Saturday, December 30, 2017

When Does Order Matter?

Now that we have been so sternly schooled in the scope of practice of a government entrusted with holding elections, can we hope to be more sensible in our general expectations of what may come ahead?
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Nepali Congress were supposed to slither away in utter electoral humiliation once the scale of the leftist alliance’s dominance in the first-past-the-post category became apparent. Instead, the premier and his party still profess to be working on tasks required for an efficacious transfer of power.
We’ve been reminded, meanwhile, that we have a bicameral legislature in place, the upper house of which still needs to be elected. With supposedly more hardline Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center counseling conciliation on how that body should come into being, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) couldn’t afford to be seen as a spoilsport, especially amid all its post-poll smugness.
A full-scale retreat being more unpalatable, UML chief and putative premier K.P. Oli has taken to stressing that while the related ordinance per se may not be unconstitutional, the manner in which President Bidya Devi Bhandari was impelled to authenticate it was.
For now, the accepted wisdom is that it will take at least two more months for the new government to take office. That’s probably not much of a problem for the Maoists, who are already in power albeit without officially designated portfolios. (Ministers with portfolios aren’t faring too well these days, considering the shouting matches in the last cabinet meeting.)
If the sense of exhilaration generated by the three-tier elections seems to be abating somewhat, it’s probably because each day seems to consume our attention with its new promise and peril. The merger of the UML and Maoist Center doesn’t seem as imminent as it did, say, a week ago. When UML leader Ghanashyam Bhusal suggested that the eras of People’s Multiparty Democracy and Maoism both were now over, growls erupted from both sides. If the obvious is so indigestible, then maybe burned bridges are meant to be rebuilt to find your way back.
We have a hung parliament in which the UML, Nepali Congress and the Maoists are the three biggest groups. More ominously, the fourth and fifth largest parties – the Federal Socialist Forum and Rastriya Janata Party – aren’t even fully behind the Constitution. Naming of provinces? Designation of provincial capitals? Divisions of resources and responsibilities? And the hefty bill?
More broadly, the Indians are intent on making up lost ground. The Chinese don’t know what to do with the windfall they’ve supposedly just reaped. The Americans? They’re still figuring things out, but want us to curb corruption in the meantime. And we’re not sure just how mad they are with us on that pesky UN vote on Jerusalem.
But, hey, we’re now fully and irreversibly republican, secular and federal. By the way, does the order matter?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Seeing What We Don’t See

Behind the demonstrable post-election squabbling may lurk any number of things. The leftist alliance’s resounding poll victory has laid bare the perils of political preemption as an electoral strategy. The unification of the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist factions of our communist fraternity is proving trickier than their votaries made it out to be.
In retrospect, the one-constituency-one-comrade formula may have done more to garner seats for the comrades than any abiding eagerness among voters to see the creation of one dominant communist party.
Top leaders of both factions have begun voicing their disenchantment with the unification process, but have so far kept their words measured. Our putative prime minister, K.P. Oli, continues to use his trademark allegories and parables. His presumed successor two and a half years down the road, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ insists on the historical inevitability of unification because, well, the parties have burned their bridges back home.
The Maoist chief concedes snags in the formal unification process. But informal efforts have produced consequential results that should be apparent any day. So much so that it has given Dahal the humility to acknowledge that he is second only to Prithvi Narayan Shah as an agent of change.
Probe any further and Dahal, true to form, resorts to deflection, accusing the Nepali Congress of backtracking from a prior agreement on the modality of National Assembly elections. The Nepali Congress, if we are to believe our top comrade, refuses to abide by the understanding flowing from the State Affairs Committee in Parliament to adopt the majority system for the polls to the upper house.
Maybe the Nepali Congress, in advocating a single transferable voting system today, is breaching that understanding because it feels entitled – like everyone else seems to do in the changed political context  – to second and third thoughts.
Dahal believes the Nepali Congress about-face stems from its fear that it might not win a single seat in the upper house. So he wants Oli to show enough magnanimity that would result in that party getting two or three seats and elevating the discourse in that chamber.
But who knows what the real hindrances are? Maybe our comrades are being made to provide assurances and commitments to alien quarters that are in substance extraneous to the imperatives of our air and water. After all, President Xi Jinping has intimated that he may, after all, pay a visit to Nepal once the communist government take office.
And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to club together Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, Oli and Dahal in a congratulatory overture aimed more at the process than the outcome of the election. The other international players of substance are too entangled in their own contradictions vis-à-vis Nepal’s profoundly divergent neighbors. That doesn’t mean those third players aren’t eyeing their own interests.
We will have a new popularly elected government sooner or later. It would all depend on how soon our comrades succeed in providing those aforesaid commitments in a way that seems both plausible and enforceable to the recipients. In the meantime, let’s savor the public posturing in all its (dis)ingenuity.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Flashback: Wackiness In Our Out-Of-Whack Times

These last couple of weeks must rank as some of the wackiest in Nepal’s politics. Caretaker premier Girija Prasad Koirala exudes a palpable sense of relief when he asserts the onus for solving the nation’s problems lies with his presumptive successor, Prachanda. Yet Koirala, demanding the presidency as the price of relinquishing the premiership, lectures us on the virtues of political morality.
Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Jhal Nath Khanal, calling February’s accord between the government and the agitating Madhesi groups flawed, claims that no agreement is ever etched in stone. The UML’s chief whip, Ram Chandra Jha, accuses Madhesi leaders of following in the footsteps of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. To avoid any religious connotation to the analogy, Jha, himself a Madhesi, also throws in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers chief Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The separatism slur too much for Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) leader Bijay Kumar Gachchadar. He accuses the UML of trying to divide the madhesis. Now look who’s talking. Isn’t the elevation of Gachchadar, a Tharu, as the MJF legislative contingent’s chief a blatant effort to split one of the principle groups against the One Madhes One Province demand. Who can forget Koirala’s tap on Gachchadar’s shoulder in the assembly chamber following his resignation speech that wasn’t, which set off the post-monarchy bedlam? Or, for that matter, Gachchadar’s defiant claims till the very last minute that he would never abandon the Nepali Congress?
The Maoists, wearied by this war by other means, finally agree to consensual politics before any resort to majority governance. Nepal could head toward disintegration if it does not stick to the path of consensus, Prachanda concedes. Hard to quibble with that, although it would have been nice to see that realization while the unelected interim legislature was busy foisting that overly liberal citizenship law on the country.
The Nepali Congress immediately scents a Maoist-Madhesi alliance (Remember the Maoists’ self-proclaimed “restraint” after the Gaur carnage?) Bolstering the NC’s suspicions is the Madhesi reps’ boycott of the legislative session to allow the fifth amendment to the interim statute to be adopted. In doing so, the Madhesi MPs retain the right to agitate at will and, by extension, provoke a wide array of other Nepalis as the Pandora’s Box lets out its most vicious apparitions.
Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal, underscoring that matters had not reached boiling point as far as Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were concerned, nevertheless suggests the moment of reckoning may not be so far off.
Then comes the stunner. Paraphrasing UML chief Khanal, Kamal Thapa, president of the only avowedly monarchist party in the assembly, emphasizes the interim nature of our nascent republic. While his Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal continues a campaign to reinstate the monarchy during the drafting process of a full-fledged constitution, Thapa also foresees cooperation with the fiercely republican Maoists on issues of nationalism. Bewildering as that balancing act appears, it remains consistent with our out-of-whack politics.

Originally posted on Monday, July 14, 2008

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Tangling Anew With Tilts And Tugs

The geo-strategic narrative that was gradually building in the run-up to our elections has begun to boom across the neighborhood and beyond.
If the Chinese are as thrilled about the leftist sweep in our federal and provincial polls as we are being told they are, they certainly won’t be showing it. They are more likely to continue their admonitions to the Indians against reading too much into the electoral psychology of Nepalis.
In the coming days and weeks, the results will be dissected in all their glory and gore. For our purposes here, let’s begin by accepting the prevailing Indian premise that Nepalis have voted en mass against India. Is a northward Nepali tilt a foregone conclusion? Instead of ‘Bhutanized’, have we all suddenly become ‘Maldivized’?
Will Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government learn from not having let Nepalis be Nepalis and back off a bit? In style, perhaps. But hardly so in substance. The Indians aren’t about to give up on their most advantageous flank in their stepped-up rivalry with China. If anything, New Delhi may decide to become more creative in its dealings.
The canvas may be quite conducive. A Nepali Congress licking its wounds will have a mind working in different directions. Throw in those party luminaries who will always have a hard time believing the scale of their rout.
Gagan Thapa and his ilk may well blame Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel for the fiasco all they like. They will find Deuba and Poudel’s fingers already pointing to the late Girija Prasad Koirala and Krishna Prasad Sitaula. (Isn’t the irony irresistible here? The man who did the most to hitch the hitherto monarchist Nepali Congress onto the republican Maoists was defeated by a royalist supported by the Maoists and the Marxist-Leninists).
Will the Kamal Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana factions and all the royalists in between suddenly realize how badly they squandered their last chance and mend their ways? Fat chance. Counterintuitive as it may sound, the people happiest at the royalist/Hindu statehood rout are the royalists (the real ones, one might add).
If the monarchy/Hindu statehood-restoration agenda moves forward at all, it will now do so on a wider berth inclusive of a Nepali Congress looking wistfully at its roots. Even before the first votes were cast, Deuba and other Congress leaders were warmly espousing Hinduism in public. There’s a fair chance that the Two Necks In A Noose Theory will enjoy some kind of revival.
The regional groups may find themselves busy pursuing their agenda within the regional structures, if they are not distracted by a more immediate imperative to regroup amid the new political realities.
In retrospect, Deuba may have grossly overplayed the communist threat. That doesn’t mean the left will be looking over its shoulders with any less apprehension. They own the place – including whatever they bake and break. Alluring as the prospect of monopolizing credit for success is, they know they won’t have anyone to kick around when the going gets rough. But let’s not prejudge our comrades.
However, there is enough that permits us to delve deeper into the China tilt storyline. Khadga Prasad Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and most of the folks on their end of the political spectrum may have their personal preferences in terms of our two neighbors. Yet they have the political savvy not to forget their debts to the south. And they must be thinking of their future. If, God forbid, something happens and they need to take a hike, the trek southward will prove far easier.
It’s not only geography. Our comrades are conditioned by history. The northern experiences of Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Jang Bahadur, Chandra Shamsher, kings Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra convey a definite dismal pattern. Dahal and, to a lesser extent, Oli are familiar with the unsentimental pragmatism the mandarins up north have mastered as a tool of foreign policy.
On the other hand, our comrades have seen the hospitality the Indians have accorded Mohan Shamsher Rana and ex-king Gyanendra individually, even after having exhausted them institutionally. Politics is the art of the possible. Without self-preservation, can there be many possibilities?

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Watch Your Words – For All The Tomorrows

A suddenly salient feature of our politics today is the post-Dasain transformation in its language.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s campaign rhetoric is reminiscent of the pre-1990 era wherein anything the communists said or did was tantamount to a conspiracy against the Nepali Congress and democracy (which the party considered synonymous).
The communists, for their part, have brought back memories of an even distant era, one preceding the Pushpa Lal Shrestha-Keshar Jung Rayamajhi rupture (or, more appropriately, the Sino-Soviet split). It’s as if idealism should continue to trump achievements to votaries of that ideology, even after all that was sifted from the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
The results of the local elections, the unification drive between the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and perceptions of a diminution of the royalist threat as the country hurtles toward the culmination of the post-April 2006 process have all played a part.
No less important are the realignments on the geo-political front in the post-Doklam/Dong Lang context. International headlines today are eagerly portraying elections that are supposed to signify the complete and irreversible affirmation of Nepal’s entry into newness as one more front in the Sino-Indian contest for supremacy.
From that standpoint, at least, Nepalis may be forgiven for wondering whether these times presage the kind of surprise the multigenerational Pande-Thapa bhardari rivalries produced before the Kot Massacre of 1846.
The UML and Maoist Centre seem content to perform their respective roles as members of a mutual admiration society. UML chairman K.P. Sharma Oli, when he is not training his jests and gibes on Deuba and his party, has been adulatory of the impending union between the two major Nepali communist parties.
The superlatives Maoist Centre chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal used in support of UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal the other day were, at best, cringe-worthy. And not because of the words per se.
On its own, Dahal’s praise for the great personal risk Nepal took in meeting with Maoist leaders during their days underground in the interest of building confidence and consensus is laudable. However, the echoes of ‘Delhi’s lapdog’, ‘poison tree’, ‘royal supplicant’ and other slurs Dahal & Co. have used against Nepal in the past continue to grate us.
Days earlier, Dahal exhorted his rivals in the Nepali Congress-led alliance to mind the language they are using against the communists. His point was that the imperative of cooperation among today’s rivals would continue to exist even after the elections. “Let’s not exchange words today that might make us too embarrassed to shake hands tomorrow,” the Maoist chairman said.
True words. But, then, isn’t the converse equally true? Don’t compliment today’s allies to the skies lest you lose the potency of words required if (when seems more likely) the time comes to censure them again tomorrow.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Could This Be What The Dalai Lama Meant?

The outrage that continues over the Dalai Lama’s recent assertion that Lord Buddha was born in India is understandable. If the Ocean of Wisdom who draws every drop from the Enlightened One’s eternal waters doesn’t have his facts straight on this one, might the Almighty even deign to save our souls?
We’ve passed the stage where history and geography provide any parameters for discussion on this subject. Suggesting that Prince Siddhartha was born in Nepal and attained Buddhahood in India becomes mere hair-splitting. Nor does it help to question whether notions of today’s Nepal and India should even be applicable to events of yore.
Stress the wisdom of upholding the universal teachings of the Buddha instead of obsessing with his antecedents and you end up muddying the waters further. If the clarification offered by the Dalai Lama’s Office on November 25 seems to fall flat, we know why.
“[We] would like to clarify that His Holiness meant no disrespect towards his Nepalese brothers and sisters. Like Buddhists everywhere, he wholeheartedly accepts that the Buddha's birthplace was Lumbini,” a statement on the official site of the Dalai Lama reads.
“What he wanted to emphasize in contemporary terms is the importance of understanding what the Buddha taught and the scope of his influence throughout Asia. It is universally acknowledged that India, the land of the Noble Ones, is where the Buddha achieved enlightenment and subsequently gave profound teachings. We trust that this clears up any misunderstanding or misapprehension.”
Owing to the continuing trust deficit, Maila Baje has attempted to examine the Dalai Lama’s assertion in a different way. The contentious remark came in the course of answers His Holiness offered to questions from students in Meerut on October 16. Thus, it preceded by over month the latest hullabaloo the Dalai Lama has generated by assuring the Chinese that he sought not independence for Tibet but its development.
To be fair, the Dalai Lama hasn’t really renounced the patron-priest relationship with China that underpins his institution. When Chinese forces took full control of Tibet in 1950, he remained inside the territory and continued discussions with Mao Zedong in Beijing on ways to secure the best deal for his land and people. The two men seemed to admire each other.
When the Dalai Lama visited India in 1956-57, there were expectations that he would seek asylum. However, he returned home. By the time he fled in 1959, His Holiness was disenchanted with Beijing’s policies and actions. Still, his flight was linked primarily to his personal safety. The repudiation of the 17-point agreement and the notion of a government in exile followed once events took a particular course.
There was no shortage of external elements that desired to see the Dalai Lama established not as a symbol of Tibetan independence but as an anti-China mascot who could be raised or lowered according to geopolitical exigencies. (Something akin to this happened here when Surya Bahadur Thapa & Co. scared B.P. Koirala into exile citing the second thoughts King Mahendra supposedly had after freeing the Nepali Congress leader from Sundarijal in 1968.)
Having seen the Americans, Brits and everybody else sacrifice Tibet on the altar of their own interests, the Dalai Lama must sometimes wonder how differently history might have unfolded had he decoded to stay in Lhasa. His Holiness has enough roots in this world to cherish his celebrity status and attempt to put it to good use. Who would blame him if simply chose to play along with the independence guild.
When hyper-realists in India in their post-Doklam exuberance dream of using the individual and the institution to step up pressure on China, the Dalai Lama may have felt the need to refocus his script. In seeking to conciliate China during his November 23 remarks to the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata, he may have sought to put the brakes on Indian pugnaciousness in time and ensure more lenient treatment of compatriots back home.
In this sense, the Buddha-was-born-in-India line may have had a more portentous purpose amid the 14th Dalai Lama’s impending exit and the inevitably antagonistic search for a successor. If the Indians could so easily discard their ‘own’ son – the Buddha – and let the Chinese claim the mantle of Buddhism, how wise would it be for Tibetans still dreaming of independence to rely on the Indians?
When the Indians wanted the Dalai Lama to be a good guest at Dharamsala all these decades, they gave him a set of do’s and don’ts. Maybe Tenzin Gyatso now wants the Indians to be good hosts.
Did he have to injure Nepali pride in the process? That, as they say, is a good question.

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.