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.