Sunday, March 30, 2014

Raising Goats? No Kidding

When Dr. Baburam Bhattarai expressed his desire the other day of spending life after politics rearing goats in his home district of Gorkha, Maila Baje for a minute thought the man had finally thrown in the towel.
Yours truly should have realized that retirement would be a long way off for a man who has just inspired a national debate on the urgency of a new national political force.
Still, Maila Baje couldn’t be blamed for jumping the gun on this one. In the aftermath of the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist’s electoral whipping, more than once our perpetually malcontent luminary has been rumored to be considering retirement.
Since he appears to have lost his latest do-or-die battle with party supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal, there was little our comrade really had to live for, politically speaking, that is.
And isn’t a threat to return to the rustic reaches of the family farm tending livestock what President Ram Baran Yadav has perfected as a response to every political assault he has been facing in recent years?
That said, Bhattarai’s speech served to reveal more about the ideology he has long represented. “The Kathmandu-centric attitude of people must be changed and we should go back to the villages,” Bhattarai told a gathering organized by the Gorkha Tourism Society. “Parents send their children abroad for further study. The children finally settle there and their parents end up in the capital to spend rest of their lives. This trend has to be discouraged.”
Whether anyone ventured to ask why was not clear from the published reports. The we-know-what’s-best-for-you-better-than-you-do conviction is at the root of the international left. When the ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ that left the lips of leftists usually had the force of coercion in the old days, it was one thing. In their headlong plunge into the democratic mainstream, the Maoists have not quite realized that there is no reason for the rest of us to keep conceding the premise of the debate.
Why indeed should the Kathmandu-centric attitude of the people change? And why must the trend of children settling abroad and their parents ending up in the capital to spend the rest of their lives be discouraged? Just because some have the opportunity and most don’t mean that the few should forgo their desires?
Bhattarai also suggested that the new generation of people switch to entrepreneurship by giving up the mentality of doing a job. How can they do that in the climate of diminishing opportunities for the regular guy? After all, Bhattarai, who railed so much against this stacked deck, did little to even the field.
People like Bhattarai might still want us to judge them by the purity of their motives, not by the results of their actions. Nepalis have long crossed that river. Yet he persists in grandiosities by sending acolytes like Bhim Prasad Gautam to tell us that he wants to revive the global communist movement from Nepal in the twenty-first century through the articulation of new thoughts and ideas. And what might those be?
Let’s consider what Bhattarai did say at Gorkha. First, his village lacked fertile land suitable for agriculture, which was why he would rear goats, an undertaking with greater prospects locally. Then he committed himself to developing Gorkha as a ‘model zone of development’. Now, aren’t those strings of words coming straight out of King Birendra’s vocabulary?
Ultimately, Bhattarai is free to raise goats in his village or raise arms nationally again. If things don’t work as planned, he better not start blaming the rest of us again.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

All He Said Was 'Let’s Leave Politics To Politicians'

Amid the national jubilation over the Nepal’s spectacular debut at the ICC World Twenty20 cricket tournament, it was safe to assume there was a party-pooper or two lurking somewhere out there.
Comrade C.P. Gajurel struck faster than Maila Baje expected anyone would. The senior leader of the hard-line Baidya faction of the Maoists described the national craze as an ‘anomaly’, which would not help change Nepal. In his estimation, only politics could.
So this bloke Gajurel had to inject politics into sports. We started burning him in effigy, forcing a man rarely on the defensive to apologize, although he did not exactly walk back his comments.
How dare he attempt to politicize sports at such a moment of national glory? But wait a minute. Have the two ever really been separable in Nepal? And let’s not forget that we’re talking about cricket here.
The game, to be sure, has come a long way in the country over the past two decades. It is no coincidence that this happened after the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990.
During the Panchayat era, cricket was largely perceived as a relic of the British Empire. Since Nepal was never officially part of that constellation, cricket was kept at bay.
Moreover, with India dominating the game in the region and beyond, the drivers of the partyless system felt they could not afford to open another vulnerable front for cultural encroachment from the south.
So dismal was cricket’s lot here then that its patrons, many of whom were part of the partyless system’s elite, had to work in the shadows, often pouring their personal resources into the game.
Today, when cricket has gained so much ground, constituencies skeptical of India’s motives and intentions in Nepal are understandably upset the most. (One wonders how the story might have evolved had the Chinese, too, been enthusiastic cricketers.)
But before indulging in wholesale criticism of Gajurel, you have to consider what he really said. It wasn’t the game per se that annoyed him. He has since clarified that the ‘anomaly’ he referred to pertained to politics.
Come to think of it, Gajurel himself may have found some solace in TV or radio coverage of cricket matches when his existence in India – both subterranean and in incarceration – had tended to become particularly stifling.
What really irked Gajurel was the contrast being drawn between our cricket players and our politicians. Specifically, that our players were a disciplined fraternity capable of producing results than were our politicians. Yet even the most avid follower of the game knows that running up and down the pitch is the same thing as running the country.
We’ve been here before. There was a time, after the April 2006 uprising, when civil society luminaries arrogated to themselves the task of leading our leaders. Once the scale and scope of ‘transforming’ Nepal into nebulous newness became apparent, prominent civil society leaders returned to becoming back-seat politicians, pretending to be mediating between the people and the state.
Our cricketers have done us proud. They have lifted the national morale in a way that would be hard – if not impossible – for politicians to replicate anytime soon. Sportspeople, like other important members of society, will always have distinctive roles to play in our national life. But politics should be the preserve of politicians. This also means that – to stretch Gajurel’s point a little further – politicians should quit acting like batsmen and bowlers.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Madhav Nepal’s Futile Fear Of Irrelevance

Electoral triumph has been kind of unforgiving on Madhav Kumar Nepal. Having won from both constituencies he contested in the last November’s elections, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leader should have been exuding a palpable sense of pleasure, if not an outright aura of vindication.
Regularly derided for having snuck into the last assembly through the backdoor before maneuvering his way to the premiership, Nepal, in a sense, became emblematic of the general ailment gripping the post-2008 polity. Yet, as head of government, he ended up projecting much confidence here and abroad, even if at times it seem quite surface-deep.
Of late, though, our comrade seems uncharacteristically forlorn. Sure, he continues to banter along, but it comes laced with an unmistakable strain of bitterness. Those close to him – admittedly a rapidly dwindling community – attribute this to his sense of being sidelined in the party.
After K.P. Sharma Oli defeated party chairman Jhal Nath Khanal to become the UML’s parliamentary party leader – in effect, the party’s candidate for prime minister – Nepal started aching and agonizing more than even Khanal did.
As Nepal began voicing dissatisfaction with the way things were going in the party – even boycotting some organizational meetings – critics stepped up attacks on the former premier. Members within his own party castigated him for trying to scuttle the Nepali Congress-UML governing alliance. So much so that Comrade Nepal had to come out publicly and deny that he was playing any kind of ‘double game’.
We really don’t know what Nepal did or did not say to Nepali Congress leaders upon his return from that visit to New Delhi. If there was any quarter that benefited the most from the perception that Nepal had suggested to Prime Minister Sushil Koirala that handing the Home Ministry to Bam Dev Gautam would not be viewed kindly by the Indians, it had to be our friends across the southern border. This might sound counterintuitive until you acknowledge the deviousness of the attempt to delay the inevitable without the real perpetrators’ leaving fingerprints anywhere.
Maila Baje feels Nepal’s private disenchantment with the way he was ‘used’ by foreign ‘friends’ in this episode explains much of his public posture in the weeks since. He is not the first Nepali politician to harbor such frustrations and certainly won’t be the last.
Understandably reluctant to expose the real roots of his exasperation, Nepal has taken a more acceptable tack: the man wants us to know that he doesn’t want to be perceived as the person who, so to speak, spoiled the party.
Thus, in recent days, Comrade Nepal is pressing home a message of unity and hope as the UML prepares to hold its crucial ninth general convention. But that doesn’t seem to be flying with his party rivals. While speeding up the process of drafting the new constitution, Nepal also wants the government to hold local elections to fill the long vacuum restraining the lower rungs of our body politic. In a recent speech, Nepal asserted that the elections had to be held within next three months, if they were to be held at all. That contention prompted a rejoinder from Deputy Prime Minister Gautam, who has some experience with the power of incumbency and local elections. Gautam, who has emerged as the public face of the anti-Madhav Nepal coterie in the party, believes organizing elections on such a schedule would be impossible in view of the time constraints and the onset of the monsoon rains. Gautam’s latest stance goes against the positions taken by the government and the two major ruling parties. The DPM, however, must have been impelled to speak by the opposition the two Maoist factions mounted against such polls.
As far as his fear of being ‘sidelined’ goes, Maila Baje feels that is unnecessary. Comrade Nepal has proven himself adept in the art of maintaining relevance. That is a skill that will prove far more handy amid inter- and intra-party contradictions. So count on him to temper his discontents with the right dose of altruism and magnanimity, tinged, of course, with his caustic wit.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Last On The List But Still…

Having been rubbished after they first surfaced a couple of weeks ago, there is renewed talk that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may visit Nepal soon.
Before dwelling any further on the matter, Maila Baje thinks it would be worthwhile to paraphrase S.D. Muni, who recently contended that India’s Nepal policy has not always been the outcome of rational choices but of its interests which, at any given point in time, is shaped by the balance of forces among multiple stakeholders whose positions are often mutually incomprehensive.
Within those parameters, it may just be that Singh’s travel intentions hit a wall somewhere and someone just jumped the gun. Then others jumped in to keep the hope alive.
There is much to commend for a Singh visit. A luminary in the annals of Indian premiership, Singh is the only full-term head of government of his country not to have arrived here. (It’s doubly vexing that he has avoided us during his two consecutive terms.)
For many Nepalis, Singh has been the driver of our political changes. How much the Indian prime minister was really involved in the day-to-day policy making on Nepal remains unclear. His own role in the transformation of Nepal from a monarchy to a republic is murkier. The bet India placed on the mainstreaming of the Maoists seems to have paid off, especially after the second constituent assembly election.
To be sure, there are some in the Indian establishment who want to see state-to-state relations between India and Nepal further erode and would hope Singh stayed away for that precise purpose. Then, there are others who favor a restoration of a more traditional relationship with Nepal, perhaps even the kind that existed with Singh’s arrival at the helm.
Clearly, India’s Nepal policy, much like Nepal’s own political evolution, remains in a state of flux. Still, from the cacophony illustrated by Muni, Singh has been able to craft a policy coherent enough to be implemented by Nepalis.
Doubtless, Singh’s successor will retain the ability to shape events in Nepal – both in perception and reality. Whether he/she will be able to do so with similar elan remains in the realm of the unknown. Soft spoken yet erudite, Newsweek once described Singh as “the leader other leaders love”. Forbes said he was “universally praised as India’s best prime minister since Nehru”.
For all the praise, Singh has been castigated for being “weak”, a “puppet” and even a mere “seat-warmer”. Still, it’s hard to deny that he has earned a special place in the hearts and minds of many Nepalis. As finance minister, Singh epitomized India’s emergence as a rising economic power. Then, as prime minister, he capped India’s advent as a strategic partner of the sole superpower. In recent years, Singh has managed to all that without alienating the other Asian giant. If Singh’s successors manage to stay the course, Nepal, India and China might just be able to do business together.
For a country whose prime minister is expected to make India his/her first foreign destination, it is surely galling that India’s head of government should make Nepal his last. But, then, look at the upside. Singh would find it hard to erase the memories of his last foreign trip in power, wouldn’t he? When your guest has such lasting memories – if little else – you have shown yourself to be a good host. Now, don’t say that doesn’t feel good.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Politics Of Marginalization And Relevance

Sujata Koirala barely had time to sulk satisfactorily before Mohan Baidya stepped up with assurances that the country was not about let her dad fade into oblivion.
Her deputy prime ministerial aspirations having been quashed in the latest cabinet expansion, Sujata warned against what she considered a creeping tendency toward marginalizing the legacy of Girija Prasad Koirala. Mindful of the political ground that had shifted under her feet since the Grand Old Man’s departure, she vowed to keep the banner alive through social work.
The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist leader, for his part, reminded Sujata that that was absolutely unnecessary. By reviving the decades-old Tanakpur controversy, the hardline Maoists have brought Girijababu squarely to the centre of the national discourse.
Although the proximate cause of Baidya’s ire was Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s purported assertion that Tanakpur lay entirely on Indian territory, the apparition of Girija Prasad was immediately apparent.
We can technically contend that the late premier’s engagement in the subject was restricted to whether the Tanakpur accord was an understanding or a full-fledged, and not to ownership of that piece of real estate. Yet we have enough history to establish that anything of that order inevitably touches upon the issue of national sovereignty. Marginalization also remains the prime peeve of Madhav Kumar Nepal. Despite having won the last elections in both constituencies he contested from, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist senior leader hardly wears the countenance of a double victor. Instead, he has emerged as the principal anti-establishmentarian in that party.
With the K.P. Sharma Oli-Bam Dev Gautam alliance having seized much control of the UML parliamentary faction – and set to capture the party organization in the upcoming convention – the former prime minister has started using banter to batter his rivals. Still, anguish is at the core of his appearance.
No, he did not play double after his return from New Delhi and spark the Home Ministry controversy that delayed the cabinet expansion, he clarified the other day. Forget whether Nepal really whispered to Sushil Koirala India’s purported unhappiness over the mercurial Gautam’s taking charge of that vital ministry. The fact that the former prime minister felt it necessary even to try to dispel the impression was remarkable.
Minendra Rijal of the Nepali Congress, too, started railing against double games. His focus was on erstwhile patron Sher Bahadur Deuba, whose private albeit pernicious haggling every step of the way has ostensibly served to undermine Prime Minister Koirala. With Ram Chandra Poudel itching to fully act out the role of party chief, Rijal may have to contend with much more than his ministerial responsibilities.
During all of this, the extreme left and extreme right have sought to burnish their credentials as responsible stakeholders. The relegation of Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoists to the deputy speakership has not sparked much vitriol from the Furious One. Dahal has been calmly insisting that the full focus should be on the drafting the new constitution. Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Kamal Thapa, whose continued No. 4 rank in the assembly is fully contingent upon the chemistry of the Madhesi parties, has gone a step ahead: he has mapped a fast track to constitution-building.
That task would require a modicum of camaraderie between the two principal coalition partners. Their common focus on local elections may be well intentioned but still perplexing, especially with all the bad memories associated with Gautam serving as deputy premier in charge of home affairs during the last elections the UML swept.
And the constitution? Nothing against Subash Nemwang personally, but didn’t he symbolize the last assembly’s utter apathy. So what makes his return to the job so inspiring?
Perhaps that he’s unlikely to convene crucial meetings in his hospital room or flash his frequent-flier card to disguise every political emergency as a medical one.