Sunday, April 27, 2014

The King’s Creed

The whispers had begun to get louder in recent weeks. The royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) was not only going to change its name but also dilute the extent of its fealty to the monarchy.
The renamed party, it was being suggested, would stand for a fainter-sounding ‘ceremonial’ kingship rather than its sturdier ‘constitutional’ variant.
Apparently, former king Gyanendra isn’t too thrilled.
In his first public comments since the election of a new assembly ostensibly to draft a republican constitution, Mr. Shah has liberally indicated his ample acknowledgement of public demands for a more ‘conscious’ role on his part.
Interestingly, the former monarch and Kamal Thapa, RPP-N president, happened to express on the same day their dissatisfaction with the ‘politics of proscription’ the Big Three political parties have been exhibiting.
Maila Baje recognizes how easy it is to detect a measure of hypocrisy in Mr. Shah’s call for inclusion. After all, didn’t he try to sideline everyone except the most diehard royalists during much of his seven-year second reign?
Still, there’s a qualitative difference in context. Then, the king was trying to put multiparty democracy back on track, wherein the major political parties would return as the principal players. Even during the harshest phase of his rule, the king had merely sought three years. Those driving politics today are struggling to legitimize a republican order that was introduced spuriously – and are enjoying an open-ended run at it.
To be sure, many will link Mr. Shah’s public assertiveness with the impending electoral triumph of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition in India. In a sense, that would be akin to our Maoists’ ardour with the communist element in the first Manmohan Singh government, which oversaw the 12-Point Agreement that sidelined and eventually abolished our monarchy.
Deeper down, though, the thrust of Mr. Shah’s stance has remained essentially unchanged since he exited Narayanhity Palace in 2008. In response to rising public protests two years earlier, he had handed power back to the political parties, increasingly vexed by his authoritarian tendencies, to set things right themselves. The royal decision to restore the House of Representatives dissolved by an elected prime minister may have been political. But the move was within the ambit of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990.
Thus, in the ex-king’s view, at least, his stepping down from the throne was an act of goodwill, essentially aimed at giving the political parties a freer hand to advance an agenda they concluded the palace was incapable of doing. It was more an act of abnegation than abdication.
Mr. Shah’s move was also an acknowledgement of the political alignment of national and regional forces at the time. The hollowness of the political establishment’s confidence in the finality of republicanism has been perforated time and again much more than in the manner which leaders of the principal sponsor of the 12-Point Agreement have received Mr. Shah in New Delhi.
How many former kings do we know of who have continued to live among their people? And how many of them have continued to remind their successors of the solemnity of their responsibility not only with a straight face but also amid a swelling audience?
What role Mr. Shah envisages for himself – should he respond to the public sentiments he has perceived – remains unclear. It would be unnecessary to be caught in titles and trappings. In the seven years before the six in which has remained a commoner, Citizen Shah was both the weakest and strongest monarch in a generation. The space is wide open.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Frolicking Around This F-Word

Having squandered months squabbling successively over the legitimacy of the president, timeliness of local elections and loyalties of Nepali civil servants holding permanent-resident status in other countries, the political class finally seems to have returned to the F-word.
Two events have coalesced to revitalize federalism as the core of the national discourse: the release of a new opinion poll showing its continuing importance and efforts by the Maoists and madhes-based parties to forge a new alliance to advance the agenda.
The opinion poll affirms that more Nepalis support the idea federalism than those who don’t. But that equation changes significantly when you start throwing in specific qualifiers like ‘ethnic’.
For some, the notion of ethnic federalism has always represented a slippery slope towards the dissolution of Nepal as the sovereign embodiment of statehood we know it as today. Others see federalism as an inexorable work in progress amid the amorphousness of our collective quest to define ourselves. Any effort to set anything in concrete would thus be self-defeating.
Federalism advocates continue to seek to reassure skeptics by touting two principles: identity and viability. The first is an attribute Nepal has yet to grapple with adequately. Since the Shahs and Ranas had forged a unitary state more with blood and tears than with sweat, making the few more equal than most others, the old order had to be demolished, according to the prevailing narrative.
When the Maoists first pushed federalism as a political agenda to buttress their armed insurgency against the supposedly exclusionary monarchical state, the mainstream political parties were skeptical. Only when their own existence was imperiled by royal assertiveness did they acquiesce in the Maoist vision of structural egalitarianism. Those in the mainstream who opposed federalism in the given context chose to remain silent for fear of being labeled ‘regressive’ and ‘reactionary’, keeping their powder dry for the next round.
How committed the Maoists actually were to federalism remains unclear as is their original confidence in ever achieving the power to have to implement that agenda. The general tentativeness paralyzed the first attempt to draft a post-monarchical constitution. By the time the second attempt began, an avowedly pro-monarchy party emerged as the fourth largest elected force and the Maoists began turning the rhetorical fire on, of all people, the Norwegians.
Barely over licking their post-election wounds, the Maoists and the madhesi parties have sought to resurrect their alliance in an atmosphere where public ambivalence over federalism has entrenched itself.
As for identity and viability as the bases of federalism, both are far more amorphous concepts than is ethnicity. Collectively, our march towards newness remains nebulous precisely because of the perplexity surrounding who we want to be. Those who dismiss Nepaliness as a manufactured identity to serve the interests of the erstwhile feudalistic power structure are still among the first to be offended by the slightest perceived external slight.
Nepali – to borrow a recent assertion that has riled many – may or may not be a tongue manufactured by British colonialists to foster communication with and within the martial tribes they recruited into their fighting force from our foothills. It is a reality of our times that the most coherent debates among various aggrieved constituencies are conducted in this language.
If identity remains such a fluid concept, what remedies might the country have when constituencies in individual entities federalized today start aspiring for recognition along newer organizing constructs? Would a permanent body to revisit the question of the number and character of states be able to keep up with the output of our vibrant grievance industry?
The greater viability pitfall lies in our geopolitical precariousness. Ideological ardor and political convenience might be enough for some to welcome the proliferation of microstates at all costs. The notion of viability that really matters would be the one espoused by our two regional behemoths anxious to preserve their own political sustainability within their existing internal and external frontiers.
Therein lies the travesty. Nepal cannot skirt the federalism debate not only because of the political momentum it acquired as a tool to demolish the old order but also because of how it has established itself as the defining feature of the emerging one. Ambiguity on the issue served everyone well as long as it remained an agitprop. The irrelevance of those parameters to the debate today thus drives us to all these perturbing peripheral issues.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Whence Cometh Comrade Nepal’s New Confidence?

When Madhav Kumar Nepal, senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), flew out to New Delhi late last month to visit his ailing party rival Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, Maila Baje had an ephemeral sense that the former premier was somehow finally waving the white flag.
After Oli won the parliamentary party leadership contest against UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal, Nepal seemed more aggrieved than the man who had just lost. Nepal subsequently refused to attend a party meeting convened at the bedside of Oli, convalescing in a Kathmandu hospital, saying it went against organizational propriety. But we all knew that the hurt had not abated. Then Nepal began complaining about how he felt he was being sidelined in the party.
But something different happened in New Delhi and Comrade Nepal returned home with new ebullience. He immediately issued a public challenge to Oli and his newfound ally, Deputy Prime Minister Bam Dev Gautam, to face him first in their bid to wrest control of the full party. “Madhav Kumar Nepal is the man who went head to head with [former king] Gyanendra,” he said at a recent party meeting. “I am ready for the battle as I have not done anything to fear.”
Internally, Nepal sought to rein in Khanal by backing him as the justified chief of the High Level Political Committee in place of Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who got the position.
And not quite wasting a moment, Nepal expanded his sights to Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. He called Koirala a ‘coward’ and ‘incompetent’, ostensibly for the premier’s lack of enthusiasm for holding local elections. Nepal is now mocking the prime minister’s frugal and spartan ways, even to the point of describing them obstacles to progress. “A person who prefers to stay in a Kuti (hut) and behaves like a Jogi (saint) cannot resolve the problems confronting the nation”, he said the other day, suggesting that the constitution was unlikely to be promulgated within the stipulated deadline.
Now, nothing seems to have happened within the country that would suddenly embolden Nepal to fire off thus in all directions. The UML, in the run-up to the party convention, is still busy trying to figure out whether the April 2006 uprising was a political or social revolution.
So something must have happened in New Delhi. Did Nepal somehow get a sense that Oli’s health would not permit him to progress beyond his current status in the party? (More to the point, did someone leak Oli’s medical records to Nepal?)
Or did Nepal confront Oli with ‘goods’ he had on him so as to stanch his ambitions. (Those in the know speak of a lot of skeletons in both closets predating the mysterious death of the UML’s founding general secretary, Madan Bhandari.)
Given that Khanal, Gautam and party general secretary Ishwar Pokharel all visited Oli in Delhi, could there be some grand party compromise in the offing?
Or might Nepal’s renewed confidence be traced to separate talks he might have held with an entirely different group of interlocutors somewhere deeper in the bowels of the Indian capital?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Revolt Rant And Rude Reckoning

Just as it seemed our constitution-drafting process was gaining some traction, we had to be sent twizzling on threats of another revolt.
The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, led by Mohan Baidya, had been threatening a return to armed violence well before he and his hardline loyalists broke away from the main organization a couple of years ago. The party, which boycotted last November’s election, used some violence in an effort to subvert the exercise, but you could sense some dithering there.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s faction had ceased using the R-word for some time, perhaps seeking to contrast itself from the Baidya faction and cement its role in mainstream democratic politics.
The United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist’s poor showing in the election certainly disheartened the leadership. But they still behaved responsibly enough to accept the outcome, while deciding to mount a slugfest internally.
Dahal’s patience has now run out. What evidently snapped him was the latest Supreme Court ruling that serious crimes committed during the conflict period could be processed under existing judicial provisions.
Dahal, whose party wants to see such cases – involving both sides during that tumultuous decade – handled by a putative Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sees in the apex court verdict a ploy to block such a commission. That would derail the constitution-drafting process and jeopardize the entire peace process, Dahal warned in an address to a party affiliate in Kathmandu.
Critics gleefully accuse the Maoists of using the revolt threat to forestall any possibility of their being dragged to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That may be true. But consider the scenario from the perspective of the erstwhile ‘People’s Warriors’. They joined the political mainstream through the 12-Point Agreement touting themselves as victors, even if partial ones, having dragged the mainstream parties toward their agenda of a constituent assembly and republicanism.
Without their support, the Maoists believe, the mainstream parties would still be mounting their zillionth round of protests against royal rule within the vicinity of Ratna Park.
In the run-up and immediate aftermath of the April 2006 uprising, some mainstream party leaders conceded that the Maoists’ resort to arms was morally loftier than of the then-Royal Nepal Army’s. The Maoists were using the gun to defend the excluded and marginalized while the military was doing so against the people.
Eight years later, the Maoists in both factions feel they are being held exclusively responsible for all 15,000 deaths during the ‘People’s War’. The political parties, for their part, are coddling the military.
In the public domain, Dahal’s latest outburst cannot be viewed outside the shadow of the Indian elections, which looms large over the Nepali political spectrum. Everyone, after all, is debating in every way how the impending victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would impact India’s policy toward Nepal.
At first glance, the Maoists may seem to be on the receiving end here. It might serve the Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and the royalist right well to delve into some history here. It was during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP-led government that the Maoists became more entrenched in their safe haven in India. So much so that, barely a year after the Narayanhity Massacre, our Maoist comrades found themselves in proximity talks with elements of the BJP-led government. And that’s just the story we know so far. There surely must be much more what went on then that we do not know.