Sunday, December 25, 2016

Outrage Of Ineptitude

“In what capacity do the Chinese keep meeting with former king Gyanendra Shah?”
That pointed question by Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi at a cabinet meeting last week encapsulated the collective mind-set of today’s rule class. Stress, anger, trauma, anxiety, fear and much more psychosomatic were strung therein.
From the text and timing, there was little doubt that Mr. Shah’s blistering statement the previous day was going to unleash a firestorm. By singling out the Chinese, Nidhi was probably conceding the deep cultural and religious ties the ex-king shares down south. More likely, our deputy premier and home minister was anxious not to get on the wrong side of New Delhi.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s cabinet did discuss Mr. Shah’s statement, wherein the ex-monarch had stated that social harmony among Nepalis was waning and efforts were being made to break the bonds of unity between the plains, the Hills and the mountains.
The people, the “supreme and permanent source of power,” were being undermined by political parties under the “unfair influence of outside forces,” the former king went on. “Words like revolutionary, pro-change and progressive” were being misused to defame nationalism and national pride. Ouch.
Our revolutionary-in-chief, Prime Minister Dahal, and his ideologically multi-hued colleagues struggled for a response. Eventually, they settled on Nidhi’s informal threat to reinvestigate the royal palace massacre of June 1, 2001. (So much for a supposedly forward-looking bunch!)
Truth be told, the cabinet was eight years late. Mr. Shah had exited the royal palace in 2008 daring the political class to prove his complicity in that tragedy. They chose to shut up. Particularly those “radicals” and “revolutionaries” who had profited politically by hurling those unfounded and scurrilous accusations during the so-called “people’s war”.)
Still, the ruling class was not going to let a crisis go to waste. If the Dahal government intended to use Mr. Shah’s statement to draw the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) away from the streets and into a broader “anti-regression” platform, it definitely missed the mark. Former prime minister and CPN-UML chairman K.P. Oli is doubling down on his demand that there be no more than five federal provinces, two fewer than already agreed upon.
In an extensive online interview, CPN-UML leader Subash Nemwang made repeated efforts to avoid criticizing the contents of the ex-king’s statement. Maoist leader Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, for his part, appeared to break from the collective outrage gripping Dahal’s party.
Deep down, the political class understands the corner it has painted itself into. The lionized protagonists of change remain stuck in the spring of 2006. In the years since, they have demonstrated an utter inability to either govern or oppose. Whether this is so out of sheer incompetence or blatant conceit is beside the point, especially when the implications for the wider country, neighborhood and world are so dreary.
So Deputy Prime Minister Nidhi, the Chinese (and yes, the Indians) are capable of speaking for themselves. But it is pretty clear why they choose to meet with Mr. Shah and in what capacity. He is the former head of state (and government, briefly) whose successors – adroit in whining and moaning – have proved utterly incapable of cogent and credible conversation on anything of substance, here or there.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Perpetuation Of The Eternally New

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s use of the anniversary of King Mahendra’s Paus 1 takeover to warn us of the dark clouds of inauspiciousness hovering over today’s polity may have been purely coincidental.
It is hard, after all, to conceive that anyone could have choreographed with such precision the ongoing controversy over the latest proposal to amend our new constitution. Yet the coincidence has been enough to rankle our top Maoist.
Two of Dahal’s main comrades in arms during the decade-long ‘people’s war’ have denigrated the current experiment in rather scathing terms. Mohan Baidya, who broke away in 2012 to form a more hardline group, has called for an abrogation of the current constitution. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who left the party three years later to form the Naya Shakti, lately has described the New Delhi compromise of November 2005 as a mistake.
Now, neither man has suggested reversing course. Baidya wants a more ‘people-oriented’ constitution. Bhattarai’s problem is only that the 12 Point Agreement should not have been signed on Indian soil.
Still, from Dahal’s perch, those may be moot points. The nation is in no position to go forward in any radical way. At least not yet, especially when the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist seems to have become more conservative than the Nepali Congress.
Always a nebulous concept, ‘New Nepal’ has lost much of its luster since the April 2006 uprising. Bhattarai’s party – the quintessence of newness, at least in form – hasn’t done much by way of drawing a viable roadmap.
The alternatives, therefore, are between preserving the status quo and shifting gears in reverse. Republicanism, federalism and secularism being the three pillars of the existing order, Dahal – as the principal protagonist – is justified in mounting a spirited defense.
What is also true is that people like George W. Bush, Hu Jintao and Manmohan Singh and the dynamics they represented – and responded to – in the process of becoming external catalysts of change have become ancient history. Our national protagonists may still believe they control the content, but the context has changed.
The Maoists can mock the CPN-UML all they want for masquerading as nationalists when they were the ones responsible for the Mahakali ‘sellout’ in 1996. But that criticism only serves to underscore the contextual change Nepali politics has undergone.
Evidently, Dahal as prime minister is in the best position to grasp that reality, but he can’t be seen anywhere in public as preferring one of the aforementioned pillars over the others to forge a national compromise. While Dahal knows he may not afford to dither for too long, he won’t capitulate without drawing everyone else into the muck. SPAM stood for the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists.
To preserve the status quo, therefore, the leadership must become more creative in creating and controlling chaos. Crying wolf over a supposed threat to democracy doesn’t quite cut the ice. Mounting a rebellion as prime minister to preserve republicanism, secularism and federalism? Now, that’s a new one, even for Dahal.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Keep Amending It To Keep It Alive

Call it the Dahal Doctrine. Think what you will about the controversy surrounding the latest proposal to amend the Constitution, but change is progress.
We now have it on good authority of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal that amending the basic law is the beginning of its implementation.
The implementation phase, therefore, began about a year ago, when the first amendment set out to ensure higher representation in government bodies on the basis of proportional inclusion of the Madhesis as well as other marginalized communities.
A year and a half after the Constitution was promulgated, we’re on the cusp of another amendment. Before mocking Dahal’s justification as an act of abdication, keep in mind that he made it at the National Human Rights Commission on the occasion of the 68th Human Rights Day. All those legal eagles there took Dahal’s remark as a matter of course.
Indeed, a fuller quote from the prime minister may put things in better perspective: “The government has registered the constitution amendment proposal in the parliament secretariat to establish ownership of all over the constitution and ensure its wider acceptability. This alone is the reality and the objective need for the constitution amendment.”
If that doesn’t exactly make sense, Dahal is not entirely to blame. Not to beat a dead horse here, but the constituent assembly was something our leaders knew would open a can of worms.
Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala had long insisted that such an assembly – the core demand of the Maoist rebels – would open Pandora’s box. Most of the other main constituents of the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance agreed with Koirala, as long as they rode high on the Constitution of 1990.
You couldn’t blame these parties for being mad at king Gyanendra after he took direct control of state in February 2005. Suddenly, the world’s best Constitution had become irrelevant. Yet our estimable leaders shouldn’t have pushed the constituent assembly as a weapon against the palace, without fully gauging the impact of their decision on the country and people.
Ideally, a constitution written by representatives of the sovereign people would be a million times better than one gifted by the king or written by an appointed committee. In the euphoria of spring 2006, it was easy to ignore the three underlying elements involved: sovereignty, people, and aspirations.
Today we have a situation where an amendment duly registered by the legitimate government of the day is being denigrated by an equally authentic opposition as one being pushed by India and, therefore, dead on arrival. Of course, sovereignty, the people and our aspirations must be upheld. But through what mechanism?
Today it’s provinces and borders, tomorrow it might be sharing of resources and something else some other day. Our national grievance industry has barely whirred into action and no one can gauge its installed capacity.
Collectively, we entered post-truth politics long before Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and eventual triumph made shell-shocked Democrats in the United States give that phenomenon a catchy name. When truth becomes so relative, can reconciliation ever embody even a semblance of finality?
Maybe the real debate should be on how many amendments should be permissible in a calendar year? Would any such restriction be deemed an infringement on our sovereign rights?
If so, how could we ensure that foreign influences do not masquerade as indigenous aspirations? Equally important would be to ensure that legitimate popular demands are not tainted as foreign inspired.
That way, the Dahal Doctrine might become a little less befuddling.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Running On The Right Track?

Kamal Thapa (left) and Dipak Bohara
Whatever the reasons behind the precipitous unification of Nepal’s two major rightwing parties last week, one thing is pretty clear. The development is not part of the wave of rightwing populism blowing across the West and elsewhere. So let’s start by not rushing to anoint our version of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, shall we?
Then there’s the stark reality that our former panchas can neither live united nor divided. In fact, the party was born split, largely along hardline and more moderate remnants of the partyless regime that collapsed in 1990. These men and women tend to do well when united. But political power – or even the prospect of it –immediately divides them.
To be sure, the ranks of the RPP factions these day are an assortment of diehard royalists, conservative Hindus and, yes, republicans. (Although the republicans seem to be more of realists.) This time, there seems to be an ideological glue binding Kamal Thapa’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal and Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
The newly unified party pledges to restore Nepal’s Hindu status in the constitution. On the major issue that divides the two factions – restoration of constitutional monarchy – the leaders have decided to let the upcoming national conference take a decision.
How democratic of them! But let’s dig a little deeper. Rana, who leads the republican faction, said the party could not accept a constitution that calls Nepal ‘secular’ when the country by all means is Hindu. “If the government does not take into account the sentiment of the majority, we will be compelled to lead a movement.”
Why, then, accept republicanism just because the constitution says so? Can the mere fact that the majority of Nepalis happened to be born Hindus be extrapolated to mean that the state’s character should be designated as such? Sure, most Nepalis are Hindus. But didn’t they vote twice for parties explicit in their secular commitment? And don’t officially atheist organizations hold the largest number of elected seats?
Granted, not every Hindu is a monarchist. (Also, are we really sure that every secularist is a republican?) But when you start talking about the restoration of Hindu statehood, you have to consider the individual/institution needed to officiate such a state.
True, our first female president has been presiding over Dasain and other religious observances with admirable gusto. But she is doing so under a secular dispensation. A Hindu state would have very little room for either institutional tentativeness or the vagaries of an individual’s temperament.
A Hindu republic by definition won’t have a king, who has traditionally solemnized Hindu statehood. We also would lack a bada gurujyu and mool purohit. We do have the mool bhatta at Pashupati, but, then, we already want someone more indigenous there, don’t we?
With 37 members in the 597-member legislature, the unified RPP would still remain the fourth largest political force. At a time when the Big Three can’t agree on amending the constitution or impeaching a recalcitrant anti-corruption monitor, surely the fourth party can afford to wallow a bit longer in some amusing ambiguity.
If you think not, close your eyes and consider this image for a moment: Kamal Thapa and Dipak Bohara are the parliamentary party leader and deputy leader of the united party in an assembly hurtling toward a new Nepal. How does that make you feel? No, seriously.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Decade Of Desultory Dominion

It’s not hard to see why an intense sense of public despondency overshadows the 10-year anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) signed between the interim government led by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and the erstwhile Maoist rebels.
In all fairness, the CPA did succeed in ending the decade-long Maoist rebellion and restoring peace in the country. Yet the signatories had committed themselves to broader socio-economic transformation for the durability of nationhood.
The delayed promulgation of a new constitution has done little towards achieving those commitments. Nepal may have officially become a secular republic, but issues of the restoration of Hindu statehood and the monarchy have never really exited the realm of possibility. That’s because, for all the momentousness of People’s Movement II, Nepalis had not asked for doing away with the country’s monarchical and Hindu character.
When republicanism and secularism became realities, they did so without a smidgen of resistance on either count. Perhaps it is on account of those discrepancies that the dethroned king can keep asking with ever-greater credibility what the new leadership has really done for the country.
The Maoists, having at best attained ‘strategic parity’ with the state, entered the new political landscape with all the airs and egotisms of victors. Integration of a minuscule number of Maoist combatants into the national army was not what many of those lads and lasses on the frontlines had contemplated as victory. The voluntary retirement of the other ‘people’s warriors’ was, well, anything but voluntary in any sense of the term.
It was clear from the outset that the signatories spoke in platitudes for good reason. ‘New Nepal’ was a nebulous concept that contained enough nimbleness to take on its own life. It was impolitic to sound a discordant note – no matter how warranted – in the giddiness of the moment.
Restoration of sustainable peace, forward-looking state restructuring, effective transitional justice mechanisms and socio-economic transformation were high-minded objectives that sounded noble – but were little beyond that.
For far too long, leaders focused on the urgency of promulgating a new constitution. The first constituent assembly having failed in that task, the political establishment sought a technocratic artifice to prop up the legitimacy of the process. So when a constitution ample in form but absent in substance finally emerged, the collective refrain was the most predictable one: patience will eventually pay off.
The challenges inherent in institutionalizing federalism, republicanism, secularism and inclusiveness were no doubt compounded by the timorous tentativeness. Addressing them as a way of rooting out future conflict retained relevance but regressed in feasibility.
Over  time, victimhood became become a competitive undertaking, often with generous external subsidy and strategizing. New grievances are being created with such orderliness today that the old ones based on class, caste, region and gender seem tolerable.
When every group clings on so tenaciously to its own relative truths, reconciliation must be little more than a convenience attuned to the larger national inclination. Lamenting how Nepal lacks a statesman to steer the ship of state is political malpractice, especially when the people see a plethora of potentates having replaced an overarching palace.
There may be little comprehensiveness, peace or agreement around us. Yet, strangely enough, our ship continues stay afloat. And that is no mean achievement.

Monday, November 14, 2016

(Who) Won China Policy

Whatever we may think about Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s 100 days in office, the Chinese don’t seem terribly impressed. Still, that alone should be cause for celebration for our top Maoist, if you consider the circumstances that led to his ascension.
Had the K.P. Oli government not been so mystifyingly dislodged in July, Nepalis would probably have enjoyed that extra holiday earlier this month on account of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s long-awaited arrival.
Weeks into the inauguration of the Dahal government, Beijing could be heard grumbling about how stiffly Kathmandu was dragging its feet on implementing the bilateral agreements signed during Oli’s high-profile visit to China earlier in the year.
Things have gotten so bad these days that the Chinese are expressing concern over the commitment of the new government to Nepal’s long-held one-China policy. And, no doubt, it has been a double whammy.
Beijing, according to published reports, expressed serious concern over the meeting ruling Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba allegedly held with representatives of the Tibetan government in exile during a function organized by an Indian think tank in Goa.
A Chinese embassy official was also said to have registered a strong objection at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over Nepali government authorities allowing the Taiwanese flag during an art exhibition.
Deuba, for his part, has angrily denied having met any Tibetan leader and has no time for gratuitous lectures on neighborly equidistance/equiproximity. A mere picture showing him sharing space with the head of the Tibetan government in exile cannot be considered incriminating. Yet Deuba’s allies hardly did him any favor by insisting that the picture might have been Photoshopped.
But who are we really kidding here? Let’s step back a bit and try to put things in perspective. In reality, the Chinese are anxious about agreements that we all know were largely symbolic. At best, they laid the foundation for a robust partnership down the road. For that future to arrive, Beijing needs to settle things with New Delhi.
Nepal would love to have great relations with both neighbors, but it can’t afford to tether itself to the idiosyncrasies of Sino-Indian relations. You can’t advise Nepali to improve relations with the Indians and then question our motives every time the Dalai Lama veers anywhere near Arunachal Pradesh.
Oli risked much in undertaking his northern expedition. When he returned home to face India’s wrath, China – in customary fashion – professed non-interference and sought to woo his putative successor.
But Dahal’s proclivities and priorities had undergone a radical shift since those tumultuous months of 2009. Some ‘foreign masters’ are more palatable than others. Our prime minister tried his best to portray his own Goa experiment as a novel excursion into trilateralism. Yet deep down, Dahal recognized the true nature of his interaction: talks with the Chinese president under the watchful gaze of the Indian premier. (If China, as Dahal has suggested, wanted to sign significant agreements with Nepal in Goa, doesn’t that say something as well?)
If Dahal today is not too anxious to throw a lifeline to Deuba, you can hardly blame him. Who wouldn’t want to prolong his/her premiership?

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Could This Be What Really Upset Us?

Photo courtesy: OnlineKhabar
Here we were complaining for over half a generation about how the Indians thought us so undeserving of a presidential visit. Their guy comes over (almost inviting himself, if you ask me) and we go nuts all over social media.
In fairness, Pranab Mukherjee sounded all the right notes during the visit, in keeping with the dignity and decorum of his office. If Nepalis were expecting some significant breakthrough, well, he was not the man.
True, officially Mukherjee is for India what Xi Jinping is for China. But that’s the extent of what they share. The two men cannot be compared – in core or peripheral terms – vis-à-vis their ability to influence their respective countries’ policies on Nepal.
In terms of symbolism, however, Mukherjee proved to be the stronger man. Let’s not forget that this time last year, it was Xi we were expecting to host around October/November 2016.
Our national ambivalence on the Mukherjee visit cannot be fully considered without juxtaposing it with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s in 2014. Barely a year after sweeping us off the ground by his speech to the constituent assembly, Modi had Nepalis locked under a virtual economic embargo. And that, too, knowing full well how wrathfully nature had wrought its fury on us.
The point is, even if Mukherjee had exceeded his constitutional bounds and lavished us with bold promises, the bilateral context could easily have shifted any time.
So the social media outcry was in a sense valid, you’d think. Sure. Except we complained too much about the inconveniences the Nepali government inflicted on the people in the name of good neighborliness. How long before open arms begin to look like sheer obsequiousness?
Or was our collective non-official reaction to the visit emblematic of something more subliminal? A few years ago, Mukherjee as his country’s foreign minister, remember, bragged on Al Jazeera television about how and why New Delhi drove the Maoists and mainstream parties to sign that 12 Point Agreement against the monarchy. That footage stands out as the most candid official explication of events.
The years since have demonstrated the futility of that endeavor to all sides. As individuals, many Nepalis have long acknowledged as much. However, in our collective selves, we are too proud to recognize that. The Indians see that experiment as a work in progress. We do too, in our own way. If we can’t go back, move sideways or stand still, we must move forward, not matter how uncomfortable the road. And that’s not a nice place to be in.
So when wanted to be gracious hosts to Mukherjee, we couldn’t resist complaining about the hospitality our government extended to him. Does that make sense? If not, well, what does these days, anyway?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Flashback: What Else Is New?

Surely, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The coordinator of our nascent New Force is struggling hard to defend his patriotic credentials.
A riled Dr. Baburam Bhattarai told an audience the other day that his genetic code was so pulsating with pure-bred nationalism that it needed no external certification of any kind.
Critics therefore need not comb through his comments and actions to detect deficits of patriotism, the former prime minister counseled.
That admonition, however, did not stop the one-time chief Maoist ideologue from denigrating the ‘false nationalism’ of those who derided the Nepali Congress and the communists as ‘anti-nationals’.
Therein is the root of our whole novelty riddle. You can’t keep trying to become new simply by castigating the old. Of course, the Panchayat/royalist days were rotten. Isn’t that why they are history? Get over it.
Yet our exemplars of originality continue to parrot old lines. They want to make Nepal a bridge between the Asian behemoths. The last king tried but was never given a chance. (For the record, the Lichchavis had already done that.)
The votaries of newfangledness want to make Nepal economically self-reliant. Even after all the mockery the partyless ‘Asian standard’ credo engendered? Since when have jokes provided the blueprint for serious action? And the anti-corruption platform? Can anyone really say when it stops becoming that and assumes the form of a political witch hunt, perceived or real?
Or do our political parvenu think the royalists and right-wing autocrats simply were the wrong people to do the right job? After all, Dr. Bhattarai and his fellow travellers long stuck with the notion that they could set right what the likes of Marx, Lenin and Mao correctly set out to do but botched.
To be fair, Dr. Bhattarai himself has presented a clear case for newness. While parties like the Nepali Congress, Praja Parishad, the CPN-UML and the UCPN-Maoist have served the country well, they have been unable to move with the times, he has repeatedly emphasized. At least he had the integrity to ensure that the Constitution was promulgated before setting out to criticize it.
Espousing an inclusive approach, Dr. Bhattarai insists, the new entity is striving to formulate ideas and principles suitable to Nepal. This cluster of political has-beens, ex-bureaucrats and security officials and fading actors may or may not have the capacity to capitalize on the torpor in the mainstream. But there is a risk that it might be caught in one of its own. Although it has existed in a semi-institutional incarnation for a while, the new formation’s ideology bears little beyond traces of a center-left orientation.
And what’s with this insipid New Force appellation? Go get a better name first, preferably one that says something nicer. Even genes have been patented and copyrighted. The no-labels approach, if anything, is a non-starter in politics.

Originally posted on Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trilateral Omission

Photo courtesy: Prakash Dahal
Darn it, they couldn’t let our exhilaration last a little longer.
When news broke of the surprise trilateral meeting between the leaders of Nepal, China and India on the sidelines of the Goa BRICS summit, it really felt, well, good, to say the least.
Finally, our two closest friends seemed to have gotten together to help us get our act together – and in full public display. Instead of continuing their perennial turf war over a sliver of mostly stony real estate, China and India seemed to have decided to join hands to keep the ‘distant barbarians’ out of the arena.
The initial details, too, were credible enough. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Chinese President Xi Jinping were engrossed in bilateral talks when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly dropped in. (Of course, you could impute any motive here, but let’s be charitable for the purpose of this post.)
The trio continued talking as the fourth person there, our premier’s wife Sita Dahal, looked on. (Although she still had her arms folded, Madam Dahal seemed a bit more engaged with the goings-on than she was at Rastrapati Bhavan in New Delhi a month ago. Moreover, her multi-hued handbag on the coffee table sat well with the adjacent flowers and provided a quaint harmony to both Xi’s and Modi’s jackets and the sofa pillows.)
Then the next batch of details trickled in. Xi and Modi responded positively to a proposal Dahal had made earlier on enhancing trilateral cooperation among the three countries. Emphasizing the need of tri-party strategic understanding, Dahal said Nepal’s unique geography positioned it as a ‘dynamic bridge’ between the Asian giants.
Modi and Xi agreed, but Dahal hadn’t finished. He seemed to suggest that Nepal could help to maintain cordial relations between India and China. Xi, for his part, praised Nepal’s role in maintaining equidistant relations between China and India, while Modi acknowledged the geographical, emotional and cultural relations among the three countries.
What happened? Weren’t we told that the Chinese president had cancelled his visit to Nepal (scheduled around this time) because he considered our government too India-friendly, or something like that? And hadn’t the Indian prime minister conspired with Dahal to oust the K.P. Oli government because it was too China-friendly?
Okay, Pakistani-backed incursions into Kashmir precipitate Indian military action inside Pakistani territory. The Russians seem to tilt towards Islamabad as Donald Trump assiduously courts the Hindu vote in the United States. And what? Xi and Modi suddenly decide to sit in a joint meeting with Dahal?
Man, this was nail-biting stuff but also sounding too good to be true. Alas, it was. A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that the meeting was ‘informal’, entirely coincidental, and just a ‘little chat’.
Describing the sequence of events, the spokesman said that after their bilateral meeting, Dahal and Xi were waiting in the lounge to go to the informal dinner. (Gosh, what’s with this obsession with informality?) Modi also happened to be there. So, the Indian spokesman said, there was no reason to call it a trilateral meeting.
All that high-minded sentimentalizing, nodding and elevating of eyebrows amounted to nothing? Nah, somebody somewhere just cast an evil eye. And, yes, that’s being charitable.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Wages Of Crying Wolf

So it eventually had to come to this.
A decade after triumphing in their ‘people’s war’, Baburam Bhattarai is accusing Pushpa Kamal Dahal of betraying the nation in order to maintain his grip on power by signing a despicable agreement with India during his recent trip down south.
Bhattarai said the 25-point communiqué was so bad that he could not sleep the whole night after Prime Minister Dahal made it public. “This anti-nationalist agreement … is tormenting me,” the former chief ideologue of the Maoists said at a public gathering the other day.
Bhattarai’s party, Naya Shakti Nepal, went further, calling the communique ‘an act of treason’ that threatened to push the country towards regression. Point 11 in particular would lead to the ‘Bhutanization’ of Nepal, the party concluded.
Now, Bhattarai has a penchant for throwing around terms like ‘Sikkimization’ and ‘Bhutanization’ with abandon, almost to the point of deflection.
After describing the 2001 palace massacre as a conspiracy to turn Nepal into an Indian dependency a la its two other Himalayan cousins, Bhattarai soon began wooing the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi with unspecified promises and pledges.
By mid-2005, after King Gyanendra seized full executive powers amid a change of government in New Delhi, Bhattarai almost singlehandedly thwarted a Nepal-based solution that might have worked better. So much so that sections of the Indian establishment were irked by the way Bhattarai was hobnobbing with Indian commies to precipitate a radical reorientation of India’s Nepal policy.
After Bhattarai prevailed in pushing Nepal into nebulous newness, it was natural for us to expect him to begin work on expanding Nepal’s space for independent and sovereign action. But, then, what could he do with that puny finance portfolio, right?
As prime minister, Bhattarai wasn’t too keen on reversing the Sugauli Agreement-era stranglehold of India he had so railed against. He left for an official visit to New Delhi promising not to sign BIPPA, but came back having done just that.
During the Teheran Non-Aligned summit, he snuck out to meet with his Indian counterpart without giving his deputy, and fellow Maoist, Narayan Kaji Shrestha, and inkling. And who can forget the wholesale mismanagement that gripped the brief visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao?
None of this, of course, means that Bhattarai isn’t entitled to revise his position. Maybe he should come out with a full-blown self-criticism of his approach to and expectations from India beginning from his Jawaharlal University days. Identifying people, places and perspectives would be extremely helpful.
Nepalis know that India doesn’t need to ‘Sikkimize’ or ‘Bhutanize’ our nation. New Delhi has mounted a fairly successful ‘Nepalization’ operation with no small assistance from politicos like Bhattarai and ploys like the 12 Point Agreement.
Prime Minister Dahal doesn’t seem particularly stung by Bhattarai’s accusations, does he?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Handshake And A Shakedown

Photo: Rastriya Samachar Samiti
Was Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India really as successful as is being officially characterized in both countries?
The answer would rest on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping lands in Kathmandu this year – or ever.
From New Delhi’s standpoint, at least, our prime minister’s visit helped to melt the frost that had enveloped bilateral ties during the Khadga Prasad Oli-led government. Although Dahal has not been so explicit, he feels he can go along with New Delhi’s interpretation.
Oli, for his part, has become the most vociferous critic of Dahal’s southern sojourn. The former prime minister believes Dahal did what he was supposed to: undo the work of the previous government towards strengthening Nepal’s relations with China in keeping with the times.
Accusing Dahal of stooping ‘too low’ and compromising on the independence of Nepal’s foreign policy by agreeing to work together with India in international forums, Oli said his Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) would not accept the 25-point joint communiqué.
How other key leaders of faction-riven UML take Oli’s unilateral delineation of party policy in public remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that the UML has managed its internal divisions better than our other parties.
On matters pertaining to India, ever since the UML’s fall from power, the other two ex-premiers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal, seem to have taken an oath of loyalty to Oli. If so, that’s because the UML has decided to firmly hold the banner of nationalism aloft and make sure no one else even thinks of raising it higher.
The Indians have waxed eloquent over how Dahal, by his mere ascension, has ended the Oli-era nightmare. The visit, from their perspective, only capped that reality. One of the Maoist leader’s former Indian handlers gushed that Dahal had established himself as the only person who could lead Nepal.
No doubt, this distinguished Indian foreign policy and security analyst also feels vindicated after the lousy start Dahal made during his first innings in Singha Darbar.
During their one-on-one meeting, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was believed to have asked Dahal to keep a distance from Beijing, before hailing him at a joint news conference as “the catalyst force for peace” in Nepal.
On his return home, Dahal told reporters that the new understanding reached with India would not affect Nepal’s relations with China. Yet he is smart enough not to be taken in by the effusiveness of India’s acclaim. The way our anti-graft watchdog ordered a probe into the alleged embezzlement of more than Rs. 6 billion from funds meant for rehabilitating former Maoist guerrillas the day the two prime ministers held talks in New Delhi can hardly be deemed coincidental. Although the agency did not name names, top Maoist leaders, including Dahal, could be questioned.
The message is clear: If any Nepali politician steps out of line, there are levers of our state that New Delhi knows can easily be deployed against the offender.
Maybe that realization is what really prompted Dahal to cancel his trip to the United Nations. The Chinese, after all, are capable enough to decide whether Xi should or should not visit Nepal, without Dahal being within earshot of Premier Li Keqiang.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Curious Evolution Of A Premier’s Persona

Something eerie seems to be going on with Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Of course, he’s trying hard this time to be humble, contrite and all that. Nothing wrong there.
The bluster and superciliousness of his last tenure as premier did not serve him well. Let the man learn his lesson and move on.
Still, something is discordant, particularly with regard to his position vis-à-vis the Indians. And it’s not just because his televised undertaking in 2009 not to prostrate before foreign deities to stay in power echoes on.
Dahal’s predecessor, Khadga Prasad Oli, is the leading the charge in depicting the current government as remote-controlled from New Delhi. Riding on the series of agreements Oli signed during his visit to China, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) is milking every drop from those nationalist credentials.
The jury is still out on whether Oli’s northern sojourn really represents a geostrategic shift, so you just have to put up with Oli.
But egging on Dahal to take on the Indians on Lipulekh and Kalapani et al during his upcoming visit to India? Isn’t that going a bit too far?
Apparently not. Dahal, for one, seems to have made an early decision not to fight the ‘pro-Indian’ tag. He keeps assuring us that he won’t sign any anti-national deals during his visit so often that you begin to see that wink-wink routine there.
In an interview with a leading Indian daily, he came out as a confidence-builder too much for his own good.
Such ‘evolution’ is fine. And it’s not unprecedented either. Somehow, those disenchanted with the Chinese for one reason or the other seem to be afflicted the most by the urgency to publicize their transformation. (If you have doubts, just refer to the speeches of former prime minister Kunwar Inderjeet Singh after he returned from his exile in China).
The pendulum can easily swing the other way. The CPN-UML continues to bemoan the tragic death of its charismatic leader Madan Bhandary as part of an Indian conspiracy against his nationalist stance. However, a few years earlier, when an extensive full-spread interview in an Indian daily launched Bhandary’s national political debut amid the anti-Panchayat movement, many of us were left scratching our heads wondering, Madan who? And Oli himself wasn’t known for firebrand nationalism before his premiership, was he?
The problem is with letting personal evolutions become emblematic of a nation’s diplomatic transformation. The most recent fallout? The ostensible postponement of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s impending visit to Nepal about which our Foreign Ministry officially knows nothing. That didn’t prevent Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara – Beijing’s ‘closest friend’ here – from springing into action. Yes, the same Mahara who several years ago was on our official most-wanted list but was comfortably talking to CNN’s Satinder Bindra on Indian soil.
The news report detailing the postponement of Xi’s visit was quite explicit – and damning to Nepal – about the reasons. Was the story a plant? If so, by whom? The Chinese or the Indians? Be sure not to ask Prime Minister Dahal. He looks like he already knows what you want to hear.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Politics of Pre-emption?

Khum Bahadur Khadka is a restless man. He has been edgy for quite a while.
The Nepali Congress luminary is said to have around half a dozen central committee members and twice that number of lawmakers in his camp. He has been seeking the party’s vice-presidency, citing the central role he played in the election of Sher Bahadur Deuba to the top job at the party convention.
Deuba, however, is wavering. The three-time premier has long been familiar with Khadka’s prowess. Without him, Deuba could not have broken away to form his Nepali Congress (Democratic) in 2002. Although that enterprise turned out to be a sheer disaster for the country in many ways, Deuba did ultimately prosper from it.
Sure, the king sacked him twice for incompetence. But that was then. Without the opportunity of leading his own party, Deuba could not have returned to the Nepali Congress so galvanized as to claim the mantle left behind by mentor-turned-rival Girija Prasad Koirala.
Khadka, for his part, knows the unreliability of Deuba. As general secretary of the breakaway party, he seemed thereby intent on establishing its primacy. Serving as Deuba’s home minister, he opposed the prime minister’s recommendation that the king postpone the parliamentary election, maintaining that the administration was capable of warding off the Maoists and organizing an exercise then deemed as central to survival of democracy.
Deuba instead got the sack and the king took over, with the deposed premier now peddling himself as the second coming of B.P. Koirala. Khadka, meanwhile, found himself imprisoned under some of the same senior police officials he was commanding. As Deuba continued playing the victim, it was Girija Prasad Koirala who would call the deposed home minister to enquire about his health and raise his political spirits. That ‘nurturing’ encouraged Khadka and core loyalists to return to the Nepali Congress in 2003.
Deuba got to become a palace-appointed premier before being sacked a second time in early 2005. His arrest and detention came late in the royal regime to really matter. Under republican Nepal, Khadka was convicted of corruption and spent one-and-half years in jail before emerging to resurrect his career.
He has been remarkably successful, one must admit. Today Khadka critics claim that rewarding someone with such a sleazy past with the vice-presidency would serve to tarnish the reputation of the party. They are missing the point. Khadka served time for his sins. If precluding a politician from politics for life just because of a criminally corrupt past made sense, those advocating might have prescribed Khadka a life (or even perhaps the death) sentence.
A man does time, paying his debt to society, and comes out to find out that he can no longer do the only job he knows how to do. How fair is that?
Furthermore, party members have trusted Khadka enough to elect him to the Central Working Committee with the second highest number of votes. Why, then, should a corrupt past be a bar to an appointive position like the vice-presidency? And if Khadka wasn’t too dirty for Deuba when he wanted the votes, should he really consider him too tainted to serve as his deputy?
Maybe the corruption argument is a ruse and Khadka critics fear him for his pro-Hindu statehood banner. Unlike the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s, Khadka’s plank is not tied to the monarchy. (At least, not overtly). Or maybe the critics remember something the rest of the country seems to have forgotten. Khadka is the last surviving leader who stepped out of that aircraft on that cold December day with B.P. Koirala seeking national reconciliation in 1976.
To many ears, B.P. and Hindu statehood probably don’t seem to go together well. Yet could they be a winning combination for Khadka – and one that his rivals desperately want to pre-empt?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Running In Circles Around Overlapping Spheres

Who would’ve really thought the Indian and Chinese presidents one day would be vying with each other so feverishly to visit Nepal first. Okay, neither Pranab Mukherjee nor Xi Jinping seems that desperate. But you get the drift.
Watch for what is said as well as what is not. The Indians never felt the need to deny that K.P. Oli had to exit Baluwatar because he coveted that northern alliance a bit too much for his own good. Their sense of triumphalism says it all.
When Nepal flashed the ‘China card’ in the past, the Indians could easily mock the palace for indulging in such a blatant anti-people ploy. The mandarins up north weren’t exactly helpful, either.
When the Indians locked Nepal in that economic stranglehold in 1989-1990 for having bought anti-aircraft guns from China, lost in the story was the fact that Beijing had tempted us with lucrative prices. When the Panchayat system collapsed as a result, the Chinese joined the chorus denouncing how despicable the partyless system was.
After the royal takeover of February 2005, Beijing was no doubt the principal external beneficiary. Tightening the noose on Tibetan exiles, the palace-led government sought to correct Nepal’s southern and western drift the Chinese had begun grumbling about in public.
Beijing got observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. What did the Nepali government that had so strenuously pushed China’s case get? Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Once the royal government collapsed, the Chinese swiftly changed their ambassador so that he could be the first foreign envoy to present credentials to the prime minister, who was officiating as head of state.
Republican Nepal didn’t fare much better. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal as prime minister attempted to publicly reconfigure Nepal geopolitical locus, the Indians didn’t seem too bothered. The seven parties arrayed against the monarchy were still available to tame the Maoists. After Dahal’s departure from Singha Darbar, Beijing seemed to cultivate the hardliners in the Maoists, eventually emboldening them to break away.
Oli’s ‘China card’, however, proved to be different. From the outset, it reminded the Indians that the game had two players. Beijing seemed anxious to demonstrate that this time, it meant business. Sure, things are still pro forma on the Sino-Nepali front. The legacy of distrust on both sides may not be at the level of Nepal-India relations in scope as well as in public rancor. But suspicions and skepticism do persist.
Yet the agreements the two governments signed during Oli’s visit to Beijing do provide the basis for concrete action on meaningful cooperation in the event of requisite political commitment. It is Xi’s visit to Nepal everybody’s talking about, not President Bidya Bhandari’s to China. Thus, the immediate task for the Indians is to scuttle a Xi visit, at least before Mukherjee makes a trip, in terms of the battle of perceptions.
This time, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is not in two minds about which neighbor to visit first. But he still has to figure out which neighboring leader to host first. As for Nepalis, they understand better why they are feeling the squeeze.
The title of being the last tributary to the Middle Kingdom comes with a price, especially when the successor regime draws inspiration from the same imperial ambitions. On the other side, the Indians see Nepal as the unfinished business of independence. These competing claims of sphere of influence aren’t going to be resolved any time soon.
So how’s this for a deal? Let Mukherjee and Xi alight the same aircraft, together, hand in hand, either before or after the Goa BRICS summit in October. The least we can do is provide the plane.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Is It Adjournment Or Abandonment On The Right?

Where does the unification effort between the two factions of the right-of-center Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) stand today? RPP chairman Pashupati Shamsher Rana insists that the amalgamation announcement set for August 9 could not take place because of the parties’ failure to agree on ‘balance of power’. He contends that the door remains very much open.
RPP-Nepal Chairman Kamal Thapa, however, earlier unleashed a public tirade against Rana for having exhibited sheer dishonesty and fallen under the influence of a foreign power center (read India) to thwart what had been an elaborately negotiated unification.
A palpably aggrieved Rana shot back, refuting those allegations as unbecoming of a leader of Thapa’s standing. He has since demanded an apology from Thapa as a precondition for unity. Meanwhile, luminaries from Rana’s RPP have joined Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s cabinet, at a time when Thapa’s party has assiduously chosen to remain part of the opposition.
Intemperate though they may have been, Thapa’s public comments were understandable, given his version of the turn of events. Rana ostensibly pulled the plug unilaterally at the last minute, without – in Thapa’s words – exhibiting the “courtesy, decorum and political character” of consulting with the RPP-Nepal on such a two-pronged matter. Rana’s equally unflinching demand for a public apology from Thapa underscores the deep personal antagonisms that have set in.
All along, the unification hype failed the basic smell test. Admittedly, the RPP-Nepal and RPP today seem to be united by a desire to see the reinstatement of Hindu statehood. Beyond that, the latter is still wedded to republicanism and views the RPP-Nepal with abiding suspicion on that front (or at least gives a public posture of such).
Thapa, for his part, has come under criticism from loyalists for having discarded the agenda of restoring the monarchy. No longer on the defensive, though, the former deputy prime minister has placed the monarchy as the driver of its broader nationalist agenda. Asked to comment on perceptions that the former monarch himself was displeased at the party’s ostensible dilution of the pro-monarchy plank, Thapa told a leading Nepali newsweekly: “The RPP-Nepal is not a committee created for the restoration of the monarchy”.
The RPP signed on the new secular, republican constitution, while the RPP-Nepal was the only party that voted against it. Yet both parties became part of the K.P. Oli-led coalition. In the intervening months, Thapa appears to have beaten back factionalism within the party, while Rana still faces lingering divisions within. (Key RPP members originally expressed anger-tinged surprise at the scuttling of the unification effort, before subsequently going silent).
Yet we were somehow supposed to believe that the two groups – with their demonstrable history of fission and fusion –would join hands for the greater good of the nation, leaving it to the general convention to iron out their underlying differences.
According to Rana’s latest – and hitherto most specific – explication, the unification effort was dropped after Thapa failed to agree to an equitable balance of the functions, duties and rights of the national chairperson and executive chairperson of the proposed new party. (A contention Thapa, one might add, seemed to publicly refute even before Rana had advanced it.)
Still, if things are in the works as Rana says, Thapa’s stance doesn’t seem to give that impression. He is still busy singing paeans to the nationalist credentials of the last government and scolding the successor for encouraging blatant external intervention.
Even if the two groups were to unite sooner or later, wouldn’t the storyline be the same? How long before they split again?

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Humility: Making Sense Of Dahal’s Makeover

Photo: RSS
For someone who stepped down from the premiership so rancorously seven years ago refusing to ‘prostrate’ before ‘foreign gods’, Pushpa Kamal Dahal is trying hard these days to illuminate his halo of humility.
To be sure, Nepal’s top Maoist no longer projects the ferocity of yore. Open politics has provided him none of the safeguards of the subterranean schemes that characterized the ‘people’s war’. Especially not when you no longer have your own army and when the sword of the International Criminal Court hovers above you incessantly.
So Nepalis may be forgiven for looking past the fact that Dahal is the only communist leader fortunate enough to have returned to the premiership.
Our new prime minister’s early pronouncements have been akin to excuses for impending failure. Gone is the bluster about institutionalizing discontinuities in the affairs of state. The cabinet’s decision to withdraw the nominations of 14 ‘political’ ambassadors, while superficially bold, seems to have been a sop to the Nepali Congress.
How far such demonstrable overtures of a break with K.P. Oli government would go towards placating the coalition partner remains unclear. Mindful of the disarray within the Nepali Congress, Dahal has rejected any notion that he is under any deal to stay for a mere nine months.
The seven intervening years have been instructive to us all. During 2008-2009, Dahal stuck out his neck so northward that it almost snapped. Instead of providing him cover, the Chinese bolstered the more hard-line Mohan Baidya faction, emboldening it eventually to break away.
True, the Americans met Dahal more than halfway, but, in retrospect, only to undermine his revolutionary credentials. In the end, navigating the factional dynamics in India turned out to be most important – and intractable.
Having failed to sack a supposedly insubordinate army chief, Dahal chose to resign and wage a battle to preserve the principle of democratic supremacy. His domestic opponents laughed him off. Separation of powers? Coming out of the mouth of a Maoist? The army was disbanded, the party split and the next election was lost. Much of the party has come back together, but the country is in tatters.
Isn’t it interesting how Dahal undertook a public transformation coinciding with the change in government in India? We did hear of how Nepal’s Maoists opened their first serious contacts with official New Delhi during the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Atal Behari Vajpayee government around 2002.
Almost as if in response to Dahal’s ascension, a senior BJP leader just the other day ruled out the return of the monarchy in Nepal. (His point: “How can the people want to bring back a king who slunk away from them during their hour of greatest need?”)
Friends and foes alike may ruminate all they want about the extent of Dahal’s transformation. What matters is the extent of the bases he has covered where it matters. So keep your eyes on how the transactional dimensions of Nepal-India political relations evolve in the weeks and months ahead.
This is not to say that our prime minister is in an untenable position. If Dahal was able to show an Indian hand behind his departure last time, who’s to say he can’t benefit from perceptions of New Delhi’s role in his resurrection? Heck, former prime minister Oli can still keep regaling us with his aphorisms.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

It Hasn’t All Been Said Yet

The euphoria gripping the Indian media following the resignation of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli evidently stems from New Delhi’s apparent triumph in having returned to the driver’s seat of Nepali politics after a hiatus of nine months.
Granted, reporters and commentators across the southern border have made some effort to portray the difficulties that lay on the path ahead. But that endeavor has been grudging, at best. The operating principle for the moment seems to be: what happens next can be taken care of later; Oli’s ouster merits its own full-blown carnival moment.
The reasons for this rejoicing are as predictable as they are routine. Oli was losing popularity as his government exhibited a greater preference for China over India, one argument goes. His government’s hardline stance against Madhesis had led India to step in to prevent a spillover of tensions, insists another.
Oli the man was an out-and-out ingrate, it was pointed out somewhere, especially after New Delhi, among other things, funded years of his medical treatment at the best Indian hospitals, financed development projects in his constituency, and offered him political support against rivals within the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist-Leninist.
For now, the irony inherent in the fact that the leading contender for the premiership is the man who India was instrumental in dislodging seven years earlier amid equal rancor must be ignored. How Nepal Communist Party (Maoist Centre) supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s ascension could be described as a victory for Indian diplomacy remains unclear. All the more so after considering how blatantly Dahal flouted the political, diplomatic and even material support New Delhi provided the Maoists for over a decade to cozy up to China during his premiership in 2008-2009.
However you slice it, the prevailing narrative about an Indian diplomatic triumph says more about the level of New Delhi’s thinking that about the geopolitical predilections of the man. An Indian kiss to the Maoist Centre and the Nepali Congress amid the tumultuous battle of perceptions can only be one of death, regardless of how emphatically those two parties insist they would honor all the agreements Oli’s government signed with China.
The notion that Beijing somehow advised Nepal’s political establishment to patch up with India after Chinese officials and diplomats failed to stop the hemorrhage in Oli’s coalition must be seen against Dahal’s recent public assertion that Beijing would be happy to see him return to the premiership.
Now, the Maoist Centre leader could have been indulging in a woozy head fake characteristic in Nepali politics, fortifying his flank, or clueing us in on the next moves on the regional chessboard. Regardless, it would not take long for New Delhi to discover the true cost of its ‘triumph’.
Dahal described Oli as a ‘genuine statesman’ as the prime minister stepped down from the podium after announcing his resignation. In the weeks and months ahead, that description could take on far greater import in ways that Dahal – or anyone else – could care to contemplate today.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Bright Spot In The Yard

Maila Baje has always been intrigued by the ease with which Khadga Prasad Oli could shed his ostensible ‘pro-Indian’ tag and win plaudits as a ‘nationalist’ prime minister.
Within the post-Madan Bhandary Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist quartet, Bam Dev Gautam sought and temporarily retained the nationalist mantle. But his personal ambition drove him to the background. For whatever reason, Jhal Nath Khanal did not draw the geopolitical spotlight in such a way. It looked like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Oli – when they were allies or adversaries alike – were almost flaunting their competition for the good graces of the southern establishment.
It becomes irrelevant to discuss whether Oli’s transformation is entirely unaffected or whether it is personal, political or event-driven. The perception that India has been out to dislodge a prime minister who refuses to toe the southern line has persisted among enough Nepalis.
That reality seems to be reflected in New Delhi’s response to Oli’s very public accusation of Indian complicity in Nepal’s latest political affairs. The seriousness of Oli’s charge was underscored by the venue where he made it so openly. Addressing a national security conference, Oli not only said India was behind the withdrawal of support by the Maoists to his government but also that New Delhi was in a palpably celebratory mood over the turn of events.
Ordinarily, the Indians could have shrugged off Oli as just another in a line of politicians who have sought the proverbial last refuge of scoundrels. New Delhi’s early reaction, at least, suggests that it has been stung by our prime minister’s outbursts.
India did nothing to destabilize the Oli government, a ‘high-level’ source was quoted as saying in New Delhi. Not only that. “[Oli] could not deliver and the coalition government fell down. The fact that he still wants to stick to power despite not having the numbers in Parliament is totally undemocratic,” the source was quoted as saying in a leading Indian daily.
Significantly, the anonymous source went on to add that Chinese officials in Kathmandu were busy trying to win over members in each political party to save the Oli government. It would not be irrelevant to juxtapose here Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal claim of having received credible information that Beijing would be pleased to see him as Oli’s successor.
This very public display of Indian-Chinese rivalry in Nepal’s internal politics mirrors the unrestrained contention between the Asian giants in the aftermath of New Delhi’s botched bid to secure membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The subsequent eagerness of some sections in India to extrapolate the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea to China’s historical claims on other disputed territories is portentous for us.
The Chinese have no doubt raised the stakes. Although they have not asserted so publicly vis-à-vis Nepal, the mandarins up north are votaries of a tradition-driven foreign and security policy that considers us the last tributaries to the Qing dynasty. If the Chinese signal a readiness to maintain their skin in the game by, say, trying to bail out the Oli government in the legislature, the Indians, for their part do not seem likely to back down. Amalgamation of the Tibet-Taiwan planks into a coherent diplomatic narrative challenging the ability of a rising China to become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ would have local ramifications.
The propensity of our political leadership to trivialize such grave concerns in their public pronouncements no doubt continues to infuriate many Nepalis. Yet there might be some promise here, especially if our leaders succeed in precipitating a decisive outcome from this long-running turf war between the Asian behemoths.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Deciphering Dahal’s Indecision

What has become of Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal these days?
For the second time in as many months, he has sullenly walked back from public avowals to dislodge Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s government. You can understand the whole two-steps-forward-one-step-back claptrap he profited from in the deadly old days. But this kind of indecision?
Is Dahal still not confident that would ever become prime minister again?
After the last time Dahal made a 180, he could at least boast of having consolidated the Maoists by bringing most of the splinters back into the new Maoist Centre tent. Regrouping and reorganizing fit the mold of strategic pauses that characterized the “people’s war”.
Moreover, Dahal forced Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba to take a disproportionate part of the responsibility for that anti-Oli debacle.
This time, it looks like Dahal has simply punted. After his lieutenants, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Barsha Man Pun and Janardan Sharma did much of the heavy-lifting, all Dahal could do was remind Oli of the imperative of implementing the nine-point agreement that epitomized the Maoist leader’s last about-turn.
To be fair, Dahal has enough justification to want to see Oli go. The current government’s failure to address Madhesi demands, at least in the eyes of its critics, underscores its inability to implement the new Constitution, its prime task.
Moreover, one can easily imagine the kinds of pressures the Maoist leader is under from within his party, from the wider political establishment, and, most importantly, the foreign fraternity to part ways with Oli. Such pressures could only have multiplied in view of the upcoming elections.
Finally, the coalition between the two largest communist parties must be inherently unstable. They are, after all, two distinct and independent entities for good reason.
But, then, another set of questions bedevils Dahal. Who after Oli? There’s no guarantee it’s going to be him. The Nepali Congress, stung by the last episode, wants Dahal to officially pull out of the coalition before it can even think about joining hands with the Maoists to the form the next government. Dahal fears Deuba might just be using the Maoists to return to Singha Durbar. Even if Deuba failed in that endeavor, he still might succeed in tarnishing Dahal’s image this time.
The wider political context is also in a flux. You have two deputy premiers who reject key tenets of the new Constitution. The prime minister’s loyalists explain the anomaly away by calling it the purest manifestation of freedom of expression. One deputy premier, with his party’s ministers in tow, went to greet the former king on his birthday exuding all but an official air. With republicanism, secularism and federalism on the line, could Dahal in good conscience contemplate crafting a new round of instability?
From that perspective, continuing bargaining with Oli from inside the tent might not be such a bad idea. The prime minister has dangled the prospect of an expansion of the government. Maybe Dahal can neutralize some of his internal pressures by nominating more Maoist ministers. Periodic polite nudges to Oli on the need to remember the nine-point agreement would do the rest of the trick.
Preserving the status quo in such a barefaced way has its own downside, especially for someone who still likes to think of himself as a revolutionary. But, remember, we’re talking about someone who has also tried everything else.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Doctoring The Body Politic

Dr. Govinda K.C.
Lok Man Singh Karki
When Dr. Govinda K.C. demanded the impeachment of Lok Man Singh Karki, the last thing he expected was a prompt official diagnosis of the state of his own mental health.
Yet that was what the prominent orthopedic surgeon got in return for pressing parliament to start proceedings to dislodge the chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) for gross dereliction of duty.
Responding to the anti-corruption crusader’s latest campaign, a spokesman for the CIAA went beyond proffering a diagnosis and urged the government to provide prompt and appropriate medical treatment to Dr. K.C.
It’s not hard to understand why the anti-graft watchdog would growl and bite so sharply. Forget the success rate of Dr. K.C.’s hunger strikes. Who does he think he is to so blatantly encroach upon the CIAA’s jurisdiction? If that body’s actions, or lack thereof, were a problem, there are proper remedies for the sovereign people to pursue.
If all it took to fight abuse of authority was for someone going on an indefinite hunger strike, we wouldn’t have had to keeping on bestowing on the CIAA the constitutional responsibility to do so regardless of the political system, right?
And, moreover, doesn’t this penchant for starving yourself go against the Hippocratic oath every doctor, we are told, is supposed to breath in and out at all times? Now, Dr. K.C. isn’t his own patient so that oath doesn’t count, you might say. Okay. But, still, why does such a prominent medical expert get to harm himself, regardless of the nobility of the cause, when millions of Nepalis are in dire need of his healing touch?
Far more people have the ability to deprive themselves of vital nourishment at will than to use surgical and nonsurgical means to treat musculoskeletal trauma, spine diseases, sports injuries, degenerative diseases, infections, tumors, and congenital disorders. What happened to the concept of optimizing the utilization of a nation’s scarce resources?
Yet the issue Dr. K.C. has raised requires investigation at a broader level. Consider the career trajectory of Karki. During the final decade of the bad old partyless system, he was one of the last ‘direct hires’ of the palace. Which meant he didn’t have to go through the normal civil service procedures – exam, interviews, background checks – mandatory for the rest of us schlubs.
Although that degenerate system collapsed a few years after Karki’s induction, many of its ills persisted. During the early multiparty years, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala wanted Karki as the top bureaucrat in the lucrative water resources ministry so bad that he was ready to sacrifice his loyalist minister, Baldev Sharma Majgaiya.
During the much-maligned royal regime, Karki rose to become chief secretary and was accused of aiding and abetting the subversion of democracy and the suppression of the people. Yet half a dozen years later, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal lobbied so hard in favor of Karki’s appointment as CIAA chief that no one could just say no. To cut a long story short, how does someone like Karki continue exist in our body politic? Maybe Dr. K.C. has a diagnosis?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Right? Wrong? It Depends.

As Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli insists on ‘implementing’ the Constitution within a defined structure and specific time-frame, two of his six deputies find themselves in an interesting position. Kamal Thapa of the Rastriya Prajantantra Party Nepal and Chitra Bahadur K.C. of the Rastriya Janamorcha vociferously oppose two key planks of our new Basic Law.
To their credit, both deputy prime ministers are carried by the courage of their convictions. Thapa has been a tireless campaigner against secularism and federalism. For long, K.C. was almost the lone voice against federalism on the left end of the political spectrum. Bucking political correctness and popularity, they have won the grudging admiration of opponents.
Ordinarily, such convergence between those two coalition partners should have posed a perilous roadblock to Oli. Yet the prime minister is unperturbed. He doesn’t even joke about it in the way he does most other things. He has left it to his minions to point out the crude inanity of it all. What kind of morality allows you to be part of a government whose core agenda you oppose?
Thapa never tires of telling party members and supporters that he would not rest until secularism and federalism are scrapped. Same old, same old. Things, however, are getting interesting on the Rastriya Janamorcha side. After the party announced a two-month-long movement against federalism, some K.C. loyalists can be heard fuming against the tendency in certain quarters to equate their struggle with the one launched by the one-time royalists.
The structure and character of the Rastriya Janamorcha’s movement is pro-people and in keeping with the spirit of People’s Movement II, party spokespeople maintain. The Rastriya Janamorcha sees the RPPN’s movement as going against popular aspirations and the spirit of the times. Essentially, K.C.’s party believe the ex-royalists are waging a religious battle with all its attendant ills for the country and people.
When you have single-issue parties in power as part of a broad coalition, you need to distinguish between – to borrow Mao Zedong’s phraseology – the principal and secondary contradictions every step of the way. If the Rastriya Janamorcha is correct to see federalism being against Nepali nationalism and territorial integrity, then it must at least concede the right of the RPPN to see secularism as an equal threat. Amid the flimsiest layer of common ground, the Maoists would have found it easier to forge a working alliance. But, again, K.C. is not a Maoist for a reason.
So the Rastriya Janamorcha has to justify its participation in the Oli government. And where else to turn but the flip-flopper par excellence? Didn’t Oli’s old party – the MaLe – send legislators to the partyless assembly with the express purpose of exposing the inequities of the palace-led Panchayat system? Didn’t Oli’s current party – the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist – come out in critical support of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990 before deciding to become a full and inalienable part of the mainstream?
In an important way, K.C. is doing Thapa’s job for him. Does that mean the RPPN should in any way feel morally compromised vis-à-vis the Rastriya Janamorcha? Certainly not. Thapa knows that if republicanism, secularlism and federalism can somehow be retroactively instilled into the spirit of the People’s Movement, popular will really is in the eye of the beholder.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Spinning Our Heads In The Shadows

Even for a populace inured to clandestineness as the central political contrivance of the soil, the prevailing confusion over the latest ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ is getting a bit out of hand.
Did Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli reach a secret three-point agreement with Pushpa Kamal Dahal pledging to hand over power to the Maoist chairman after the passage of the budget? It depends on who you ask. Oli acts as if he’s heard the term for the first time, while Dahal thinks he has something substantial signed in triplicate. Everybody else is either confident one way or the other or is scratching their heads.
Granted, it took nine years for the secret letters the Ranas and the Nehru regime exchanged alongside the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship to come to light. But at least they did. In today’s age of openness and transparency, we don’t know how Nepal really became a republic. You think that is a mere historical footnote? Try telling us how long you think we will continue to have a president.
This episode is far more serious. From all outward appearances, over a month ago, Oli looked like a man ready to step down. Dahal seemed poised to return to Singha Darbar, with Sher Bahadur Deuba, the freshly elected Nepali Congress president becoming kingmaker. Barely 24 hours later, Dahal made a 180 and pledged his party’s support to the Oli-led coalition government.
The two men sealed a nine-point deal on April 29 in which Oli pledged, among other things, that the government would withdraw all ‘politically motivated’ cases against Maoist leaders and cadres, what really riled the ex-rebels all along. Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhal Nath Khanal and Bam Dev Gautam Oli’s principal rivals in the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) also reportedly pushed Oli to commit to hand over power to Dahal after the budget’s passage.
As Dahal stepped back, it became clear that it was only to reunite with most of the Maoist groups that had broken away from him in the past. In retrospect, Dahal needed that reprieve more than Oli. Cognizant of the favor he extended to Dahal, Oli seemed secure enough to continue selling his dreams – on land, air and sea. (The discrediting of Deuba was no small byproduct.)
So Oli comfortably dismissed the notion of a separate shadowy three-point agreement. If there was one, the premier said, it had to be the draft that he rejected. Of course, Madhav Nepal and Khanal, in their own ways, continue to insist that a power-sharing deal exists. But you could see that as normal politicking.
Then, at a party meeting the other day, Oli suggested that India and the United States were out to get him, his government and his party. The next day, the CPN-UML came out with an official statement denying that Oli ever uttered words even remotely making such an allegation. In fact, the prime minister is still said to be seething at the timing of the ‘conspiracy’ against him, coming as it did on the eve of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States.
The report was carried by a prominent Nepali daily, which, predictably, spawned creative adaptations on online portals. Who ‘planted’ such a story – if that what this was? The Chinese? If so, they seem to have really made inroads in Nepal.
What about the Indians and Americans themselves – either individually or in concert? After all, Sikkim-ization and Bhutan-ization are so yesterday. Nepali-ization has its own characteristics and traits, which are taking shape here and losing it there. One discernible element seems to be the imperative of leaving our collective heads spinning in perpetuity.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Tale Of Twists, Turns And Tangles

Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been boldly proclaiming the inevitability of his ascension to the premiership after Parliament passes the budget.
Ordinarily, Nepalis ought to be biting their nails in anticipation of the composition of the new coalition and cabinet. However, we seem to have become too chastened by other events going on around us.
Suddenly, the air has become thick with talk of the imperative of writing a new constitution. If the recent wave of Kathmandu-centric protests launched by Madhesi and ethnic parties does not bring that about, there is another clock ticking.
Should the country fail to hold provincial and local elections within the stipulated time-frame, we would be back to a situation a la October 2002. No wonder, then, that former king Gyanendra has begun assuring ordinary Nepalis beseeching his intervention that all is about to turn well.
Still, there are too many nagging questions here. Why was it so important for Prime Minister K.P. Oli to be able to present the budget? So much so that Dahal could barely last 24 hours in his avowal to form the next government? What difference would it have made had Dahal replaced Oli last month? Was it a no-no because he was riding on the back of Sher Bahadur Deuba and the Nepali Congress, which has turned quite conservative following the last party election? Never one to forgo an opening, did Dahal seek rehabilitation via a New Delhi-backed regime change, even at the cost of pledging himself to remain a titular head?
If so, China’s much-ballyhooed intervention does makes sense, to the extent that it bought time to facilitate the unification of the various Maoist factions. If Dahal now has a wider berth, surely the Maoists have become decidedly pro-north in their geopolitical orientation.
Publicly, some Nepali Congress luminaries are still trying to blame the fiasco on the misplaced ardor of their newly-elected party president. Yet even they look like victims of wounded pride. Not so much because Dahal buckled but because Oli got a breather. The consolidation of the Maoist forces raises the chances of the Nepali Congress turning further right, precipitating a broader realignment on that flank.
Granted, Dahal was detailing his political plans with the greatest candor while speaking to pro-Maoist media representatives. But he was also the most categorical about things at that venue, stressing that his succession as the new prime minister was inevitable following a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ implicit in the nine-point agreement with Oli. Indeed, Dahal went a step further and pledged to provide impetus to the implementation of the constitution, post-earthquake reconstruction and national unity.
Still, you cannot forget Oli’s record as the longest serving prime minister-in-waiting. Who can really say he is ready to give up so easily. With the local elections having become so central to the survival of the constitution, Oli might strike his own understanding with the Nepali Congress to run the government until then. After all, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist and the Nepali Congress are both interested in ensuring that the Maoists – no matter how rejuvenated internally – still stay in third place in national politics. In that scenario, much would depend on the ‘arrangements’ made during Minister for Law and Justice Agni Kharel’s visit to New Delhi.
And that is where Mohan Baidya’s and Netra Bikram Chand’s strenuous decisions to desist from the Maoist backslapping would make the most sense.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Your Guess Is As Good (Or Bad) As Mine

Against the subdued backdrop of the 50th anniversary of the eruption of the Cultural Revolution up north, efforts at unifying our half a dozen groups still professing fealty to the Great Helmsman gained traction over the weekend. Paradoxically, however, the provisional steps toward unity came after the formal split of the increasingly fractious Communist Party of Nepal-Revolutionary Maoists.
The stark differences in ideology and unsheathed ambitions of leaders that have stymied unity efforts over the past year nevertheless persist. Despite the latest split, the dominant Mohan Baidya faction remains opposed to unity with the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Baidya and his loyalists want a new ‘democratic revolution’ to complete the ‘unfinished tasks’ of the ‘people’s war’.
Still, the latest development represents a symbolic boost for Dahal’s efforts to maintain the relevance of a once-formidable movement within Nepal traditionally splintered left. After months of rumblings of discontent, a majority of the members of the Communist Party of Nepal-Revolutionary Maoists’ central committee decided to elect general secretary Ram Bahadur Thapa as chairman after ousting Baidya. Moreover, Thapa and Dahal have agreed on 13 bases to accelerate formal unification.
In response, issuing a six-page appeal, Baidya accused the Thapa faction of being opportunist and neo-reformist, claiming that the supposed unification process was an effort to destroy the revolutionary ideology of Nepal’s Communist movement.
The compulsions for Maoist unification are evident. Following the triumph of its decade-long rebellion against the old Nepali state, Dahal’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), became the largest party in the Constituent Assembly in 2008. From that apogee, crowned by Dahal’s nine-month tenure as prime minister in 2008-2009, the party has systematically gone downhill.
Amid numerous splits, there are currently at least seven separate Maoist formations. The largest of these, the UCPN (Maoist) – still led by Dahal following the Baidya faction’s walkout in 2012 after the dissolution of the constituent assembly – ceded ground to the traditional mainstream parties in the 2013 election. Meanwhile, the CPN-RM itself split in 2014 when Netra Bikram Chand broke away from Baidya and created the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist.
Over the past year, as Dahal has been in negotiations with Baidya, major divisions grew within the latter group over reunification. Thapa, a leading architect and early commander of the ‘people’s war’, wanted the party to give up revolution as its plan of action and instead focus on unification with other Maoist parties. He finally threw the gauntlet with the support of key figures like Dev Gurung, Pampha Bhusal, Hitman Shakya and Lekhnath Neupane.
Substantively, however, questions do remain. For one thing, several senior leaders like Chandra Prakash Gajurel and Hari Bhakta Kandel still back Baidya, who is considered Dahal’s ideological mentor. Also, the Chand-led Maoists clarified that they were not involved in the unification process of what was essentially an alliance of pro-parliamentarian forces. Complicating that picture, however, a group led by Basanta Gharti from Chand’s party is unifying with Dahal.
For its part, Dahal’s party is still licking its wounds after former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai quit over differences with the chairman’s handling of the party last September. It’s hard enough to conclude whether Dr. Bhattarai – the erstwhile chief ideologue of the ‘people’s war’ – is still a Maoist, now that he is the principal votary of a new force. How far the other fringe factions led by Matrika Yadav, Mani Thapa, Pari Thapa and Hemanta Oli would bolster unity remains anybody’s guess.
That may not necessarily be a bad thing for Dahal, who has thrived on keeping everybody else guessing about his next moves and motives.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

A Red Herring In A Recalcitrant Republic?

Heavens, the Chinese must have promised the sky this time.
If the angle broached about in the barest of terms vis-à-vis the latest political circus is anything to go by, Beijing thwarted New Delhi’s attempt the dislodge the government led by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli.
Truth be told, the mandarins up north have said a lot of things to a lot of Nepali leaders over the centuries. If the accumulated wisdom is worth anything, it counsels against putting too much stock in those promises.
Prime Minister Oli, however, seems to be breaking new ground here. This begs the logical question: what did the Chinese say that made our once Fierce One step down several notches in the docility index?
That something was cooking somewhere was all too clear to the national olfactory senses. Former king Gyanendra dashed to Delhi and back so suddenly that pictures of a simple ex-royal family rafting excursion merited much more than the society pages.
That was after newly elected Nepali Congress President and parliamentary party leader Sher Bahadur Deuba returned from an extended medical trip to the Indian capital that camouflaged political consultations. United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, for his part, reportedly refused to fly out in that direction for fear of precipitating a political backlash.
Yet Dahal barely lasted 24 hours in his public avowal to lead a new government with the help of the Nepali Congress. Murmurs of a Chinese hand started appearing, but never took a more sonorous form. Instead, Oli advised President Bidya Devi Bhandari not to proceed with a planned visit to India. (That, too, after the head of state breached protocol by detailing part of the substance of her putative agenda.)
Deputy Prime and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa – representing the ostensibly royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal – ended up becoming the most forceful and seemingly only defender of the Oli government during its hours of gravest peril.
In an address to parliament, Oli became rather outspoken in the second half of his speech against external machinations. When the government announced that it had recalled Ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyaya from New Delhi for actions incompatible with his status, the weirdness got weirder. Such phraseology, customary when the host government expels a foreign ambassador, was a first in the annals of Nepali diplomatic history.
Granted, the Chinese have reason to be miffed by apparent Indian threats to the Oli government following the ‘groundbreaking’ agreements signed during the prime minister’s recent visit up north. Yet, amid the latest political crisis, nowhere have the Chinese equivalent of institutions like the Research and Analysis Wing or individuals like Sukh Deo Muni been identified as complicit in the machinations.
What specific threats, if any, did the Chinese make to precipitate Dahal’s U-turn? Did they remind Nepal of its responsibilities as the last tributary to the Middle Kingdom? Did they reiterate Sun Yat-sen’s lament over how China had lost Nepal to imperialism? Did they invoke the Great Helmsman’s dictum that Nepal constituted one of the five fingers of the Chinese hand? Or did they implore Dahal to remember Zhou Enlai’s paeans to ‘blood ties’ between the Chinese and Nepali peoples – and all that that implied?
India’s perceived dilution of its vaunted strategic autonomy to join the China containment/encirclement bandwagon gives credence to an escalation of the dragon-elephant rivalry in Nepal. But have the stakes risen so high for the Chinese to mount such an overt move to checkmate the Indians?
Or could all this be just a red herring? Specifically, what are the chances that the entire episode was a by-product of the turf wars within India over its Nepal policy? Those advocating the logical culmination of the 12-Point Agreement process (whatever that might be) have long been contending with the rival school demanding a review and rectification of that approach. After all, passions are as high on each side as are the perceived righteousness of those respective causes to their proponents.
And there is precedent here. The Indians benefited for a while claiming that the Maoist ‘People’s War’ in Nepal was being run by China, while providing support and sanctuary to our Maoist leaders on Indian soil. Of course, Beijing was too smart not have sought to mobilize our Maoists to their advantage. But the irony was the China almost ended up reaping the entire benefit of India’s propaganda campaign after our Maoists rose to power.
Galling as that irony still must be across the southern border, there must be recognition of a greater short-term benefit in pointing the finger to the Chinese as the Indians struggle to come up with a coherent and credible policy on Nepal.