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?