Saturday, September 16, 2017

Don’t Let Them Make You Feel Small, Comrade

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

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Some Things Seem Like They Are Just Made To Last

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sell-Out Or Buy-In?

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Struggle Between Knowledge And Wisdom

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Coalition Of Convenience For The Quarry?

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

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Get Back To Where You Once Belonged...

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dreary Dance Of The Bit Players

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

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Tibet Sanguinity In The Sikkim Missive?

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Finding Our Way Through The Stars

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

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Knowing The Deubas We Know…

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Flashback: A Memory Frozen In Time

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

This post originally appeared on Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday, May 21, 2017

How To Swap Horses Midstream (And Not)

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Adore Or Abhor, It’s OBOR

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

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Thank You, Ms. Pelosi, But…

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Redundancy Of Regionalism Or Refitting Of Rivalries?

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

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?