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.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Flashback: Freedom, Fluster And Fatalism

Viewed from a section of the south, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s northern sojourn was a damp squib. That the Maoists’, like their ideologically disparate forerunners in power, never intended to set off fireworks, was beside the point.
Beijing, according to the dominant Indian media storyline, did not shower financial largesse on Dahal suggestive of a patron-client relationship. The trust deficit, therefore, must still be too wide. By alienating Delhi, Dahal only contributed to shortening his tenure as premier. The last conclusion stems locally, from analysts allied to the opposition Nepali Congress known to reflect Indian opinion.
Yet the sting still seems to burn in other parts of New Delhi. The Manmohan Singh government is anxious to welcome Dahal on his way to the United Nations General Assembly. Landing in New York City is not tantamount to visiting the United States, but the Indians don’t want to be downgraded another notch.
Dahal, upon return, immediately went on damage-control mode. He said he would make his first political visit to India. Why this sudden surge of obsequiousness? Did the Chinese really cold-shoulder him?
There’s probably a very basic explanation. Dahal must have had ample time during his shadowy subterranean existence – before the People’s War, if not during it – to study the range of India’s capabilities in Nepal.
Shortly after his election as our first democratically elected premier in 1959, B.P. Koirala had rebutted his Indian counterpart’s suggestion that Nepal fell within India’s security perimeter. In response, Jawaharlal Nehru yielded to B.P.’s assertion of Nepali sovereignty. But he chose to make public the letters exchanged with the 1950 treaty. Mohan Shamsher Rana, the Nepali signatory, could afford to laugh off the time lag; history had ensured an irredeemable reputation for his clan.
B.P., on the other hand, wasn’t going to be beholden to the Ranas eight years after their ouster. Certainly not when he was building bridges to Israel, one of Nehru’s favorite whipping boys.
B.P.’s assertion was bold, but it would mark the beginning of his travails. After eight years’ imprisonment in Sundarijal, B.P. went into exile in India to discover that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had almost become nanny to his daughter Chetana during his official visit as premier, couldn’t schedule a mutually convenient meeting for quite long.
A pattern of sorts emerged. In 1971, the Nepali Congress’ arsenal for the second insurrection against the palace had to be redirected to Bangladesh. Amid the 1975 emergency in India, B.P. somehow concluded that Sundarijal had been more comfortable. (At least he could gauge the mood of the royal regime by the quality of the cheese it offered each day.) Clearly, he died ruing the capacity for greatness his Indian friends had squandered in Nepal.
Yet B.P. was lucky. Few can decouple UML leader Madan Bhandari’s death in 1993 from his fierce opposition to the Tanakpur accord. Marx had enough space to live a life of influence in Nepal. He didn’t have to hobnob with the commies in West Bengal in an effort to paint Bihar and Uttar Pradesh red.
It’s hard to miss the connection between the Narayanhity carnage eight years later and King Birendra’s refusal to sign that controversial citizenship bill. The struggle between the palace and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala over the precise number of the treaties to be signed during Chinese premier Zhu Rongji’s visit might seem like a footnote today. Could it be any coincidence that the ones that weren’t would have had integrated Nepal’s economy closer to the north, leaving it less vulnerable to political manipulations from the south?
That ex-king Gyanendra owes his commoner’s status to his effort to bring China into SAARC as an observer is well known. Until then, efforts by one section of the Indian establishment to create a Maoist-mainstream alliance against the palace were being ridiculed by the other end. Honestly, how many of us haven’t wondered whether the last king could have avoided a fate worse than his brother’s were it not for the dimness of the potentially expedient line of succession?
Clearly, Prime Minister Dahal took a great risk by boarding that flight to China. His subsequent clarifications should not substantially diminish its importance. It would be safe to say that his personal well-being is now intertwined with Nepal’s.

Originally posted on Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday, April 09, 2017

As Bad As New

When Naya Shakti chief Dr. Baburam Bhattarai the other day decried the government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as the most corrupt in Nepali history, the reproach said more about the state of affairs the accuser finds himself in.
Doubtless, Dahal has descended from his furious revolutionary perch with an eerie rapidity. His rhetorical emasculation has been accompanied by sleazy deals aimed at facilitating his hold on power. Yet the Maoist chairman has been able to camouflage his flip-flop-flips in the garb of flexibility that Nepal’s convoluted politics so desperately needs to keep showing life.
Ordinarily, Bimalendra Nidhi, as the ranking member of the largest party in parliament, should have been designated the senior-most deputy premier. But, then, Nidhi, is not the leader of the Nepali Congress, whereas Kamal Thapa heads the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, although it is the fourth largest party. Nidhi the individual versus Thapa the institution? Cold calculation on Dahal’s part, yes. Put differently, pragmatism in power to depict a process.
On the other hand, Bhattarai, Dahal’s one-time chief propagandist, has lost much of his luster without seeming to have realized it. Things did not start to go bad after he left the Maoists. But they sure did get worse faster after he broke away. Bhattarai has stopped taking single-handed credit for turning Nepal into a republic – sort of. But he has not been able to turn into a leader who can persuade too many people to follow him right now.
The mess in front of the Election Commission earlier this month was emblematic of what plagues the doctor’s persona-infused politics. The police no doubt perpetrated excesses against the former prime minister. Still, Bhattarai should have let the country rage against it, not politicize things into a farce wherein the state eventually shrugged him off as being unworthy of detention on the public dime.
Indeed, such mortification is nothing new to Bhattarai. During the early 1990s, after the legalization of the party politics and before the Maoists went underground, Bhattarai was regularly roughed up at and hauled away from protests. Today the state should have considered the man’s age and profile. Yet Bhattarai, like the rest of us, saw the RPP’s Pashupati Shamsher Rana & Co. undergo similar treatment and must have known what he was getting into.
Then Bhattarai’s wife, Hisila Yami, stepped into it. Anyone could have misused the word ‘desh’ for ‘adesh’ in a frenzied and semi-conscious state. But Yami had to take that extra leap and tie the whole thing to supposed disadvantages linked to her janajati-ness. If her apology went on to exacerbate the damage of original statement, it was not for nothing.
All this has come amid the malaise surrounding Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti. Leading founding members have left in frustration and those who are still there continue to grumble and grouse. An election symbol is not the point when your party is struggling to symbolize anything.
Newness can retain a modicum of relevance as something that binds together disparate elements and events to complete the task at hand amid the creepiness of the alternatives. Let the newness we have already embarked on culminate in something tangible before we shift gears and try something newer.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Mandating Amity, For Heaven’s Sake

Now, this is getting exasperatingly familiar.
Nepal has been struggling eternally to find strategic equilibrium between its two giant neighbors. When complementarities pertaining to India find prominence and Nepal’s relations with its southern neighbor seem to acquire a semblance of steadiness, the Chinese find something somewhere and intimate their displeasure.
When newer manifestations of technology, transport and trade mesh with tradition to promise a rejuvenation of Nepal’s relations with China, the Indians make their concerns apparent, often in immensely punitive ways. The counsel Nepal then tends to get from the Chinese is to build better relations with India.
Oftentimes, Sino-Indian dynamics not immediately relevant to Nepal force themselves upon us with utmost mercilessness. At other times, anxieties and apprehensions over how unfolding global trends might impact the relationship between the Asian behemoths unleash forces that inevitably push us further into the corner.
When Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ visited China last month, it was hard to ignore history. During his last term in office in 2008, Dahal made Beijing his first foreign port of call.  Dahal stepped back from his initial contention that his visit to China was a demonstration of new Nepal’s new diplomacy, to subsequently assert that his first official visit was indeed to India. (The China trip was merely to attend the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games.) The Indians, unimpressed by the invocation of that technicality, never forgave Dahal for this breach of protocol.
Although this time Dahal was technically up north to attend the Boao Forum for Asia, he did meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. During that meeting, Xi urged Nepal to maintain good relations with India. Not a bad thing to say, right?
Consider the context. Reports suggested that the Chinese government had declined to give a more official cloak to the visit – which Dahal desperately needed to dispel his burgeoning pro-Indian reputation – citing lack of time for preparations. Still, Xi was also perceived to have played his version of tit-for-tat. After all, Dahal had declined to do bilateral deals with Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa last year.
The clear bruises on Nepali pride should have made the Indians even more happy with Xi’s latest exhortation. In the past, when Chinese leaders made such statements, New Delhi was quick to interpret them as China’s abdication of any aspiration or interest in Nepal in the interest of expanding far more important ties with India. (In fact, Premier Li Peng gave precisely such advice during his visit to Nepal at the height of India’s 1988-89 trade and transit embargo.)
Not so this time. Indian media reports, the best gauge of official thinking down south, noted that Dahal left for China after meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who arrived in Kathmandu at the head of a high-level military delegation. And that, too, days before the new Indian Army chief, Bipin Rawat, was scheduled to arrive here for his investiture as an honorary general of the Nepal Army as part of a longstanding reciprocal tradition.
Consider this specific reaction. “Despite New Delhi’s efforts to cement its economic relationship with Nepal”, the Indian Express editorialized the other, “Beijing’s raw economic muscle will make it hard for India to maintain the choke-hold it has long had over Nepal’s strategic destiny.” The newspaper added: “India will need to find new, adroit strategies to maintain its strategic leverage.”
Maybe the Chinese should be mulling something else. What mellows someone like Dahal? The realization that he was left out to hang dry in 2008-09? Or could it be that President Xi keeps postponing a visit to Nepal that he says he is so interested in? Or is it that much-hyped railroad link with Tibet that keeps receding into an indeterminate future?
After meeting with President Xi, US President Donald Trump may or may not abandon his campaign-era desire to challenge the core tenets of Washington’s ‘One China’ policy. Beijing has every right to pursue every option, including attempting to woo India away from any putative formal US-led structure to contain China.
“Using barbarians to control barbarians,” the aphorism up north goes. But using a ‘near’ barbarian to defeat both ‘near’ and ‘far’ barbarians simultaneously? What heaven would mandate such hardhearted inversion of tradition?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Status Quo Again And Again

This sure does not look like a good time to be Sher Bahadur Deuba – not even by Deuba’s standards.
The doyen of the status quo seems dumbstruck by the shocks and surprises coming from every conceivable corner.
Wresting the presidency of the Nepali Congress last year certainly capped a remarkable political career for the man. But Deuba does not seem to know what to do now that he finally sits at the top. Has our condition of continual convulsion finally gotten in the way of the conciliator in chief?
A return to the premiership should have been the next logical step, according to the supposed power-sharing deal that preceded Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ ascension to the top job. Not that Deuba thought the path would be easy. But all this?
The Supreme Court struck down his preferred choice for police chief. But before that, his top representative in the cabinet, Bimalendra Nidhi, was not too thrilled by the nomination. Rival factions in the Nepali Congress were bound to get restive again sooner or later. But this soon?
Deuba finally convened a central working committee meeting after a gap of five months and formed a work execution committee, ostensibly to breathe new life into the party ahead of the local elections.
But the real news that emerged from the day was the proposal submitted by Khum Bahadur Khadka seeking a referendum on whether Nepal should be redesignated a Hindu state.
For now, the complexity to watch is the one that subsists between Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi and Deuba. When Prime Minister Dahal refused to name an acting head of government before leaving for China, Nidhi was understandably miffed – at Deuba. Nidhi believed he deserved the full support of the party president in his seniority claim over Deputy Prime Minister Rastriya Prajatantra Party’s Kamal Thapa.
That row got so unbearable that Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara felt compelled to remind everyone that held real seniority, without really staking his claim.
Deuba, for his part, was already unnerved by Nidhi’s demonstration of independence vis-à-vis the Nepali Congress’ relations with India. Deuba no doubt respects the late Mahendra Narayan Nidhi and his contributions to the party and country. The son could easily have earned such regard through his actions. But to somehow assert dynastic reverence – even the perception of doing so – was not something palatable to Deuba, someone who takes palpable pride in his sustained challenge to the Koiralas’ supremacy. It was not for nothing that talk about bringing Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar back into the Nepali Congress suddenly accelerated.
Despite all this, Deuba probably can afford to wait out events. The Koiralas are still in a state of flux. Shashank’s stars are on the rise, while Sujata and Shekhar have been sidelined – and there is a reason there too. Khadka has injected an issue that might have more than a few new takers in the party, even just enough to keep the pot boiling for a while. Preserving the status quo might not look like prudent policy. But is not that how Deuba has always succeeded?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Making Sense Of Our Sensibilities

Lost in the turbulence of our wider politics last week was a candid appraisal made by a former bureaucrat/aspiring politician of what really does seem to ail us.
Rameshwar Khanal, a former finance secretary who became a prominent member of the Naya Shakti, took the usual course of castigating political parties as being full of people interested only in sowing divisions and perpetuating conflicts. But Khanal didn’t stop there. He also had some harsh words for voters – as in, us – who he said were easily influenced by money.
Khanal’s remarks came in response to questions as to why he chose to leave the Naya Shakti, led by former Maoist chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai. The interviewer admitted that Khanal spoke after much cajoling, and the interview centered on Naya Shakti and Dr. Bhattarai. Still, his indictment rang true across the political spectrum.
Why are our leaders who and what they are? Because of the people?
That patronage (i.e., corruption) would be the elixir of a restored multiparty democracy was a key talking point of the panchas throughout the dying days of the partyless system. The other side had a ready retort. The autocratic panchas would pocket 90 percent of what they stole, whereas democrats would keep, at most, a tenth of the loot after spending the bulk on greasing the wheels of democracy.
But, then, multiparty democracy would raise corruption to unprecedented – and perhaps unsustainable –levels, the panchas argued. Since the same percentages would hold, the counterargument went, pilferage associated with patronage was far superior morally and ethically. At least there would be value for money.
By the mid-term election campaign in 1994, Nepali Congress candidates could be heard complaining about how expensive it had become to mobilize workers and supporters. A fare of aloo-chiura and water had long given way to chicken and beer to fuel the machine from one stop to the next, and you still couldn’t be sure.
The conspicuous cost of patronage may or may not have consumed Nepal’s second experiment with multiparty democracy. Yet today’s politicians have decided to carefully shun its most egregious excesses and become more creative in the acquisition and disposal of resources.
For one thing, political representation has been increased for every significant articulation of grievances. One effect has been the mutual tolerance exhibited by politicians and the people. Our leaders have defined their project as a perpetual work in progress, where periodic knocks are papered over by multi-pointed agreements. The people, having subliminally accepted that this is the best they are going to get, have reserved the right to oppose without being outright obnoxious.
Consider where we are today. Before the Madhesi alliance withdrew its support from the government, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal fortified his flank by inducting Rastriya Prajantatra Party (RPP) president Kamal Thapa as his senior deputy. The Madhesi parties barely got to contemplate why the revolutionary Dahal would award the federalism portfolio to Thapa, a vocal advocate of going back to Hindu statehood and monarchy, two of three pillars of New Nepal.
The Election Commission then ordered the RPP to drop those two agendas from its charter if it wanted to contest the elections. As Thapa threatened to resign on the eve of Dahal’s crucial trip to China, the other deputy prime minister, Bimalendra Nidhi grumbled that he couldn’t play second fiddle to Thapa, who tabled a constitutional amendment proposal to restore Hindu statehood.
As the agitating Madhesi alliance began thinking about rethinking its approach to the Dahal government, a key Madhesi leader Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar pondered returning to the Nepali Congress. (A party, in the laconic words of leader of the opposition, Khadga Prasad Oli, that is a buffalo that can barely carry the load of a goat.)
Before you could grapple with this snarl, a hardline Hindu man of the cloth became the leader of the most populous Indian state, which adjoins a large part of our southern border. The operative question then became: did Thapa and his party deliberately keep the monarchy out of the latest amendment proposal? The ongoing or planned visits by the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, the Chinese defense minister and the Indian army chief have heightened the geo-strategic dimensions of our national existence.
Perhaps the blame game between politicians and people should gather pace. After all, it’s the easiest way to make sense of our sensibilities.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ambassador Supreme And Mission Creep

Manjeev Singh Puri
If India was expecting to reset its relationship with Nepal with the appointment of a new ambassador, then the omens are not good.
The reverberations of protests along the border, a day after Indian security forces fatally shot a Nepali man who was protesting their presence on disputed territory, continue.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, teetering from the threat by the United Madhesi Democratic Front to withdraw support over the police action against protesters in Saptari, inducted the Rastriya Prajatantra Party’s Kamal Thapa as deputy prime minister. As if that was not astonishing enough, the appointment of Dil Nath Giri, perhaps the most vocal pro-monarchist in that party after the late Padma Sundar Lawoti, can only be emblematic of new options Dahal may be prepared to espouse. (The departure of Prakash Chandra Lohani from the RPP being portentous for Thapa, of course, depending on how developments unfold in the weeks ahead.)
The new tension in western Nepal has given an opening to the entire political spectrum, which has reverted to accusing India of high-handedness. In declaring the deceased, Govinda Gautam, a martyr, Nepal has drawn a line in the sand for the near term. Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s ambassador-designate, thus has his work cut out for him.
The scope for broad ruminations has not been exhausted, though. Puri has not been identified with the agglomeration of foreign policy managers who have established and overseen India’s post-April 2006 approach to Nepal. (Unless, of course, you count Puri’s tenure as deputy permanent representative at the United Nations, during when the Security Council established and oversaw the special political mission in Nepal.)
Puri’s UN tenure, and his subsequent term as India’s representative to the European Union, should provide him with a broader global perspective on Nepal and its place in the region and world. For instance, he could take a fresh look at his statement defending New Delhi’s decision to abstain from the March 2011 Security Council vote on the Libya no-fly zone (particularly part pertaining to his government’s “unwilling[ness] to support far-reaching measures” in the absence of credible information on the situation on the ground. This is not to underestimate the uphill task for Puri – even if he wanted to – to break free from the Ministry of External Affairs’ viceregal orientation toward Kathmandu.
Speaking of Puri’s tenure at the EU, how can we forget the brouhaha of almost exactly a year ago? Our government maintained that the March 30, 2016 India-European Union joint statement’s emphasis on the need for “a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining constitutional issues in a time bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth” had ‘hurt’ the sentiments of the Nepali people. Another group of Nepalis felt that the government statement had injured their feelings.
We cannot gauge the full implications of Puri’s appointment amid the fact that Nepalis are pretty much discussing that same issue. What can be said, though, is that the generational shift Puri represents may discourage him from punishing Nepal for the foothold the Chinese have made here since the country’s turn to republicanism, federalism and secularism.
New Delhi’s desire to begin confronting Beijing amid the shifting global power equations might make much strategic sense. In specific terms, the collision of competing spheres of influence reinforced by history and geography would require full and unwavering commitment to a credible objective.
Amid the upsurge of anti-Indian sentiment on the foundation of lingering distrust of New Delhi’s motives in Nepal’s prolonged transition, Puri would also have to articulate and inhibit the imponderables stemming from the election results in the two key border states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The ambience certainly won’t change for Puri but the undercurrents always open up possibilities – good or bad, depending on your point of view.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Oli Wants Back In: Will He Be The Same Man?

Taking a leaf from former king Gyanendra, ex-premier Khadga Prasad Oli the other day sought to plant new seeds of national reassurance.
“Some forces may have succeeded in removing the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist from power, but they have not been able to remove us from the people’s hearts and minds,” he declared the other day.
From the turnout at the recent legs of the UML’s Mechi-Mahakali Campaign, Oli can’t be entirely derided. In fact, the man continues to draw our collective attention, if not our unrelenting empathy.
In the election-vs-amendment rigmarole, Oli has gotten the upper hand – for now.  Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has adopted an entirely uncharacteristic Dhristarashtra-like aura of resignation in his current tenure on almost everything of substance. On the question of elections, however, he retains the revolutionary’s defiance in favor of the sanctity of the popular will.
Expecting to ride high on a nationalist agenda, the UML can’t wait for the elections. Its rivals see this antsiness with a mixture of trepidation and disdain.
During times like these, count on former Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai to eke out relevance from the margins of seeming idleness. Oli and C.K. Raut are two sides of the same coin, Bhattarai posited the other day.
Whether Bhattarai – who is battled disgruntlement within his new Naya Shakti – has exposed himself to charges of sedition in having sought to elevate the separatist Madhesi leader to the status of the leader of the opposition is perhaps immaterial to Oli.
Nor does the UML chief seem too bothered by Bhattarai’s other insinuation – that Oli is the most prominent anti-Madhesi figure in the political firmament. A Gorkhali castigating a Jhapali on that count does defy Nepali political geography.
Still, Oli has something better going for him. The last time Maila Baje checked, Oli had never advocated the full and complete separation of the northern Nepali heft as an or-else proviso of his political program.
For now, Oli’s parables are focused on the what-might-have-been strand of national prognostication. His government’s ‘northern expedition’ retains much of its original public popularity amid persistent cheap shots of the Maoist-Centre and the Nepali Congress and the official cold-shoulder extended to the Chinese.
Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress is no doubt itching to take over from Dahal, citing the incumbent’s ineptitude. (Hah, ineptitude.) Dissidence building under the leadership of Ram Chandra Poudel doesn’t seem to have dampened Deuba’s ambitions.
Oli, however, is intent on invoking the full deal. For him, the Dahal-Deuba power-sharing accord was predicated on a successful Maoist-Centre-led tenure paving the way for the Nepali Congress’ leadership. Dahal’s current ineptitude, in Oli’s formulation, should block Deuba’s rise to the premiership.
Oli’s ousting as premier last year has only served to strengthen his position within the UML. Former premiers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal don’t look like men in a hurry to return to the lucrative perch inside Singha Durbar.
Oli served the longest as premier in waiting. He is also benefiting the most from his perceived successes in office. The man may not be saying it in so many words, but Oli certainly wants back in. The question is: will he be the same man in his second avatar as prime minister?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Uniting For the Next Split? Let’s Hope Not

Emerging from its much-publicized unity convention, the right-of-center Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) is seeking to project the image of your normal political party. And the Big Three political parties have contributed much to the normalization process.
From the balminess and banter the Nepali Congress, Unified Marxist Leninist and Maoist-Center stacked on convention inauguration ceremony, you could easily forget that the man at the center was also at the core of the regime those parties joined hands to overthrow in the Spring of 2006.
To be sure, Kamal Thapa has long since emerged out of the persona of home minister of the royal regime to position his erstwhile party as the fourth largest in the assembly elected in 2013. The RPP Nepal did not win a single seat in the first past the post category.
Yet its rivals quickly recognized the slippery slope that would set in once you started denigrating the RPPN’s exclusivity with ‘proportional representatives’. As the leader of the new party, Thapa can now claim three directly elected representatives in his contingent.
Thapa failed in his effort to foster unanimity. Prakash Chandra Lohani of the republican faction of the former panchas broke an informal agreement to announce a challenge to Thapa. Lohani then disappointed a lot of us by withdrawing in favor of a proxy, Pradeep Bikram Rana.
It wasn’t difficult to sympathize with Lohani. As someone honed through the tumultuous graduate-constituency process of the partyless polity, critic of the ‘dyarchy’ in the early 1970s, and campaigner for the restoration of multiparty democracy, Lohani went on to join the relatively hardline Panchayat faction in the post-referendum 1980s. For much of this period, he was projected as a future prime minister.
His challenge to Thapa had a strong case. This was supposed to be unification of two parties, not a takeover of one by the other. By withdrawing, Lohani allowed Thapa to crushed a true competitor in a real contest, while Rana established his credentials at Lohani’s expense. An unfazed Thapa went on to nominate key party members with a swiftness that set a record in the annals of internal party organization in Nepal.
The united party advocates the installation of a ceremonial monarchy and the restoration of Hindu statehood. On the former, greater clarity would be required in the weeks and months ahead. Hindu statehood, however, seems to be the defining issue. In a sop to post-April 2006 realities, the RPP has accepted federalism, albeit if a little diffidently.
In its latest iteration as a responsible stakeholder, the RPP has warned the government not to push the Constitution Amendment Bill in its present form, saying such a move would prove counterproductive. Yet the party said it would not offer an amendment proposal. A cop out? Maybe. It’s looks more like the RPP is holding its cards close to the chest, considering the likely fallout from any precipitous move from any side.
The RPP can no longer be characterized solely as an amalgam of diehard royalists. Conservative Hindus with a republican bent also populate the organization, although that trait seems rooted more in expediency than in ideology.
The RPP probably has the political smarts to continue to prosper. But can it overcome its divisive history. The men and women in that part of the political spectrum tend to do well when they are united. But political power – or even the prospect of it – instantly divides them, and with an intensity far greater than what tends to split other Nepali parties.
Could that be why the leaders of the Big Three were having such a good time at the inauguration ceremony?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gaudy Games In The Premier League

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been assuring us to the point of utter boredom that elections will be held at any cost to safeguard the political achievements of the past decade. The opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) likes hearing that, but only when Dahal shuts up about amending the constitution first.
Dahal’s partial allies in the Federal Socialist Alliance (FSA) want the prime minister to go the other way around. The alliance is pressing him to first respect the identity and space of Madhesis in the setting of provincial boundaries.
Now, Dahal knows that he gave that very assurance in exchange for the alliance’s support in building the new government. Yet every time he seeks to placate the FSA by talking up the putative constitutional amendment, the UML turns tart.
The opposition party warns that any change of boundaries on the basis of ethnicity would be detrimental to social amity and national sovereignty. And when the UML does that, Dahal returns to telling us that elections will be held at all costs. The prime minister’s persistence vis-à-vis polls makes you want to forget that he heads what is still officially a Maoist party.
The Election Commissioners have long been pushing the government to announce the dates before anything else. If the premier did that without redrawing the provincial boundaries first, the FSA warns it would begin its oft-threatened protests.
Dahal is lucky that the Nepali Congress, the junior partner in the government, is torn between the amendment- and election-first proponents. As a result, relations between Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba – the presumptive next prime minister – and Dahal are said to have soured.
Seeking his pound of flesh nevertheless, Deuba prodded Dahal the other day to convene an early-morning cabinet meeting to appoint Jay Bahadur Chand as Inspector-General of Police. Before Deuba could properly take his victory lap, the Supreme Court put Chand’s appointment on hold. Deuba, for his part, issued a formal statement disclaiming any role in the Chand affair.
Dahal felt he could comfortably resume playing off the FSA and UML against each other. But that gambit, too, appears to have run its course. Lately, the prime minister has turned to another predecessor, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, for help in untying the political knot.
Bhattarai, a one-time Dahal lieutenant who ditched the party after the Constituent Assembly promulgated the new constitution to form his own outfit, seemed concerned enough. He has taken to blaming former prime minister and UML chairman K.P. Oli for loosening his lips so lax as to embolden separatists like C.K. Raut. (Of the other two former premiers in the UML, Madhav Kumar Nepal wants Dahal to step down immediately for incompetence, while Jhal Nath Khanal accuses our head of government of being India’s puppet.)
Now we’re supposed to believe that Dahal and Bhattarai would join hands to save the nation when they couldn’t even feign unity a little bit longer to save their party. Oh these gaudy premier games!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Knights Of The Long Knives

Caught between ‘two khukuris’ – to borrow his chilling description of his predicament – Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems set to tilt himself toward the knife-edge of elections.
The elections will take place no matter what, the premier declared the other day. When the country’s top Maoist is so wedded to the mandate of the people, not all hope is lost.
The question, though, is whether the polls are Dahal’s real desire. He is, after all, bound by the Constitution, under which there must be three elections – local, provincial and parliamentary – by 18 January 2018. The political class is all too cognizant of the ‘or else’ part but doesn’t want to be too communicative about it.
Much time, money and energy have been invested in promulgating the Constitution. What would happen if it appeared that the drafters created a document they could not implement? You’d think the people would  be up in arms.
But we’re inured to being ignored. Thus we’ve learned to live our lives in a seemingly alternate universe. Sure, we still complain about everything as loud as we can. But we’re also thriving from a semblance of tenuous mutual tolerance.
This equipoise was struck almost effortlessly. When the drivers of a ‘New Nepal’ kept speaking in platitudes, we didn’t mind. The past was a no-go zone. The future was too uncertain to comprehend. Sure, sustainable peace, state restructuring, transitional justice and socio-economic transformation were nebulous concepts, but they were noble enough to nudge us along.
The political class bit off more than it could chew. The mainstream parties and the Maoists continued to argue over who should get the real credit for bringing down the monarchy. Scant attention was paid to the imperative of devising a successor institution to the monarchy that could not only preside over a diverse state but also navigate the geopolitical pressures of an unstable neighborhood that was fundamentally susceptible to extra-regional dynamics.
The argument over how many provinces Nepal should have proceeded before we could ever sufficiently debate whether Nepal needed to be federalized to mainstream the marginalized. The urge to denigrate Nepal’s Hindu identity by identifying it within the narrow confines of the monarchy simply ignored how religion had established itself as a way of life.
With the political tides shifting directions, outcomes of expediency have now stood starkly before the imperatives of feasibility, legality and propriety. Yet once our leaders saw how a segmented populace clung to its own relative truths, they devised novel methods of reconciliation and compromise that satisfied just enough people until the next outburst of grievances. Last-minute point-wise deals pulled us from even the most dangerous brink. To smooth the way, parties split and united inexplicably but inexorably.
The Maoist-Nepali Congress government and the opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist may seem at loggerheads today. Where it really matters to them, they are in accord. The 12-Point Agreement and its merchandises must be preserved at all costs.
As long as there is peace and a process to show, the political class is comfortable with splitting the difference. And that’s good enough for us, too, notwithstanding our interminable grumbles.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Nepal First, Last And Always

Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in early November gave much impetus to our assemblage of ‘Nepal Firsters’. The unapologetic internalism infusing Trump’s inaugural address last week is bound to have its influences and implications here.
Khadga Prasad Oli, former prime minister and chairman of the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist, has been christened as our version of Trump by no less a personage than Baburam Bhattarai. And Dr. Bhattarai should know.
The one-time Maoist ideologue, who continues to denigrate the articulation of contrary views as a Goebbelsian art form, no doubt secretly admires Oli’s pithiness and adroitness with parables.
If you faced him directly, Oli would probably be outraged by any suggestion of similarities with Trump. As a practical matter, though, Oli probably wouldn’t mind. No other Nepali politician has undergone such a momentous transformation in his or her geopolitical persona.
Just the other day, Oli accused his successor, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, of presiding over an upsurge of anti-national activities and, worse, of seeking to codify them through unwarranted constitutional changes.
However, it fell upon Bhim Rawal, a deputy premier in Oli’s cabinet, to fire the loudest salvo. Speaking in Parliament, Rawal, a former defense and home minister, accused the Dahal government of protecting elements attacking national unity and independence.
The government remained a mute spectator when Madhesi firebrand C.K. Raut was conducting a campaign in the name of establishing an independent Madhes nation, Rawal said. Citing the so-called ‘Patna meeting’, Rawal said Dahal had tried to use it for political purposes, while efforts were on to compromise national security. Rawal demanded that the government convene a meeting of chiefs of security agencies and the main opposition parties on the issue and that the prime minister address parliament.
The invocation of Raut’s name didn’t seem to have unnerved the prime minister terribly. Madhesi leaders, however, did look stung. Bijay Kumar Gachchadar, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Loktantrik), whose entry as deputy prime minister in the Dahal cabinet was said to have stalled at the last minute last week, has begun urging other Madhesi leaders to stop sounding and acting like Raut. Of late, Gachchadar has been pressing Dahal to take action against Raut-like behavior, in language that could have come straight from the UML script.
Mahant Thakur, leader of the Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party, has warned against lumping all Madhesi parties together with Raut’s campaign.
It’s nice to see that speaking for Nepal has become cool again. Yet to what end? The votaries of a New Nepal are still smashing the old one into smithereens. The shards are too small and prickly to raise a new edifice.
That’s for later. For now, the notion of newness is alluring. What’s so bad if the new packaging add to the attraction?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Qualified Hope For Moral Incumbency

From the sheer timeline, it would appear that the judiciary was waiting for the executive to prove before the legislature its commitment to pull the country back from the precipice of impending calamity.
A three-person bench of the Supreme Court removed Lok Man Singh Karki as head of Nepal’s anti-corruption watchdog, allowing the legislature to bypass a motion to impeach the man.
Hours after the government tabled the Constitution amendment bill in Parliament, the top court ruled that Karki was not only unqualified for the position but also lacked the moral authority to assume it.
What was curious was the ease with which the government tabled the amendment bill in a legislature obstructed by an opposition alliance freshly enthused by its show of force on the streets.
It’s nice to see the system working in such tandem. But were the two events entirely fortuitous?
Lest we hear cries of conspiracy, let’s be clear. In nullifying Karki’s appointment, the judges ruled that he lacked requisite experience and moral character to head a constitutional body like the CIAA. In other words, the Court limited itself to the moment of Karki’s appointment. The impeachment process, on the other hand, comprised his tumultuous tenure.
The Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, Maoists and MJF (D) unanimously backed Karki as the CIAA chief in 2013. Chairman of the Council of Ministers Khil Raj Regmi, also still chief justice, strongly backed his appointment, which President Ram Baran Yadav announced. All this happened despite protests within these very political parties and from civil society. The Supreme Court rejected a challenge.
After the latest verdict, Om Aryal who had filed the original challenge and returned with the current petition, exuded a sense of vindication. “The rule of law has been re-established,” he told a reporter. “[Karki’s] appointment was against good governance, and its cancellation is a big step towards good governance.”
Now Aryal wants all those who aided and abetted Karki’s appointment to apologize. Fat chance, if you ask Maila Baje. The political establishment thought he was qualified then, and that’s that. That the CIAA turned against the establishment, with Karki as a one-man wrecking ball, is a different matter. (And we’re not even talking about the ‘foreign hand’ that supposedly eased Karki’s path.)
If the system failed us, then, there’s always a remedy. When the Supreme Court in the world’s most powerful democracy can rewrite a controversial health care law and then rule it as constitutional, who’s to decry judicial activism, right?
Karki is probably mulling his options. He could contest the next election and redeem himself through the popular vote in the manner disgraced politicians do. He could come out with the ‘goods’ he says he has on key members of the establishment. (More likely, we might start seeing leaks in the press on supposed trade-offs, blandishments and considerations that underpinned key political decisions and events of recent years.)
But you have to ask whether the Supreme Court would have revisited the case if the tide hadn’t turned against Karki so dramatically. (Surely, impeachment, merely by incorporating new facts relating to Karki’s tenure, would have made more sense.)
Now we can retroactively revisit an appointee’s qualifications and moral standing for a job he has held for years. Sure, Karki may have been a scumbag. But how would our new judicial standard impinge on an establishment comprising the likes of mass murderers, executioners and spouses of hijackers, once the public mood were to shift?
Specifically, how much influence did that pesky doctor wield in all this by threatening to starve himself to death unless Karki was shown the door? And especially when the facts on the ground had not changed, at least for the purposes of the Supreme Court?
If institutions of state are seen to be reacting to those kinds of pressures, how much reassurance do we really have on more weighty matters looming on the horizon?