the conspiracy angle was sufficiently credible from the outset, when viewed against regional and international developments in the months preceding the massacre. The period since, if anything, has bolstered that angle.
In terms of solving a problem, Mao Zedong exhorted his followers to get down and investigate the present facts and its past history. His Nepali adherents need to become more candid in their approach to yesterday if they want to be taken seriously about tomorrow.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Crowning Touches Of Exasperation

Electoral success has brought obvious exasperation, if not outright awkwardness, for Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) President Kamal Thapa.
While he seems to have averted the downright split precipitated by his ostensibly unilateral selection of candidates for the party’s coveted 24 seats in the newly elected constituent assembly, the denouement is far from discernible.
A deeper reason for the crisis is considered to be Thapa’s perceived post-election dilution of the party’s avowed agenda of restoring the monarchy. The rank and file rightly considers that plank to be the distinguishing feature of the party, and the prime cause of its emergence as the fourth largest force in the assembly.
As the RPP-N plunged into the polls, Thapa, it was rumored, was miffed by former king Gyanendra Shah’s supposedly less than enthusiastic support for the party. By the time campaigning for the November 19 vote ended, Thapa was seen primarily pressing his party’s restoration-of-Hindu-statehood pledge.
After his electoral triumph, when Thapa spoke of his party’s readiness to make compromises in order to ensure the prompt promulgation of the new constitution, it was not hard to connect the dots. Victory, the wizards of smart suggested, had wizened up the man to the verities of the moment.
So when Thapa the other day swung back to reaffirming the RPP-N’s campaign to restore the monarchy – from within the assembly as well as the streets – the commentariat were mildly surprised. The dots, to be sure, had multiplied.
Reports had begun emerging of Shah’s so-called disenchantment with Thapa during the course of conversations the former monarch had during his ongoing visit to India. In one instance, responding to congratulations extended to him on the RPP-N’s strong electoral performance, Shah purportedly chose to dismiss Thapa’s credentials as a royalist or – worse – any other ‘-ist’ excepting that pejorative personality who is on a perpetual search for opportunities for himself.
Maila Baje can’t say whether the ex-king’s reported characterization was an accurate reflection of his sentiments or merely part of a storyline cooked up by the purveyors to stir things up a bit. Or perhaps some source – within the entourage or outside – chancing upon a juicy chunk, sought to peddle it to whoever salivated the most. If, on the other hand, Shah’s expression of indignation was meant for a broader audience back home, it wouldn’t be hard to understand why it would be carefully leaked.
Admittedly, Thapa could not afford to take chances. To many royalists and republicans alike, the RPP-N chief inflicted much damage on himself by hitching onto the Narendra Modi side of the Bharatiya Janata Party wagon. Thapa’s Kavre speech was thus also an acknowledgment that blowing hot and cold on the monarchy would only serve to undermine the political persona he succeeded in building in the midst of much adversity.
Yet the RPP-N – as has been amply emphasized in this space – would be a bit player in any elaborate political effort to restore the monarchy. True, the party has faithfully and admirably kept the issue alive, but it should not overestimate its abilities.
The principal troupers will be the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and their inevitable realization that nothing short of the parameters of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990 would be able to sustain either their political security or Nepal’s geostrategic survival.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

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.