Saturday, November 18, 2017

Dreaming Up Others’ Dreams

Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is consumed with purveying dreams these days – except they are not his own.
At one public function, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) vowed to fulfill the dream of the late strongman of the Nepali Congress, Girija Prasad Koirala. Days later, he promised to complete the tasks left undone by Madan Bhandary, the late founding general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).
G.P. Koirala, if anything, was a cold-hearted realist. If he had a recurrent dream, it was to become Nepal’s first president. And Dahal, lest we forget, had firmly stood in his way.
Madan Bhandary, ideologically and by inclination, was a dreamer. But his dreams were dense with rhetorical flourish. In Dahal’s own estimation, Bhandary was a dark spot on the glorious light of communism that survived his death. And wasn’t that why the Maoists had to band together and fight the ‘people’s war’. 
Yet today Dahal tells us that he was huddling with Bhandary to forge a grand leftist alliance. (Curious, then, how all we heard was how Bhandary was in talks with King Birendra when he perished in that mysterious car plunge.)
If the Nepali Congress and the UML have been able today to establish themselves as the principal champions of republicanism, federalism and secularism, it is because Dahal & Co. have let them. No wonder the foot soldiers and field commanders of the ‘people’s war’ who have not prospered politically in the past decade have stopped asking whether the 10-year insurgency was worth it all.
In the realm of politics, dreaming is not necessarily a bad thing. And who knows that better than Nepalis. All three tenets of New Nepal were dismissed as pipe dreams until the very moment they happened. With so little indigenously to go by, moreover, weaving dreams keeps us preoccupied. 
Still, why chase G.P. Koirala’s and Bhandary’s dreams when the Maoists have woven enough of their own? Is it because they are dead and cannot vouch for what they did or did not envision?
Maybe there is a more hardheaded reason. Dahal, in his post-Dasain avatar, has given us every reason to believe that he anxiously wants his party to be taken over by a ‘lesser’ organization in order to wipe out all traces of the Maoists’ existence. If people want to remember the once-formidable organization, let them do so in the realm of lore.
The present is rooted in existence and evidence. In the aftermath of a collective vanishing act, it would be harder to haul Dahal & Co. all the way to The Hague. More importantly, the fraternity would be able to evade responsibility for translating into vivid reality the wonderful dreams they once sold.
It would have been much better if the Maoists had voluntarily disarmed, disbanded and dispersed among the existing parties once the ‘people’s war’ screeched to a safe landing. After all, few if any in that organization had ever promised us a ‘people’s peace’. Maybe that’s what Comrade Dahal is really getting at here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Abundant Gratitude, In Life And Death

In death, Kirti Nidhi Bista has been appropriately eulogized for his indefatigable defense of the nation’s interests and for his spotless persona as a public figure.
Bista’s first term as premier (1969-1970) is remembered for his decision to remove Indian military checkposts and liaison office as part of consolidating Nepal’s national sovereignty and territorial sanctity.
During his second tenure (1971-1973), King Mahendra passed away. In serving King Birendra, the prime minister provided much continuity amid the aspirations for change the new monarch’s ascension had inspired.
Yet, when Singha Darbar mysteriously caught fire, he resigned on moral grounds. Few could be sure what Bista could have done to prevent the calamity that struck the iconic central secretariat. That decision has been held as an example of political integrity.
Bista returned to the premiership in 1977 and resigned in 1979, when King Birendra announced a national referendum in response to student protests that threatened to burgeon into a full-blown national insurrection.
The royal proclamation read over Radio Nepal exhorting the people to choose between continuing with the partyless system or returning to multiparty democracy was said to have come as a surprise to Bista. Regardless, he concluded that he could no longer continue to lead the government with the nation standing at such momentous crossroads.
After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Bista tried his hand in competitive politics, alongside, at one point, another ex-premier, Matrika Prasad Koirala. Having failed to make any headway, he quietly receded into the background.
In 2005, he emerged to become one of the two vice-chairmen in the government headed by King Gyanendra as the monarch took full state powers. After the collapse of the royal regime amid a popular uprising in April 2006, Bista continued voicing his opinions on crucial national issues.
Sure, he had his fair share of critics. Many called him a palace lackey, while others denigrated him as China’s pointman in Nepal. Indeed, if Bista was the only Nepali politician the Chinese might have been tempted to rate among the Zhongguo renmin de lao pengyou [old friends of the Chinese people], Bista certainly earned the spot. Two episodes, both preceding Bista’s ascension to the premiership, serve to illustrate the roles he played.
First, a little background. Growing Sino-Nepali engagement in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war had manifested itself in increasing flows of Chinese aid to Nepal in an ostensible effort to offset India’s preponderance. At the same time, the logic of the Cold War precipitated American, British, and Soviet aid policies aimed at countering Beijing.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Nepal-China bonhomie was not a done deal. After his high-profile visit up north in 1961, King Mahendra would not visit China again. Premier Zhou Enlai, who had visited Nepal twice, skipped Kathmandu during his travels in the region in 1964 and 1965.
As Beijing pulled out of two aid projects – rather brusquely in Nepali eyes – the value of Chinese economic assistance had begun to be reevaluated in some Kathmandu quarters. Official Chinese pronouncements, for their part, had begun referring to friendship and support for the Nepali people rather than for the Nepali government.
The palace’s apprehension of a shift in Chinese policy was no doubt bolstered by the fact that the pro-Chinese faction of our communist fraternity was in exile in India advocating an uprising against the monarchy, while the pro-Soviet wing was quietly backing the king.
As the Kathmandu-Tibet highway opened to one-way traffic in December 1964, a Chinese technician who defected to Taiwan alleged that the road was constructed for military purposes. An official in Kathmandu revealed the discovery of four large caches of arms reportedly smuggled in by Chinese agents. The Soviets began playing up such reports of ulterior Chinese motives in Nepal, prompting Beijing to condemn Moscow’s tactics.
In an effort to widen Nepal’s strategic space, King Mahendra began seeking US and British military assistance, and Kathmandu politely turned down a Chinese offer to build a road connecting the Kathmandu-Tibet highway with a point in the eastern Terai. Although Beijing was said to have made angry complaints in private, it never voiced them publicly.
When the CIA made another airdrop of arms, ammunition and food supplies to Khampa rebels in Mustang in 1965, the Chinese pressed the palace to act. Several Khampas were arrested in Kathmandu with arms and radios and an American diplomat was expelled for having supplied them. Welcoming those moves, Beijing considered them insufficient.
Against this grim backdrop, Bista, as Deputy Prime Minister, visited Beijing in August 1965. By the time he returned, Beijing seemed satisfied enough with the royal regime to step up aid projects in the form of the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway and Sunkosi hydropower station.
The second episode came in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. As the Kathmandu-Tibet road was opened to traffic the following May, Chinese media reported that Nepalis at inauguration ceremony had raised slogans extolling Mao as “the red sun which shines most brightly in the hearts of the people of the whole world”.
The expulsion of two Chinese diplomats from India in June 1967 intensified tensions as some 200 Chinese Embassy officials and project technicians gathered at Tribhuvan Airport to welcome the two men. When told they were not on the flight, the assembled Chinese raised anti-Indian and pro-Cultural Revolution slogans, prompting New Delhi to lodge a strong protest.
Tensions escalated later that month at the annual exhibition held to celebrate the king’s birthday. The Chinese wanted to put up a portrait of Mao beside King Mahendra’s in their stall, although Liu Shaoqi was China’s head of state. A crowd of Nepalese students attacked the Chinese stall before attacking a Chinese Embassy vehicle and the Nepal-China Friendship Association library.
The official Chinese media accused US ‘imperialists’, Soviet ‘revisionists’ and Indian ‘reactionaries’ of having instigated the Nepali ‘hooligans’. It also accused Nepali authorities of having ‘approved and supported the protests’, a charge subsequently leveled by the Chinese government.
Although immediate tensions subsided, Nepal grew more suspicious of the China. Beijing, too, reevaluated its stance. Bista paid a visit to Beijing and seemed to have succeeded in injecting a modicum of normalcy in relations.
During a visit to Kathmandu in 1969, Indian Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh reaffirmed that Nepal and India shared special relations. Bista, by now prime minister, described such relations as outdated in view of the progress Nepal had made in its foreign relations. (Among other things, Nepal had been elected to a two-year term as a member of the United Nations Security Council.)
Bista went on to demand the withdrawal of Indian military checkposts along the Nepal-China border, insisting that Nepali troops were available and capable of doing the job. Stating that the Indian military liaison team stationed in Kathmandu had completed its work, Bista demanded its withdrawal as well. 
New Delhi met those demands, but not without noting that Kathmandu’s assertiveness had come three weeks after Bista’s return from a visit to China. (Bista would reveal in a newspaper interview in 2015 that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi subsequently told him that the matter could certainly have been taken up in private.)
Bista had no illusions about himself or his times. He never sought personal credit for any success or shirked responsibility for failure. That trait stood in sharp contrast with the behavior of most Panchayat leaders who relentlessly criticized the monarchy and partyless system before lauding the wonderful things they claimed to have done while in office.
When many erstwhile members of King Gyanendra’s council of ministers continue to complain of having had nothing better to do in office than swat flies while the foreign and home ministers ran the show, Bista continued to contemplate on the state of the state till the very end and counsel anyone interested in hearing him out.
His request for a simple funeral was perhaps the ultimate expression of his abiding gratitude to his motherland – for having honored him with the opportunity to serve.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

A Spectacle That Could Be Worth Savoring

If you are still struggling to recover from the sheer suddenness of the leftist alliance forged over Dasain, the spectacle across the political spectrum since should help to cheer you up.
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has advised the Nepali Congress to return to the doctrine of B.P. Koirala, instead of hyping the threat posed by the united reds. (Does that include B.P.’s Two Necks in a Noose theory, too, Comrade?)
Media personality Komal Oli, who ditched the right-wing Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) to join the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML), ended up filing as an independent candidate in a Dang constituency.
Although Oli withdrew her nomination in favor of the official leftist alliance, it was only after weighing her chances with Khum Bahadur Khadka of the Nepali Congress. Khadka, we are told, opposes the official Nepali Congress candidate. And the official UML candidate – representing the leftist alliance – is a former RPP man. (If Oli was reluctant to take on together the establishments of the two principal political formations, can you really blame her?)
In Chitwan, Devi Gyawali, the UML candidate for mayor who succumbed to Dahal’s daughter, Renu, in Bharatpur’s mayoral election, after having created a near-constitutional crisis over torn ballots, has decided to support Dahal’s campaign in the district. The RPP (Democratic)’s Bikram Pandey announced with much fanfare that he would challenge the Maoist chairman. But Pandey has since lost his party’s district president, who defected to the Maoist Centre.
The RPP-Nepal is still in the Nepali Congress-led alliance except in Jhapa-3 where Rajendra Lingden has garnered the support of the leftist front. In the end, Krishna Prasad Sitaula had to be given the Nepali Congress ticket there because he felt the easier proportional-representation route to parliament was a putdown. And speaking of the PR list, Ganga Chaudhary Satgauwa is on the lists of both the UML and Naya Shakti.
Nepali Congress leader Govinda Raj Joshi probably does not have enough time to make much of a dent after the Election Commission annulled his candidacy as an independent. But he will surely try to sabotage party vice-chairman Ram Chandra Poudel, the official Nepali Congress candidate. That race merits watching, especially considering that Joshi’s heft often helped Poudel win elections in the past.
Too many things are happening at the same time on the Madhesi front. But if there is one question you can ask, it is this: did the country have to undergo such a massive regionalization of national politics to regroup districts the panchas had already organized into five subregions into paltry seven?
Granted, the provincial and local structures are yet to prove their worth and the pitfalls identified therein might turn out to be no more than minor inconveniences. But did we have to see the divisions in that part of the country in all their rawness for an extra two subregions? Maybe we did. Without the Madhesi and janjati movements, after all, federalism might still have been an aspirational attribute in our midst.
If all this could serve to clarify Nepal’s newness even a shade or two more, the spectacle will certainly have been worth seeing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Finding A Place Between Haughtiness And Hopelessness

Maoist Center chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s taunts and gibes to the Nepali Congress seem to be troubling quite a few prominent members of our senior ruling party.
The leftist alliance so suddenly sprung upon the nation amid the Dasain festivities has given an opportunity to the Nepali Congress to rejuvenate itself, Dahal began pontificating shortly thereafter. That line has become almost a refrain on that side of the political spectrum.
Granted, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his allies gave a bit of an opening by their undue alarmism in response to the development. But, really, their agitation was probably triggered more by the unexpectedness of the event than by an earnest appraisal of its potential implications.
Lately, Deuba and his colleagues seem to be exuding a more relaxed attitude. Just the other day, the prime minister left out the M word when he rumbled on about how his party had vanquished the Rana and Panchayat autocracies. Now, was his apparent amnesia relating to the events of April 2006 an accident or a deliberate omission? That’s something the lefties can scratch their heads on.
Meanwhile, Gagan Thapa, the most prominent Nepali Congress republican of his generation, has detailed the ways in which his party could stand to gain from leftist unity. His core contention: the leftward drift of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) could only widen the potential base for the Nepali Congress. Other Congress leaders are torn between eternal smugness and abiding shock. The latter sentiment seems to be in greater abundance in their private engagements.
Yes, the Nepali Congress is in poor shape. No, it is not sapped of its intrinsic strength. Like any party in power in the world these days, Congress leaders can’t seem to see or think right. Worse, they are busy evaluating the guy or gal standing next to them in the party. Comparisons in terms of time spent in jail or of springs crossed versus current stature in terms of patronage and pelf emerge to ruin the animation and energy of wielding power.
In terms of resilience, however, the Nepali Congress is in a league of its own, bolstered no doubt by its enviable legitimacy. Party leaders may seem odious while in power, but in the end, they are the ones called to clean up the mess. After all, can Dahal and his comrades imagine the April 2006 uprising and its aftermath without Girija Prasad Koirala and his organization?
Sure, the left mobilized themselves on the streets. But what other party could have rewritten history in a way that turned what was a popular uprising against autocratic monarchy into a republican one and gotten away with it?
Still, the Nepali Congress easily manages to mismanage things by veering between alarmism and arrogance. The temptation gripping sections of the party to put off the elections to stop a possible leftist landslide is misplaced.
The UML and Maoists couldn’t do anything separately to turn the Nepali Congress into another Praja Parishad. This may be a case where they won’t be able to do much together, either.  In fact, let the proponents make up their minds whether the realignment heralds a radicalized UML or a much more moderated Maoists.
In the meantime, all you Nepali Congress leaders and supporters, quit telling us how great you and your party are. We the sovereign people don’t like it when you keep rubbing it in like that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Ins And Outs Of It, Here And There

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and his Naya Shakti barely lasted a week in the new left alliance.
If anything, that record gives some respectability to Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s desire to reunite his faction of the Rastriya Prajantra Party (RPP) with Kamal Thapa’s group, merely two months after breaking away.
As Thapa returned to the cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister, with seven loyalists in tow, Bijaya Kumar Gachchaddar’s formation is returning to the ruling Nepali Congress.
The RPP nominee who became deputy speaker of parliament, Ganga Prasad Yadav, marked the formal expiry of the body by joining the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. You may be forgiven if, in all of this churning, you missed the news that Keshar Bahadur Bista left the RPP faction led by Prakash Chandra Lohani to join Rana’s group. (Lest you forget, Lohani himself broke away from the RPP shortly after its much heralded unity convention).
Although President Bidya Bhandari was expected to do a Katuwal and block Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s decision to expand his cabinet, she pulled back at the last minute. Not that she could have done much, at least after Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav certified that the expansion did not violate the election code of conduct. All that whining and moaning in the past? Well, don’t ask.
Deuba had little to lose. He has been insisting that the size of the cabinet is the prime minister’s prerogative. And it’s not as if his image of affinity for elephantine ministries created circa 1995-1996 was going to go away just because he suddenly turned lean and mean.
How all this will play out is anyone’s guess. The government is working overtime to tamp down fears that the provincial and federal elections might be put off.
It’s useless to fret over the prospect of  a combined communist juggernaut taking over Nepal. What are they going to do with all that power?  Divided, our comrades couldn’t be expected to stand. In unity, too, they are hobbling.
The alacrity with which the Nepali Congress – or at least the ruling part of the party – has turned rightward has raised new possibilities from that end. But the options being talked about there have not really been off the table since April 2006.
External stakeholders – state and non-state alike – seem equally baffled. And they may not be faking it. The Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu has been telling everyone willing to listen that her country had no hand in the sudden realignment on the left.
Maybe so. But that has not stopped the Indians from mounting their own version of an anti-access/area denial campaign. Could Bhattarai’s hasty exit from the left alliance suggest something here? Perhaps. But what if New Delhi engineered the Dasain surprise?
The right hand is free not to know what the left hand is doing – or not to want to know. There’s no rule saying you have to be inside the country or outside to display such obliviousness.
Our national transition has acquired a momentum of its own, based on exigencies and imperatives that are not entirely our own. Let these dynamics play out as they will as part of an open-ended process. We can all take turns feeling good and bad, regardless of who’s in or out. What could be fairer for those here and there?