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 fa├žade 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…