Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dreary Dance Of The Bit Players

It took less than a year for skeptics of the viability of a reunited Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) to exude a vigorous sense of vindication. Senior leader Pashupati Shamsher Rana has taken strong exception to party chairman Kamal Thapa’s decision to appoint 42 central committee members “without holding consultation”.
Thapa, with no less defiance, responded by insisting that the party’s decision was binding on all. Rana’s statement accusing Thapa of running the party “in an autocratic way” echoed the indictment delivered by another erstwhile senior leader, Prakash Chandra Lohani, while breaking away from the RPP weeks after the much hyped reunification in November.
Fears of formal split loom large, adding pressure on Thapa and Rana to settle their differences urgently. But, then, the roots of the rift transcend the two personalities.
The circumstances surrounding the unification between the two groups were not entirely clear. After all, until a few weeks prior to the development, Thapa and Rana were regularly exchanging vitriol. Unity, moreover, had suspiciously come close many times before it equally suspiciously was called off.
The RPP’s poor showing in the local elections no doubt exacerbated the internal divisions. It was no secret that the Rana faction opted for unity after realizing that it could not beat Thapa’s group. Implicit in that decision was an acknowledgement that Thapa would take a sustained victory lap.  In other words, if Thapa has been running the RPP as his personal fiefdom, Rana has enabled him in no small measure.
Equally natural, therefore, is Rana’s decision to pounce on Thapa the moment he smelled blood. If Thapa continued to claim single-handed credit for positioning the RPP as the fourth largest force in parliament, Rana was not unjustified in holding the party chairman responsible for the drubbing at the local polls.
When asked, second and third-tier RPP leaders do not shy away from conceding that former king Gyanendra is a factor in the party’s current travails. Whether or not he is actively fomenting the divisions and even instigating a possible split, it is undeniable that the former king is a major stakeholder in the RPP.
While Thapa’s pro-monarchy and Rana’s anti-monarchy platforms remain authoritative albeit antagonistic dynamics in the RPP, both factions are united by the espousal of the Hindu statehood agenda, which the former king also personifies.
As to personalities, king Gyanendra, during his direct rule, had an opportunity to study his supporters as much as he did his opponents. Thapa’s record as home minister and Rana’s role as a pro-democracy critic despite leading the best-organized pro-monarchy group must have come into sharper focus during the waning weeks of April 2006.
If the former king saw in Thapa’s articulation of a monarchy-restoration campaign as a mere electoral tool, some of the RPP chief’s public comments – before and after the party unification – certainly served to fuel suspicion in the ex-monarch as well as among the public.
Thapa, too, must have been gripped by his own anxieties, particularly over perceived insufficient appreciation by the ex-monarch of his contributions to the royal cause. While ex-king Gyanendra surely found the RPP useful in keeping the agenda alive, he is too deeply rooted in Nepali realities to expect – and even accede to – a monarchical restoration on the narrow base of Thapa & Co.
Should the monarchy be restored, it would be on the edifice of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist and the Nepali Congress, with the acquiescence of the Maoists. How the three major forces would conjure up such a seemingly implausible common agenda is theirs to figure out. Time and circumstances would certainly help them arrive at a decision, especially given their demonstrated proficiency in devising last-minute deals and 11th-hour compromises over the past decade.
As for the RPP, leaders and followers would just have to learn harder how to live together or live separately. It has been fun so far to watch their antics, but the show is becoming a tad bit tedious.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Tibet Sanguinity In The Sikkim Missive?

If the Indians seem to be shrugging off China’s latest threat to support Sikkim’s independence against the backdrop of growing tensions on their Himalayan frontier, they have good reason.
Admittedly, the former Himalayan kingdom was incorporated into the Indian union through a series of highly underhanded maneuvers. And, yes, it took Beijing three decades, having pursued a sustained campaign of cartographic legerdemain, to formally recognize that Sikkim is part of India.
The fact remains that there is no tenable sentiment for Sikkim’s independence manifestly palpable inside the territory. One cannot delve into the hearts and minds of the Sikkimese people. For practical purposes, the independence movement – if there ever was one – has been snuffed out.
‘Sikkimization’ and ‘Bhutanization’ are useful slogans for rabid Nepali nationalists on the left and the right. Beyond that, Bhutan seems hardly bothered by its own ‘subjugation’ by India to feel strongly about Sikkim’s status.
How the Indians managed to pull that off continues to baffle many Indians. The formula has not been replicable in Kashmir, Punjab or any other restive part of the world’s largest democracy.
Could New Delhi’s ethnic cleansing in Sikkim have done the trick long before the term ever was conceived of as a prosecutable offense in an international tribunal? If Lhendup Dorje, the prominent native Sikkimese politician whose exertions were central to the merger of the state into the Indian union, was subsequently forced to spend his life frying fish in a West Bengal transportation hub, one can easily surmise the plight of his compatriots.
The ethnic Nepalis – a concept hard to fathom given the identity crisis in Nepal – who control Sikkim today seem quite content with the status quo. They have no reason to look admirably or enviously towards Nepal or the perennially agitated putative Gorkhaland, while New Delhi’s largesse continues to flow in.
As the writers of that Global Times editorial suggest, Sikkimese independence is a notion that could gain wider credence inside China. New Delhi knows that regime change long ceased to have a part in Beijing’s playbook under Mao Zedong. Switching the sovereignty of states, too, flows more from the history of Chinese humiliation. It is not an investment Beijing can afford to make in its rise to global prominence.
So what should be garnered from that hard-hitting editorial? This gem: “In the past, China was wary of India playing the Dalai Lama card, but this card is already overplayed and will exert no additional effect on the Tibet question.”
The Dalai Lama turned 82 the other day and can only wilt further into the twilight of his life. Is the editorial emblematic of China’s confidence in the full and formal incorporation of Tibet into the Chinese state? If so, it would be immaterial whether the 15th Dalai Lama is designated or discovered, is done so by the Chinese or the Tibetan exiles, comes from inside Tibet or outside, is a man or a woman.
Now, if a Sikkim independence movement were to be launched from Tibet as part of the “certain conditions” that would “rewrite southern Himalayan geopolitics” – as the Global Times postulates – then that would be something to write home about.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Finding Our Way Through The Stars

If you listen to his critics, the ‘incompetent’ tag bestowed twice on Sher Bahadur Deuba over the last decade and a half is closing in on him early in his fourth innings as prime minister. Yet the man remains visibly undaunted.
The opposition, led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), was quick to pounce on Deuba’s decision to postpone elections to the local bodies in province number two to September 18 as a portent of disaster. Our prime minister, for his part, doesn’t think his latest term in office has even begun.
Deuba has been waiting for the stars to align properly before moving into the prime ministerial residence in Baluwatar. Juxtaposing his birth chart with the current planetary line-up, Deuba, we are told, has found Rahu in particular to be inherently unpropitious. Well-placed Jupiter alone has not been able to mitigate the malevolence of the dragon’s head. Conjunctions, aspects, combinations here, dissociations there, combustibility, exaltation, debilitation, retrogression, square, trine, every which way he looks at it, he just can’t leave Budhanilkantha.
The prime minister, having focused the two weeks following his swearing-in on remedial measures, has finally found a way. All things considered, Deuba’s real tenure would begin on Monday, June 19 around 6 am following completion of the prescribed religious observances, rituals and rites.
As the nation’s fate is inextricably tied to that of its most powerful citizen of the moment, Nepalis will have to exercise the requisite forbearance and fortitude. Yet the postponement of the local polls in Province 2 has cast a shadow perhaps unrivalled by the shadowiest of the celestial bodies.
The government said the postponement was announced in consultation with the agitating Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), which has denied any such meeting of minds. RJP-N leaders maintain they will boycott the elections, but some cadres have gone ahead and filed their nomination papers.
Furthermore, there are fears that Province 5 will go the way of Province 2, especially since the realities on the ground are similar. And we’re not even talking about the form of the constitutional amendment the RJP-N wants, not to speak of the content. Leader of the opposition, K.P. Oli of the CPN-UML has pointedly asked the premier, given the current pace of deferments, when he intended to hold provincial and federal elections.
Oli’s implication is obvious. Failure to hold elections to the remaining 481 local bodies, the seven provincial assemblies and the federal legislature by the constitutionally mandated deadline of January 21, 2018 would represent the failure of the experiment that began in April 2006.
Not to worry, according to Deuba’s personal soothsayers. The prime minister’s position will only get stronger once he is comfortably placed in Baluwatar.
And what’s so sacrosanct about a human-imposed deadline anyway? There are enough planet-specific chants and sacraments in our collective cache to untie the knot even if that magic potion called consensus failed to do the trick this time around.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Knowing The Deubas We Know…

With Sher Bahadur Deuba set to embark on his fourth term as prime minister, it might be enlightening to review the Nepali Congress luminary’s chequered political history for pointers to the future.
During his first term as head of government in 1995-96, Deuba projected himself as a consensus builder. Atop Nepal’s first experiment in coalition governance, he legitimized the ex-panchas, more out of political expediency than any thing else, but the effect was unmistakable.
Over time, Deuba began demonstrating questionable abilities to stay in power. Of course, it’s easy to blame him for having brought in the ‘Pajero culture’ and other distortions. Yet the structural and institutional quirks of multiparty parliamentary democracy coupled with the political culture (or lack thereof) of its practitioners brought about that degeneration. Deuba, as any politician would have, sought to make the most of the power of incumbency.
It was an innocuous misstep – an amalgam of credulity and confidence – that proved his undoing. Egged on by Nepali Congress chief Girija Prasad Koirala – his onetime mentor turned rival – to seek a vote of confidence he was not required to, Deuba called the vote. He stood by helplessly when Koirala connived to keep two members away from a vote Deuba was confident of winning.
Conventional wisdom holds that Deuba-era political corruption and systemic chicanery disgusted the country to the point of spawning the Maoists and their “people’s war”. Although subsequent coalition governments and a majority-burnished polity fared no better, the slur on Deuba stuck. The man got his revenge in the aftermath of the Narayanhity Massacre in 2001. When Deuba ordered a ceasefire, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ called him a brave man. Months later, Deuba would go on to place a bounty on Dahal and other Maoists leaders.
Deuba was so wary of Koirala that he didn’t see what was coming his way from other quarters. King Gyanendra got a lot of flak for having sacked an elected prime minister in October 2002 and consolidating royal authority. But it shortly emerged that other members of the political elite, notably Surya Bahadur Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, egged Deuba on to assert executive prerogative to postpone the election and stay on as premier. Thapa, simultaneously, was cautioning the king against an assertive prime minister.
If King Gyanendra had indeed overstepped his boundaries, he certainly had not done so to humour the political class. By the time the mainstream parties discovered that, Lokendra Bahadur Chand had been succeeded as premier by Thapa, who in turn paved the way for Deuba’s return in 2004.
Upon assuming his third term, Deuba said he got justice from the palace and persuaded the CPN-UML that regression had been half-corrected. Those who suspected that the prime minister and the monarch had conspired in an elaborate ruse felt vindicated. Koirala began toying with republicanism and we all laughed him off.
Deuba, we are told, knew something was brewing but pleaded helplessness in the fashion of B.P. Koirala in the runup to 1960 royal takeover. In fact, it was Deuba who cracked down on the Dalai Lama’s office and the Tibetans, giving King Gyanendra’s second takeover a pro-Chinese color. It seemed the royal regime singled out Deuba for persecution on corruption, while merely pushing the politics of the rest of the leaders.
Post-monarchy Nepal was still merciless to Deuba. Having been dismissed twice by the monarch for incompetence, Deuba was supposed to have been finished as a politician. But was he? If a ‘discredited’ monarch was the arbiter of Deuba’s fate, wasn’t that to be an advantage in a republican Nepal. Deuba lumbered on, biding his time. After wresting control of the Nepali Congress, he waited for the stars to align more propitiously.
The moral of the story? Actually, none. It’s just that Deuba has walked into far too many landmines and survived them. It would be fun to speculate on his mistakes, missteps and misspeaks. He’ll probably enjoy it, too.
Consider things this way. As we hurtle toward an inexorable unknown, wouldn’t having Deuba at the helm be reassuring? With a survivor like him, maybe we all will survive.

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