Sunday, July 13, 2014

It’s All About Optics

The realities and restraints of open and competitive politics have considerably chastened our one-time Fierce One.
Sure, Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal still tends to breathe rhetorical fire at times. But the chairman of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is no longer capable of persuading us of the limitlessness of our possibilities.
In general, hopey-changey politics simply doesn’t have sufficient constituency of suckers to ensure an extended shelf life. Bitten ever so often, Nepalis possess more pronounced skepticism than the rest.
However, it was hard not to give Dahal the benefit of the doubt in the spring of 2006. When he first emerged in public as the leader of a violent rebel movement who was now committed to waging peace, Dahal seized the country’s imagination – because there was so much we didn’t know about him.
As prime minister, we remember how he insisted on visiting China first, insisting that the circumstances warranted a sovereign nation’s making its choices without fear or favor. We tend to forget that within his first 100 days in office Prime Minister Dahal had met the presidents of the United States (even if in the form of a brief handshake on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly) and China as well as the Prime Minister of India. Nepal was on its way to making a clean break from business as usual, we were told. It started to look like it was.
Confronted with his first major crisis – President Ram Baran Yadav’s decision to reverse the prime minister’s decision to sack the army chief – Dahal chose to resign. His party had the best-organized cadre base on the streets and retained a distinct fear factor. By resigning, though, he sought to burnish his democratic credentials. You couldn’t say he failed.
In interviews with the Indian media, he sought to dispel the notion that he was somehow stepping into the same spiral of anti-Indianism popular with Nepali politicians out of power. Although skepticism had deepened by his tendency to speak in keeping with the audience, Dahal still enjoyed the support of those who considered his post-premiership remarks as a good-faith effort to explain the geo-strategic dimensions of governance.
Soon after, things began going downhill. Once he realized that his return to the premiership was now hopelessly encumbered, Dahal began publicly regretting his decision to step down.
Now, instead of advancing the search for the right balance between our two neighbors, Dahal began pitting Beijing and New Delhi against each other in order to bolster his personal politics.
The Chinese, having invested so much in the Maoists, tried working with second-tier leaders. The Indians, who were still seething at what they considered the monarchy’s brazen tradition of waving of the ‘China card’, turned nostalgic for the decency and dignity with which the palace pressed on that course.
Dahal eventually allowed his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, to become premier thinking that it would be the second best thing. Instead, the party split, the Maoists lost considerable ground in the second Constituent Assembly elections and Dahal was almost left without a job. The Maoists became just another chapter in the sordid history of fusion and fission of Nepal’s communist politics.
The Maoist interregnum did serve to bolster the credibility of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. Maybe their kind politics is the norm. The two parties, having squandered the public trust, are living their second lives with reasonable élan. (Life on the sidelines has been an extremely useful popularity booster for our ex-monarch as well.)
Dahal must have learned a lesson or two here. But his fighting words? He is just too much of a political animal to restrain himself. The other day, the Maoist chief insisted that he was ready to go to jail and even lay down his life for the cause of identity-based federalism. In fairness, he probably still believes in the cause. But he surely can’t believe much of the country still believes in it as well.
He can’t abandon the idea in the same way he can’t abandon the constituent assembly, republicanism or secularism. Going to jail or getting out of this world wouldn’t place the burden of achieving identity-based federalism on Dahal. The optics would be good. And, yes, to be a successful Maoist these days, you have to be careful about appearances.