Sunday, December 27, 2015

Crossing The River By Feeling The Stones

Under 100 days in office, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has already begun hearing growls of disgruntlement from within his own Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML). Even from within his own faction.
Can you blame Oli loyalists for their restiveness? Nepal’s longest prime minister in waiting seems all too content merely having got the top job. To many in the wider populace, the proverbs and parables that pepper his pronouncements have begun to sound a bit stale.
Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa, president of the right-wing Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, seems to be the man in charge these days. From New Delhi to London to Beijing, he is engaging with interlocutors with the flair and bearing of the chief executive. Oli, for his part, is justifying his decision to split ministries so as to accommodate coalition partners that have no business being in government.
A befuddled Baburam Bhattarai, struggling to spawn an amorphous new force, recalled the other day that Thapa – a college classmate – had not abandoned his agenda to restore the monarchy and Hindu statehood. How, then, could he be so firmly in charge of implementing the new federal, republican and secular constitutional order?
Madhesi marchers, too, are in a fix these days. After months of unrelenting – and often violent – protests against the Constitution’s constriction, there is a creeping sense in that constituency that India might be about to abandon their cause.
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in an ostensible effort to dispel accusations that her government had imposed a blockade on Nepal, insisted within the hallowed upper chamber of the Indian parliament that the Madhesi protesters were the people responsible for disruptions in essential supplies. Intentional or otherwise, plausible deniability on the part of official India had the effect of solid indictment this side of the border.
With more and more Indian analysts now publicly urging their government to stay the hard line on Nepal in the interest of ensuring inclusivity, our Madhesi activists suspect Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be about to ditch them in favor of geo-strategic interests.
Considering that the India-pushed-Nepal-into-China’s-arms alarm has lost its sinister chime, it is becoming increasingly easy to contemplate that Kathmandu and New Delhi entered into an elaborate campaign to test China’s real intentions in Nepal. Precious little beyond rhetorical flourish has emanated from the north as far as the mandarins’ readiness to come to Nepal’s rescue goes.
To be sure, a Kathmandu-New Delhi deal marginalizing the Madhesis would provide an opening for the Chinese. But would Beijing risk opening another front along its already volatile periphery? If you think not, think again.
In fact, the mandarins must already be up to something, considering the recalcitrance of sections of the Madhesi alliance vis-à-vis the babus’ directives on the three-point proposal. The Chinese seem to be, shall we say, crossing the river by feeling the stones. In other words, there are bound to be too many tricks left, especially when there are so many sleeves all around.
In the circumstances, shifting the goalposts while leaving everyone with enough incentive to stay in the field would maintain the fiction of the continued relevance of that pesky old 12-Point Agreement.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Questions Keep Piling Up

Almost a week after the Indian parliament debated the state of India-Nepal relations, Maila Baje cannot but marvel at both the frivolousness and factiousness with which the issue has cascaded into that country’s internal politics.
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, responding to questions raised by members during the debate in the upper house, suggested that this was not the first time such a difficult situation between the two neighbors had existed, rebutting a recurrent opposition claim.
The wizards of smart on our side tried to underscore that purported ‘slip’ as India’s inevitable admission that it had indeed imposed a blockade on Nepal. Never mind the fact that Swaraj was merely attacking the opposition for conveniently forgetting how the Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi had imposed a full-fledged blockade in 1989-90. Let us only hope that the fact that few on either side of the border have sought to evoke the creative engendering of disruptions in the 1960s and 1970s is not aimed at rewriting the historical record.
In fact, Swaraj never flinched from her stand that a ‘blockade’ against Nepal was in existence in so far as the Madhesi protesters had impeded the border crossing from where the largest supplies of critical items such as fuel and pharmaceuticals passed.
It was reassuring to hear Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, a one-time Ministry of External Affairs functionary, sound a solidly sympathetic note on the plight of Nepalis. If he seemed dismissive of the Madhesi movement for greater rights and representation, it seemed to be aimed at buttressing his counsel to New Delhi to avoid taking sides in Nepal’s internal dispute. So far so good. Yet at times Aiyar’s compassion seemed aroused more by a fear of the inroads the Chinese would make in Nepal on the back of the dwindling popularity of the Indians.
As Swaraj was speaking, another opposition member could be heard from the background saying that the 1989-90 blockade was against the royal government. Understandably, the rest of the sparsely populated chamber wasn’t prepared to split hairs when the effect on the Nepali people was no less grueling then.
When Aiyar suggested that the more appropriate nomenclature for the state of affairs would be ‘Modi’s blockade’, that sound bite was sure to win a lot of Nepali hearts and minds. His refusal to give an all-party imprimatur to such a divisive approach by sending a broad-based political delegation to Nepal promised to reverse India’s traditional consensus-based foreign policy. Like all promises, however, that would be a flimsy basis for Nepal to pursue its India policy on.
Swaraj took the names of a few Nepali leaders and suggested that they had provided specific undertakings vis-à-vis India’s concerns relating to the new Constitution. Barring Baburam Bhattarai, hardly any Nepali leader has sought clarification from the said individuals on the matter.
More broadly, Swaraj implied that the Constitution was promulgated at a time when New Delhi had indications that there was still work to be done. In that context, it is relevant on our part to question the kind of the information the Indian Embassy was feeding New Delhi. But that does not answer the long-standing question as to why it was so urgent to promulgate the Constitution while alienating the Madhesi parties, all the while standing ready with amendments.
The questions, as always, keep piling up.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The China Ca(na)rd

A distinctive feature of this year’s Indian economic ‘blockade’ is the sternness of Nepal’s reaction. The sitting prime minister and his principal deputies are becoming ever more creative and caustic in chiding New Delhi’s neo-imperial ways.
Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, who, like party chief and premier Khadga Prasad Oli, has long been considered overtly India-friendly, sounds very much like he has defected to the extreme fringes of the left.
For his part, Maoist head honcho Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been conspicuous by his reticence in criticizing India, perhaps owing to the lessons he learned the hard way circa 2009. Yet his lieutenants in power and outside alike have reverted to the People’s War-era vilification of the Indians.
Nepal, moreover, has been strident in internationalizing the unjustness of the ‘blockade’ and its calamitous fallout, although nowhere akin to the Palestinians’ successes vis-à-vis the Israelis. Just the other day, Nepali armed police personnel arrested over a dozen Indian border guards entering our territory and made much about that before releasing them. That’s called progress.
From official pronouncements and public anticipation alike, the substitution of India by China as Nepal’s most important economic partner seems to have acquired national urgency.
This brings us to the other side of the story, which Maila Baje thinks is more gripping.
There is palpable nonchalance in India’s response to Nepal’s flashing of the ‘China card’ this time. Sure, there is some wailing across the southern border over how the Hindu nationalist government has pushed Nepal into China’s arms.
Much of the bellyaching, however, is restricted to the Indian media, which, if you can read the stitches on a fastball, is aimed at providing cover to the actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The Indian opposition, too, has been making noises. But, then, they are in dire need of an issue.
Ambassadors of third countries in Kathmandu voice concern over the suffering caused by India’s actions. But when Modi issues joint statements during visits abroad and Nepal is featured, his hosts tend to agree with New Delhi as far as our Constitution goes. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, too, sounds a little flustered these days. The humanitarian situation in Nepal is a source of legitimate international concern, but so is the issue of inclusion. The responsibility to protect comes as a package deal.
All this must have induced the mandarins up north to squirm a bit. For them, Nepal has long served as a playground where they can irritate India at relatively low cost. When it’s show time, they have always advised us to remain in India’s good books. A one-time grant of petrol, arms to crush the Maoist rebels, 600 sacks of salt – we know the drill.
Can there be any doubt that Beijing is more anxious to prevent New Delhi from embarking on its own journey to the West, amid the United States’ pivot to Asia? Containment, encirclement, call it what you will, the barbarians must be kept at a distance. More importantly, they must not be allowed to join hands.
For Nepal, though, this episode has intrinsic redeeming value. While the south has long denigrated our assertions of national sovereignty as a brazen display of the ‘China card’, the north has left us wilting in the winds.
Let’s look at it this way: If the Chinese this time put their money where their mouth is, well, fine and dandy. If the ‘China card’ finally collapses, what have we got to lose? Our southern neighbor and friends farther afield would be forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of what we say and do as a sovereign nation and people.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Forcing Newness On A Nostalgic Nation

Brushing off critics from across the ideological spectrum, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai is pressing ahead with his campaign to establish a “new force” that could save the nation.
Such an entity would be free of the ‘isms’ gripping the Nepali polity for far too long, he asserted the other day. ‘Yeah right’ wasn’t the dominant response, though. Bhattarai’s declaration seemed to attract such disparate people as Pradip Giri, Upendra Yadav and Padma Ratna Tuladhar.
When the one-time chief ideologue of the Maoists surprised everyone to leave that party with his stated intention, he prompted a palpable been-there-done-that sentiment. Weeks later, he drew a chunk of followers from the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), rousing the wrath of those who stayed behind with party president Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
What’s with the man? The notion of a ‘New Nepal’ Bhattarai so persuasively peddled to so many during the insurgency and after has liquefied into the growing nostalgia for the ancien regime. Or at least parts of it. After all, former prime minister Jhal Nath Khanal has come around to counseling a new look to converting the five development regions into provinces and putting the federalism imbroglio behind us. And that, by the way, is a sentiment enjoying cross-party, if muted, for now, support.
Is Bhattarai so addicted to the idea of perpetual revolution that novelty – regardless of its ambiguity – gives him a high? Or is there redeeming value in abandoning the field for another game when the last one is stilled being played?
Yet Bhattarai makes much sense, too. His criticism of the hastiness with which the Constitution was pushed through carries greater resonance amid the Madhes agitation and the Indian ‘blockade’. Bhattarai’s refusal to blame New Delhi exclusively for the current state of affairs was never bound to be popular. It has offered an opportunity for introspection for those with the courage and conviction to do so.
His revelation that China’s then prime minister Wen Jiabao had advised Nepal to maintain cordial relations with India because the northern neighbor could never supplant the southern may have sounded like a below-the-belt thud. In reality, it merely reaffirmed what a Wen predecessor, Li Peng, had said publicly during an official visit to Nepal during the height of the 1989-90 Indian trade and transit embargo.
For now, the upshot? Love him or hate him, but we can’t contemplate contemporary political life without Bhattarai.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Really, Is This For Real?

We seem to have decided to really give to ’em this time. Leaders such as Khadga Prasad Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal, long perceived as pro-Indian, are castigating the Indians in unexpectedly strident tones and tenor. What’s more, two men New Delhi has long considered unfriendly – Chitra Bahadur K.C. and and Chandra Prakash Mainali – have landed jobs as deputy prime minister almost for the express purpose of raising the rhetoric levels.
As India set out to pre-empt our internationalization of their blockade by raking up, among other things, war-time atrocities committed by the Maoists, Deputy Prime and Foreign Minister very emotionally persisted in purveying the pains of a small and landlocked country at Geneva.
The protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mounted by Nepalis in London supposedly surprised New Delhi, which, the Nepali media reported, prompted an investigation down south. Still, Modi got his host, David Cameron, to insert New Delhi-friendly language on Nepal in the joint communique. But that didn’t deter our foreign ministry from issuing a formal statement asserting our right to conduct our internal affairs.
So far so good. This was a fight Nepal had been itching to wage for quite a while. Yet things about it don’t pass the smell test. India’s hard line was attributed to the state elections in Bihar, which had become a prestige issue for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While we were elated by the BJP’s trouncing and the subsequent insurrection by party elders led by Lal Krishan Advani, Modi seems to have turned things to his advantage. The Bihar imbroglio has served as the Indian prime minister’s Hundred Flowers campaign, following which he things he has smoked out his detractors.
Both the Chinese and Nepalis made much about the evolving northern alliance, more us than them, of course. In the aftermath of the arrival of the first truckloads of Chinese oil in Kathmandu, Beijing has chosen to proceed carefully. Sure, we’re negotiating with the Chinese the legal and institutional arrangements needed to free ourselves from the clutches of India. Who knows how long all that might take?
While the Indian media has been jumping around that New Delhi’s policies have pushed Kathmandu into Beijing’s arms, official India seems remarkably unperturbed. That a political establishment that until the other day was thanking India for forging the mainstream-Maoist alliance against the monarchy has come around to asserting its sovereign right to promulgate a constitution it saw fit is admirable. But what of the alacrity to do so while alienating 40 percent of the population residing on prime real estate?
In view of the all this, Maila Baje is forced to wonder whether the Oli government is complicit in India’s efforts to call China’s bluff?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Enigmas of Arrival At Arm’s Length

Back in the days when republicanism was a cause even its most ardent advocates considered a practical impossibility to achieve in their lifetimes, Maila Baje often pondered a scenario: What would happen if a post-monarchy government led by the Nepali Congress found itself embroiled in political and diplomatic tensions with India.
Might a party that was born on Indian soil and depended so much on that country’s sustenance be able to assert itself on matters of core Nepali national interests? If so, how would the Indians respond, since they no longer would have the “autocratic” palace to kick around?
It took the promulgation of a republican Constitution this year – the culmination of a process driven by India nine years ago – to observe that engagement. What prompted then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s Nepali Congress-led government to rebuff India’s repeated admonitions to go slow on the promulgation remains intriguing.
Equally so is India’s apparent unwillingness to take into consideration the democratic nature of the government apparently flouting its wishes. Across the spectrum, some of the politicians we considered friendliest to India emerged as the most vocal critics of India’s encroachment upon Nepalis’ sovereign choice.
More serious distortions produced by the conflict are apparent. Amendments aimed at appeasing dissenting voices were ready almost hours after the promulgation. The much-awaited post-Constitution government led by the relatively moderate Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist depends on the most zealous anti- and pro-monarchy forces. The country, in the midst of an Indian blockade not everyone in our country appears ready to call by its name, is flashing the much-maligned “China card”, something that should have receded into history with the monarchy.
For a prime minister who has been waiting for the job for so long, Khadga Prasad Oli’s assumption of office has proved a yawner. After the “gentlemen’s agreement” on power sharing among the major parties fizzled during the prime ministerial election, President Ram Baran Yadav has been emboldened to campaign for a second term – through the Indian media.
In normal circumstances, it would have been easy to laugh off how Baburam Bhattarai chickened out of the field by leaving the Maoist party. In today’s setting, his move carries the aura of principle.
True to tradition, at least when it comes to Nepal, the Chinese have been dangling promises throughout the crisis. The new government must feel the same pangs of disillusionment endured by the governments of Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Marich Man Singh Shrestha and Gyanendra Shah.
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa of the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party, who rushed to New Delhi for talks days after taking the oath of office, sounds a little miffed these days. His much-vaunted personal relationship with leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party failed to make a dent.
If the Indians are really infuriated this time, they may have good reason to be. The federalism rigmarole does not pose the same threat to Chinese. They have sufficiently appeased, coopted or overpowered political forces on the border to mitigate threats to Tibet. Along the porous southern border, the Indians, who see no finality in terms of their own provincial boundaries, consider tentativeness in our provincial model a far greater threat to their national security.
The Indian media is twisting and moaning over how New Delhi is pushing Kathmandu into Beijing’s arms. The Indian government, for its part, seems ready to bear that opprobrium as long as it recognizes that China’s arms aren’t that wide open.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Can We Prove The Astrologers Wrong?

Our worst fears didn’t come to pass. At least, we didn’t have to promulgate the Constitution to just to find out what it contained.
In fairness, the process, albeit delayed, was remarkably robust. Ultimately, the draft experts submitted to the elected assembly was amended after fairly forceful, if at times flashy, public input.  That text was then voted upon article by article. And when the final version of the document was put before the assembly, it commanded more than two-thirds support.
If not allowing the perfect stand in the way of the practicable is the operative standard, let’s us all breathe in relief: better late than never. But, then, there’s that pesky little thing called politics. With an entire region of the country, comprising half the population, having rejected the basic law, promises of prompt amendments appear unlikely to mollify that constituency.
What difference might a couple of days’ delay in promulgating the charter have made in terms of its legitimacy? Then, again, what guarantee was there that last-minute talks with the disparate and divided Terai-Madhes-based groups would have borne fruit, right? And let’s not forget that, from the extreme fringes of the ideological spectrum, the document ways always going to have been pronounced dead on arrival.
Much has been made of India’s apparent displeasure with the process as well as the product. Nepali leaders rebuffed New Delhi’s last-minute intervention and kept to their schedule. However, they, too, probably aren’t in a celebratory mood for having done that. When the ideologically distinct Indian media uniformly begin to lament how Nepali leaders spurned New Delhi, you can guess that the story is still being scripted.
The Indian government didn’t sound too happy in its official response to the promulgation. Because of that perceived frostiness, no one knows what New Delhi’s next move might be. The Terai might suddenly go quiet, trying to make the best of the situation now and regroup for the next round. On the other hand, things might flare up to an extent almost justifying India’s expressed anxieties. The Chinese, of course, could afford to be happier about the outcome because it’s not their porch that’s smoldering. The responses of the other different external stakeholders have been consistent with their stated positions.
As has been long stressed in this space, there was no alternative to promulgating the constitution, Great Earthquake or not. There’s no doubt the process begun in 2006 was flawed, more so because of the subsequent slapdash compromises than because of the original spirit of the “People’s Movement II”. Much time and money was spent on keeping alive the idea of “New Nepal”. No matter how nebulous, it assumed a life of its own and needed a body.
Critics like yours truly will continue to point out that out, but not wearing some sinister see-I-told-you-so smirk. The drivers of the promised change are in full control. They can no longer blame the palace for subverting a people’s quest for full sovereignty. The first rule of thumb is that an empowered people will have greater expectations from their leaders.
Most astrologers said the time the constitution was promulgated was not propitious. A secular state may need not pay heed to such antiquated analysis. Yet the essential question remains: Can we prove the astrologers wrong?

Monday, September 07, 2015

Upsetting, Yet Understandable

In all honesty, I can’t say it doesn’t hurt. But it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
I used to tell everyone that a day would come when people would start demolishing our statues and portraits. “Come on, Girija babu, give the people more credit. They’ll never forget those who’ve been on their side all along.”
The mob that demolished my statue at Birgunj may or may not be representative of the popular mood. But it certainly had a different notion of history and accountability.
Five years after I left the mortal world, they still blame me for the mess country finds itself in. Out of loyalty, the Nepali Congress described the demolition as an “undemocratic act” that had really saddened the party and supporters of democracy. I don’t know about that. But I do wonder how the people would have felt if they saw the big picture.
In retrospect, the term “grand design” I popularized was kind of misleading. It contained too much of a sinister streak, almost an implication that everything that had gone wrong in Nepal was part of an elaborate external plan.
Things are far simpler.
I don’t believe Nepali politicians are congenitally predisposed to destruction. Hard as it might be to believe, we do think about the well-being of the people and nation. Events, ideas and perspectives drive us in different directions because they emanate from disparate levels. In an effort to outdo one another, we unleash forces that ultimate constrain our ability to act.
Personally, I never harbored hopes of becoming the first president of Nepal. The reason was simple: I never believed we could – or should – do away with the monarchy. That should have been clear enough from the “ceremonial monarchy” and “baby king” that I had been pushing. But, no, the long view was discredited as a camouflage for appeasement.
Institutionally, the Nepali Congress and the monarchy remained in antithetical existence. Deep down, each recognized how it was inextricably linked to the other. At the same time, each was most susceptible to disinformation spewed by other quarters vis-à-vis the motives of the other.
After the April 2006 Uprising, it’s no secret that we all discussed whether, in the name of sidelining the monarchy, we had unleashed forces that would ultimately consume us. Sure, Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh broke tradition and arrived at the airport in New Delhi to welcome me with the warm epithet of South Asia’s elder statesman. You think I was fooled? All I remembered then were the humiliating hours Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made me wait outside his office when I wanted to convey my opposition to his advice that we should support the king’s first takeover in the interest of national salvation.
Within the party and among our allies, there was a feeling that I was unable to grasp the generational transformation Nepal had undergone. Okay, even if we conceded that the monarchy was a political anachronism, what would fill the wider institutional vacuum? In those heady moments, who had time for cooler minds. (And what would a lanky havaldar who just couldn’t stop living know?)
Eventually, the 12 Point Agreement had to be preserved through a bevy of side deals, compromises and unspoken undertakings. There was no appreciation of the post-1990 reality that the passage of time would erode our popularity and restore faith in those we supposedly had vanquished.
I know there are many who envy my good fortune that I left the world when the going was still good. Their desire to lump every ill on me was partially realized at Birgunj. I’ll gladly take the hit – and whatever comes next – on behalf of those who thought we were smarter than your average Nepali.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

You Don’t Want To Mess With This Guy

“How could a liar like he become a doctor?” Sher Bahadur Deuba bellowed the other day. Ouch.
The question surely cut deeper into Dr. Baburam Bhattarai because Deuba is not generally known for such biting words. But, then, it only goes on to show that the Nepali Congress leader couldn’t put up with the Maoist vice-chairman’s antics anymore.
As chairman of the Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee Dr. Bhattarai seems to be doing everything but promoting those attributes, at least within the context of the federalism fracas. Don’t take Deuba’s word for that. Like any stick-in-the-mud rebel who can’t believe his rebellion is actually over, Dr. Bhattarai has had a hard time accepting responsibility for what he and his folks have done. Nine years after the Maoists’ incessant gloating over how they “won” their “people’s war”, the extent of their loss of the peace is becoming clearer. Still, they consider themselves above any culpability for the mess Nepal currently is in.
During his three terms as prime minister, Deuba recognized full well the kind of chicanery, obfuscation and deceit the chief ideologue of a discredited ideology had to engage in to rope in gullible Nepalis. (For a while, our comrades succeeded in persuading the world that the Chinese were behind the insurgency bearing the name of their Great Helmsman, all the while ensconced deep inside Indian territory.)
From the dribs and drabs emanating in the media, this much is clear: Deuba holds Dr. Bhattarai responsible for spreading the canard that he, Deuba, was somehow against the Tharus. In Deuba’s contention, opposition to splitting Kailali and Kanchanpur districts was not tantamount to opposition to greater autonomy for a community that spans the entire east-west southern belt.
Allegations of the complicity of the Maoists themselves in fanning the violence there certainly could not have appeased Deuba. If anything, they must have brought old wounds to the fore, especially as the patina of erudition and deliberation continued to shield Dr. Bhattarai. After all, anytime anyone recalled Deuba’s association – even in the loosest sense of the word – with the London School of Economics in the late 1980s, sneers and snickers immediately followed. Deuba was sent abroad by his mentor, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, so the Panchayat rulers couldn’t ensnare another promising Nepali Congress youth leader with the offer of a zonal commissionership, we were told.
Such perceptions of ordinariness went on to define Deuba the prime minister. A meeting with the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Britain during the early days of the global war on terror might not rank as an accomplishment to the left-dominated political establishment. However, many ordinary Nepalis do tend to recall those meetings as affirmations of Nepali “normalness” in the comity of nations. Especially considering that Dr. Bhattarai had to sneak past his own deputy and foreign minister for a one-on-one with then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit in Teheran.
To make a long story short: Deuba has an understandable ire against eggheads who deserve to have eggs splattered all over their face. Next time, Dr. Bhattarai riles him, he might want to ask something like: “What kind of architect destroys a nation?”

Monday, August 24, 2015

States Of Mind

Against the multi-pronged attacks the notion of a ‘new’ Nepal has exposed itself to, the ‘old’ nation continues to acquire its own luster.
Sure, the past carried its share of iniquities. Without real and perceived exclusion, after all, no amount of internal machinations or external meddling would have fueled the Maoist insurgency.
The end of the Hindu monarchy – the supposed starting point of our trudge to newness – instead of injecting clarity to the pursuit of a harmonious future, rendered the idea of inclusiveness even more amorphous.
In that nebulousness thrived a massive enterprise of social engineering. Each one of us proffered our two cents along the way, but what the country really needed was a single viable road map.
When we got bogged down in that search, weirdness and wackiness proliferated in the public sphere. From Brahmins and Chhettris demonstrating for fair representation to Muslims demanding the restoration of Hindu statehood, events have acquired an unparalleled ability to keep confounding us.
The pursuit of inclusiveness has long lost connection with a determination of the number of provinces Nepal might need. Appeasing one group has invariably ended up alienating several others. Things are not likely to change in that regard. A sense of belonging is a state of mind. Millions might feel comfortable within a given framework. The perils of ignoring the thousands who might not are all to clear.
We know we are Nepalis because we are not Indian, Chinese, Pakistani or Sri Lankan. But there must be something more to our identity. If Nepaliness were indeed an artificial formulation imposed by the custodians of a predatory state intent on preserving their monopoly on power, then, yes, erasing every remnant of that dark past might make sense.
But what purpose would smashing statues of Prithvi Narayan Shah serve when at the same time we set ablaze our own stores every time a Bollywood star has something nasty to say about Nepalis?
Wouldn’t fostering a spirit of belongingness during such trying times be a more worthy demonstration of our willingness and ability to build inclusiveness?
Of course, such ramblings have lost utility, as we have long crossed that bridge. If anything, we need the new constitution to be promulgated soon to mark the official failure of the experiments spawned by the 12-Point Agreement.
Perhaps then, the five development regions would begin sounding like a basis for a viable solution, instead of something to be shunned outright.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Broader Import Of A Cross-Border Tale

Philosophically, Anil Jha hit the hammer on the nail. Okay, sort of.
India would be solely responsible if the putative Constitution of Nepal did not guarantee rights to the country’s Madhesi population, the chairman of Nepal Sadbhavana Party told a recent programme organized by the Sitamadi Media for Border Harmony across the southern border in Bihar.
Speaking on the topic “New Constitution for Nepal and State of Relations between India and Nepal”, the former minister accused India of being nonchalant towards the plight of our Madhesi population.
Now, that would be news to most non-denizens of the region. But, then, who are we to know, right? “We are aware that India has great stakes in Nepal,” published reports quoted Jha as telling the attendees. “India’s say holds greater importance in Nepal. What [India] wants happens in Nepal.”
Nothing earth-shattering in those assertions. The refrain has had a menacing echo since 1950, if not before. However, Jha’s critics imply that he brazenly invited India’s intervention at a time of such prodigious political fluidity here.
But, pray, haven’t we already crossed that bridge? The 12-Point Agreement India forged between the mainstream parties and the Maoists in New Delhi in November 2005 and its copious offspring have precipitated an eight-year-long experiment that only its architects and signatories see as having continuing relevance. Thus, the show must go on.
Collectively, every Nepali should hold India responsible for our mess. According to the Pottery Barn rule, which Colin Powell famously invoked before George W. Bush on the consequences of his planned military action in Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” If everything is stuck on federalism, secularism and republicanism, then let the architect take care. 
Which begs the deeper question. Was Jha, by narrowing India’s culpability to a region, providing India cover? After all, we don’t really know where New Delhi really stands on the post-quake agreement that paved the way for the apparent breakthrough our leaders have been touting every day.
Add to the above the fact that the full geopolitical import of the Lipu-Lekh controversy has yet to emerge. Although Nepalis initially seemed annoyed by China’s sudden propensity to emulate India and play territorial mischief in Nepal, anti-Beijing sentiments have not spiraled to levels many in New Delhi must have expected.
Instead, there seems to be some realization that China, by that agreement signed during Indian Prime Minister Narinder Modi’s visit, might have succeeded in inserting itself as a legitimate party in Nepal’s territorial disputes. Given Beijing’s growing assertiveness in Afghanistan following the drawdown of the American military – and Beijing’s unexpected lack of inhibition in publicly asserting its interests in that landlocked state – Nepalis could be in for a new kind of tripartite political compromise.
For that to happen, though, we need the current experiment to run its course. Meanwhile, it would be imprudent to dismiss the comments Jha made in Sitamadi at a forum avowedly linked to border harmony.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

In Sickness And In Stealth

Since today’s political machinations revolve around an ailing leader’s attempt to grab power from an equally infirm prime minister, we can forget about the new constitution being promulgated any time soon.
So sayeth Upendra Yadav, chairman of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal, seething at what he sees is the expropriation by the Prime Minister’s Office the authority of the Constituent Assembly.
Now, with the major parties having hammered out a six-province model – a key stumbling block all these years – the prospects of the new statute have once again brightened.
Khadga Oli, the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist, has foresworn the notion that the constitution is merely the route to his ascension to the premiership. (Although some politicians have candidly credited his ambition with the series of post-earthquake political breakthroughs.)
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, too, has sought to disabuse us of the idea that the constitution is at the center of political skullduggery, notwithstanding clear appearances on the surface.
Let’s face it. Fatigue has set in. The political class cannot go on holding their primary task in abeyance. The April 2006 ‘consensus’ – if there was ever one – holds political legitimacy in the collective consciousness of the constituents of the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists. Individual parties and personalities therein have long acknowledged the shift in public perceptions. The external drivers of change still hold enough political and economic sway to make them collective pretend that republicanism, federalism and secularism remain the operative aspirations of the Nepali populace.
When you perpetuate a fiction, you have to play the part, no matter how tiresome it may get. We see the lethargy on the faces of our political class, the civil society luminaries that once egged them on, and motley crew of social engineers still bent on foisting upon the nation a nebulous newness.
Behind the apparent steadiness of decision-making lies a lack of self-assurance. We cannot have fewer than six states because the Panchayat system had already segmented five regions. And that sucked, right? The logic and lucidity of the six provinces need to be invented anew, but no explication seems to be able to placate the votaries of federalism. Who can concede today that federalism was introduced as a tool to destroy the existing order, not to build a new one.
Yet the constitution must be promulgated, if only to prove that the political class is capable of delivering on its promise. In that regard, Upendra Yadav’s allegory of illness may have more relevance than even he imagined.
We read last week that the Great Earthquake turned out to be not as deadly as it was supposed to be because it merely unzipped a process that is likely to result in greater devastation soon.
How serious could the political tremors unleashed by contrived tentativeness really be, even factoring in our individual and institutional infirmities?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Be Of Good Cheer, Comrade Prachanda

It’s quite tempting to dismiss them as rants of a broken man. Yet the frustration Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN), vented in public the other day deserves our collective attention.
“Whenever we meet for a party meeting, we share similar views”, Dahal said, referring to his party colleagues Baburam Bhattarai and Narayan Kaji Shrestha.  “I have no idea what happens when we hold separate meetings [and when] we only talk of our group.”
Although UCPN leaders shared the same ideology and strategies, Dahal contended, they tended to criticize one another during factional meetings. “No matter what I do, there is always fault in it,” Dahal said. “Prachanda is the only one to be blamed. [It’s almost as if a] dirty person turns clean if Prachanda is criticized.”
Surely, our comrade is not as naïve as he sounds. Once he emerged in public 2006 from decades of shadowy subterraneous existence, the only direction Dahal could go was down. The “people’s war” had acquired such mythical status in the anti-monarchy struggle that the mainstream parties found it politically expedient to take a back seat in the months following the April Uprising.
Civil society leaders sung paeans to the purity of the Maoists’ pursuit of violence in defense of the people, contrasting it with the venal bloodthirstiness of royal army. A large section of the international community, even while supporting the Nepali state’s campaign against terrorism, romanticized the rebels.
The prevailing narrative? The supreme commander of the army that liberated the people must be endowed with phenomenal powers. Dahal, as a consummate politician, was never going to puncture that perception. Nepalis and everyone else would have to judge him by his actions.
To be fair, as prime minister, Dahal did try to break new ground. He defied convention and made Beijing his first foreign port of call. Weeks later, he tried to assuage his Indian hosts that, technically, his first official visit was indeed to the south, considering that he had flown up north only to attend the Olympics.
A few months later, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, he met with US President George W. Bush, even if briefly in a group setting. All in all, within his first 100 days in office, Dahal had met with the leaders of China, India and the United States, the three principal drivers of the country’s destiny.
Anyone familiar with the intricacies of Nepali politics knew that was not going to sit well domestically. The questions Dahal started getting from reporters upon his return from foreign trips were telling. (“Which relatives did you take on your trips and how many dollars per day did the state spend on them?” “Can you explain why, as a warrior for the poor and downtrodden, you lavish in the official luxury of Baluwatar?”)
Of course, Dahal’s personality and temperament did a lot to do him in. Days after accusing the Indians of having masterminded his ouster as premier, he gave interviews to Indian reporters on how he had sought greater intervention from New Delhi in resolving the crisis precipitated by his standoff with the incumbent army chief.
Old videos and new vitriol combined to create in the public mind an image of someone who was unstable, self-serving and outright slimy. Bhattarai must have had a lot of old grudges. Shrestha, himself a surprising entrant to the top echelons of the party, could hardly have been expected to relish the halo Dahal monopolized. Mohan Baidya’s agony over the ideological drift gripping his one-time protégé and Netra Bikram Chand’s outrage over Dahal’s abandonment of the cause could easily mesh with their more personal prejudices. Leaders of the other parties were merely biding their time. The surprise therefore is that it took Dahal so long to speak out.
Yes, Comrade Dahal, people criticize you to cleanse themselves. But be of good cheer and use that line as your battle cry. It might help to cleanse the body politic, after all.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Karan-Saran Conundrum

Shyam Saran (left) and Karan Singh
For a while, the domestic chaos surrounding the draft of the new Constitution succeeded in camouflaging the disquiet gripping its principal driver. The parade of Nepali leaders travelling to New Delhi in advance of the anticipated promulgation has begun to focus attention on India’s predicaments.
Indeed, New Delhi succeeded in bringing the Maoists to the mainstream and
abolishing the monarchy by forging an ambiguous accord between the agitating mainstream parties and the rebels.
Nepali governments and politicians since April 2006 have been competing with one another to establish their pro-India credentials. The Indian Embassy has emerged as the principal power center in Nepal, in line with the situation conceived under the 1951 Compromise. Yet, over these years, India’s anxiety is growing. Politically, New Delhi has not gained popularity points.
Karan Singh, the emissary Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dispatched in late April 2006 to quell the anti-palace protests, acknowledged recently that he had been able to convince then king Gyanendra to hand over power to the parties immediately before the Maoists overwhelmed the political landscape.
With admittedly less candor, Karan Singh conceded that he thought India would continue with its post-1990 two-pillar Nepal policy of a constitutional monarchy and democratic parties. He appeared to suggest that there might have been another Indian conduit with greater sway over Nepal that was responsible for the monarchy’s removal.
Former king Gyanendra has claimed he had reached an agreement with political parties in 2006 which they had reneged on. While much of the political class refuted the suggestion, Rastriya Prajatantra Party chair Pashupati Shumsher Rana disclosed that the political parties had indeed reached a secret deal with the then king to not abolish the monarchy. However, former Indian ambassador Shyam Saran torpedoed that deal.
“What Karan Singh said publicly before returning to India indicated that there was a deal between then king and political parties,” Rana had said. “But, the deal was off when Saran returned to Delhi.” An avid royalist turned avowed republican, Rana – like former king Gyanendra – is related to Karan Singh. So he may have been speaking on good authority.
For long, India profited from a diabolic game of playing on all sides and retaining enough plausible deniability to step in as the redeemer. It can no longer afford that luxury. Those who tried to heap anti-Indianism on the monarchy have been discredited in a peculiar way. The regular visits the ex-king has been paying to India have focused Nepali public attention on New Delhi’s motives. The prolonged transition has created condition where other foreign powers are emerging as key players rivalling India traditional clout.
Was an understanding reached between New Delhi and Beijing during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent official visit to China wherein New Delhi was free to act in Nepal as long as it curbed the Free Tibet movement on its own soil? Juxtapose that with the reality that the Lipu-Lekh controversy has raised serious questions among Nepalis about China’s real motives.
Ordinarily, such apprehension would have been a net plus for India. However, the burgeoning support for the restoration of Nepal’s status as a Hindu state has put the majority Bharatiya Janata Party government in a pickle. If the public demand for a referendum on settling the issue of Hindu statehood gains serious political momentum, how would the avowedly Hindu nationalist ruling party respond?
Perhaps the promulgation of the new Constitution – complete with its infirmities and flaws – is needed to set the stage for contending with the Karan-Saran conundrum.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

It’s Because We’re Still Around

In this case, the messenger was more important than the message.
When prominent neurosurgeon Dr. Upendra Devkota claimed the other day that Christian missionaries funded Nepal’s communist revolution, he didn’t break new ground.
Ever since we turned secular, Nepalis have been wondering what hit us. Or, more to the the point, how whatever hit us did hit us. In recent years, the debate has sharpened to the point where no one can even claim credit for having thrown out Hinduism together with the monarchy from the basic law of the land.
That someone of Dr. Devkota’s stature said so cuts both ways (pardon the pun).
On the one hand, for some, his inclusion in King Gyanendra’s first handpicked cabinet was ‘payback’ for his ‘cooperation’ at the military hospital on the night of the Narayanhity Carnage.
On the other, Dr. Devkota demonstrated early on as minister his no-nonsense demeanor when it came to matters of statecraft. He famously called the constitution a piece of paper if it could not embody the hopes and aspirations of the people.
The love-hate relationship between Christians and Hindus was established with the founding of the modern Nepali state. Among the first things of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who asserting the country’s status as the real Hindustan, was the expulsion of the community of Capuchin missionaries. Interaction among different civilizations had positive and negative elements in the 18th century, as the Qing and Mughal courts both knew. When overt interference became the dominant creed of the purveyors of an alien faith, it produced a reaction locally. When the dispossessed and dislodged went into exile, they found well-oiled allies, leaving the rulers in Kathmandu in eternal attentiveness.
With the opening up of Nepal in the 1950s, the resurgent royals were driven by the same love-hate imperative. The Jesuits almost became a fraternity of their own because they lay low politically (or so we thought), while educating some of us. However, other Catholics and those professing rival branches of Christianity were on the state watch list.
Media in Kathmandu and the Vatican covered King Birendra’s one-on-one with Pope John Paul II as if it was some kind of concord of civilizations. The imperative was purely geostrategic. Nepal was still among the half a dozen countries or so where it was impossible to spread the Good News.
The Church is a corporate structure where the bosses strategize how they can get the best possible deal for their congregation. Religion may be the ultimate good, but there are trade-offs and detours. As an institution that once ruled much of what it held under its sway, the Church is also master of self-preservation.
Thus the Church funded the anti-Soviet jihadists in Afghanistan against the godless Communists with ease. If the Russians ever became free to worship, they had their own Orthodox Church, whose resurgence was a no-no anyway. It may be easier to understand things if we consider the European Union the latest successor to the Holy Roman Empire.
At least Pope Francis is honest about his institutional role. A true votary of the liberation theology of 1980s Latin America, he rails against capitalism with the élan of a Marxist. When the issue of genocide of Christians in the Middle East comes up, he pays little beyond lip service.
Coming to Dr. Devkota’s other point, why has Hinduism become the target of all other religions? Here’s a thought: every other faith emerged as an alternative to Hinduism. But we’re still around in great numbers. That must grate upon a lot of souls.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Waiting Forever For ‘The One’

The anticipation has been excruciating enough. For us, if not for him.
How much longer must we consider Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli our premier in waiting?
The Nepali New Year appearance of
When the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader emerged aloft Dharahara to mark the Nepali New Year, the appearance was supposed to have marked the apogee of his pre-premier tenure. Instead, nature turned furious and toppled that tower, and much else.
The post-quake agreement that led to the issuance of the first draft of the Constitution seemed predicated on Oli’s anointment. But something seems to have happened somewhere. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala doesn’t sound like someone about to throw in the towel, does he?
Ever since the last election, Oli has become indispensable to the success of UML, eclipsing party rivals such as Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhal Nath Khanal and Bam Dev Gautam. Afflicted by an identity crisis since its birth, the party is struggling to maintain its relevance between the Nepali Congress and the Maoists. The eggheads in the party are eternally deploying their entire erudition to craft a coherent party platform conforming to the times.
It doesn’t seem to matter that Oli spends half his time in the hospital or in convalescence somewhere here or abroad. Worse, we don’t know what it is that really ails him. Yet, his party – at least a substantial chunk of it – sees in Oli its savior.
During the years of royal assertiveness, Oli seemed to have a soft spot for the palace. At one point, Madhav Nepal had to cut short a visit abroad to restrain Oli from joining the royal cabinet (even as its head).
Once the Maoists entered the mainstream, Oli was one of the few luminaries of the Seven Party Alliance who consistently questioned the former rebels’ commitment to peace and democracy.
When then-Prime Minister Khanal awarded the home portfolio to Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara while Oli was out of the country, Oli returned home to describe the move as a conspiracy against the party. But, then, others had indulged in far worse demagoguery.
To be sure, Oli’s background and experience make him a credible candidate for the party leadership. That he has so energized the rank and file is a tribute to his leadership qualities. But what about the rest of us? Don’t we need to know why he’s been in the waiting room so long?
There are suggestions that the ‘establishment’ faction in India is against the 16 Point
Agreement and is speaking through the Madhesi parties. But we don’t know the exact configuration of the ‘establishment’, do we?
With Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Mohan Baidya having turned against China for its Lipu-lekh transgressions, the extreme left seems likely to have a say in who becomes what.  If Oli has suddenly turned suspicious of Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, you can’t blame him. Dahal, after all, has a propensity for weighing the personal and political with exactitude. And he is scheduled to leave on an official trip to India.
Oli is, therefore, compelled to continue providing lip service to the UML’s alliance with the Nepali Congress. For now, setting deadline upon deadline for the formal promulgation of the Constitution has become his way of preserving of maintaining frontrunner status.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

You Say You Want A Constitution…

Gee, our politicos turned out to be cannier than we ever considered giving them credit for.
They want to give us that long-delayed constitution so bad that it will now be our fault if we don’t get it sooner rather than later.
Before the Great Earthquake, it seemed as if our Constituent Assembly members were intent on prolonging their term in office, persuaded that were inured to their ineptitude.
After the disaster struck, the entire political fraternity disappeared, knowing the little they could have done in the circumstances. After all, their specialty lay in shutting down the city, not opening up its blocked arteries and alleyways.
Ordinary people rallied together in a spontaneous demonstration of collective action, drawing the admiration of those near and far. We almost got comfortable with the notion that Nepal could do without politicians.
Then the 16-Point Agreement took us by surprise. Was the political class so shaken out of its stupor so as to demonstrate its relevance? Or did the earthquake precipitate just enough geopolitical shifts to advance the political agenda? Regardless, the Supreme Court’s interim intervention did not stop the scribes. Nor did President Ram Baran Yadav’s admonition. The document will be ready for public unveiling any day now, considering that the draft has been all but finalized.
In retrospect, the political class made a smart calculation. A constitution no one likes is likelier to be acceptable to everyone for the time being. The Great Earthquake shifted the national conversation and concern. To be sure, the Big Four want to become part of a national government. But they seem patient enough to wait until after the constitution has been promulgated. Now, isn’t that forbearance a sign of finality?
After the international donor conference, Nepal needs to press ahead with reconstruction. Nepal’s is the first major natural disaster to have occurred since the United Nations Disaster Reduction Conference held in Sendai earlier this year. Japan, the host country, has said Nepal would test the commitments the international community made there.
The amount pledged at the Kathmandu conference varies from $3 billion to $6 billion, with $4.4 billion being the widely accepted figure. Still, no portion of those billions will start trickling out until we prove our worthiness by, among other things, strengthening efficiency, transparency and accountability in handling international assistance, we’ve heard from experts and analysts.
That, in turn, would depend on ensuring political stability, organizing early local elections, and completing the constitution drafting process.
So it all boils down to this: We can contemplate amending the lousiest constitution only when we have one in place.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hard Bargain Or Soft Sell?

From the scorn they have heaped on the Supreme Court for having stayed implementation of the 16-Point Agreement, you could be forgiven for thinking that the four major parties were actually on the verge of promulgating the constitution this time.
The surprise June 8 deal had generated a generally upbeat vibe, especially among those most intent to underscore the relevance of the frayed 12-Point Agreement that set forth our nine-year journey into nebulous newness.
India, however, was said to have been displeased by the surprise the Big Four sprung on us. If so, New Delhi did a good job of hiding its feelings, because it took Nepali analysts a few days to see signs of annoyance.
Now, if New Delhi was indeed miffed by its apparent displacement from the driver’s seat, what better way to express itself than through the Supreme Court? More importantly, though, why should India want to scuttle a new constitution that would have marked the culmination of the 2005 Delhi Compromise?
Granted, the rulers in New Delhi today represent a different political ideology than the one espoused by the regime that forged the Maoist-mainstream opposition against the monarchy. But, as the largest opposition then, those at the helm in India today did go along with the myths spun then, didn’t they?
So could India’s supposed irritation stem from a discovery that it was leading from behind in Nepal, as in the case of the creation of the Jhal Nath Khanal government a few years ago? Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have taken it personally that Nepal became the first neighbor to burn his effigy, and that, too, after having mounted a rescue and relief operation.
The open secret before the Great Earthquake was that India was engaging in negotiations with the former king, who had pitched his tent in New Delhi for an extended stay. Just before the devastation, too, a leading Chinese expert on Nepal had ruled out the restoration of monarchy in any shape, manner or form, in what was by far the most candid articulation of Beijing’s feelings on an institution we all believed it had nurtured and sustained.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, according to some reports, had resurrected the terms India had presented Kings Birendra and Gyanendra in 1990 and 2006 respectively in exchange for a restoration of the monarchy.
Despite the much-hyped alignment between Beijing and New Delhi on matters concerning Nepal, could the Chinese have acted in concert with other powers seeking to thwart a return of the monarchy and sprung up the 16-Point Agreement?
Or did elements within India, deliberately or otherwise, seek to undo a deal in such a way that would pile pressure not only on the former king but the ruling and opposition parties as well? In that case, the Supreme Court’s intervention may have bought New Delhi the time to identify the best deal.
But if we really want to be hopeful, this could also be a chance for Nepalis to secure the best bargain geostrategically possible.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Love-Hate Relationship, Indeed

In less than a year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned from an adorable novelty to a self(ie)-seeking ogre. And all it took was the Great Earthquake.
Some Nepalis saw India’s alacritous aid dispensation a diabolic lack of altruism.
The Indian media did not help matters by acting as if Nepal were an adjunct of the federal government in New Delhi or that somehow the earthquake offered the perfect opportunity to shed any semblance of sensibility during person-on-the-street sessions.
But Modi didn’t seem perturbed by his blazing effigies. Not only has he promised to wipe every Nepali tear, he has cited cooperation with China on rescue and relief as a model of strategic cooperation between the Asian giants.
It didn’t take long for the international media to detect regional rivalries hover over Nepal. But something more expansive seems to be going on.
The development community sees people-driven dynamics as a harbinger of change. Statists see in the post-disaster official turmoil the need for centralized control. The political class stood out of the way of the plethora of other players because they could have neither led nor followed. After all, shutting down the country through mass mobilization for political gains is far easier than opening up roads and city squares in the aftermath of nature’s fury.
The international goodwill for Nepal was manifested during the five-yearly review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations, where virtually every high-level speaker prefaced his or her homily with expressions of support and solidarity for Nepal. Fundraising became such a popular cause that international law-enforcement agencies had to start warning everyone to beware of crooks.
Three weeks and a second earthquake later, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution urging more concerted international action over the short, medium and long term and across a variety of areas. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, lamenting the underfunding of the $423 million flash appeal, sung the praises of Nepal Army and police personnel.
During the post-adoption explanations of vote, countries big and small scrambled to assert what they had done for Nepal and Nepalis. The European Union alone sought progress on the constitutional front as part of durable post-disaster recovery. Otherwise, it was here’s-what-we’ve-done time.
Cuba and the United Arab Emirates didn’t want to be left out as India, China, the United States and United Kingdom detailed the scope and extent of their engagement. Of the Big 5, only the Russian Federation sat out the back-patting fest. 
From the South Asian region, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan let India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan speak as forcefully as they could. China took pride in the fact that Nepal saw the first overseas deployment of People Armed Forces.
So where are we? Since this was the first major natural disaster to strike since the international agreement on disaster risk reduction was reached in Sendai in March (although Vanuatu was hit by a typhoon on the first day the conference opened), the urgency to act superseded any ambiguities associated with the international commitment to undertake a resilient recovery approach.
If Modi considered the Nepali reaction to India’s assistance rather irksome, he was prudent in exhibiting patience. When the international spotlight fades and fatigue sets in the rest of the world, the heavy lifting would still be needed.
It’s called a love-hate relationship for a reason.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sati’s Curse And Forced Fatalism

Sati’s curse on the country has expired – thus spake Khadga Prasad Oli.
The leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, addressing civil servants affiliated with his organization, made that declaration as part of his pre-premiership effort lift the national mood from its deepening despondency.
The sati excuse has long been used to justify our collective languor. And for good reason. What, after all, could be easier than attributing our perpetual woes to the swearword an unidentified widow of yore uttered as she perished on her husband’s funeral pyre? The search for archfiends is as intrinsic to our soul as the quest for saviors.
Comrade Oli must be commended for striking his gavel so hard. As a student and practitioner of scientific materialism, it must have taken him some courage to pull a palliative for something so rooted in the past. Oli’s real resolution lies in his preparedness to pontificate on something so shrouded in oblivion.
What we can gather from the available literature is that a sati pronounces a curse if she becomes angry while preparing to die. In so doing, she makes it known that some person or persons have behaved badly and unacceptably toward her.
The curse is said to hang over a family usually for seven generations and serves to encourage within it proper attitudes and activities. Satis may curse other related families if the cause so warrants. Regardless, her spell is considered a benevolent discouragement against future bad behavior from someone akin to a protector.
But what if she curses persons she is not related to? In that case, her punishment is said to come without guarantees of protection. In other words, she is malevolent and vengeful.
A couple of questions are then in order. Can we consider the sati as malevolent simply because she utters a curse. Or do we have to look at her intentions. To phrase it differently, do we need to see how the recipients understand the curse? In that case, the distinction between the benevolent and malevolent curse becomes sharper.
Then there’s the etymology. The sati is someone impelled by ‘sat’ (virtue) to follow her husband in death. For the curse to be deemed effective, must her motivations be certifiably pure? Can someone who, say, followed a duly convicted and executed criminal on the funeral pyre – regardless of the purity of her act – be considered an effective curser?
If, on the other hand, the pre-deceased male was pious and innocent but the woman was forced to become a sati against her volition, would her motivation in delivering a curse be deemed pure?
Or do other factors, such as bloodline in a caste-regimented society or spousal rank in a polygamous order, count. Perhaps how exactly the flames consumed her body – instantly or ungenerously – makes a difference.
In Nepal’s context, references to sati’s curse are as diverse as they are disparate. One of the earliest collective curses was said to have been uttered by a queen of King Jagatjayamalla, who announced from her pyre the end of the Malla dynasty and the coming of the Shahs.
Every violent change of regime since has had its share of widows burnt alive with their husbands. Who said what to whom? And which sati was more or less qualified than the others to do so – at least in terms of the efficacy of their utterances?
In that great unknown, we accepted a collective jinx: accursed is he who tries to do something good for the country. The first English writers of the history of Nepal perpetuated that line, which has been dutifully picked near and far ever since. Over time, variants also abounded to instill and entrench a sense of fatalism in our national character. And who benefited from our centuries-long obsession?
Oli may be on to something.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Flashback: 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.

Originally posted on November 2, 2014

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Left, Right And Muddle

An uncanny undertaking is under way on left and right ends of our political spectrum.
Mohan Baidya, chairman of the more hard line of two principal factions of the Maoists, believes it would be a historic blunder for fraternity to remain divided any longer.
No, he does not believe his decision to break away from Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in 2012 and create (restore?) the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was a mistake. That split was historically correct, too. But since history has taken a new turn, politics must do so too.
That’s the least bizarre part. Baidya went on to acknowledge deep differences between the two factions and the other splinters of the organization that led a 10-year ‘people’s war’. In other words, there is a palpable recognition that it’s better to stay divided inside a single party than to function as separate entities.
On the right, the leaders of the two Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) factions, Kamal Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana, came together in public for the first time in a decade to explain how they would solidify the nationalist front. What might be nobler?
But Thapa won’t abandon his royalist agenda, while Rana will resolutely adhere to his republican one. Still, the two factions – dominated principally but not exclusively by decade-long allies of the monarchy – seem to be so serious about uniting that patriarch Surya Bahadur Thapa’s normally pungent trashing of the idea didn’t seem to stick.
So Surya Bahadur Thapa is off to New Delhi, close on the heels of UCPN (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s return from China. Who, in turn, had flown up north, weeks after his party comrade-cum-rival Baburam Bhattarai returned from India, imploring – or advising, depending on whom you ask – India’s active engagement in Nepal.
If Nepalis firmly believe that their neighbors are discussing their fate far more seriously, the Chinese and Indians have been nodding their heads more conspicuously. The normally chatty Indians have become even more candid about how they think we should reinvent ourselves, particularly on religious and cultural matters, although careful to profess a hands-off policy.
A few weeks ago, the traditionally reticent Chinese used a leading Nepal expert to reject the prospect of a resurrecting of the Hindu monarchy. Beijing is also using Madhesi leaders to convey its support for any kind of federalism Nepalis wished as long as it did not impair Nepal’s territorial and sovereign integrity. (The implications of the ambiguities surrounding the concepts of “Hindu monarchy” and support for conditional federalism may be left for another time.)
Baidya believes the foreign itineraries and agendas of Nepali leaders are not that important. The party needed to do what Nepal needed: unite.
The right has an easier way out. The unity formula of the two RPPs has room for a republican as well as a monarchical Nepal. Restoring Hindu statehood remains their distinctive common platform, which seems to enjoy popularity in opinion polls and on social media. Hey, the electoral numbers even might catch up soon.
But the Maoists? Even when they try their hand at practicality and expediency, they can’t quit being uppity about ideology, history and objectivity.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Come Now, What’s With The Frowns?

It’s quite clear that we Nepalis aren’t among the world’s happiest people. But the bottom of the heap? Well, almost.
A Gallup survey released on the eve of the United Nations International Day of Happiness last week put us on the last-but-one rung of 143 countries examined in 2014. Only Bangladeshis, Serbs, Turks, Tunisians, and the Sudanese seem more morose than us.
Asked whether we experienced a lot of enjoyment, smiled or laughed a lot, felt well-rested and felt treated with respect, and learned or did something interesting the day, we ranked with Afghans, Bosnian and Herzegovinians, Georgians and Lithuanians.
No quibbling with the Afghans here. Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, has far deeper scars from its civil war. The Georgians, long wary of the Russian bear, are not convinced that the West would lift so much as a finger should the growls turn into another dangerous prowl.
The way the Lithuanians are behaving inside the United Nations Security Council these days, you have to know that they, too, are haunted by the specter of the Soviet Union. Yet, remarkably, Ukraine, where the Brezhnev Doctrine has been updated and is playing out in full, remains a bit happier. (Maybe Gallup oversampled the eastern part of that country, would you think?)
The point is: the fact that we’re squeezed between two giant neighbors doesn’t explain our gloom. Among our neighbors, Bhutanese are happier than Americans. (The former’s much-hyped Gross National Happiness index wasn’t quite enough to gain extra credits, much less catapult them to the top).
Sri Lankans feel better than the Chinese, who were ahead of the Indians. Your status as an island, a subcontinent or a civilization masquerading as a nation – none of those count. Pakistanis’ happiness approximated that of the Congolese (Democratic Republic), Croatians and Liberians. Feel free to read into that juxtaposition whatever you want.
Among the other powers, the Japanese and Russians were almost equally happy. Notwithstanding Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb and the Ayatollahs’ commitment to wiping Israel off the map, Israelis and Iranians were perched on the same echelon of exhilaration.
Coming back to Nepal, yeah we’re a bit confused about who we are and who we want to be. Six basic laws in the last six decades have failed to impress us. We now have to promulgate the seventh one to find out what’s in it.
Frustrating as it is to see the political contortions, life hasn’t been that bad. Foreign investment, we are told, is going gangbusters. Remittances have been doing so for a while. The Chinese and Indians have been pampering us with pledges of new massive financial assistance, if not actual disbursements.
Sure, we’re clueless about what really transpired between the monarch and the opposition parties before he restored the parliament in April 2006, only to have himself sidelined and ultimately removed. But neither do we know the full details of the events surrounding the Delhi Compromise of 1951, the midnight deal in April 1990, or the 12-Point Agreement of November 2005.
Our movies and music are flourishing as are our books and magazines are becoming glossier. Nepalis are high on the list of visitors of salacious and sensational sites on the Internet. A Nepali is a Forbes billionaire, the diaspora has spread far and wide, and workers abroad have established their diligence and discipline. Hey, even the Indian prime minister fully and formally affirmed that Lord Buddha was indeed born in Nepal.
So what’s with the frowns?
Maybe the premise is wrong. Gallup clarifies that low positive emotions don’t necessarily mean high negative emotions. For example, people in the former Soviet Union countries typically report some of the lowest positive emotions in the world; however, they also report some of the lowest negative emotions in the world. (Thanks for explaining that in the bottom of the third page of the eight-page news release!)
The polling company also says results are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults in each country, aged 15 and older. Nepalis were asked those questions in Nepali.
That’s it. So here’s probably how your average interview went:

Q.    Did you feel well rested yesterday?
A.    What kind of question is that? With all my head and body aches in total darkness amid the tumult in the neighborhood?

Q. Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
A.  Yeah, cheated by the storekeeper, lied to by the leaders, yelled at by almost everyone around me. I tried respecting myself a little, though, if that counts.

Q. Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
A. Are you kidding? What’s there to laugh about in this country cursed by sati? I might have laughed at myself at times for having expected otherwise.

Q. Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?
A. Yeah. To expect tomorrow to be lousier than today and not be bothered.

Q. How about enjoyment?
A. You got that one right. That clerk they nailed on corruption? His son was always making us feel he was better than us. Just because my dad never got to poke his finger in the national pie.

Throw in the scowls, smirks, tenor and tantrums, and Gallup would get the kind of result it did, wouldn't it?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Expediency Collides With Propriety

Rumbles of realignment on the right and the left have instilled some specificity in the latest response of former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to ex-king Gyanendra Shah’s allusion of a behind-the-scenes political deal in April 2006.
The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leader and senior-most living opposition participant in negotiations with the palace now admits there had been a proposal to install a ‘baby king’, which he rubbished. In fairness, Comrade Nepal insists that the only thing that could be called a deal was the one between the monarch and agitating parties on transferring sovereignty to the people.
Still, his latest clarification poses new questions against the backdrop that republicanism, secularism and federalism were not on the agenda of the April Uprising. The concept of a ‘baby king’, enunciated by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, came way after Baburam Bhattarai’s spoke of retaining a ‘cultural monarchy’ and Koirala’s own articulation of the necessity of providing ceremonial space to the palace.
What is also beyond dispute is that the monarch restored the parliament and appointed Koirala prime minister on the basis of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990. Koirala, too, took the oath from the king on that basis and formed the cabinet that would negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement with the Maoists.
Thus, the subsequent sidelining of the king, the supplanting of the 1990 Constitution and the surfeit of sub-deals made on the basis of an interim basic law were the outcomes of political expediency. If the monarch felt he had been betrayed in any way, the national mood was not conducive for him to express his feelings. Any injustice could be addressed if and when the tide turned.
The mainstream parties and the Maoists continued to argue over who should get the real credit for bringing down the monarchy. Scant attention was paid to the imperative of devising a successor institution to the monarchy that could not only preside over a diverse state but also navigate the geopolitical pressures of an unstable neighborhood that was fundamentally susceptible to extra-regional dynamics. For the people, ‘new Nepal’ was not supposed to be limited to the emergence of new potentates.
Similarly, the argument over how many provinces Nepal should have proceeded before we could ever sufficiently debate whether Nepal needed to be federalized to mainstream the marginalized. The urge to identify Nepal’s Hindu identity within the narrow confines of the monarchy simply ignored how religion had established itself as a way of life.
With the political tides shifting directions, outcomes of expediency have now stood starkly before the imperatives of feasibility, legality and propriety. There is a semblance of seriousness in the political establishment – but only a semblance. On the right, the two Rastriya Prajatantra Party factions have initiated the process of unity, as have the two principal Maoist factions. The spur, however, is weak. Could a common desire to restore Hindu statehood be enough to unify the monarchist and republican factions on the right? Or have the internal fissures in each propelled their quest for proximity?
The Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Mohan Baidya factions of the Maoists, we were told, were ideologically incompatible and therefore worthy of separate existence. What happened during these past months and weeks that the third largest elected party is now working to reunite with the faction that boycotted the second constituent assembly election and still officially sees that body as an obstacle to a new constitution?
The Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML have been a conglomeration of factions ever since each realized the damage formal splits had inflicted on them. So their internal dynamics can play out less conspicuously.
If we want to get to the root of today’s malaise, we need to shine more light on what was actually agreed on that fateful day in April nine years ago.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Royal Republic

So let’s get this straight. Former king Gyanendra, in his Democracy Day message, publicly exhorts the political leadership to earnestly fulfill the agreements they had reached with him before he restored parliament in April 2006.
The political establishment is up in arms. But the fists are a little less clenched than they were three years ago, when the former monarch in a television interview first made public the existence of such an agreement.
Now – as then – it fell to Madhav Kumar Nepal, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) leader and the highest ranking opposition leader still alive, to rubbish the ex-king’s claim.
The Maoists and Madhesis, votaries of new Nepal who you’d expect to criticize the ex-monarch, this time turned to the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML for additional clarifications. They regurgitate the line that the monarchy was long dead, but don’t answer the real question.
So Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal president Kamal Thapa – a tentative monarchist – and his Rastriya Prajatantra Party counterpart, Pashupati Shamsher Rana – officially a republican – indicate that such an accord does in fact exist, although they haven’t seen it.  We are given to understand that the agreement was made (written or oral, we don’t know) during the mediation visit of Indian envoy Karan Singh. Shyam Saran, then-Indian Foreign Secretary and immediate-past ambassador to Nepal, supposedly scuttled that deal.
That sheds some extra light on the debate. We still don’t know what the deal was on, but it’s certainly time to move forward because political events have.
But, then, Rastriya Prajatantra Party leader Surya Bahadur Thapa organized a “quiet dinner” that was anything but. It supposedly broke the political logjam gripping the promulgation of a republican constitution. Chandra Prakash Mainali, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist-Leninist and a member of the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance, couldn’t stop being curious. He asked the other leaders about the deal. No one, including Madhav Nepal, said a word this time.
Surya Bahadur Thapa’s son is a cabinet member. Although, like Rana, he is a royalist turned republican, Thapa is an invitee at Nirmal Niwas. And we hear he is about to fly into New Delhi for consultations. That comes close on the heels of the visit of Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who openly advocated a more assertive Indian role to break the Nepali political imbroglio. The Maoist chief ideologue was the first proponent of a cultural king in the aftermath of the April Uprising. He remains the only senior leader to have met the former king (albeit on humanitarian grounds) and made it public.
So what are we to make of Nepal’s 2006 revolution?
Amid the confusion, it occurred to one Nepali scribe to try to pin his ear straight to the horse’s mouth. Karan Singh told him that he would write a tell-all about those developments soon.
And our leaders want us to believe that they will set a new deadline for the constitution that would be sacrosanct?

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Relevance In The Grand Game of Triangulation

Since that late-night donnybrook inside the people’s house, something seemed to be bugging Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal. What justification does the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) even have for its existence if it continues pursuing the policies it does? Why doesn’t the party merge with the Nepali Congress?
When Dahal finally posed that question in public the other day, the leaders in Balkhu went ballistic. The question was a product of a defeated mentality, one insisted. The last election result settled who was and wasn’t, another proffered. But no one seemed to provide the answer Dahal’s question merited. If Marx and Lenin, truth be told, had any way of doing it today, they would have disowned our mainstream comrades. Does that mean the UML is irrelevant? Not quite.
Maila Baje believes the UML exists because it is an important part of the tripod the Nepali polity has always been. After the country’s emergence in its modern form, the monarchy soon found itself pitted against the Thapa and Pande nobles, before the rise of the Ranas turned the battle into a two-front one. But a third front was almost immediately built via the Nepali exiles in India, until the Nepali Congress emerged to give it full and formal shape.
By the time the Rana regime collapsed, the communists had emerged to replace that leg. But the monarchy grew too assertive in its role of projecting Nepal’s independence and sovereignty for those who believed they had restored it so altruistically. Another course correction was warranted, amid the new regional and international equations.
Indeed, the Sino-Soviet split complicated things by fragmenting our Reds. The Nepali Congress was weary and worn out and the palace was able to draw members into the partyless fold.
With the communists split into royalist and republican camps – and much of the latter behind bars – the partyless system felt confident enough to withstand India’s economic retribution without weighing the true extent of Chinese support that might be forthcoming.
Yet Nepali communist leaders that would matter had yet to emerge from the shadows. Remember how we schlubs were wondering who that bloke Madan Bhandari was to have deserved an almost full-page interview in a top Indian daily as part of his coming-out party?
After 1990, the Nepali Congress, UML and the monarchy continued to represent the three legs and things seemed to be okay. But, alas, they weren’t for those around us. The Maoists emerged and wrought havoc, picking up a momentum that surprised even the starry-eyed idealists. As the geo-political equations started shifting in the late 1990s, the Maoists were deemed ready for prime time. In retrospect, the sudden influx of Maoists into Kathmandu Valley in the week before the Narayanhity Massacre made much more sense.
The monarchy was weakened but not broken – good or bad news depending on which side of the geo-political fault-lines you were on. Hard as it might be to believe, the new king consolidated his powers and position not as a power-hungry autocrat. His first intervention on October 4, 2002 barely prompted a murmur of protest from the powers that be. Everyone was busy trying to size up the man. The king must have felt he could do a better job by going the full mile, so he struck again, and harder.
With the Maoists and the monarchy now facing each other, talk of a breakthrough deal was rife. The sigh of relief that the collapse of the second peace talks sent across the southern border turned into a guttural gasp.
If anything, the king’s plan was little more than to wait and watch. His foreign adversaries would have to cobble together a coalition between the mainstream parties and the Maoists. And that was the easy part. They would have to make it work.
It would be tempting to see the 12-Point Agreement as the point where the UML merged with the Nepali Congress for all practical purposes. But even the best-laid plans go awry. The Maoists were supposed to be tamed into a distant third place in the mainstream, not leading a government that would so loudly reverse the traditional foreign itinerary of an incoming premier. If the monarchy flashed the China card in India’s face, here were the Maoists throwing the entire deck. The second constituent assembly elections finally produced the results that were supposed to have emerged in 2008. Notice how everything is running in reverse?
So, yes, Comrade Dahal, the UML is relevant – as relevant as your organization is. Lest you or any other Nepali leader start feeling comfortable, there are built-in tweaks: intra-party factionalism, formal splits and reunions, and the fluidity on fringes of the political spectrum.
As for the UML merging with the Nepali Congress, that possibility exists. It all depends on who replaces the UML in the grand game of triangulation.