Friday, January 24, 2020

We All Have Our Jobs To Do

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Uncle Joe had advised us of the degrees of decease in the revolutionary scheme of things way back in 1947. Or at least that’s what that bloke called Leonard Lyons of The Washington Post quoted the Soviet dictator as saying then. While we can quibble over the accuracy of the attribution, our own Agni Prasad Sapkota is living the adage.
Days after the supreme commander of the erstwhile Maoist People’s Liberation Army, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, accepted responsibility for 5,000 of the 17,000 deaths inflicted by the decade-long insurgency, Sapkota became the unanimous choice of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to become the next speaker of the lower house of parliament.
The decision created a new stalemate. Civil society, human rights activists and conflict victims have taken to the streets to protest the ruling party nominating someone accused of murder for such a dignified position in the state. A murder case was filed against Agni Sapkota by the wife of Arjun Lama in the Supreme Court in 2011, where the case is subjudice.
NCP general secretary Bishnu Poudel, however, defended the party secretariat’s decision to propose Sapkota and rebuffed all charges against him as baseless. “There is no case pending against Sapkota. He is an eligible candidate for speaker,” Poudel was quoted as saying in published reports. “He is an elected people’s representative who served as minister twice in the past.” Sapkota also won all three national elections since the Maoists joined the mainstream in 2006, Poudel might have added.
Now senior advocate Dinesh Tripathi has filed a writ petition demanding that the Supreme Court order not only a halt to the election but also to arrest Sapkota. Activists will agitate as long as they can, while Sapkota and his supporters will continue to reject any suggestion of disqualification. Given that the NCP almost split over the candidacy of the next speaker – with the former Maoist faction insisting that it should retain the speakership following Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s exit in infamy – Dahal is taking a victory lap.
You could argue that Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli may have accepted Sapkota, after pressing for months the candidacy of his Marxist-Leninist ally Subash Chandra Nemwang, in the knowledge that the murder accusation would continue to encumber the ex-Maoists.
Theoretically, the NCP’s numbers in the house virtually assure Sapkota’s ascension. The main opposition Nepali Congress hasn’t made loud noises on Sapkota’s candidacy. What’s more, it did not field a challenger to Sapkota and is unlikely to contest the post of deputy speaker. The inside story is that the development is part of a larger deal between Oli, Dahal and Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba on transitional justice and who knows what else?
Congress leaders privately concede that, in return, Deuba expects a stronger voice on the Constitutional Council, where he sits as the leader of the opposition, in such crucial appointments as ambassadors and officials of constitutional bodies. The unspoken imperative is the Nepali Congress’ eagerness to have parliament endorse the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement at the earliest.
Publicly, the erstwhile UML strand in the NCP will emphasize the imperative for unity during these critical times for the nation. How far Sapkota’s speakership will go in appeasing the ex-Maoists is as unclear as its potential to fan discontent among former UML members wary of Dahal’s growing clout in the unified party. Oli’s own failing health can only heighten apprehensions and anticipation of a new front in the broader CPN power struggle.
It would be imprudent to rule out Oli’s ability to astonish us. Depending on what legal course the Sapkota case takes, Nemwang could yet seize the spotlight. He could plausibly play up the pretense of having joined the ex-Maoists to gain the speakership, should that office fall vacant again. (We still do marvel at his ability to pull off that ‘magna carta’ trick – complete with secularism – in 2006 without anyone else in the interim parliament or outside knowing how.)
Or Nemwang could leverage his experience of having presided over two constituent assemblies consecutively to make a bid for the premiership. We all have our jobs to do.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Stepping Up And Back

Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, former supreme commander of the ‘People’s Liberation Army’, has publicly assumed responsibility for the deaths of 5,000 of the 17,000 people killed during the decade-long Maoist insurgency. And everyone seems to be up in arms.
“I take responsibility for both the good and the bad that took place [during the ‘people’s war’. I am not shying away from that,” Dahal declared at a function organized in Tundikhel – the most public of the capital’s public places – by the Tharu Community to mark the Maghi Festival. “But the blame should not be placed on me for the things that we did not do.”
Was Dahal carried away by a level of confidence borne out of a favorable balance of power emerging within his Nepal Communist Party (NCP)? Was he no longer able to contain the ghosts of the ‘people’s war’ haunting him incessantly deep within? Was his declaration part of a carefully crafted effort to influence the much-delayed transitional justice process? Or was the NCP co-chair just messing with us?
It’s a free country and everyone can have a take from every angle. Daman Nath Dhungana laments that Dahal chose to speak at Tundikhel something he should have said in a duly constituted truth and reconciliation commission. As a prominent mediator/facilitator between the state and the rebels during the height of the insurgency, Dhungana certainly has a stake in this.
Baburam Bhattarai, on the other hand, contends that culpability in conflict-era deaths cannot be divvied up. Easy for him to say. Unlike Dahal, he was a pen-pusher during the insurgency who has since graduated to tweeting.
Only Dahal knows what he knows. Intended or otherwise, though, he has subsumed the truth, reconciliation and transitional justice processes into the wider contest of victimhood our national conversation has stalled into.
The political parties, security agencies and former monarchy will no doubt seek to sort out their place in the culpability list. Out of the 5,000 deaths Dahal accepts, which ones weigh the heaviest on the blameworthiness scale? Victims on whom the Maoists inflicted the most pain before their souls departed? Within that cohort, whose suffering takes precedence? Those whose limbs went out before their lives did?
As we go down the hierarchy, where do those rank whose hearts just stopped beating amid the general pressures of the times? Do the dead insurgents who the fleeing rebels beheaded on their way out of the battlefield to evade identification come under the 5,000 or 12,000 column?
It is a telling commentary on our state of affairs that Dahal has been reduced to making such statements today. There was a time, after all, when much of our vaunted civil society was almost sanctifying the blood spilled by the Maoists as a hallowed act against royal feudalism. What other recourse did disadvantaged, dispossessed and desolate Nepalis have?
Time has shed much light on the ‘people’s war’ – particularly its external dimensions – which has only been amplified by the political course the country has taken in its aftermath. This is not necessarily to Dahal’s detriment, though. Maybe next time the erstwhile Maoist supremo should declare that he was merely following orders – from abroad.

Friday, January 10, 2020

What Lies Beneath?

Bam Dev Gautam’s prime ministerial ambitions are notorious. What’s new about it is the fact that some of his colleagues in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) are equally itching to see him get the top job. The possibility of a constitutional amendment is being discussed to facilitate Gautam’s ascension to the premiership from the upper chamber of the national parliament. Do we really want to go to such lengths for one man?
Gautam, whose political trajectory has long stalled at the roadblock called deputy prime minister, has consistently refused to go to the National Assembly without the top executive job. Pathetic as that insistence and the NCP’s readiness to entertain it are, the real tragedy perhaps lies in having to point that out.
In retrospect, the proposal last year to have the sitting NCP member for Kathmandu-7 constituency resign to make way for Gautam’s candidacy in a by-election to the lower house was more respectable. That trial balloon was shot down amid the growing camaraderie between Gautam and NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal as senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal mounted a virtual insurrection against Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli.
That Gautam would be back so soon to trigger such a blatantly disgraceful national debate is beside the point. There must be some deep-seated dynamics in our systemic set-up that keeps bringing such things up.
Poor health or poorer optics, Oli has made clear he won’t quit the premiership even if you tried your best pulling him off his seat kicking and screaming. Extricating him after he’s cold and stiff – God forbid – isn’t something political – much less human – decency would permit us to contemplate. Letting Oli complete his five-year tenure and allowing the voters to decide would be the most prudent course. But apparently not to our NCP satraps.
The just party can’t think straight. Some former Maoists want the speaker’s post as a good-faith demonstration that they have been wholly taken over by the former Unified Marxist-Leninists. Many here must be excited by the ongoing developments, regardless of who or what Gautam represents. Other ex-Maoists, including many senior ones, seem happy as long as they enjoy the spoils. Who knows how many among them believe Gautam can butter their bread more lavishly?
Many ex-UML members are outraged at the inability of the former Maoists to be content at the 40-percent threshold they agreed to during the party’s unification. Then there is the continuing process of leaders switching allegiances between the two camps that aren’t even supposed to exist, shamelessly camouflaging individual considerations as ones of ideological urgency.
In such a scenario, you can understand the reluctance of people like ex-premiers Jhal Nath Khanal and Madhav Nepal to throw their hat in the ring while Dahal’s is sitting right in the middle.
Still, you can’t avoid the eerie sensation that if Gautam is so anxious to get his turn and has the kind of backing in his party that merits talk of amending the constitution, things must be moving in all directions beneath the surface.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Sweet Reasonableness And Resolute Seriousness

Having overseen a momentous year in bilateral relations, Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi used the advent of the new decade to chart the contours of the future. Fortified with a hefty dose of facts and figures at a news conference, she invoked imageries of unprecedented partnership.
By taking aim at “some western countries [that] don’t want to see a prosperous China”, she spoke in the tradition of Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones, Xi had said during his visit to Nepal last year. Hou’s rhetoric was far more restrained. While there was no threat to China’s security and national interests from Nepal, the ambassador said, some elements inimical to the cordial relations between China and Nepal posed a risk.
Describing events in Hong Kong as ‘violent crimes’ that have challenged the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and those in Xinjiang as terrorism aided and abetted by domestic and overseas forces, she urged Nepalis to see them as such. Terrorist or freedom fighter, it all depends on the beholder. Moreover, Nepalis can’t be terribly excited about democracy in China, given how our repeated struggles have turned out.
In the past, Chinese politicians and diplomats would repeat their country’s pledge to defend Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Our sovereignty continues to erode and, amid the broader Kalapani dispute with India, China is even seen as complicit in the violation of our territorial integrity. Yet today, Chinese leaders and envoys use Nepali territory to warn third countries against waging anti-Beijing policies.
Perhaps in response to the changing times, China sent a different kind of ambassador in 2018. Hou can dress up and dance in traditional Nepali fashion as easily as she can pose for the camera in Patan Darbar Square in support of our Visit Nepal Year campaign. Her approach to drawing followers on Twitter was, so to speak, business-like.
This projection of soft diplomacy has not diminished her ability to pursue the hard variant. Assignments in Pakistan and the United States, together with tenures in the security and administrative tiers of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Asia Department, have prepared her well for the ambassadorship in Nepal.
Few expected Hou to advise Nepal to reject outright the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant. It was up to Nepal whether to accept the US grant, she said, adding that the Government of Nepal was capable of taking a positive decision. The Phase 1 trade deal between Washington and Beijing must have eased things a bit for China in Nepal as must have India’s preoccupation with protests surrounding proposed changes to citizenship laws. Hou said what she said. We are the ones who have to act. That distinction becomes scarier the more we ponder whether Hou’s reaction is as innocuous as it appears. In other words, we can gauge non-reciprocity in bilateral relations and its perils from our side. Chinese murmurs on Nepali non-reciprocity have grown into a chorus if not out-and-out shouts, as the range of expectations has grown.
Let’s say the MCC wins legislative endorsement and US money starts flowing in ways Nepalis find unhelpful. (Or the Chinese find unhelpful and persuade enough of us that it is against the national interest.) Will Beijing stop after conveying a customary we-told-you-so? Or would the MCC end up being the proverbial straw on the Chinese camel that broke our back?

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Our Real Millennium Challenge

Talk of missed opportunities.
Just imagine if we had the kind of patience and resolve on Kalapani the Indians have demonstrated in the latest iteration of the long-running dispute. We chose to squander our national energies on tangents, while the Indians zeroed in on the issue, alas, to oblivion.
Today, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on the defensive domestically and regionally on the question of citizenship, we might have at least stood a chance of securing an appointment for our ‘special envoy’.
Indian opinion-makers – particularly those reflecting official opinion – have consistently dismissed the Kalapani protests as part of seasonal outbursts of anti-Indianism our national psyche needs to survive. Unfortunately for us, today India feels vindicated. New Delhi is now blaming us for allowing anti-Indian elements to cross the border and fan unrest. (Translation: learn to take care of the territory you own first.)
Deliberate or otherwise, Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s retweeting of Indian opposition leader Sonia Gandhi’s searing message on the controversy has pushed us deeper into the pit. No worries, though. We’ve done what we do best and moved on: to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant the Americans are begging us to take.
The Nepali Congress sees the endorsement of the relevant agreement as its single-point agenda for the winter session of parliament. The main opposition party probably thinks it’s being responsible here. It was during its stint in power that the two countries made an official commitment to take the money. However, the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) is demurring. Not because it is prejudiced against its predecessor. The CPN still can’t figure out whether the MCC grant is or isn’t part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) Nepal has or hasn’t joined under its watch.
The head honcho of the Millennium Challenge Account Nepal, a body the government formed to eventually manage the programmes, has urged the government and parties in Parliament to endorse the agreement, arguing that it is not part of the IPS. Maybe not officially. But, then, China’s Belt and Road Initiative hardly has ‘debt trap’ stamped all over it, either.
Let’s assume the impossible: that the MCC grant has no overt or covert military/strategic strings attached. Does it mean that it is truly free of considerations that could constrain Nepal’s sovereign options in any shape, manner or form? Does it make sense for us to take the $500 million because it is supposed to be free? Haven’t we learned from the past how more stringent conditions for grants are than for interest-based loans? Should we be committed to spending $150 million on our own on the inane premise that energy and infrastructure connectivity would boost regional peace and prosperity?
How did Nepal suddenly qualify for the program – as astute observers such as Dipak Gyawali have pointed out – after having been told for years not to raise its hopes? In view of the scorecard publicly available, is the money actually free? The three broad conditions of eligibility: commitment to ruling justly, encouraging economic freedom, and investing in people may sound innocuous enough. Let’s not even pretend to comprehend what might be inherent in the font, size and spacing of the fine print.
Moreover, how unreliable could the disbursement tap become amid divergences in perceptions of compliance? You can get a fair idea from the fact that Nepal gets passing grades in corruption today. What extraneous considerations may or may not sway the evaluator on the other indicators?
This is not to say that offers of assistance from the Chinese, Indians or anybody else are somehow more benign. We need to figure out what’s good or bad for us ourselves – regardless of whether it is free or for a fee. We shouldn’t stop trying just because we haven’t been good at doing that so far.