Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sustaining The Hope For Unity

Unity is back in season. As political exhortation, at least, it is.
Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal the other day urged all local adherents of the Great Helmsman to fulfil their “historical responsibility” to get back together in order to save nationalism.
What, you might ask, could have led the leader of an organization already called the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to contemplate any further unity among the like-minded. The question is moot. Dahal’s principal audience, Mohan Baidya of the breakaway Maoist group, agreed with the basic concept of unity. But, Baidya added, there was more smoke than fire in the belly of Dahal. So he should stop “blabbering” before, one might add, adding some blubber to it all.
Not long after Baidya’s retort, Dahal slammed Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, another breakaway from the once-impressive community, for having betrayed the voters of his Gorkha constituency. How could someone who won a seat in the constituent assembly as a Maoist leave the party and – compounding the original sin – think about forming a new force, Dahal wondered. A little too late for that kind of thinking, one might have thought.
But unity is in fashion on the other end of the spectrum, too. The Koirala family must unite to save the Nepali Congress, according to a leading member of that fraternity, Shekhar. After the sudden demise of party president Sushil, the party had become “chaotic”, Shekhar affirmed. The members of the Koirala clan must rally around one member to save the party so that it could save the nation.
In fact, the three main claimants to the family mantle recently sat together to discuss issues confronting the party, Shekhar said, adding that they had decided to put up a common candidate for influential positions in the upcoming party convention. What nobility, indeed, in such trying times! The logical next question: What safeguards might they contemplate to ensure compliance with that undertaking? Or is it too early to be asking?
Prakash Chandra Lohani of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party seems to have been emboldened by his organization’s latest success in tiding over its perennial fractiousness. Lohani now believes unity is likely among his party, Dr. Bhattarai’s new force and Upendra Yadav’s Federal Socialist Party. After all, Lohani says, the threads of nationalism and democracy run through all three organizations. (C’mon, does he really think it’s that simple?)
As the senior ruling partner, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist is undergoing the bitterest factionalism. Still, unity gets lip service from all the major camps therein. In the given circumstances, that should count for more than it seems.
At the public level, it’s hard not to be cynical when the very leaders calling for unity continue to behave in the most divisive ways. The Great Earthquake could not bring us together. So it was unrealistic to expect the Indian ‘blockade’ to have done so. But, then, what else can we do but hope? Maybe that’s a thought we can try to unite behind.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Carefully Planned Joint Operation?

Associated Press Photo
India’s border ‘blockade’ ended just the way it had started: without glitz. So the next logical question becomes: What difference did it make?
We’re no closer to a Madhes-friendlier Constitution. Heck, even many of the sponsors of the protests in the southern plains – a direct consequence of which was the ‘blockade’ – were surprised by the swiftness with which the barriers came down on the Raxaul-Birganj border.
One anonymous source was quick to lament how India ditched the Madhesis, who, he admitted, had taken responsibility for the closure to give cover to New Delhi. Perhaps it was no coincidence that news of former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s joint audience to our southern protest leaders got more ink, paper and air time in India than on this side of the border.
Those braving on insist that the protests would continue until an inclusive Constitution is achieved. Fine and dandy. But with the protest leaders’ credibility in tatters, that’s a tall order. In C.K. Raut, New Delhi has found someone more attractive to hobnob with and taken the game to a new level.
That’s why Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli avoids exuding any kind of triumphalism, despite his defiance during the early days of the crisis. Sushil Koirala’s death may have provided the public platform for the Indians to show that everything was fine all along in its relations with Nepal. Still, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj brief condolence visit – at the head of an all-party delegation – will have to be read in ways other than the most direct, if any significant meaning is to be derived vis-à-vis events that might be unfolding. After all, our prime minister still insists that he will do everything to ensure that Nepal would not have to hang its head in shame during his upcoming official visit to India.
With the bar set so low, a point made from the outset in this space becomes relevant. Was the Indian ‘blockade’ a carefully planned and meticulously executed joint operation intended primarily to call China’s bluff in Nepal?
Until 2006, Nepal was accused of flaunting the ‘China card’ so vulgarly that the supposed wielder – the monarchy – had to be dispensed with. Republicanism, however, ended up giving the Chinese greater foothold here. Worse, Beijing seemed to be laughing out the loudest. That in-your-face brashness from the normally reticent mandarins was uncharacteristic against the backdrop of a republican regime in Nepal driven by New Delhi on the backs of mostly pro-Indian political forces. In muted whispers, Nepali politicians, in an out of office, could be heard sharing their exasperation with the exigencies of engaging with assertive interlocutors up north averse to making any real concessions. What were the Chinese really up to, the Indians must have wondered?
It was time for both New Delhi and Kathmandu to find out. Well, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist leader Rabindra Adhikari summed it up best: “A quake-ravaged country faced blockades from the south, north at the same time.”
China, Adhikari pointed out, did not bother to reopen Tatopani when it was clear that delivering aid through Kerung was impossible given the lack of infrastructure there. Beijing, Adhikari went on, probably buckled under Indian pressure and stopped short of providing all possible help to Nepal.
Evidently, Adhikari is being charitable. Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Chandra Shamsher Rana and Birendra Shah all went through the frustration Gyanendra Shah and Pushpa Kamal Dahal continue to feel.
If the Chinese have anything up their sleeve in response to the latest turn of events, it has to be something better than reunification of the Dahal and Mohan Baidya Maoists.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Hissy Fit Or Bold Diplomacy?

It had to come to this, didn’t it?
Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli threatens to make China his first official port of call if India failed to lift its ‘blockade’ against Nepal.
Okay, not quite threatens. In effect, however, normalization of situation along the southern border has been advanced as a pre-condition for our premier’s maiden trip to New Delhi, if we are to go by ruling CPN-UML official Surya Thapa.
Now, we don’t know how or when exactly it became a matter of convention for a new Nepali prime ministers to travel to India on his first trip abroad. But the practice has held – or at least is expected to be so. Upon assuming office in 2008 amid fanfare, Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ broke that practice as part of his overall Doctrine of Discontinuation. We know how that turned out for him.
Dahal tried twisting himself into a pretzel explaining how his first official visit had indeed been to India, Beijing merely having happened to be the host of that quadrennial’s Olympic Games. In New Delhi, the big hug his counterpart, Manmohan Singh, gave turned out to be fatal for Dahal. The Maoist head honcho was soon out the door – and seemingly for good.
UML official Thapa, however, has covered his bases well, stressing that Prime Minister Oli has high regards for Indo-Nepal relations. He reminded us of the chronology of things. Shortly after taking charge about four months ago, Oli had a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who invited him to visit India.
However, if the Indians failed to show a gesture of good neighborliness, Oli’s trip to China as his first foreign destination was inevitable – also for logistical reasons. Because the day Oli spoke with Modi, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Wu Chuntai also called on the premier and handed him an invitation.
Protocol – if not precedence – might dictate that Oli visit India first. However, there was pressure on Oli from his party not to visit India first as long as the “unexpected and unimaginable” situation at the border persisted. As a good democrat, Oli could not in good conscience go against the party.
In fact, Oli himself had told a group of reporters that it would not be appropriate for him to visit India before the border ‘blockade’ was lifted. The Indians, for their part, officially shrugged off suggestions that Kathmandu had officially made such a linkage.
The latest Nepali contention – affirmed by another UML leader, Shankar Pokharel – contradicted what Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa had said upon his return from China late last year. Not only would Oli visit India first, Kamal Thapa said, but the premier would sign some agreements to implement past understandings.
So here’s what we can safely conclude. Nepal is flashing the ‘China card’ to end the Indian ‘blockade’. Is this a hissy fit or bold diplomacy? Time will tell.
It would be great to see Oli visit both India and China, irrespective of the order. Even one trip – regardless of where – would be good enough. Let’s just hope that Oli doesn’t have to leave office before having visited either neighbor.