Sunday, February 23, 2014

Flashback: Consensus By Any Other Name

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

Originally posted on December 1, 2013

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Let’s Pass The New Statute To See What’s In It

Forget what’s precisely behind the tussle over the home ministry between the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). It’s but the latest manifestation of our collective cluelessness vis-à-vis the newness of Nepal.
Surely, Nepalis – leaders and the led – are entitled to celebrating as long as they want their arrival in the midst of world’s civilized mainstream, having overcome their monarchical/oligarchical legacy. But the partying eventually has to stop for the real job to begin, doesn’t it?
Consider the record so far. Inclusiveness remains a noble endeavor up to the point where it gets bogged down over who is most aggrieved and who is most economically endowed to ensure oneself in, say, the new constituent assembly.
Federalism is an ideal that must be pursued at all costs, but nobody seems to be able to figure out how many sub-units we require or can afford. A presidential system would instill some stability in leadership. Yet it also raises the risk of an individual’s monopolization of power, a feature of old Nepal we’re determined to cast aside.
An elected president and prime minister, on the other hand, would be the apotheosis of popular legitimacy, not to speak of collective action toward a common goal. But the possibility of perpetual institutional conflict remains a menace that is not too difficult for us to comprehend.
We have a polity fractured into dozens of parties, not to speak of the countless groups masquerading as apolitical enablers and the well-oiled external sponsors of a thriving grievance industry. And we’re not even counting the accumulating list of the newly aggrieved around us. Yet we’re constantly barraged with pleas for consensus.
Our much-reviled partyless system, in spite of its coercive character, couldn’t foster a culture of consensus. (The endemic liberal-hardliner fissures within the Panchayat system, anyone?). Are we not merely chasing a mirage in the maze of pluralism and free will fueled by an abiding individualism?
Perhaps not. Infuriated by the ostensible betrayal of the Nepali Congress, some UML leaders are suggesting that it might not join the government of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala even if their party got the home ministry.
Instead of relenting, much less conceding that that was the eighth unwritten point of their much-hyped agreement, Koirala almost effortlessly turns to United Communist Party of Nepal- Maoist (UCPN-M) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal for support.
The Maoist chief, having overcome the latest internal challenge to his waning leadership, obliges, saying he wants the country to finally begin drafting the constitution. But Dahal’s magnanimity has a price tag. He wants the speakership for his party as a demonstration of the dignity with which the UCPN-M will continue to be treated.
Where it really matters – i.e., outside the political boundaries of Nepal – keeping Bam Dev Gautam out of the home ministry might be worth it all. Gautam, to his credit, has come out with a chronological record of negotiations buttressing the accusation that the Nepali Congress did indeed renege on its pledge. What’s he to do when he has adversaries right beside him?
So be prepared for the UML (at least the aggrieved faction) to start touting more energetically the prospect of leading the government after Koirala’s customary 100-day honeymoon.
In this convoluted climate, you would think our politicians would have the good sense of not putting a time-frame on their primary task. Yet everyone everyday goes about promising the promulgation of a new constitution within a year.
There may be method to this madness. Caught between conflicting and uncontrollable external variables and fuzzy albeit intensifying popular expectations, the political class has reached halfway across the world to devise an escape hatch: You have to adopt a new constitution to understand what’s in it. So let’s do it quick, but not that quick, either. A year sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Managing Transitions Within The Transition

The question arising from the six-point agreement between the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) ostensibly pertains to the steadiness of the new government expected to take shape this week.
With Nepali Congress president Sushil Koirala preparing to assume the premiership, and the UML’s Bam Dev Gautam set to serve as his principal deputy, implementation of and adherence with the new agreed framework would probably be subsumed in matters of day-to-day governance.
However, the real question thrown up by the political developments of the past two weeks will persist: how long will it be before the UML’s K.P. Sharma Oli steps into the top job?
The realignment of forces in the UML galvanized a political process that was almost moribund since the election of the new constituent assembly in November. Granted, the Nepali Congress, by dint of its being the largest party in the assembly, was required to sort out its leadership tangles first. Given the factional deal-making that preceded it, Koirala’s election as parliamentary party leader, Maila Baje thinks, offers enough pointers to kind of battles he will have to face within the party. All this while striving to fulfill the grandiose promise of bringing out the new constitution within a year.
The spectacle in the UML, though, is far more substantial. Oli won the parliamentary party leadership by reaching a stark if not entirely sensational compromise with Gautam and Ishwar Pokharel. If anything, the perception that Oli’s triumph over Jhal Nath Khanal as leader of the party in the assembly represented more of his victory over Madhav Kumar Nepal will drive the narrative ever more strongly.
With Gautam ensconced in government, Oli can be expected to use the next few weeks to consolidate his hand for the real prize: the UML’s chairmanship. The parliamentary party’s leadership alone positions Oli as a serious contender for the premiership, should that opportunity arise. But he comes from a tradition where the party towers above everything else. Moreover, he has conceived a course that extends beyond winning the UML chairmanship during the party convention in April. In a succession plan worthy of our northern neighbors, Oli has anointed Gautam and Pokharel as second- and third-line leaders in the hope of consolidating his own claim to the premiership.
Having endured the initial shock of defeat, Oli’s rivals in the UML are rising to respond. Here, too, Oli seems to have preempted things. By offering Khanal the presidency, he has sought to isolate Nepal. Among the fiercest critics of the Maoists in public, Oli has also made conciliatory gestures towards the former rebels, in which effort Gautam should prove a valuable ally.
But all to what effect? Politically, the notion of ‘new Nepal’ has been mangled so mercilessly that each Nepali is now free to conceive of it in his or her own image. Simply put, it’s not about us – at least not yet.
As the dominant external stakeholders have enhanced their power and influence with the election of the new assembly, they are still struggling to determine how best Nepal could serve their respective interests in a fast-evolving global context. In this sense, our politicians have crafted a new role for themselves: managing transitions within that transition.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Not-So-Squalid Saga of Political Preservation

With palpable perseverance, laced with periodic sulking and almost perennial dissidence, Bam Dev Gautam has clawed his way back to become kingmaker in the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).
By extending open support to the parliamentary party leadership bid of ally-turned-rival K.P. Sharma Oli, Gautam has tipped the balance in the second-largest party in the constituent assembly.
Gautam may not be able to lord over the party in the way he once hoped he would as the leader of the breakaway CPN-Marxist Leninist. But whoever wishes to exercise a semblance of authority in the UML – Jhal Nath Khanal, Madhav Kumar Nepal or Oli – would have to keep the maverick on his side.
The man, to be sure, has had a roller-coaster ride since stepping into the national limelight after the 1990 popular movement against the partyless Panchayat system. While non-communists and harder-line leftists alike were marveling at the UML’s dexterity in coexisting with the monarchy, Gautam eventually went a step further. In 1997, he almost singlehandedly decontaminated the former panchas by accepting to serve as deputy premier in the government led by Rastriya Prajatantra Party’s Lokendra Bahadur Chand. Granted, the ex-panchas’ emergence as the third largest force in the mid-term elections of 1994 permitted much of Gautam’s magnanimity. Yet the sight of a party with over four times as many legislators than the RPP demonstrating such willing deference was one to behold.
In truth, Gautam was the de facto premier, which gave ideas to the Nepali Congress. Although he raged at the manner in which the government was brought down, Gautam had higher ambitions. Seething recriminations within the UML triggered by the ratification of the Mahakali Treaty led to him to walk out with enough supporters to form the Marxist-Leninist faction. But the party failed to win a single seat in the 1999 elections.
Nationalism subsequently became Gautam’s refuge, with Kalapani and other symbols of Indian ‘aggression’ forming the focus of the rank and file’s ire. When a heavily inebriated then-prince Paras ran over and killed a popular singer, Gautam led the charge to have the wild royal stripped of his title. That campaign fizzled, and onetime allies in the UML stepped up pressure against Gautam by labeling him the most corrupt person in the country.
After the royal palace massacre and the installation of a new king, Gautam seemed willing to give royal assertiveness another chance. When he led a large part of his faction back to the mother party in early 2002, many believed he had done so as an act of penance. A subsidiary role, largely in recognition to his services to the communist movement, was widely predicted as his lot. That turned out be an erroneous reading.
At one point, Madhav Nepal had to cut short a trip abroad for fear that Oli or Gautam might ride the royal bandwagon to party dominance. While Oli got off easily for his royalist sympathies, Gautam faced disciplinary action.
As royal rule began is descent toward disintegration by early 2006, Gautam had already oscillated to the other end. He encamped himself in New Delhi with the rest of the anti-monarchy alliance ready to do a deal with the Maoists. But, then, he did something more. The most ‘anti-Indian’ Nepali leader addressed an audience at the famed Ram Lila Maidan spending much of his time paying tribute to India’s sustained contributions to the democratic development of Nepal.
Back home, the irony lost in the momentum building against the monarchy, Gautam seemed happy to wear the Maoist tag inside the UML. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, whose Maoists recorded a stunning electoral achievement, appeared to lend credence Gautam’s new-fangled credentials. As Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister in the Dahal-led government, Gautam swung to the other end. He sought China’s help in recovering Kalapani from India.
By this time, it was hard to avoid cynicism. Was Gautam serving as a sounding board for the Indians – either voluntarily or by design – inquisitive of Chinese intentions vis-à-vis India in post-monarchy Nepal? Or was Gautam just being himself. (Over the years, Maila Baje has become less inclined to see a contradiction here: you could praise India’s support for Nepalis’ democratic aspirations and still criticize that country for illegally occupying our land, couldn’t you?)
Shortly after that remark, visiting Indian Foreign Minister (and now President) Pranab Mukherjee avoided meeting Gautam. Although their portfolios did not correspond, Gautam was a senior member of the government. While this signaled something was seriously amiss, Gautam was careful to fortify his flank. In the midst of the anti-Tibetan crackdown, the deputy premier provided assurances there would be no refoulement of refugees.
By the time Dahal’s successor, Madhav Nepal, became too comfortable in the premiership, Gautam demanded that he step down. Instead, Gautam reported receiving a series of death threats.
During the second Maoist-led government, Gautam was not too caustic against prime minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. When lawyers resisted the idea of Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi leading an election government, an irate Gautam asked why, then, would they not form one.
The confidence in the technocrats paid off, as Gautam was elected from two constituencies. That feat must have whetted his political ambitions to the point where he has now chosen to embrace Oli over Khanal and Nepal.
In renouncing his Bardiya seat in favor of the decidedly more leftist Pyuthan, Gautam perhaps intends to affirm the wholesomeness of his ideological underpinnings. In any case, his saga of political preservation stands out without seeming all too squalid.