Saturday, November 18, 2017

Dreaming Up Others’ Dreams

Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is consumed with purveying dreams these days – except they are not his own.
At one public function, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) vowed to fulfill the dream of the late strongman of the Nepali Congress, Girija Prasad Koirala. Days later, he promised to complete the tasks left undone by Madan Bhandary, the late founding general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).
G.P. Koirala, if anything, was a cold-hearted realist. If he had a recurrent dream, it was to become Nepal’s first president. And Dahal, lest we forget, had firmly stood in his way.
Madan Bhandary, ideologically and by inclination, was a dreamer. But his dreams were dense with rhetorical flourish. In Dahal’s own estimation, Bhandary was a dark spot on the glorious light of communism that survived his death. And wasn’t that why the Maoists had to band together and fight the ‘people’s war’. 
Yet today Dahal tells us that he was huddling with Bhandary to forge a grand leftist alliance. (Curious, then, how all we heard was how Bhandary was in talks with King Birendra when he perished in that mysterious car plunge.)
If the Nepali Congress and the UML have been able today to establish themselves as the principal champions of republicanism, federalism and secularism, it is because Dahal & Co. have let them. No wonder the foot soldiers and field commanders of the ‘people’s war’ who have not prospered politically in the past decade have stopped asking whether the 10-year insurgency was worth it all.
In the realm of politics, dreaming is not necessarily a bad thing. And who knows that better than Nepalis. All three tenets of New Nepal were dismissed as pipe dreams until the very moment they happened. With so little indigenously to go by, moreover, weaving dreams keeps us preoccupied. 
Still, why chase G.P. Koirala’s and Bhandary’s dreams when the Maoists have woven enough of their own? Is it because they are dead and cannot vouch for what they did or did not envision?
Maybe there is a more hardheaded reason. Dahal, in his post-Dasain avatar, has given us every reason to believe that he anxiously wants his party to be taken over by a ‘lesser’ organization in order to wipe out all traces of the Maoists’ existence. If people want to remember the once-formidable organization, let them do so in the realm of lore.
The present is rooted in existence and evidence. In the aftermath of a collective vanishing act, it would be harder to haul Dahal & Co. all the way to The Hague. More importantly, the fraternity would be able to evade responsibility for translating into vivid reality the wonderful dreams they once sold.
It would have been much better if the Maoists had voluntarily disarmed, disbanded and dispersed among the existing parties once the ‘people’s war’ screeched to a safe landing. After all, few if any in that organization had ever promised us a ‘people’s peace’. Maybe that’s what Comrade Dahal is really getting at here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Abundant Gratitude, In Life And Death

In death, Kirti Nidhi Bista has been appropriately eulogized for his indefatigable defense of the nation’s interests and for his spotless persona as a public figure.
Bista’s first term as premier (1969-1970) is remembered for his decision to remove Indian military checkposts and liaison office as part of consolidating Nepal’s national sovereignty and territorial sanctity.
During his second tenure (1971-1973), King Mahendra passed away. In serving King Birendra, the prime minister provided much continuity amid the aspirations for change the new monarch’s ascension had inspired.
Yet, when Singha Darbar mysteriously caught fire, he resigned on moral grounds. Few could be sure what Bista could have done to prevent the calamity that struck the iconic central secretariat. That decision has been held as an example of political integrity.
Bista returned to the premiership in 1977 and resigned in 1979, when King Birendra announced a national referendum in response to student protests that threatened to burgeon into a full-blown national insurrection.
The royal proclamation read over Radio Nepal exhorting the people to choose between continuing with the partyless system or returning to multiparty democracy was said to have come as a surprise to Bista. Regardless, he concluded that he could no longer continue to lead the government with the nation standing at such momentous crossroads.
After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Bista tried his hand in competitive politics, alongside, at one point, another ex-premier, Matrika Prasad Koirala. Having failed to make any headway, he quietly receded into the background.
In 2005, he emerged to become one of the two vice-chairmen in the government headed by King Gyanendra as the monarch took full state powers. After the collapse of the royal regime amid a popular uprising in April 2006, Bista continued voicing his opinions on crucial national issues.
Sure, he had his fair share of critics. Many called him a palace lackey, while others denigrated him as China’s pointman in Nepal. Indeed, if Bista was the only Nepali politician the Chinese might have been tempted to rate among the Zhongguo renmin de lao pengyou [old friends of the Chinese people], Bista certainly earned the spot. Two episodes, both preceding Bista’s ascension to the premiership, serve to illustrate the roles he played.
First, a little background. Growing Sino-Nepali engagement in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war had manifested itself in increasing flows of Chinese aid to Nepal in an ostensible effort to offset India’s preponderance. At the same time, the logic of the Cold War precipitated American, British, and Soviet aid policies aimed at countering Beijing.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Nepal-China bonhomie was not a done deal. After his high-profile visit up north in 1961, King Mahendra would not visit China again. Premier Zhou Enlai, who had visited Nepal twice, skipped Kathmandu during his travels in the region in 1964 and 1965.
As Beijing pulled out of two aid projects – rather brusquely in Nepali eyes – the value of Chinese economic assistance had begun to be reevaluated in some Kathmandu quarters. Official Chinese pronouncements, for their part, had begun referring to friendship and support for the Nepali people rather than for the Nepali government.
The palace’s apprehension of a shift in Chinese policy was no doubt bolstered by the fact that the pro-Chinese faction of our communist fraternity was in exile in India advocating an uprising against the monarchy, while the pro-Soviet wing was quietly backing the king.
As the Kathmandu-Tibet highway opened to one-way traffic in December 1964, a Chinese technician who defected to Taiwan alleged that the road was constructed for military purposes. An official in Kathmandu revealed the discovery of four large caches of arms reportedly smuggled in by Chinese agents. The Soviets began playing up such reports of ulterior Chinese motives in Nepal, prompting Beijing to condemn Moscow’s tactics.
In an effort to widen Nepal’s strategic space, King Mahendra began seeking US and British military assistance, and Kathmandu politely turned down a Chinese offer to build a road connecting the Kathmandu-Tibet highway with a point in the eastern Terai. Although Beijing was said to have made angry complaints in private, it never voiced them publicly.
When the CIA made another airdrop of arms, ammunition and food supplies to Khampa rebels in Mustang in 1965, the Chinese pressed the palace to act. Several Khampas were arrested in Kathmandu with arms and radios and an American diplomat was expelled for having supplied them. Welcoming those moves, Beijing considered them insufficient.
Against this grim backdrop, Bista, as Deputy Prime Minister, visited Beijing in August 1965. By the time he returned, Beijing seemed satisfied enough with the royal regime to step up aid projects in the form of the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway and Sunkosi hydropower station.
The second episode came in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. As the Kathmandu-Tibet road was opened to traffic the following May, Chinese media reported that Nepalis at inauguration ceremony had raised slogans extolling Mao as “the red sun which shines most brightly in the hearts of the people of the whole world”.
The expulsion of two Chinese diplomats from India in June 1967 intensified tensions as some 200 Chinese Embassy officials and project technicians gathered at Tribhuvan Airport to welcome the two men. When told they were not on the flight, the assembled Chinese raised anti-Indian and pro-Cultural Revolution slogans, prompting New Delhi to lodge a strong protest.
Tensions escalated later that month at the annual exhibition held to celebrate the king’s birthday. The Chinese wanted to put up a portrait of Mao beside King Mahendra’s in their stall, although Liu Shaoqi was China’s head of state. A crowd of Nepalese students attacked the Chinese stall before attacking a Chinese Embassy vehicle and the Nepal-China Friendship Association library.
The official Chinese media accused US ‘imperialists’, Soviet ‘revisionists’ and Indian ‘reactionaries’ of having instigated the Nepali ‘hooligans’. It also accused Nepali authorities of having ‘approved and supported the protests’, a charge subsequently leveled by the Chinese government.
Although immediate tensions subsided, Nepal grew more suspicious of the China. Beijing, too, reevaluated its stance. Bista paid a visit to Beijing and seemed to have succeeded in injecting a modicum of normalcy in relations.
During a visit to Kathmandu in 1969, Indian Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh reaffirmed that Nepal and India shared special relations. Bista, by now prime minister, described such relations as outdated in view of the progress Nepal had made in its foreign relations. (Among other things, Nepal had been elected to a two-year term as a member of the United Nations Security Council.)
Bista went on to demand the withdrawal of Indian military checkposts along the Nepal-China border, insisting that Nepali troops were available and capable of doing the job. Stating that the Indian military liaison team stationed in Kathmandu had completed its work, Bista demanded its withdrawal as well. 
New Delhi met those demands, but not without noting that Kathmandu’s assertiveness had come three weeks after Bista’s return from a visit to China. (Bista would reveal in a newspaper interview in 2015 that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi subsequently told him that the matter could certainly have been taken up in private.)
Bista had no illusions about himself or his times. He never sought personal credit for any success or shirked responsibility for failure. That trait stood in sharp contrast with the behavior of most Panchayat leaders who relentlessly criticized the monarchy and partyless system before lauding the wonderful things they claimed to have done while in office.
When many erstwhile members of King Gyanendra’s council of ministers continue to complain of having had nothing better to do in office than swat flies while the foreign and home ministers ran the show, Bista continued to contemplate on the state of the state till the very end and counsel anyone interested in hearing him out.
His request for a simple funeral was perhaps the ultimate expression of his abiding gratitude to his motherland – for having honored him with the opportunity to serve.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

A Spectacle That Could Be Worth Savoring

If you are still struggling to recover from the sheer suddenness of the leftist alliance forged over Dasain, the spectacle across the political spectrum since should help to cheer you up.
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has advised the Nepali Congress to return to the doctrine of B.P. Koirala, instead of hyping the threat posed by the united reds. (Does that include B.P.’s Two Necks in a Noose theory, too, Comrade?)
Media personality Komal Oli, who ditched the right-wing Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) to join the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML), ended up filing as an independent candidate in a Dang constituency.
Although Oli withdrew her nomination in favor of the official leftist alliance, it was only after weighing her chances with Khum Bahadur Khadka of the Nepali Congress. Khadka, we are told, opposes the official Nepali Congress candidate. And the official UML candidate – representing the leftist alliance – is a former RPP man. (If Oli was reluctant to take on together the establishments of the two principal political formations, can you really blame her?)
In Chitwan, Devi Gyawali, the UML candidate for mayor who succumbed to Dahal’s daughter, Renu, in Bharatpur’s mayoral election, after having created a near-constitutional crisis over torn ballots, has decided to support Dahal’s campaign in the district. The RPP (Democratic)’s Bikram Pandey announced with much fanfare that he would challenge the Maoist chairman. But Pandey has since lost his party’s district president, who defected to the Maoist Centre.
The RPP-Nepal is still in the Nepali Congress-led alliance except in Jhapa-3 where Rajendra Lingden has garnered the support of the leftist front. In the end, Krishna Prasad Sitaula had to be given the Nepali Congress ticket there because he felt the easier proportional-representation route to parliament was a putdown. And speaking of the PR list, Ganga Chaudhary Satgauwa is on the lists of both the UML and Naya Shakti.
Nepali Congress leader Govinda Raj Joshi probably does not have enough time to make much of a dent after the Election Commission annulled his candidacy as an independent. But he will surely try to sabotage party vice-chairman Ram Chandra Poudel, the official Nepali Congress candidate. That race merits watching, especially considering that Joshi’s heft often helped Poudel win elections in the past.
Too many things are happening at the same time on the Madhesi front. But if there is one question you can ask, it is this: did the country have to undergo such a massive regionalization of national politics to regroup districts the panchas had already organized into five subregions into paltry seven?
Granted, the provincial and local structures are yet to prove their worth and the pitfalls identified therein might turn out to be no more than minor inconveniences. But did we have to see the divisions in that part of the country in all their rawness for an extra two subregions? Maybe we did. Without the Madhesi and janjati movements, after all, federalism might still have been an aspirational attribute in our midst.
If all this could serve to clarify Nepal’s newness even a shade or two more, the spectacle will certainly have been worth seeing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Finding A Place Between Haughtiness And Hopelessness

Maoist Center chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s taunts and gibes to the Nepali Congress seem to be troubling quite a few prominent members of our senior ruling party.
The leftist alliance so suddenly sprung upon the nation amid the Dasain festivities has given an opportunity to the Nepali Congress to rejuvenate itself, Dahal began pontificating shortly thereafter. That line has become almost a refrain on that side of the political spectrum.
Granted, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his allies gave a bit of an opening by their undue alarmism in response to the development. But, really, their agitation was probably triggered more by the unexpectedness of the event than by an earnest appraisal of its potential implications.
Lately, Deuba and his colleagues seem to be exuding a more relaxed attitude. Just the other day, the prime minister left out the M word when he rumbled on about how his party had vanquished the Rana and Panchayat autocracies. Now, was his apparent amnesia relating to the events of April 2006 an accident or a deliberate omission? That’s something the lefties can scratch their heads on.
Meanwhile, Gagan Thapa, the most prominent Nepali Congress republican of his generation, has detailed the ways in which his party could stand to gain from leftist unity. His core contention: the leftward drift of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) could only widen the potential base for the Nepali Congress. Other Congress leaders are torn between eternal smugness and abiding shock. The latter sentiment seems to be in greater abundance in their private engagements.
Yes, the Nepali Congress is in poor shape. No, it is not sapped of its intrinsic strength. Like any party in power in the world these days, Congress leaders can’t seem to see or think right. Worse, they are busy evaluating the guy or gal standing next to them in the party. Comparisons in terms of time spent in jail or of springs crossed versus current stature in terms of patronage and pelf emerge to ruin the animation and energy of wielding power.
In terms of resilience, however, the Nepali Congress is in a league of its own, bolstered no doubt by its enviable legitimacy. Party leaders may seem odious while in power, but in the end, they are the ones called to clean up the mess. After all, can Dahal and his comrades imagine the April 2006 uprising and its aftermath without Girija Prasad Koirala and his organization?
Sure, the left mobilized themselves on the streets. But what other party could have rewritten history in a way that turned what was a popular uprising against autocratic monarchy into a republican one and gotten away with it?
Still, the Nepali Congress easily manages to mismanage things by veering between alarmism and arrogance. The temptation gripping sections of the party to put off the elections to stop a possible leftist landslide is misplaced.
The UML and Maoists couldn’t do anything separately to turn the Nepali Congress into another Praja Parishad. This may be a case where they won’t be able to do much together, either.  In fact, let the proponents make up their minds whether the realignment heralds a radicalized UML or a much more moderated Maoists.
In the meantime, all you Nepali Congress leaders and supporters, quit telling us how great you and your party are. We the sovereign people don’t like it when you keep rubbing it in like that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Ins And Outs Of It, Here And There

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and his Naya Shakti barely lasted a week in the new left alliance.
If anything, that record gives some respectability to Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s desire to reunite his faction of the Rastriya Prajantra Party (RPP) with Kamal Thapa’s group, merely two months after breaking away.
As Thapa returned to the cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister, with seven loyalists in tow, Bijaya Kumar Gachchaddar’s formation is returning to the ruling Nepali Congress.
The RPP nominee who became deputy speaker of parliament, Ganga Prasad Yadav, marked the formal expiry of the body by joining the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. You may be forgiven if, in all of this churning, you missed the news that Keshar Bahadur Bista left the RPP faction led by Prakash Chandra Lohani to join Rana’s group. (Lest you forget, Lohani himself broke away from the RPP shortly after its much heralded unity convention).
Although President Bidya Bhandari was expected to do a Katuwal and block Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s decision to expand his cabinet, she pulled back at the last minute. Not that she could have done much, at least after Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav certified that the expansion did not violate the election code of conduct. All that whining and moaning in the past? Well, don’t ask.
Deuba had little to lose. He has been insisting that the size of the cabinet is the prime minister’s prerogative. And it’s not as if his image of affinity for elephantine ministries created circa 1995-1996 was going to go away just because he suddenly turned lean and mean.
How all this will play out is anyone’s guess. The government is working overtime to tamp down fears that the provincial and federal elections might be put off.
It’s useless to fret over the prospect of  a combined communist juggernaut taking over Nepal. What are they going to do with all that power?  Divided, our comrades couldn’t be expected to stand. In unity, too, they are hobbling.
The alacrity with which the Nepali Congress – or at least the ruling part of the party – has turned rightward has raised new possibilities from that end. But the options being talked about there have not really been off the table since April 2006.
External stakeholders – state and non-state alike – seem equally baffled. And they may not be faking it. The Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu has been telling everyone willing to listen that her country had no hand in the sudden realignment on the left.
Maybe so. But that has not stopped the Indians from mounting their own version of an anti-access/area denial campaign. Could Bhattarai’s hasty exit from the left alliance suggest something here? Perhaps. But what if New Delhi engineered the Dasain surprise?
The right hand is free not to know what the left hand is doing – or not to want to know. There’s no rule saying you have to be inside the country or outside to display such obliviousness.
Our national transition has acquired a momentum of its own, based on exigencies and imperatives that are not entirely our own. Let these dynamics play out as they will as part of an open-ended process. We can all take turns feeling good and bad, regardless of who’s in or out. What could be fairer for those here and there?

Saturday, October 07, 2017

But How Real Is Our New Reality?

In retrospect, that Dasain picture spoke a thousand and one words.
Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ observed tika festivities after a hiatus of 22 years but left it to son, Prakash, to publicize the affair via social media. Our estimation, before the pictures emerged, was that Dahal, as usual, would have goat slaughtered at home and pretty much stay indoors.
Our collective astonishment focused squarely on this phase of the ‘normalization’ of Dahal, and he played along very shrewdly. That must be why we’re having a hard time making sense of the dramatic realignment that has gripped the left.
Dahal’s one-time deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who broke away to form his Naya Shakti, was defiant against ever joining hands again with the Maoist Center chairman, at least in this life. Yet there Bhattarai was, jubilant amid Dahal and another fellow ex-premier he routinely berated, Khadga Prasad Oli, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. Wonder of wonders, the erstwhile people’s warriors consented to playing second fiddle to the half of the parliamentary duo they rose up against.
The master hair-splitter he is, Bhattarai may be technically correct in claiming that he has not joined Dahal or become a full-fledged communist again (he is merely contesting the upcoming election on the UML symbol). The other groupings that have gravitated toward the UML-led alliance recognize which side their bread is buttered. More entities and individuals are bound to do the same in the days and weeks ahead.
The Nepali Congress, for its part, is torn between indifference and apprehension. Some leaders see the development as a natural outcome of our choppy politics as it seeks equilibrium. Other Congress leaders fear for the future of Nepali democracy. The divergence of opinion therein merely means that the Nepali Congress still hasn’t been able overcome its decade-long identity crisis. It is being pushed toward forming one faster than party leaders wish to acknowledge.
Lest we worry about the fallout from the latest development, Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav has urged us to remain confident that the elections would be held according to schedule. We have to believe him, at least, for now.
With two successive legislatures hung in the midst of over a dozen political formations, Nepalis might be forgiven for any temptation to put faith in a two-alliance system. Since the putative Nepali Congress-led grouping remains in the realm of possibility, it would be germane to focus on what impelled the realignment on the left.
We have it on the good authority of UML leader Bishnu Poudel that this was the culmination of a decade-long process. If so, the secret confabs the UML’s then general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal held with Maoist leaders on Indian soil and the two royal takeovers they supposedly precipitated start to make greater sense.
True, the imperative of taming the Maoists gained urgency after 11 p.m. on June 1, 2001 after it became clear who didn’t survive the Narayanhity Carnage and who did. Taming, by definition, entailed relegation to second or third place. But the Maoists ended up gaining strength under royal rule, eventually ousting the monarchy, enflaming the southern plains, and emerging the top vote getters in elections certified as free and fair. The job of Messrs. Poudel and Co. just became harder. But they had to persist.
On the geopolitical front, things were in flux. Since Tibet and the Olympics were of paramount concern to the Chinese, their alacrity in abandoning the old and allying with the new was understandable. As our transition got murkier, second, third and fourth thoughts began to emerge up north.
The Indians didn’t want the Chinese veering too deep inside Nepal, but they were more interested in keeping third countries out, a desire shared by Beijing. The UN special political mission came in handy as a temporary fix but was soon coopted by the very third parties and overstayed its welcome. The Chinese, for their part, began sending representatives to conferences of Terai-based parties.
While the Dragon and the Elephant succeeded in evicting the United Nations, they had a harder time figuring each other out. Someone had to take that one bold step, but neither side wanted to be the one. The Chinese had more lucre, level-headedness, and luck while the Indians had more laments. Still, neither side would take the plunge. Then came Doklam, which really hasn’t gone away.
As geopolitical dynamics cut across our two political formations, we can brace for a proxy rivalries that would dirty only our hands. The search for a new equilibrium will have begun in earnest, everyone will have ducked blame, and our hopes will have sputtered into life for another stretch. But, then, all this would depend on how real our new reality is.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Between Self-Congratulation And Smugness

The Dashain-Tihar interregnum will no doubt produce sustained streams of self-congratulation over the positivity powering the national psyche in the aftermath of the staggered local elections.
The three-phase polling for village and municipal entities, conducted by two governments representing the same ruling coalition, was a significant achievement. Cabinet expansions, administrative transfers and other knotty interventions in between – regardless of whether they actually violated the Election Commission code of conduct – have not tarnished public faith in the democratic exercise and its aftermath.
The principal protagonists have largely accepted the popular verdict, vowing to learn the right lessons, and are preparing themselves for crucial provincial and national elections. As established tangible preconditions for the full implementation of the new Constitution, the country – the leaders and the led alike – will need to proceed with utmost judiciousness and solemnity.
Once that milestone has been crossed, however, the concept of ‘implementation of the constitution’ will have acquired a new sense and significance. From a destination, that juncture will have become a point of departure in a persistent process of alertness and application.
Ensuring concord and coherence in structural and operational spheres among the local, provincial and central governments will be something new to us. So would the imperative of sensibly allocating power and resources, simultaneously managing the purse and expectations. Forgoing the naming of provinces and determining their capitals in the interest of holding elections made sense as an act of political maturity. Those very imperatives have the potential to assume far less pacified dimensions. In all this, Nepalis will have to learn by doing.
More portentously, mismanagement, corruption, favoritism and the other banes blighting our modern polity – and systems around the world – will acquire renewed focus. Perceptions of foreign meddling – pronounced at the most sanguine of times – would exacerbate the challenges of those governing as well as the governed.
Should the going get inordinately rough, it won’t matter whether foreign powers are really conspiring to perpetuate conflict among our diverse ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions – and yes, political ideologies. Nepal’s precarious geo-strategic position and more than a century and a half of a hemmed-in mentality provide enough combustion.
No one will uncover incontrovertible evidence of plots to tear apart the country because no one will demand it. When perceptions flow along a reality-like narrative, prophecy can easily become self-fulfilling.
Fortunately, the flaws naysayers like yours truly have identified in the Constitution ever since its promulgation have not been able to stop our political momentum. Yet our own experience has taught us how ambiguities and uncertainties can emerge when we least expect them. Worse, they can be contrived with little exertion, given the right political circumstances. The amalgamation of the personal and political is a double-edged sword. If it can be a sign of abiding commitment, it can also be a catalyst for convulsion.
In the prevailing celebratory mood, it is tempting to dismiss such warnings as irrelevant or, worse, revolting. But the complexities defining life in general today are bound to deepen intricacies on both sides of the political contract.
Today’s constitutional clarity can revert to elusiveness so easily because of the abstraction national stability, prosperity, unity and similar concepts have become.  Amid all-round fluidity, the road from self-congratulation to smugness can only be a slippery one.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Don’t Let Them Make You Feel Small, Comrade

Revolutionary Maoist chairman Mohan Baidya has firmly ruled out the possibility of his party’s merger with the once-formidable mother party, citing lack of ideological affinity with its supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Baidya seemed too indignant to stop there. “Let Dahal and his Maoist Centre merge with the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, since he seems far more comfortable hobnobbing with them”,  he said.
The Revolutionary Maoist chief was responding to Dahal’s incessant pleas for the unification of all Maoist factions. These days, the onetime Fierce One seems miffed at having to almost grovel before his erstwhile comrades. His supplications have started to sound like threats.
“Baidya, Baburam and Biplav will be wiped if they do not return to mother party,” Dahal said a few weeks ago, referring to the breakaway factions led by Baburam Bhattarai and Netra Bikram Chand.
Having emerged as the strongest Maoist entity in the nearly dozen years since the end of the ‘people’s war’, Dahal is obviously ashamed at having become the third political force in the country.
Speaking in Rukum, part of the Maoist heartland, the other day, Dahal said his party, which was the largest in the first Constituent Assembly, faced a severe beating owing what he called its ‘arrogance’.  “We were together with the people during the ‘people’s war’, but failed to reach people after the peace process.”
Nothing bad in being penitent. Yet Dahal seemed to imply that repeated splits in the party were responsible for its woes. If everyone just got back together, everything would be the way they used to be.
Not so fast, says Baidya. Since Dahal had betrayed the people’s revolution, Baidya insists, Nepal needed another revolt to uphold the cause of national independence, people’s republic and development. Bhattarai and Chand, too, have rejected the notion of unity more or less on the same grounds.
Baidya has more credibility on the betrayal banner. After all, the ball of the Maoist-mainstream alliance got rolling while Baidya – like his party colleague Chandra Prakash Gajurel – was in the custody of Indian authorities. It was almost as if the release of Messrs. Baidya and Gajurel was predicated on their acquiescence in the Indian blueprint for Nepal.
Now, we can’t say for sure what difference the duo could have made had they been free. For the first few years after the 2006 12-Point Accord, they seemed alright with the course Dahal had embarked on.
Bhattarai, on the other hand, was the catalyst that drew Dahal away from the palace and towards New Delhi after the royal takeover of February 2005. Chand, a Dahal loyalist who went along with Dahal for a while, was later too disgusted by the chairman’s tilt. Matrika Yadav broke away once the dynamics of the Madhes movement became clearer. The other splinter groups were more personality driven, so much so that they hardly merit Dahal’s individual mention.
Like your average brainbox anywhere, Bhattarai wants the country to look at his intentions, not the results of his actions. If the Maoist experiment fizzled after they laid down their weapons, it was the party chairman’s fault. Such brazen abdication of responsibility was galling to most people. No wonder Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti hasn’t been able to get off the ground.
Dahal, for his part, should try to build on what he has. Trying to woo back those who left would only serve to alienate those who are still with him. “Those who accused me of lampasarbaad [capitulation] have come around to praising my statesmanship,” Dahal recently said of his second term as prime minister. It would have been nice if he weren’t the one making that point. Still, that fact alone should not undercut the underlying validity of the assertion.
Having taken turns allying with the UML and the Nepali Congress is not something he should be ashamed of. That’s what the hard reality of Nepali politics has dictated. The post-2006 experiment is a work in progress. Consider how we’re told that the rightists could restore the monarchy. Or that the mainstream parties could do away with federalism.
Despite its truncated status, Dahal’s party has secured its ground as the guardian of our gains. In the ultimate campaign of pursuing our nebulous newness, no one else can play that part, even if that entails running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Some Things Seem Like They Are Just Made To Last

The fellas scattered across the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) factions just can’t stop twirling to their own tunes.
Here we have the Chinese doubting the depth of our commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative and the Indians deliberating how far we have slipped out of their grasp. The country is surprised at how the devastating floods could have caught us by such surprise. The penultimate phase of institutionalizing the ‘newness’ ushered in almost a dozen years ago is just around the corner.
Yet the boys in the RPP are interminably rallying the Supreme Court, Election Commission and whatever state institution they can find to their respective causes.
RPP chairman Kamal Thapa blames the government for splitting his party last month. As if to lend credence to the allegation, the rival RPP-Democratic of Pashupati Shamsher Rana is salivating to join Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s administration.
The RPP-Nationalist of Prakash Chandra Lohani, who broke away days after the much-ballyhooed reunion of the ex-panchas earlier in the year, derides those in power as no less than looters.
So how could loot – or at least allegations of it – stay out of the latest brouhaha? When Thapa pressed Deuba to investigate the latest scandal gripping the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), he wasn’t training his guns on Gopal Bahadur Khadka, its already beleaguered chief. The prime minister is now is hesitant to induct Deepak Bohara, a leading member of the Rana-led RPP as a cabinet member, because of his earlier tenure as supplies minister, which the NOC comes under.
Bohara, like Thapa, is a first-generation pancha. Both were instrumental in the creation of the controversial student wing of that birdie called partylessness. The student organization could barely take flight, but Bohara and Thapa by then had cemented their respective political careers. That they continue to dominate our political discourse must testify to their impressive political skills. But they still act like parties are still banned in Nepal.
Rana, in deference to Deuba, has reportedly withdrawn Bohara’s name from consideration. With clockwork precision, an enraged Bohara is said to be threatening to split Rana’s party.
The Rana-led RPP committed a blunder in flaunting how all the three directly elected legislators in the united party had come over to its side. That might have been a clever move in the context of the party’s internal battle for legitimacy.
When you start making such distinctions in an assembly that is dominated by members elected through the proportional representation system, you’re on a slippery slope. After all, it’s not as if PR members are akin to palace-nominated Rastriya Panchayat members of yore.
Sure, Nepalis may not have given their votes to those members on the basis of their personality, but they did so based on party platforms. Institutionalizing a class system within the elected legislature throws a monkey wrench into an assemblage that resembles primates that don’t know what to do with they coconut they already have.
When will the RPP factions learn to become relevant to the times? Or maybe, judging from their success in continuing to grab our attention, there is a more pertinent question: Will Nepalis ever break free from the past?

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sell-Out Or Buy-In?

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba probably expected the ‘sell-out’ slur well before he delivered his constitutional amendment assurance at the joint news conference with his host, Narendra Modi, in New Delhi the other day. If not the constitution, our premier’s critics would have found something else to quibble with.
Even before departing Kathmandu, Deuba must have taken some reassurance in Modi’s own discomfort. With Doklam having defined Nepalis aspirations and exasperations vis-à-vis Deuba’s visit, Modi couldn’t have afforded to take a hard line. Any significant softening on Nepal was also out of the question, given the pressure the Indian prime minister faced from his nation’s foreign-policy hyperrealists. So Modi was left with playing with the optics.
And the Indian prime minister did conjure up new visualizations. Modi’s unscheduled warm-up meeting with Deuba – after having dispatched External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to the airport to welcome the guest – gave Nepalis good reason to begin scratching their heads. Swaraj’s impromptu water-glass gig further elevated style over substance, which the Indians no doubt found handy in drawing the attention of the Chinese.
Subsequent news coverage suggested that Nepal-China relations figured prominently during bilateral talks in Delhi. If so, it’s unlikely that the Indians expressed satisfaction over Nepal’s success in diversifying good-neighborliness. They would have commended us publicly if that was how they felt.
It’s more like that they admonished us in private. Don’t try to punch above your weight over the Doklam opening, fellas, or some such variation. Nepal is in no better shape than Bhutan when it comes to withering under two wrestling behemoths.
Notwithstanding the external bonhomie, visiting Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang’s private message earlier in the month couldn’t have been much different, except for an additional admonition on the folly of falling into a maze of Trumpian unpredictability.
Did Nepal need such reprimands? Even if we did take sides on Doklam, it’s not likely that we would have reinforced our sentiment with military or other such powerful underpinnings. Sure, we could maintain a pious diplomatic posture malleable enough for everyone. But, then, how much room do we really have to stretch ourselves? So it’s all about self-preservation. Call it equidistance, equiproximity or what else you will, we’re in the little league.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have options. Was it a coincidence that Nepal used Deuba’s visit to India to let it be known that it was planning to ask China to extend its Shigatse railway line upto Kathmandu via Kerung. Lest you dismiss this as another instance of the beggar trying be the chooser, Nepal intends to back up its request on the ground that the proposed railway falls under the concept of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Translation: Nepal took a great risk in joining the BRI and needs to show something for it.
Sell-out? Nah. Sounds more like a buy-in.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Struggle Between Knowledge And Wisdom

Having rued the self-induced rockiness that marred his first term as prime minister in 2008-2009, Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ sought to build a persona of peacemaker during his recently concluded second term.
Indeed, what stood out, more than his success in setting in motion a staggered local election few thought could be held, was his easy handover of the premiership to coalition partner Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress in accordance with their original power-sharing agreement.
If legacy is what Dahal is really eyeing these days, then he certainly has been mouthing the right things with an impeccable admixture of tone, tenor and thrust. Just the other day, he frankly conceded what we all knew all along: that the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center alliance with the Nepali Congress was aimed at the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML).
Instead of dismissing the admission as indicative of a further coarsening of our politics, consider things this way. When someone of Dahal’s stature takes such pains to stress the obvious, you are forced to dig deeper for content and context.
Is the communist movement in Nepal still locked in an ideological struggle between the two ‘isms’ of the UML and the ‘thought’ of the Maoist Centre? Furthermore, has it become incumbent upon our harder line comrades to correct the UML’s misguided drift into narrow nationalism from the original internationalism guiding communists the world over?
Even if this battle is really only about crude politics, Dahal’s candor is still welcome. Maybe we can all begin to take politicians’ pronouncements with something less than a fistful of salt.
Dahal’s latest observation on Baburam Bhattarai was also revealing. The Maoist Center chief had every opportunity to openly berate and belittle Bhattarai, whose audacity and inventiveness in breaking away from his onetime boss is in free fall. But Dahal chose a more courteous albeit no less cutting course. Bhattarai possesses much knowledge but little wisdom, he said.
In doing so, Dahal paid due deference to Bhattarai’s doctorate but aimed straight at that other vaunted attribute: his ability to gauge and grapple with ground realities. For that acumen to shine during his period as chief ideologue of the ‘people’s war’, Bhattarai needed the organization that grew under Dahal. Without that symbiosis, Bhattarai, despite the best of intentions, has been left dithering.
Contrast Dahal’s candor with that coming from the other end of the ideological spectrum. Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) chairman Kamal Thapa, having suffered a damaging party split, has been trying to persuade us that the development is ultimately for the better. While Thapa has sounded enough self-deprecation and compunction to appear sincere, you can see how bad he is hurting.
After an extended meeting of the party leadership outside the capital, the RPP decided to vote against the constitutional amendment bill put forth by the government. That about-face would have been less jarring to the public if, say, Thapa had discovered holes in the text. Instead, he asserted that the vote against the bill would be in protest against the ruling coalition’s supposed hand in instigating the party split. Which only goes on to show that everything is fair in hate and peace.
Not that the breakaway faction led by Pashupati Shamsher Rana has demonstrated any more wisdom. True, that group got out with more people than it had gotten in with. Before you are carried away by the supposed strategic or tactical deftness of that move, think a bit more – outside the realm of the Supreme Court and Election Commission. If you have to distinguish your new party with a suffix that adjectivizes what is already a proper noun in your formal name, you’ve certainly got a problem.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Coalition Of Convenience For The Quarry?

Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre candidate Renu Dahal’s election as mayor of Bharatpur Metropolitan City has left the country pondering the potentials and pitfalls of what presents itself as an alliance between the Nepali Congress and Maoist party over the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML).
Dahal razor-thin 203-vote victory over UML candidate Devi Gyawali, who garnered some 42,924 votes, could be the result of any number of things, ranging from outright state favoritism to a genuine reflection of the popular mandate in tight contest.
Gyawali, who conceded that Dahal had won, was careful to insist he had not lost. His accusation that the government, Election Commission and the Supreme Court had all connived to ensure the triumph of the daughter of Maoist Centre chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ resonates well in the UML. So the election result, following a controversial repolling in Ward 19, might herald a hardening of the main opposition party’s stance vis-à-vis the two major ruling parties.
The question, though, is whether the Nepali Congress and the Maoist Centre have really thought out an enduring alliance against the UML ahead of the upcoming provincial and national elections. The Nepali Congress of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, for its part, appears uninhibited in letting us know every which way that it sees the UML as its prime competitor. That way, it would have to wash fewer of its own dirty linen in public.
The Maoist Centre, on the other hand, clearly resents having to cede leadership of Nepali communism to the UML. But that party is careful to camouflage its discontent. Subterfuge, after all, has fueled its rise.
Daddy Dahal has publicly praised UML chief Khadga Prasad Oli for having demonstrated much sagacity during the local elections staggered over the months. That statement could be emblematic of many things. A proud father’s impassioned pre-emptive strike? Intimation to the UML that every door slammed shut can open another vis-à-vis the Maoist Centre? An admonition to the Nepali Congress not to take its junior partner in power for granted?
Speculation over motives and intentions of the Maoist Centre chief has been fueled by the fact that Province No. 2 still has to vote. How does Daddy Dahal know that Comrade Oli does not have surprises up his sleeves?
Regardless of the endurance or viability of any Nepali Congress-Maoist Centre alliance, the UML sees momentum on its side. The party has seized the banner of ‘nationalism’ and will seek to tighten its grip, especially after the split in the Rastriya Prajatantra Party. We can all lament how that term has been abused to the point of emptiness, but the fact remains that nationalism is still a vote getter.
The UML not only stood up to an Indian ‘embargo’ but also succeeded in cementing the Chinese as a credible geo-strategic counterweight. Does it really matter what we really got and really lost in the entire episode?
In the perception battle, the UML sees it has the most to gain. Maybe Oli & Co. will begin hammering harder the message that the Nepali Congress and the Maoist Centre is ganging up on the UML so that it becomes a crisp winning slogan for the upcoming elections.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Get Back To Where You Once Belonged...

If the expression ‘damp squib’ can be associated most aptly with any political formation in Nepal, it has to be the Naya Shakti of Baburam Bhattarai.
Indeed, the dude himself has been remarkably candid about the dud his organization has become. So you would have expected Dr. Bhattarai to be a wee bit sympathetic to calls for a homecoming. But, no, the one-time Maoist ideologue has shut the door on going back to the once-formidable Maoists.
Now, you could easily sympathize with Dr. Bhattarai here. It’s not as if Maoist Centre chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is anxious to vacate the party leadership in favor of Bhattarai. For his part, the Naya Shakti chief, whatever the disaster his decision to break away in September 2015 may have turned out to be, is not too keen to return to the veep slot.
Moreover, Dahal’s unity appeal was directed to the Mohan Baidya- and Netra Bikram Chand-led groups as well. Truth be told, for Dr. Bhattarai, that might have been the real ultimate insult.
The Naya Shakti chief’s almost visceral instinct for distinctiveness was also apparent in the botched merger with the Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal (FSF-N) led by Upendra Yadav. Dr. Bhattarai’s explanation for the last-minute breakdown earlier this month is a bit bizarre. Naya Shakti espouses federalism, he said, while the FSF-N supports ‘federal socialism’. This is akin to splitting hairs, unless Dr. Bhattarai wants us to believe he isn’t too keen on federalism anymore.
Also, if there were differences on “some ideological and political issues” besides the party’s name and organizational issues – as Dr. Bhattarai suggested the other day – then wasn’t Naya Shakti’s decision to contest the local elections on the FSF-N symbol an act of duplicity.
Dr. Bhattarai also says the FSF-N is “reluctant” to transform itself into a new force. But isn’t that the exact thing people leaving Naya Shakti have been accusing the party of?
It’s one thing to oppose ‘careerism’ and advocate ‘good governance’ philosophically. Practically, you need to do more than going after the Chinese company building a hydro plant and demand the scalp of the water resources minister who let it in.
So here’s the deal, Dr. Bhattarai, coz this sure ain’t working. Step back two steps or even three and recall where you were before you joined the Maoists (or formed it). Doesn’t it feel like you’re almost back there after parting ways with Dahal and Co?
Admit it, your best days were with Dahal, as his deputy. Sure, you two never got along. That was the beauty of it. Each of you could craft ideologically laced but seemingly incoherent charge sheets that we took as prose of profundity and watch you duke it out.
Clearly, Dahal misses you a lot. Deep down, you seem to, too, if not specifically the man then all those moments with him. So what if you have to step down a notch? Do it for us.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dreary Dance Of The Bit Players

It took less than a year for skeptics of the viability of a reunited Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) to exude a vigorous sense of vindication. Senior leader Pashupati Shamsher Rana has taken strong exception to party chairman Kamal Thapa’s decision to appoint 42 central committee members “without holding consultation”.
Thapa, with no less defiance, responded by insisting that the party’s decision was binding on all. Rana’s statement accusing Thapa of running the party “in an autocratic way” echoed the indictment delivered by another erstwhile senior leader, Prakash Chandra Lohani, while breaking away from the RPP weeks after the much hyped reunification in November.
Fears of formal split loom large, adding pressure on Thapa and Rana to settle their differences urgently. But, then, the roots of the rift transcend the two personalities.
The circumstances surrounding the unification between the two groups were not entirely clear. After all, until a few weeks prior to the development, Thapa and Rana were regularly exchanging vitriol. Unity, moreover, had suspiciously come close many times before it equally suspiciously was called off.
The RPP’s poor showing in the local elections no doubt exacerbated the internal divisions. It was no secret that the Rana faction opted for unity after realizing that it could not beat Thapa’s group. Implicit in that decision was an acknowledgement that Thapa would take a sustained victory lap.  In other words, if Thapa has been running the RPP as his personal fiefdom, Rana has enabled him in no small measure.
Equally natural, therefore, is Rana’s decision to pounce on Thapa the moment he smelled blood. If Thapa continued to claim single-handed credit for positioning the RPP as the fourth largest force in parliament, Rana was not unjustified in holding the party chairman responsible for the drubbing at the local polls.
When asked, second and third-tier RPP leaders do not shy away from conceding that former king Gyanendra is a factor in the party’s current travails. Whether or not he is actively fomenting the divisions and even instigating a possible split, it is undeniable that the former king is a major stakeholder in the RPP.
While Thapa’s pro-monarchy and Rana’s anti-monarchy platforms remain authoritative albeit antagonistic dynamics in the RPP, both factions are united by the espousal of the Hindu statehood agenda, which the former king also personifies.
As to personalities, king Gyanendra, during his direct rule, had an opportunity to study his supporters as much as he did his opponents. Thapa’s record as home minister and Rana’s role as a pro-democracy critic despite leading the best-organized pro-monarchy group must have come into sharper focus during the waning weeks of April 2006.
If the former king saw in Thapa’s articulation of a monarchy-restoration campaign as a mere electoral tool, some of the RPP chief’s public comments – before and after the party unification – certainly served to fuel suspicion in the ex-monarch as well as among the public.
Thapa, too, must have been gripped by his own anxieties, particularly over perceived insufficient appreciation by the ex-monarch of his contributions to the royal cause. While ex-king Gyanendra surely found the RPP useful in keeping the agenda alive, he is too deeply rooted in Nepali realities to expect – and even accede to – a monarchical restoration on the narrow base of Thapa & Co.
Should the monarchy be restored, it would be on the edifice of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist and the Nepali Congress, with the acquiescence of the Maoists. How the three major forces would conjure up such a seemingly implausible common agenda is theirs to figure out. Time and circumstances would certainly help them arrive at a decision, especially given their demonstrated proficiency in devising last-minute deals and 11th-hour compromises over the past decade.
As for the RPP, leaders and followers would just have to learn harder how to live together or live separately. It has been fun so far to watch their antics, but the show is becoming a tad bit tedious.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Tibet Sanguinity In The Sikkim Missive?

If the Indians seem to be shrugging off China’s latest threat to support Sikkim’s independence against the backdrop of growing tensions on their Himalayan frontier, they have good reason.
Admittedly, the former Himalayan kingdom was incorporated into the Indian union through a series of highly underhanded maneuvers. And, yes, it took Beijing three decades, having pursued a sustained campaign of cartographic legerdemain, to formally recognize that Sikkim is part of India.
The fact remains that there is no tenable sentiment for Sikkim’s independence manifestly palpable inside the territory. One cannot delve into the hearts and minds of the Sikkimese people. For practical purposes, the independence movement – if there ever was one – has been snuffed out.
‘Sikkimization’ and ‘Bhutanization’ are useful slogans for rabid Nepali nationalists on the left and the right. Beyond that, Bhutan seems hardly bothered by its own ‘subjugation’ by India to feel strongly about Sikkim’s status.
How the Indians managed to pull that off continues to baffle many Indians. The formula has not been replicable in Kashmir, Punjab or any other restive part of the world’s largest democracy.
Could New Delhi’s ethnic cleansing in Sikkim have done the trick long before the term ever was conceived of as a prosecutable offense in an international tribunal? If Lhendup Dorje, the prominent native Sikkimese politician whose exertions were central to the merger of the state into the Indian union, was subsequently forced to spend his life frying fish in a West Bengal transportation hub, one can easily surmise the plight of his compatriots.
The ethnic Nepalis – a concept hard to fathom given the identity crisis in Nepal – who control Sikkim today seem quite content with the status quo. They have no reason to look admirably or enviously towards Nepal or the perennially agitated putative Gorkhaland, while New Delhi’s largesse continues to flow in.
As the writers of that Global Times editorial suggest, Sikkimese independence is a notion that could gain wider credence inside China. New Delhi knows that regime change long ceased to have a part in Beijing’s playbook under Mao Zedong. Switching the sovereignty of states, too, flows more from the history of Chinese humiliation. It is not an investment Beijing can afford to make in its rise to global prominence.
So what should be garnered from that hard-hitting editorial? This gem: “In the past, China was wary of India playing the Dalai Lama card, but this card is already overplayed and will exert no additional effect on the Tibet question.”
The Dalai Lama turned 82 the other day and can only wilt further into the twilight of his life. Is the editorial emblematic of China’s confidence in the full and formal incorporation of Tibet into the Chinese state? If so, it would be immaterial whether the 15th Dalai Lama is designated or discovered, is done so by the Chinese or the Tibetan exiles, comes from inside Tibet or outside, is a man or a woman.
Now, if a Sikkim independence movement were to be launched from Tibet as part of the “certain conditions” that would “rewrite southern Himalayan geopolitics” – as the Global Times postulates – then that would be something to write home about.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Finding Our Way Through The Stars

If you listen to his critics, the ‘incompetent’ tag bestowed twice on Sher Bahadur Deuba over the last decade and a half is closing in on him early in his fourth innings as prime minister. Yet the man remains visibly undaunted.
The opposition, led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), was quick to pounce on Deuba’s decision to postpone elections to the local bodies in province number two to September 18 as a portent of disaster. Our prime minister, for his part, doesn’t think his latest term in office has even begun.
Deuba has been waiting for the stars to align properly before moving into the prime ministerial residence in Baluwatar. Juxtaposing his birth chart with the current planetary line-up, Deuba, we are told, has found Rahu in particular to be inherently unpropitious. Well-placed Jupiter alone has not been able to mitigate the malevolence of the dragon’s head. Conjunctions, aspects, combinations here, dissociations there, combustibility, exaltation, debilitation, retrogression, square, trine, every which way he looks at it, he just can’t leave Budhanilkantha.
The prime minister, having focused the two weeks following his swearing-in on remedial measures, has finally found a way. All things considered, Deuba’s real tenure would begin on Monday, June 19 around 6 am following completion of the prescribed religious observances, rituals and rites.
As the nation’s fate is inextricably tied to that of its most powerful citizen of the moment, Nepalis will have to exercise the requisite forbearance and fortitude. Yet the postponement of the local polls in Province 2 has cast a shadow perhaps unrivalled by the shadowiest of the celestial bodies.
The government said the postponement was announced in consultation with the agitating Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), which has denied any such meeting of minds. RJP-N leaders maintain they will boycott the elections, but some cadres have gone ahead and filed their nomination papers.
Furthermore, there are fears that Province 5 will go the way of Province 2, especially since the realities on the ground are similar. And we’re not even talking about the form of the constitutional amendment the RJP-N wants, not to speak of the content. Leader of the opposition, K.P. Oli of the CPN-UML has pointedly asked the premier, given the current pace of deferments, when he intended to hold provincial and federal elections.
Oli’s implication is obvious. Failure to hold elections to the remaining 481 local bodies, the seven provincial assemblies and the federal legislature by the constitutionally mandated deadline of January 21, 2018 would represent the failure of the experiment that began in April 2006.
Not to worry, according to Deuba’s personal soothsayers. The prime minister’s position will only get stronger once he is comfortably placed in Baluwatar.
And what’s so sacrosanct about a human-imposed deadline anyway? There are enough planet-specific chants and sacraments in our collective cache to untie the knot even if that magic potion called consensus failed to do the trick this time around.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Knowing The Deubas We Know…

With Sher Bahadur Deuba set to embark on his fourth term as prime minister, it might be enlightening to review the Nepali Congress luminary’s chequered political history for pointers to the future.
During his first term as head of government in 1995-96, Deuba projected himself as a consensus builder. Atop Nepal’s first experiment in coalition governance, he legitimized the ex-panchas, more out of political expediency than any thing else, but the effect was unmistakable.
Over time, Deuba began demonstrating questionable abilities to stay in power. Of course, it’s easy to blame him for having brought in the ‘Pajero culture’ and other distortions. Yet the structural and institutional quirks of multiparty parliamentary democracy coupled with the political culture (or lack thereof) of its practitioners brought about that degeneration. Deuba, as any politician would have, sought to make the most of the power of incumbency.
It was an innocuous misstep – an amalgam of credulity and confidence – that proved his undoing. Egged on by Nepali Congress chief Girija Prasad Koirala – his onetime mentor turned rival – to seek a vote of confidence he was not required to, Deuba called the vote. He stood by helplessly when Koirala connived to keep two members away from a vote Deuba was confident of winning.
Conventional wisdom holds that Deuba-era political corruption and systemic chicanery disgusted the country to the point of spawning the Maoists and their “people’s war”. Although subsequent coalition governments and a majority-burnished polity fared no better, the slur on Deuba stuck. The man got his revenge in the aftermath of the Narayanhity Massacre in 2001. When Deuba ordered a ceasefire, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ called him a brave man. Months later, Deuba would go on to place a bounty on Dahal and other Maoists leaders.
Deuba was so wary of Koirala that he didn’t see what was coming his way from other quarters. King Gyanendra got a lot of flak for having sacked an elected prime minister in October 2002 and consolidating royal authority. But it shortly emerged that other members of the political elite, notably Surya Bahadur Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, egged Deuba on to assert executive prerogative to postpone the election and stay on as premier. Thapa, simultaneously, was cautioning the king against an assertive prime minister.
If King Gyanendra had indeed overstepped his boundaries, he certainly had not done so to humour the political class. By the time the mainstream parties discovered that, Lokendra Bahadur Chand had been succeeded as premier by Thapa, who in turn paved the way for Deuba’s return in 2004.
Upon assuming his third term, Deuba said he got justice from the palace and persuaded the CPN-UML that regression had been half-corrected. Those who suspected that the prime minister and the monarch had conspired in an elaborate ruse felt vindicated. Koirala began toying with republicanism and we all laughed him off.
Deuba, we are told, knew something was brewing but pleaded helplessness in the fashion of B.P. Koirala in the runup to 1960 royal takeover. In fact, it was Deuba who cracked down on the Dalai Lama’s office and the Tibetans, giving King Gyanendra’s second takeover a pro-Chinese color. It seemed the royal regime singled out Deuba for persecution on corruption, while merely pushing the politics of the rest of the leaders.
Post-monarchy Nepal was still merciless to Deuba. Having been dismissed twice by the monarch for incompetence, Deuba was supposed to have been finished as a politician. But was he? If a ‘discredited’ monarch was the arbiter of Deuba’s fate, wasn’t that to be an advantage in a republican Nepal. Deuba lumbered on, biding his time. After wresting control of the Nepali Congress, he waited for the stars to align more propitiously.
The moral of the story? Actually, none. It’s just that Deuba has walked into far too many landmines and survived them. It would be fun to speculate on his mistakes, missteps and misspeaks. He’ll probably enjoy it, too.
Consider things this way. As we hurtle toward an inexorable unknown, wouldn’t having Deuba at the helm be reassuring? With a survivor like him, maybe we all will survive.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Flashback: A Memory Frozen In Time

When Shailaja Acharya waved that black flag in front of King Mahendra on Democracy Day 1961, she probably had no inkling of the eternalness of her action. Immediately hauled away by a stunned security detachment, Shailaja plunged into politics with a fastness that sent ripples right into the Sundarijal detention center where her illustrious uncle, B.P. Koirala, could barely conceal his contentment.
Shailaja never sought to cash in on that act of defiance. She was powerless to stop its undulation. That she stepped aside stood the country in good stead. In a sense, Shailaja reflected her uncle’s narrative of endurance. In prison, exile and back in prison, conviction and courage reinforced each other. Acknowledging herself as flawed as every human being by definition must be, Shailaja could remain unfazed by the sustained campaigns of vilification mounted by inveterate foes as well as purported friends.
With the collapse of the partyless citadel in 1990, Shailaja found the to-do list only growing. As agriculture and cooperatives minister in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s first government, Shailaja confronted a mess. Her immediate predecessor, Jhal Nath Khanal of CPN-Marxist-Leninist, had bequeathed to her a demoralized staff. When her own party and cabinet stymied her effort at wholesale cleanup, Shailaja quit. But it wasn’t your regular recourse to the easiest way out. The creeping corruption would ultimately undermine democracy, she warned from inside parliament.
Still, Shailaja was prudent enough understand why Premier Koirala could let her go so easily. He had the party – and future elections – to worry about. Multiparty democracy didn’t come cheap and graft greased the wheel of politics every step of the way. She would have to wage a solitary battle.
It was that curious mixture of principle and pragmatism that left the leader of the opposition, Manmohan Adhikari, comfortable discussing burning political issues with Shailaja in a way he never really could with his own party colleagues. Not someone prone to dispensing favors, Adhikari was often prepared to put in a word to Shailaja – and only Shailaja – if it was really unavoidable. The CPN-Unified Marxist-Leninist saw Adhikari as a useful figurehead. The communist lion, too, could easily see through the façade his supposed loyalists had built.
Shailaja returned to power becoming the country’s first – and only – deputy premier. The notoriously lucrative Water Resources Ministry could not tarnish her reputation. As vice-president of the Nepali Congress, Shailaja was fully equipped to provide ideological vigor. But the party had become a fractious entity where each satrap was busy extracting a bit of party history and reaping returns several times over.
The Nepali Congress, as the longest ruling party, inevitably began drawing public ire. Yet it seemed reluctant to acknowledge its paramount role in the squandering of the promise of 1990. Shailaja stood apart. Since the Nepalese people had limited expectations from the other parties, she argued, the Nepali Congress was morally obligated to be doubly contrite.
During the daily open house at his Jaibageshwari residence, B.P. Koirala often insisted that only two people could do full justice to his life story. Since Shailaja was preoccupied with day-to-day politics under a polity that allowed parties to function as long as they carried the prefix “banned”, Ganesh Raj Sharma, the eminent constitutional lawyer, stepped into the role his brother-in-law had envisaged.
Published posthumously, B.P.’s memoirs and prison diaries cast much-needed light on a critical phase of history and on his own transformation. The other branches of the extended Koirala family weren’t too thrilled by this audacious enterprise, yet they remained awed by the spark in the public imagination. B.P.’s immediate family was left lamenting how the Koirala mantle had been usurped by its least worthy claimants. Shailaja didn’t have to say a word.
After the 2002 and 2005 royal takeovers, Shailaja offered tepid support to the democracy movement. This underscored the Nepali Congress’ deviation more than her own ideological drift. It was impossible to label Shailaja as a co-conspirator in the revival of “royal absolutism”. But her critics did try their best.
Shailaja was resolute. The Nepali Congress could mount countless battles against the palace to retrieve liberty and freedom. That would not be possible in the event of a Maoist takeover, an eventuality she believed the Nepali Congress had brought closer in the name of upholding democracy.
The abortive ambassadorship to India allowed Shailaja’s opponents to strike what they considered the final blow in their demolition drive. The 48-year-old image, it turns out, is too solidly frozen in time.

This post originally appeared on Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday, May 21, 2017

How To Swap Horses Midstream (And Not)

Having overseen the first round of our high-profile local elections, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is all set to hand over the premiership to Sher Bahadur Deuba this week.
Our Maoist chief says he is bound by a power-sharing deal he struck with the Nepali Congress president last year before replacing K.P Sharma Oli as head of government. If Dahal is so anxious to prove that he is a man of his word, then who are we to nitpick?
Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist is outraged. How can one election be conducted by two prime ministers? “At a time when election commission does not allow to transfer even a clerk-level staff, how come we are going to change the government, prime minister and ministers?” asked Subash Chandra Nemwang, former chair of the Constituent Assembly. That is a sentiment shared by the Nepali Congress’ Shekhar Koirala.
Deuba & Co. would like to argue that the complexion of the government would not change. The Election Commission, while uncharacteristically assertive on all matters pertaining to the polls, is also eager to avoid that landmine. It knows that the national political process over more than a decade has been driven by compromises of convenience rather than constitutional niceties.
Since the second phase of polling, scheduled for June 14, will be focused on the Madhes, the apprehensions are obvious from that quarter. For one thing, that’s the region that has proved most intractable as far as matters of inclusion and representation are concerned. Furthermore, violence and volatility have meshed with geopolitics and granularity for so long that no one knows who stands for what and for how long.
All this exacerbates the gripping sense of uncertainty. Some Madhes-centric leaders see royalists trying foil the second round. Given the drubbing the Rastriya Prajantantra Party Nepal suffered in the first round, such allegations can find easier credence.
Other Madhes-centric leaders maintain what they consider their principled stance. Without an amendment to the Constitution, a second round is out of the question. So what if the first round was successful? It didn’t represent the bulk of the electorate, did it?
Amid all this, one question becomes more relevant: Is the power transfer a deliberate ploy to subvert the second round of voting and thereby delegitimize the first? That way, it would be impossible to conduct the three levels of elections within the constitutionally mandated January 2018 deadline. No single individual or entity could be blamed for such a disaster. Blaming political quirks and institutional compulsions would give the public mood enough resignation and despondency to make another experiment palatable.
Should things head in a positive direction, the nation can congratulate itself for having pulled off a remarkable feat and focus its hopes and fears on the next two elections.
Dahal, for his part, can sit back and relax. If he keeps his word, he will go down in history as that rare specimen of politician. If he wants to stay in office, he can let the CPN-UML and other critics do the heavy lifting.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Adore Or Abhor, It’s OBOR

Nepal’s decision to join China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative seems to have elated China to such an extent that Beijing has begun flashing its Nepal card.
China has been quite candidly apprehensive of our commitment to a new bilateral partnership and had all but set OBOR as a crucial test. With Kathmandu now officially onboard, Beijing is thrilled that we have ended our vacillation publicly and authoritatively.
It would be futile to assume that the signing of a framework agreement in Kathmandu alone would assuage Beijing’s underlying concerns about Nepal’s strategic commitments. But those apprehensions can perhaps be left for another day.
We are neither directly connected with the Silk Road nor with the Maritime Belt that are being restored under the ambitious initiative. Nepal’s role is what it has always been: a strategic link between the Asian behemoths. China, which is extending its Tibet railway to Nepal’s border in Rasuwa Gadi, plans to lay tracks all the way to the Indian frontier in Lumbini.
For now, Beijing sees Kathmandu’s participation as an eventual encouragement to India to shed its reluctance. Two leading Chinese analysts, in published comments, believe enhanced transport and trade connections between Nepal and China would eventually entice India.
Hu Shisheng, a South Asia expert at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said that Nepal has a big role to play to bring China and India together and to materialize the vision of trilateral economic cooperation. “If Nepal gets sustainably connected to China physically, I don’t think India can stop the momentum,” he said. “The local governments of northern India will mount pressure on the central government to make the right choice.”
While asserting that the bilateral cooperation would not be easily disturbed by other external forces, Hu was cognizant of that other vital quarter. He stressed the need for major political parties in Nepal to forge consensus to effectively pursue and implement projects under OBOR. In other words, the devil is in the details.
Still, the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them logic remains alluring up north. Wang Dehua, director of the Institute for South and Central Asia Studies in Shanghai, echoed Hu’s assertion that Kathmandu participation would ultimately nudge India to join OBOR.
Many Indians are advancing that argument. In the latest iteration, T.N. Ninan, Chairman and Editorial Director of Business Standard Ltd, publisher of India’s second largest business daily, asked the other day: “Does [India] risk being enclosed in a geographical cocoon if it spurns a multicontinent project for which everyone else has signed up?”
Indeed, key countries that have signed on to the OBOR initiative have done so in spite of all kinds of reservations, general and specific. As Ninan noted, India alone is manifestly hostile to the whole project. This is partly because of the sovereignty issue over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, through which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a major OBOR component, will run.
Additionally, New Delhi is wary of a transport link from Kunming in southwest China through Myanmar and via India to Bangladesh where China would like to set up a deep-sea port. The latter, in New Delhi’s view, would complete India’s maritime encirclement.
Obviously, India envisages its own regional connectivity networks. But so far, those are still in the imagination. The Chabahar port in Iran, envisioned as a route into Afghanistan and into Central Asia, has made little headway. Links to the Indian northeast through an Indian-built port at Sittwe in Myanmar remain stymied. Road and rail lines through Myanmar to Thailand and deeper into southeast Asia are even further from reality.
In a nutshell, India has begun waving its Tibet and Taiwan cards with greater audacity. China’s Nepal card looks more innovative, at least in this case.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Thank You, Ms. Pelosi, But…

Terms like resignation, impeachment and restoration are swirling around us and yet the United States believes it can take a leaf from Nepal's constitution.
Since it’s former US House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi who made that remark in Kathmandu the other day, you can take it with a pinch – nay, a fistful – of salt.
Because, just to refresh your memory, she’s the lady who wisely counseled anxious Americans to be patient about Obamacare. “We have to pass the bill to see what’s in it,” the speaker memorably said. (To be fair to Pelosi, a few Republicans were making the same pitch while trying to push through ‘Trumpcare’ in the House.)
Let’s not be too harsh on Pelosi on this one. She spoke after Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat briefed her on Nepal’s latest developments. And, lest we forget, Pelosi was specifically referring to “women” and “inclusiveness” in terms of the lessons her country could take from us.
It’s still amusing to hear Pelosi say what she did. Her leadership has converged with a phase that has seen the Democratic Party position itself as an exclusionary organization. During Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, top advisers all but declared that there was no place in the party for white men. Non-college-educated white males were in the worst shape. The future belonged to the winning coalition of blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ and immigrants (preferably the illegal variety).
Economics, under Pelosi, was dumbed down, too. Unemployment in the wake of the Great Recession became ‘funemployment’, where laid off Dads at least got to play with their kids. (Some of who could be up to 26 years of age, as defined by the health insurance law.) The childless got to get back to their passion for painting and singing. Food stamps, far from hollowing out the individual, were a national economic stimulus.
And Pelosi and her ilk are wondering what got Donald Trump elected. In the ongoing post mortem, Pelosi seems to have found her limits. She disagreed with Tom Perez, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, that the anti-abortion crowd had no room in the party. Still, there is an equal chance Pelosi may have misspoken. After all, she has called the incumbent in the White House Bush more than once.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter, wherein Pelosi praised the provisions made in Nepal’s constitution regarding women’s participation and inclusion, expressing the view that the United States could learn. It may be too late for that. Gender is a fluid concept on US college campuses, which house the base of today’s Democratic Party. The notion of inclusiveness can contain a tinge of microaggression, pushing snowflakes to safe zones. Learning from Nepal might have been a winning idea three years ago. Today, you have to make sure it does not constitute “cultural appropriation”.
Foreign Minister Mahat must have felt in the twilight zone, too. He studied in the US Mid-West long enough to appreciate the political evolution of the land of the free and home of the brave during the Clinton era. A few of Mahat’s tutors have today become part of the foreign policy establishment.
At the same time, our foreign minister must also remember his days in Nepal Students Union, when he and his vexed colleagues had to constantly hear American leaders and diplomats incessantly praise the partyless Panchayat system as an exemplar of democratic innovation.
We have learned to innovate our own way. Chief Justice Sushila Karki has been restored by a judge she was believed to have disliked. Cholendra Rana’s interim ruling read like the tear-jerker Pelosi and her party have perfected as a political tool. Home Minister Bimlendra Nidhi has withdrawn his resignation and rejoined the defense of the government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.
An arrangement seems to have emerged wherein the government would withdraw the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Karki on the undertaking that she will not look into cases during her short remaining tenure. (You are forced to wonder, though, why in the world you would want to give someone back her job only to make sure she doesn’t do it. But, that’s beside the point.)
So thank you Ms. Pelosi, but…

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Redundancy Of Regionalism Or Refitting Of Rivalries?

Disregard the embarrassment surrounding the naming of the new political organization created by six Madhes-based parties and consider the bigger picture: the trend toward nationalizing the articulation and engagement of political principles and passions.
Upendra Yadav, the originator of the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, morphed his organization into the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal. He is now mulling unity with Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti.  Earlier this month, Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar’s Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Democratic had announced a new party named Nepal Democratic Forum through a merger with two other groups.
Last week’s creation of the Rastriya Janata Party, amalgamating the Tarai Madhes Democratic Party, Sadbhavana Party, National Madhes Socialist Party, Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Republican, Tarai Madhes Sadhbhavana Party and Federal Sadbhavana Party, caps this trend.
“This is a new dawn in Nepali politics,” Rajendra Mahato said in comments published after the merger of the six parties. “It has united the people of Madhes in one cord. The wishes of Madhesi, Tharu, Muslim and all other communities have come true.”
Mahato did not stop there. “We are already an established force in Madhes but we don’t want to be limited there. By dropping Madhes from the party’s name, we are trying to give a clear message that this party is also the party of the people living in the hills and the mountains.”
All this begs the question: Has the redundancy of regionalism in our diverse albeit small nation dawned on its most active advocates? The ardent arguments over the powers, functions and jurisdictions of local bodies persist in all their passion. So it would perhaps be safer to say that devolvement and decentralization have been decoupled from regionalism as a guiding philosophy.
What precipitated this action? It is easy to advance the proximate cause as the series of elections whose successful conduct would be central to the triumph of the post-2006 national project. However, it would be useful to delve deeper.
Were the champions of regionalism finding it hard to defend their project from allegations of separatism? This question, in turns, paves the way for a specific one: Did the perceived association of Madhesi grievances and aspirations and methods of their articulation with Indian wishes begin taking a heavy toll on our Madhes-centric parties?
The tactical utility of regionalism in Nepal to India having been served, New Delhi would be understandably anxious to disassociate itself with allegations of having continued the destabilization of Nepal.
Notwithstanding the mutual advantage some groups and New Delhi derived during India’s recent economic blockade, Madhesi parties have seen little real benefit from Indian ‘patronage’. Ordinary people on our side of the border have long been familiar with the relative neglect of Indians residing the closest to us.
Then comes the China factor, considering Beijing’s engagement with some Madhes-centric groups in the post-monarchy years. It would be relevant to view such Chinese overtures with Beijing’s experience and perceptions of the New Delhi’s links with Nepali Maoists.
For long, New Delhi benefited from the perpetuation of the line that Nepal’s Maoists were being directed and controlled by Beijing. Indeed, it is hard to believe that a pragmatism-driven China did not maintain some kind of relationship with the Maoists while arming democratic and royal regimes to go after the rebels. Yet New Delhi was working out its terms of engagement with Messrs. Dahal and Bhattarai under the radar with utmost tactical advantage.
Eventually, the Chinese benefited from the Maoists’ rise here in ways that stupefied New Delhi, but perhaps not to the extent Beijing had hoped. Even if China’s post-2066 Madhesi outreach was not exactly a payback to India, it certainly could have been precipitated by raw geo-strategic calculations. Doubtless, flashing the Tibet/Taiwan cards against China is an audacious move on the part of an India confident of its aspirations in an evolving world order. But perhaps it is not audacious enough to respond to the One Belt One Road, CPEC, and ‘string of pearls’ and other obvious and amorphous initiatives on a multiplicity of levels.
In such a scenario, from New Delhi’s calculations, facilitating the nationalization of regional politics in Nepal would help to preempt Beijing from making further inroads, while allowing India to espouse more indirect but more effective means of pursuing that broader rivalry.
Thus, our national political future would only be the outward manifestation of the ebb and flow of geo-political/-strategic realities and assumptions, predilections and preclusions.