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.