Saturday, November 29, 2014

Modi Act II: Advise And Dissent

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised our political class to draw up the new constitution by consensus – not brute numbers – the Maoist leadership immediately rose up exuding a profound sense of vindication.
Individual Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leaders immediately began muttering and moaning against Modi’s gratuitous advice.
Rastriya Janamorcha Party President Chitra Bahadur KC, reflecting the schisms in the hard left, issued a statement deploring Modi’s stance, saying he had not only interfered in the internal matters of Nepal but had also crossed all diplomatic limits.
And KC didn’t stop there. “[Modi] is clearly against drafting constitution by the constituent assembly. He has stood against world acclaimed democratic process but has also dared to undermine Nepal’s constitution. His statement has pushed Nepal’s constitution drafting process to uncertainty.”
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, being the good host, reacted only after Modi’s departure. And that, too, after scribes quizzed him. Rejecting suggestions that Modi had applied any pressure for consensus, Koirala stated that how the constitution would be promulgated and what would be in it were entirely within the remit of Nepalis.
Before the original exultant Maoist leaders could hit back with their rebuttal, one functionary struck a cautionary note to the organization and the nation. Gopal Kiranti believed Modi’s remark was part of grand Indian conspiracy to defuse the protest programs planned by the opposition alliance to pressure the ruling parties to heed their demands. “Outwardly, it seems that [the Indians] favor unity between Nepalis but in reality they are there to strangle us,” Kiranti said in public comments.
When Modi insisted, at the inauguration of a trauma center in Kathmandu, that the constitution should be built through consensus and then could be amended through a two-thirds majority, it left many Nepali scratching their heads. How could you talk about a consensual document and a two-thirds-majority-based amendment in the same breadth? Perhaps someone somewhere on the Indian side bungled big time while were neck-deep in the Janakpur-Lumbini Modi itinerary fiasco.
But Modi seemed to double down in the evening. During individual meetings with leaders of the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML, the Maoists and the Madhesi parties, Modi said he hoped to get telephone calls from them on the morning of January 21 so that he could congratulate them on the successful completion of the process.
No, that was not something leaked from the meeting room. Indian Foreign Office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said so briefing reporters, although he was careful to assert that India was not prescribing any bottom line to an independent and sovereign country.
Other sources, however, let it be known that Modi had fine-tuned his message for his audience. While impressing upon Nepali Congress and CPN-UML leaders the virtues of consensus, he expounded on the merits of compromise with the Maoist and Madhesi leaders.
With the Indian prime minister so ebullient in his bilaterals with Nepali leaders, could he have restrained himself during the SAARC retreat? No wonder Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the only leader in Kathmandu not to have held a one-on-one with Modi, is wearing that exception as a badge of honor.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Up, Down, Round And Round

It looks like Ram Chandra Poudel has really had it with Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
The Nepali Congress vice-president has almost begun attributing the nation’s precarious plight to the sordid mental faculties of Dahal, or something like that.
At a personal level, Poudel probably resents Dahal for having blocked what he considered his easy ascent to the premiership a couple of years ago. Over a dozen rounds of balloting in the last constituent assembly to succeed Jhal Nath Khanal, Poudel diligently soldiered on against the Maoist chairman.
When another Maoist got that job, Poudel described his valiant stand as one that saved the democratic process. But deep down, he probably is still convulsed by bouts of politicianitis: an obsession with how he could have done things better than Baburam Bhattarai and how the country lost out.
Dahal, for his part, has become increasing acerbic in holding Poudel responsible for the current deadlock. The Maoist chairman obviously ranks the Nepali Congress VP, although a decade older, as his most formidable rival in that party going head. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had entered his twilight even before entering Singha Darbar.
Sher Bahadur Deuba has the ‘doubly incompetent’ tag around him that his rivals will ensure outlasts the monarchy. With the Koirala clan embroiled in a bitter succession struggle, Poudel boasts a formidable record in the party that the country might want to test in the premiership.
For now, the bone of contention is the 1990 Constitution. Dahal has accused Poudel of conspiring to reinstate that document. Poudel has fought back, saying he never meant restoring the status quo ante.
The 1990-2006 system did not fail, the Nepali Congress VP explained in a recent newspaper interview. “If we are still trying to produce a constitution written by leaders, even after having elected representatives for that explicit purpose, then what’s so bad about the 1990 statute?” Let’s just remove the monarchy, add federalism and inclusiveness and everybody go home.
Now, Poudel knows that even if every party inside the assembly amended the 1990 Constitution to the point where it would be the founding document of a one-party Maoist state, it would still not be acceptable to Dahal.
The Nepali Congress VP thinks he stands on strong ground. His party abandoned its demand for a constituent assembly for a good reason in the late 1950s. B.P. Koirala calculated that even if King Mahendra got the constitution he liked, he certainly would not get the parliament he wanted. B.P. was correct – up to a point. But, then, geopolitics was not his strong suit. The mercury had barely begun falling on the Cold War thermometer. It would take years of incarceration and exile for Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister to figure out what really hit him on that cold winter mid-morning in 1960.
For political convenience, Poudel still has to hold King Mahendra solely responsible for the demise of Nepal’s first experiment with democracy. But he recognizes the staying power of geopolitics. In the grand scheme of things, what Nepal and Nepalis desire may not conform to what our two powerful neighbors and others beyond want us to have. During their insurgency, the Maoists promised too many things to too many constituencies without recognizing that core reality. If the ex-rebels are struggling to keep at least some of those promises, then that’s their problem.
So here goes the Nepali Congress again: It is actively participating in the constituent assembly because it believes in the democratic process. If that process fails, you can’t blame the party because it was the first to come out with the Pandora’s Box Theory of Constitutionalism. Dahal, then, would find himself in the ranks of Kings Mahendra and Gyanendra.
If the Maoists, somehow recognizing reality as well as their responsibility to history, give accede to a consensus document, it will have been so because the Nepali Congress exercised excruciating moral pressure. And if that document were to fail, the Nepali Congress would just mount the next struggle for democracy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mugged By Reality

For a country whose future was traditionally discussed around the constrained sovereignty of the two other Raj-era Himalayan buffer states, we have come a long way. Forget Sikkimization or Bhutanization. Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala has begun drawing parallels with more far-flung climes like Crimea.
That’s not the only way in which the Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest democratic party, has been exuding its creative side. Khum Bahadur Khadka, a one-time stalwart who many had been tempted to dismiss as a has-been, warns of an impending religious war, if not now then in 20 years’ time. All this comes after Shashank Koirala, in an acclaimed address to the Nepal Council of World Affairs, sought to hold his own party accountable for at least part of the national malaise.
Promulgating a constitution – or whatever can resemble one – has become a prestige issue for the prime minister of a party that claims to have spearheaded three revolutions but doesn't want to talk about how it squandered it all each time. Sushil Koirala’s cabinet colleagues from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist sound quite confident too. (How could they afford not to be?)
Those arrayed against a half-done document are quite formidable. Yet their divisions have provided strength to the proponents of meeting the January 22 deadline.
As frustrated as we might be, let’s not pretend we were not forewarned. After all, the mainstream parties were rejecting the Maoists’ demand for a constituent assembly on the ground that it would open a Pandora’s box until King Gyanendra began sidelining them. Antipathy toward the palace need not have translated so cavalierly into fissiparous alacrity.
Geopolitical realities conspired to take Nepal is’ aspirations for change in a different direction. The three principal external powers – India, China and the United States – were principally hedging their bets. Our wizards of smart stuck their necks out too far. Eight years down the road, the parties that could so easily agree on what was not part of the mandate of People’s Movement II – the abolition of the monarchy – cannot agree on ways of meeting its principal demand – inclusiveness.
How could they, when we are still in the process of manufacturing newer victims and victimizers?
The geopolitical equations have shifted since when an Indian coalition government trying to negotiate a strategic partnership with the United States had to appease its communist allies by outsourcing Nepal policy to them. Nor are the Chinese and Indians engaged in a zero-sum game over Nepal or South Asia. After all, the Chinese President was fraternizing with the Indian prime minister while their border guards were trading fire.
And the Americans? Tibet is a useful pin to prick China. But when the US President on Chinese soil says that he is not in favor of Tibet’s independence, you know how much the ground has shifted from 2005-2006.
One Nepali newspaper editorially suggested the other day that Nepal had moved beyond the divisive issue of the monarchy and must be allowed to reach out to the future. Six years after Gyanendra Shah left Narayanhity Palace, his private visit to New Delhi has all of us in thrall. What might be cooking the Indian capital, where legions of dishes have been produced over the decades suiting all kinds of taste buds out here?
So this is where we are. A multiparty constituent assembly is being asked to develop consensus when all of its constituent parties fought the elections on their own manifestos. Yet when the two principal ruling parties and their minor allies can muster over two-thirds majority behind their constitutional roadmap, that is called undemocratic.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when reality mugs you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Take It Or Leave It

If you are infuriated by the political establishment’s obsession with how the new constitution should be settled, It is time to cut them some slack. There is not much by way of content that they can show. Well, maybe they can show a lot in the new document. But it won’t be what too many of us will like.
Clearly, the wrangling over the number and nature of provinces serves a purpose. Blame Indian and Chinese geopolitical sensitivities and throw around all kinds of ideas. Madhav Kumar Nepal gets to yell at Khadga Oli at the top of his lungs. Pushpa Kamal Dahal gets to head both the mechanism to manage political affairs and the alliance menacing it.
On the religious right, the Hindu state standard-bearer – Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN) – is being forced to cede some ground to a group of Nepali Congress leaders. How and when Khum Bahadur Khadka decided to take up the mantle remains unclear. After all, he was on record rallying for republicanism in the early 1990s when Girija Prasad Koirala was still best buds with King Birendra. If incarceration and insulin somehow transformed him, it was a quiet one.
For all its posturing, this Nepali Congress faction has not been able to tell us how a Hindu republic would fare any better than the secular one we have now. The appellation certainly has some implications. A Christian or Muslim president attending the hymnal advent of spring at Hanuman Dhoka might not be palatable to many Hindu ears. But if you start barring non-Hindus from the highest office of the land just to prevent that awkwardness, wouldn’t that constitute non-royal regression?
Or are we just trying to call Nepal the world’s only Hindu republic and leave things at that just to make some of us feel good?
That’s the kind of inanity you would expect the RPPN to pounce upon. There was a time when Kamal Thapa was thought to have abandoned his campaign to restore the monarchy. For a while, he, too, blew hot and cold – and seemed to enjoy it. Now he’s angry – at the deputy prime minister for now. If passions don’t cool soon, well, don’t even think about what might come next.
It’s easy to fall back on the oh-we could-still-restore the-monarchy line. What if Mr. Gyanendra Shah likes being ex-king so much that he won’t budge from where he is? The son, despite the recent outpouring of public sympathy over his travails in Thailand, is still considered too toxic to be throne-worthy. The grandson? He’s too young and running against time to grow up. King Birendra’s daughters? The Basanta Shrawan conundrum would persist in a different way, especially if it happened to be that time of the month for the Queen.
Perhaps our political leaders’ public confidence is genuine and the constitution will be promulgated on time. Those dissatisfied will erupt in protest, but there will be too many howls from far too many directions to pose a cohesive threat to the establishment.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could address the nation: “Brothers and sisters, this is the best we could do. Now, take it or leave it.” He could decide toward the end of the speech whether to throw in his resignation, depending on the intensity of the fire and smoke.