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.