Monday, July 19, 2021

Cut-And-Paste Constitutionalism

Okay, let’s get this straight. The leader of a deeply divided party that barely controls a quarter of the seats in parliament restored by the Supreme Court is ordered appointed prime minister – no less by five honorable justices themselves.
Parties that supported and opposed an elected prime minister’s dissolution order – twice – vote to confirm the court-mandated head of government. But, then, within the former ruling party, elements that had supported the ill-fated dissolution order ended up voting for the new premier. Some of those elements in the former ruling party who had joined the opposition alliance’s court motion demanding this prime minister’s appointment ended up walking out of the house.
Another opposition party, filled with former Maoist and Madhesi antagonists responsible for Nepal’s worst communal killings, supported the new prime minister. There, too, elements that supported and opposed the dissolution order both times endorsed the new prime minister. They included short-lived cabinet members of the government formed after the first resurrection.
Interspersed here, too, are elements who burned copies of the new constriction upon its promulgation six years ago. In their minuscule/individual capacities, members opposing federalism voted for the premier, while the more virulently ‘nationalist’ strand of communists opposed him. And we’re celebrating how the Supreme Court saved the constitution.
The Americans are happy because MCC is back on the front burner. The Indians and Chinese, for their own reasons, are happy that the new government is what it is – a band-aid until the next injury.
Letting Supreme Court justices define every article of the constitution as its flaws emerge is bad policy. How the panchabhaladmis reached their decision this time and last is still in the realm of speculation. But there is a worse aspect. Can Nepalis be sure that the justices just read and interpreted the law?
What if the next challenge and ruling ends up being something the current cheerleaders hate? Or is that the fig leaf they are waiting for? In an highly opaque collective enterprise entailing agents and interests that are as fluid as they are opportunistic, it is hard to apportion blame when the going gets tough. Buck passing becomes convenient.
Look at things this way; we are still blaming a ceremonial head of state for the nation’s ills created by the political class, condemning enduring legislative skulduggery and ultimately making fertile ground for another uprising. If all we want is camouflage, why not cut the text of the 1990 Constitution and paste it into the 2015 version and continuing governing as if nothing had changed? The 1990 text would be far more credible and effective as a living embodiment of a functional democracy? Heck, it might even salve our collective conscience.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

What You Get When You Rope In India and the West

‘Indo-West’ as a geostrategic construct vis-à-vis Nepal continues to provide interesting conjunctions and contrasts. Broadly credited with engineering Nepal’s regime change in 2006, the constituents have carefully played down their divergences. Empowerment, inclusiveness and openness have been malleable enough to provide a façade of a common progressive quest.
Republicanism, secularism and federalism – Nepal’s delicate tripod – has veered sharply away from the much-maligned 12 Point Agreement signed by the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance and Maoist rebels on Indian soil. New Delhi, which actively promoted the anti-palace alliance amid clear domestic cleavages, became inextricably linked with the enterprise. As such, India continues to embody the baleful phenomenon of external influence in Nepal, prompting criticism lately from even from onetime Nepali supporters of this search for a nebulous national newness.
The United States and the European Union drove much of the peace process on India’s back. If New Delhi seethed at this infringement of its version of the Monroe Doctrine, larger geostrategic calculations checked too malignant an articulation of its resentment. You just have to play along to get along.
Of course, each power center displayed varying levels of commitment to the emblems of a new Nepal. Steadfast support to left-of-center preponderance against the royalist right had to confront the Chinese juggernaut. If Beijing could go along with this instance of color-coded revolutions, much was because of its enduring Maoist ability to detect and deploy principal and secondary contradictions. The uncovering of the extent of the Indo-West’s hallucinations vis-à-vis the Middle Kingdom had to await the Covid-19 pandemic.
The culmination of our glorified peace process – the 2015 Constitution – was to the liking of neither of Nepal’s two immediate neighbors. New Delhi still cannot wholeheartedly welcome the basic law. While Beijing displayed unusual enthusiasm in hailing it, its subsequent comments and involvement have underscored the depth of its disenchantment. In substance, both Asian giants reflected their reservations in different ways and have been impelled toward some course correction in keeping with their respective national interests. The other side, so to speak, is intent on making sure that doesn’t happen.
With geostrategic considerations regaining traction in the American approach to Nepal, the EU ran the risk of being left behind. Inclusion and equity continued to be core European concerns, which are still reflected in EU documents and that grouping’s joint statements with the Indians and other bilateral partners.
Yet the European version of an otherwise noble endeavor lost much resonance among more and more Nepalis who saw something akin to the arsonist pleading everybody else to put out the fire. By the time the latest Newar-Dalit ruckus erupted, the EU felt compelled to issue a statement denying it had sponsored the individual who was refused a room on account of her caste.
As if Brexit were not enough, the Europeans had to be reminded in Nepal that inclusion was not something that could be imposed. But setback? What setback? The journey to remake Nepal must continue, be it under the aegis of the Indo-West, Indo-Pacific or whatever else is catchy and convenient.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Colder Calculations On Covid-19?

Earlier this year, when the Indians were no longer able to bear Nepali accusations of New Delhi having imposed its version of the Pressler Amendment, they let us know that Nepali middlemen were the real culprits.
The amendment mentioned above, under which the United States continued withholding delivery of F-16s Pakistan had already paid for as punishment for Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program, dogged bilateral relations for much of the 1990s. The 9/11 attacks cleared that barrier. India’s refusal to deliver vaccines in Nepal carried worse optics.
China’s glee at the dent in India’s image was subsumed in Beijing’s more considerable glory against the vaccine it continues to be accused of having unleashed for nefarious geostrategic purposes.
With the tables turned on them, it’s the mandarins up north who are irked. Apparently, they didn’t like how our government officials hyped up reports that they were about to purchase four million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccines. Beijing’s specific grievance was that we publicized the price – $10 per jab – despite our apparent undertaking to say nothing.
A supposedly do-nothing government finally sputtering to life went beyond damage-control mode. It issued a statement denying that any deal had been finalized at all.
While our southern neighbors are understandably giddy – judging from the media coverage – far from subdued chuckles must be emanating from the Americans. Not that Washington sees its vaccine generosity as a tool to break the MCC deadlock. It’s just that Nepalis can’t see how the Americans can’t see that it is.
This development has been described as an ‘awkward snag’ in Nepal-China diplomatic relations – in the words of one Indian newspaper. Still, the Indians – and the Americans – have learned the hard way how perilous it is to issue sweeping generalizations on the Nepal-China relationship.
More broadly, when humanitarian relief matters are caught in prevailing geopolitical cross-currents elsewhere, it is easy to lament over the despoilation of the human spirit. But when it is felt so close to home, all we can expect is for others to sympathize – if they have time to rise above their own problems, that is.
Sure, self-reliance as a virtue is bound to be extolled eternally. As Nepal has been unable to instill that attribute, it hardly comes as any comfort. We may rail all we want against ‘vaccine apartheid’ or create more catchy terminology, but the fact is that human nature hasn’t broadened enough to accommodate our aspirations as world citizens. The gap between the haves and have nots must be bridged as an ideal. In emergencies, idealism becomes little more than idle talk.
What Nepal can resort to is old-fashioned cold calculation. Our two neighbors can’t let us go down without figuring out how to divvy up the debris. Worse, they can’t figure out whether the debris would be an asset or a liability. In that situation, those farther afield can’t afford to turn up the geopolitical heat unless they are pretty sure places like Tibet and Kashmir do not become their problem. Mutual assured destruction may sound a bit crude as a strategy for survival for a nation that has tried almost everything else. But it also sums up our options.
The United Nations Security Council would hardly be expected to issue a presidential or press statement – much less adopt a resolution – affirming how vaccinating every Nepali would help maintain international peace and security. But as Nepalis, we have the freedom to believe so, regardless of who is incensed or amused.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Collective Beclowning For A Cause

A legislature dissolved a second time after its members couldn’t justify its restoration. A Supreme Court constitutional bench locked in a ‘conflict of interest’ row, undermining its credibility in testing the second dissolution order. And now, a newly appointed deputy prime minister making comments perceived to advocate a further dilution of an already fluid Nepali state and then claiming to have been misquoted.
Not to forget that these shenanigans come amid the worst health emergency the country has faced. Nepalis may be forgiven for thinking that state authorities are deliberately beclowning themselves to avoid responsibility for their misguided adventure into a new Nepal. The rats may not be abandoning the sinking ship. But they can no longer pretend to hold their breath long enough to float out of the fiasco.
Having exhausted every political experiment, the people are understandably downhearted. It’s not that we have run out of alternatives to the status quo. No single one commands enough support to bring people onto the streets. For the first time since Matrika Prasad Koirala held that official title in 1950-1951, ‘dictator’ is beginning to acquire some positive connotation in the popular imagination.
The post-2006 political leadership, to be sure, has benefited from this apathy and could continue doing so. But it seems to have lost patience. The inevitability of collapse makes the wait more excruciating.
From the outset, the notion of a ‘new’ Nepal was too nebulous to work. Since it was a collective enterprise pushed by dominant internal political players carefully anointed by geopolitically attuned external stakeholders, the quest could carry particular momentum.
The script, moreover, could change with such great convenience because arbitrariness was camouflaged as compromise. A decade down the line, the new constitution stood on the three pillars that were not part of the agenda of ‘People’s Movement II’.
If anything, the outcome has been dear and dreadful. New taxes have been levied to fund and facilitate additional layers of the federalism-driven political/administrative machinery, with little to show for the people, except percolation of political opportunism.
Secularism is being promoted as affirmative action for a religion that has been the farthest from our roots. Republicanism has spawned neo-royalism with a pomp and splendor beating the ancien regime.
In retrospect, the political class made a shrewd bet. Since the Nepali people went along with each compromise made to uphold the main – albeit tenuous – 12-point compact, they, too, became stakeholders. Ordinarily, corruption may be a bad word, but in context, its institutionalization is what lubricates the state machinery in a resource-strapped economy. Nepotism, too, is part of the manifestation of newness with Nepali characteristics. After all, preserving hard-won gains requires us to make hard choices.
But, alas, the world around us has a logic of its own. When they made investments, each external stakeholder was benign in its intention. When the time has come to claim their return, they have turned bold in their expectations.
The political class is anxious to hasten what is considers an inescapable breakdown. Since no one is prepared to take the fall individually, they seem intent on collective responsibility – evading it, to be precise.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Grossed Out By That Net Gain

If all official India can do these days on matters concerning Nepal is to ‘take note’, it has good reason. There seems to be no meeting point between the three broad strains of opinion. Restoration of the Hindu monarchy and statehood, the establishment of a Hindu republic and maintenance of the existing dispensation with enough tinkering to suit New Delhi are not ideas that can easily be reconciled into coherent policy.
So Nepalis are left scratching their heads over what the parade of former Indian ambassadors are saying about developments here. When the dean of that fraternity writes, we read. But Shyam Saran seems propelled by a higher urge. As foreign secretary during that tumultuous April 15 years ago, his sleight of hand led directly to the mess Nepal is in today. If the ‘Shyam Saran Doctrine’ has any connotation on this side of the border, it is hardly complimentary.
That awareness impels Saran to defend himself. “The abolition of the [Nepali] monarchy is a net gain for India and the government must firmly and unambiguously declare that it does not support the revival of the monarchy, which has already been rejected by its people,” he wrote the other day. Tempting as it is to contest that sentence at multiple levels, let’s desist and focus on the ‘net gain’.
Those two words let on more than what Saran might have intended. Just as King Gyanendra – in Maila Baje’s humble opinion – had no roadmap for Nepal when he took over full executive control on February 1, 2005, Saran’s prescription lacked focus. Intending to break a tightening deadlock, the monarch dared India to do the unthinkable: cobble together a coalition of the mainstream parties and the Maoist rebels. Saran took on that challenge firmly and faithfully.
Here’s a hypothetical. Saran arrived as ambassador in late 2002, after King Gyanendra had sacked the Deuba government the first time to begin the first phase of his direct rule. Nepal was unlike Indonesia, where Saran was serving as ambassador. Nor could his tenures in Mauritius and Myanmar be of much help. What did help him was an uncanny ability to sniff out information and act on it. During the second ceasefire and peace talks with the Maoists, Saran found himself quite busy tracking down sources and anything of substance. King Gyanendra, irked by Saran’s snooping around, was said to be quite straightforward with Saran about a newly reassertive palace’s intentions. Maila Baje guesses that the monarch – in his polished yet pointed style – put India’s ‘unofficial’ Nepal policy on the top of the agenda.
So, on the morning of February 1, 2005, when Saran had become foreign secretary, he was prepared to take on the monarch’s challenge. “[T]he monarchy in Nepal, at least since King Mahendra’s accession in 1955, has always tried to distance Nepal from India and promoted a nationalism which takes hostility to India as its main driver,” Saran wrote the other day. It is not unnatural for a smaller nation’s assertion of independence to be perceived as hostility by the bigger neighbor zealously intent on asserting its influence. Saran sought to perfect that sentiment into strategy and feels duty-bound to defend it.
Granted, Saran could be speaking about the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. A bitterly divided New Delhi could have gone along with Saran’s ploy of subcontracting Nepal policy to Sitaram Yechury et al. in exchange for their silence on the United States. How far Saran was committed to anything beyond a republican Nepal became immaterial because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got parliamentary endorsement of the nuclear deal through legislative legerdemain. Since Yechury and Co. could still claim to have opposed the deal, they didn’t badger Saran or the Indian National Congress for duplicity. For us, the 12-Point Understanding was terrible enough. The departure from that document – which Saran precipitated – opened the Pandora’s Box even Girija Prasad Koirala had been warning us about.
So, was the abolition of the Nepali monarchy a net gain in terms of India’s new quasi-alliance with the United States? Under Bush Jr., Obama, Trump and now Biden, the optics seem good. But deeper down?
A ‘net gain’ for India in Nepal? If so, why is Saran so grossed out in the remainder of his article?