Sunday, April 18, 2021

Crossing Floors And Red Lines

If democracy is said to work best at the local level, it’s probably not because of the shockwaves it can send across national politics. What passed for an innate exercise in democracy in the legislature of the far-western province of Karnali the other day may not have passed muster with the average Nepali voter. It has turned the tables in Kathmandu in a way no one wants to ignore.
The party whip has long been considered an anachronism anyway. Flogging and flagellation just don’t stir up positive images and emotions in terms of maintaining party discipline. Moreover, if individuals can’t vote their conscience in this day and age, what good is our collective will?
So four Unified Marxist-Leninist blokes chose to cross the floor and save the Maoist Center government of Chief Minister Mahendra Bahadur Shahi. Hounded by the Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s faction, those four legislators were honored by the rival Madhav Kumar Nepal group. With the four subsequently expelled from the UML, Chief Minister Shahi rewarded three with ministerial posts.
The impact was immediately apparent. Having pinned down his party rivals wearing a grim smirk all the way, Oli suddenly felt compelled to place a call to Maoist Center leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Still recovering from how victory in the restoration of the House of Representatives boomeranged on his party and politics, Dahal recognized he had just regained the initiative.
While he accepted Oli’s phone call out of courtesy, the Maoist Center leader refused to meet the prime minister. Instead, he huddled with Madhav Nepal, after which both groups absented themselves from the all-party meeting Oli had convened.
Having seen him defy critics to survive this long politically, it would be foolhardy to suggest that the prime minister may have run out of options. His ostensible alliances with the extreme right and the extreme left have given him a wide enough berth. Many of Oli’s own methods have had the thinnest veneer of democratic propriety for him to rail against practices such as floor crossing. Yet Oli can count on popular apathy.
Few Nepalis have the willingness to consider the shenanigans in Karnali as anything but a crude power play. True, Nepalis have not lost faith in democracy. That’s only because that’s not an option. The ability of this political class to lead us in the right direction has eroded beyond the point of ineptness. Second-, third- or fourth-generation leaders have been so groomed and galvanized in the traditions of their mentors that they would be hard-pressed to let old habits die.
External stakeholders, for their part, are doing everything to establish the wisdom, cogency, and legitimacy of Nepal’s post-April 2006 course, knowing full well how off-course we have careened. If there were to be a course correction, no foreign power wants to forfeit the stakes it already holds to another power.
So forget floors or ceilings, the 12-point understanding is the red line no one’s supposed to cross. Lest we be tempted, external and internal handlers know when precisely to inject such issues as MCC, RAW and debt traps and rein us in.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Flashback: Go Your Own Ways For The Good Of All

We are permitted to anticipate enough good sense from the rival factions of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to step back from the brink. But we are also prudent enough to face the inevitable.
The unification of the predominant Marxist-Leninist and Maoist factions of Nepal’s heavily splintered communist movement was artificial enough from the outset to expose its underlying unviability. If anything has been a surprise, it is that the NCP could maintain the subterfuge this long.
So, in that sense, another patch-up would only presage greater subsequent calamity. The NCP is top-heavy with bruised egos, burning ambitions and broad-spectrum bitterness to maintain the fiction of unity any longer. Allowing the party to split and politics to take its logical course may be the more judicious course.
There are apprehensions that a full-blown political crisis could sweep away the system. Such fears are not misplaced. In fact, they may be prescient enough. The ground has shifted significantly since the 12-Point Agreement was signed in India in late 2005, laying the foundations of the existing order.
The context should be more instructive for our purposes today. The Seven Party Alliance against the palace and the Maoist rebels reached the agreement on Indian soil at a time when a beleaguered royalist government’s assiduousness in breaking free from what it considered Indian duplicity morphed into a direct challenge to Indian and American regional interests in the so-called global war on terror.
Moreover, the reality that Washington and New Delhi were busy redefining their strategic relationship through a civil nuclear agreement under an Indian coalition government comprising a feisty communist partner served to facilitate a tacit and imprecise arrangement on Nepal.
China, exasperated by the royal government’s inability to stabilize the situation, recognized the perils of prolonged instability in Nepal to Tibet amid the Olympic Games it was organizing. Irrespective of how significant Chinese support for the royal regime was in the beginning, Beijing began making not-so-quiet noises about how the palace was exaggerating the extent of the backing.
That was music to Indian and American ears. New Delhi, Washington and Beijing came to a quiet understanding in early 2006 that would facilitate the implementation of the 12 Point Agreement. Still, they somehow seemed to let events on the ground define the specifics.
The outsized benefits China managed to reap in Nepal early on – without any investment, in New Delhi and Washington’s view – might not have been such a source of extreme consternation if geopolitics could stand still. As the three principal external stakeholders sought to stabilize their triangle amid newer entanglements, Nepali leaders enjoyed a wide berth to redefine the peace process by manufacturing more grievances than the people could sustain.
Today, each of the three external protagonists has recognized the futility of that accord in the changed circumstances. Our political class, meanwhile, has played the part so long that it has started to believe it has been in full control from the start.
Beijing has become a political intermediary in the ruling party’s affairs at a time when Washington and New Delhi are wariest of the mandarins in recent memory. The Nepali Congress is anxious for legislative endorsement of the US Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact as if those paltry billions stood between the nation’s life and death.
The government chose a time and manner to step up its claim to Indian-held territories and build massive national consensus wherein New Delhi has shed all qualms to dismiss an acknowledged bilateral dispute as a Chinese-instigated ploy. We have affirmed those territories in our coat of arms listed in an annex of a Constitution which, by most accounts, is gasping for breath.
Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli need not have squandered words on something so patently obvious as a concerted Indian campaign against his government in the aftermath of constitutional endorsement of Nepal’s new political map. His principal NCP rival Pushpa Kamal Dahal was even less warranted in having engaged in a such a discreditable attempt to shield New Delhi from growing demands for the prime minister’s resignation.
The unfortunate and even counterintuitive chain of events and analyses the two men have precipitated has tainted the political process amid a palpable but imprecise realignment of geopolitical equations.
Unfortunate as this confluence of internal and international dynamics is, we should not miss the bright spot. No new slogan, agenda or campaign can entice us into another nebulous promise of newness that fizzles into detriment and disappointment.
All forces across our political spectrum have been tried and tested for their purported decency and depravity. Now that Nepalis have recognized the expanse between those two extremes, we must learn to make do with what we have. Friends can be better friends – but they will never be one of us. As for enemies, we better start looking harder within and without.

Originally posted on Saturday, July 4, 2020

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Chancing With The Stars

A tempest in a teapot it may not be, but our Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) wallahs sure seem to be trying to make a little extra out of business as usual.
The UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal faction has decided to intensify its campaign to expand parallel committees in the party. All this is being done in the name of unity. The Vietnam War-era credo ‘you have to burn the village in order to save it’, seems to have acquired particular relevance from the other end of the ideological spectrum here.
An informal two-day meeting of lawmakers and central committee members of the UML’s Nepal-Khanal faction decided to implement the 17-point resolution adopted earlier by a meeting of national cadres.
Accordingly, the faction will continue its struggle inside the party by forming parallel committees to reorganize the party, strive for unification among communist forces, and not surrender to the incumbent leadership.
After the Supreme Court ordered the revival of UML and the Maoist Center, the Nepal-Khanal faction has been lobbying to legitimize party committees that existed on May 16, 2018, before the two parties merged to form the doubly dolorous Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
UML chairman Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, on the other hand, has consolidated power. The party’s central committee endorsed the parliamentary party statute to give him, as the PP leader, sweeping authority to recall any lawmaker elected to the House of Representatives under the proportional representation system and choose the deputy parliamentary party leader, a position Subas Nembang currently occupies.
The central committee meeting also decided to hold the party’s 10th national convention from November 18 to 22 and annulled all office-bearers’ positions except those of the chairman and the general secretary.
The duo is entrusted with selecting the new office bearers and the standing committee – in a thinly veiled attempt to emaciate the Nepal-Khanal faction. The party central committee decided to ask Nepal and three other parliamentarians to clarify their activities. Oli also inducted 23 Maoist leaders into the UML central committee, giving the prime minister a clear majority.
The Nepal-Khanal faction continues to demand that Oli revoke his decisions, which the party chair has rebuffed with equal vigor. The prime minister also said that the clarifications submitted by Madhav Nepal and Bhim Rawal were unacceptable and suggested the party could initiate further action against them.
Oli surrogates like Surya Thapa, the prime minister’s press adviser, have suggested that Nepal and Rawal be suspended from the party central committee for six months as part of a cleansing campaign.
With the party hanging perilously between unity and split, a countervailing dynamic is at play. Despite taking an increasingly harder line since the Supreme Court’s restoration of the House of Representative and the NCP’s nullification, he is reluctant to hound out his rivals at the cost of being responsible for a formal split. The Nepal-Khanal don’t want to be blamed for any split, either. So the UML essentially finds itself in a position it has been in for much of its existence.
With the Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre and Janata Samajwadi Party no less flustered on the eve of Nepali new year, however, perhaps our astrologers can serve up more exciting insights into what the stars might have in store for us. It’s not as if Nepalis, who hardly hold elected officials accountable, would serve summons to deficient stargazers.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Hoax In Time

The signs were apparent in their conceptual and explicit manifestations alike. Here were the two dominant factions of Nepal’s awfully fractious communist movement – coming from vastly dissimilar schools, no less – in a headlong rush toward amalgamation.
Deftly deflecting us from the whys and hows, Unified Marxist-Leninist leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Unified Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ insisted on what they touted as a historical inevitability.
The commentariat uniformly considered it too good to be true. A few others didn’t shy away from declaring that it would be bad if it were true. Yet Oli and Dahal persisted over countless one-on-one sessions but let on precious little. Photographs showed them sipping tea and swapping tales. Nepalis were persuaded that this was a done deal. The only thing left was to figure out how to do it.
The bad blood between the two factions existed in its darkest hue. Yet key members of each faction – many as clueless as the rest of us – pushed for unification. It was thrust down our throats with a surfeit of zero-calorie sweeteners.
According to the prevailing narrative, the Chinese masterminded the unification for their political and strategic ends. If Nepalis could not produce our version of the Kim dynasty, we could put in power a communist government in perpetual majority. North Korea and Nepal needn’t be alike. Democracy promotion with Chinese characteristics had enogh local camouflage to contrast it favorably with western-inspired color-coded revolutions.
But, then, maybe the Indians were behind it all. Their 12-point agenda had gone through so many contortions that a majority government was the only saving grace. At least the 1990 Constitution had produced a majority government (even if it didn’t turn out to be a good omen).
Or was it the Americans? A two-thirds-majority endorsement of the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact was within reach, despite the ruling party's perfunctory noises.
To stretch the story a bit, maybe a united communist party was the best way of containing China. Let’s not forget how the Indians and Americans portrayed the Chinese as driving the Nepali Maoists, only to see Beijing reap low-investment post-monarchy rewards in a way neither New Delhi nor Washington had anticipated.
When Messrs. Oli and Dahal finally came up with an extended unification plan to be formalized through a party convention, they couldn’t even get the new organization’s name right. They added the abbreviation to the party’s official name. Common parlance christened the new party ‘Double NeKaPa’.
That oversight became the butt of many jokes. In retrospect, it has become far more tempting to wonder whether our comrades had deliberated placed that as an escape clause. Power, pelf and patronage were too enticing prospects not to foist a hoax upon the country, especially when the Constitution specifically forbad a no-confidence vote for two years.
Politicians are what they are. How could the country go along with such a transparent sham? The question may have come too late for any redeeming value. Still, it’s becoming harder not to ask.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Anticipation Behind Our Exasperation

With the Supreme Court’s resurrection of the House of Representatives last month, you’d think Nepalis should be well past viewing politics in the tragedy-farce-and-beyond sequence.
Let’s admit it; our collective exasperation also carries a dose of shared anticipation. It’s as if quirky Nepali politics has acquired a sensibleness of its own that does not cease to astonish our leaders and the led alike.
The narrative that the Supreme Court order represented a decisive – and even irretrievable – blow to Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli could barely last a week. Today’s prevailing line appears to be that, while not handing our premier an outright victory, the justices ended up cementing his position, as far as where he stood just before issuing the dissolution order.
The conventional wisdom, in a nutshell, appears to be that everything now depends on a formal split in the ruling Nepal Communist Party.
Ordinarily, such an unabashed declarative could have been easily cast aside as the fulmination of a conspiracy theorist or agent provocateur. But, as Nepali Netbook readers are often reminded here, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.
The political equivalent of that adage is that leaders have come to rely on the crystallization of any of the competing theories that may be in fashion at any given time. They still have to play the part of the primary drivers of our irremediable era of hope and change. Privately, they, too, want those alien forces who instigated them to break ‘old Nepal’ to own it.
Once you’ve figured that out, a lot more becomes clear. You can stop wondering how Oli rivals who today insist they always knew how nasty the prime minister is could once partner with him. The Nepali Congress’ nauseating eagerness/indifference on leading/joining a new government becomes more comprehensible. (As does party president Sher Bahadur Deuba’s affirmation that – as leader of the opposition – he is the prime minister in waiting, but isn’t actually lining up for the job.)
Heck, it even starts to make sense when a prime minister accused of taking a lurch to the extreme right suddenly pallies up with the most radical leftist force on our spectrum. (And rival Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ taking credit for an agreement signed by a government he castigates.)
Maybe our leaders are waiting for specific guidance from their respective external patrons, you might insist. Maybe. But let’s not forget the power of Nepali politics to confound foreigners. A prime ministerial aspirant to promises to lead a government India would feel ‘comfortable’ doesn’t exactly burnish credentials in New Delhi. The foreign powers that matter don’t seem to be able to think together or alone, much less act.
The proverbial snake, frog and scorpion abroad have to come out of this trance before our leaders can even sense a smidgen of succor.
Doing the same thing repeatedly to expect a different result may be a sign of insanity among our leaders, Baburam Bhattarai recently advised us, advancing that well-worn adage. For all the toil and turmoil of the last decade and a half, the people at least can try thinking up all possible equations ahead.
After all, who says you can’t apply logical reasoning to even the most ostensibly twisted logic?