Saturday, April 22, 2017

Redundancy Of Regionalism Or Refitting Of Rivalries?

Disregard the embarrassment surrounding the naming of the new political organization created by six Madhes-based parties and consider the bigger picture: the trend toward nationalizing the articulation and engagement of political principles and passions.
Upendra Yadav, the originator of the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, morphed his organization into the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal. He is now mulling unity with Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti.  Earlier this month, Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar’s Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Democratic had announced a new party named Nepal Democratic Forum through a merger with two other groups.
Last week’s creation of the Rastriya Janata Party, amalgamating the Tarai Madhes Democratic Party, Sadbhavana Party, National Madhes Socialist Party, Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Republican, Tarai Madhes Sadhbhavana Party and Federal Sadbhavana Party, caps this trend.
“This is a new dawn in Nepali politics,” Rajendra Mahato said in comments published after the merger of the six parties. “It has united the people of Madhes in one cord. The wishes of Madhesi, Tharu, Muslim and all other communities have come true.”
Mahato did not stop there. “We are already an established force in Madhes but we don’t want to be limited there. By dropping Madhes from the party’s name, we are trying to give a clear message that this party is also the party of the people living in the hills and the mountains.”
All this begs the question: Has the redundancy of regionalism in our diverse albeit small nation dawned on its most active advocates? The ardent arguments over the powers, functions and jurisdictions of local bodies persist in all their passion. So it would perhaps be safer to say that devolvement and decentralization have been decoupled from regionalism as a guiding philosophy.
What precipitated this action? It is easy to advance the proximate cause as the series of elections whose successful conduct would be central to the triumph of the post-2006 national project. However, it would be useful to delve deeper.
Were the champions of regionalism finding it hard to defend their project from allegations of separatism? This question, in turns, paves the way for a specific one: Did the perceived association of Madhesi grievances and aspirations and methods of their articulation with Indian wishes begin taking a heavy toll on our Madhes-centric parties?
The tactical utility of regionalism in Nepal to India having been served, New Delhi would be understandably anxious to disassociate itself with allegations of having continued the destabilization of Nepal.
Notwithstanding the mutual advantage some groups and New Delhi derived during India’s recent economic blockade, Madhesi parties have seen little real benefit from Indian ‘patronage’. Ordinary people on our side of the border have long been familiar with the relative neglect of Indians residing the closest to us.
Then comes the China factor, considering Beijing’s engagement with some Madhes-centric groups in the post-monarchy years. It would be relevant to view such Chinese overtures with Beijing’s experience and perceptions of the New Delhi’s links with Nepali Maoists.
For long, New Delhi benefited from the perpetuation of the line that Nepal’s Maoists were being directed and controlled by Beijing. Indeed, it is hard to believe that a pragmatism-driven China did not maintain some kind of relationship with the Maoists while arming democratic and royal regimes to go after the rebels. Yet New Delhi was working out its terms of engagement with Messrs. Dahal and Bhattarai under the radar with utmost tactical advantage.
Eventually, the Chinese benefited from the Maoists’ rise here in ways that stupefied New Delhi, but perhaps not to the extent Beijing had hoped. Even if China’s post-2066 Madhesi outreach was not exactly a payback to India, it certainly could have been precipitated by raw geo-strategic calculations. Doubtless, flashing the Tibet/Taiwan cards against China is an audacious move on the part of an India confident of its aspirations in an evolving world order. But perhaps it is not audacious enough to respond to the One Belt One Road, CPEC, and ‘string of pearls’ and other obvious and amorphous initiatives on a multiplicity of levels.
In such a scenario, from New Delhi’s calculations, facilitating the nationalization of regional politics in Nepal would help to preempt Beijing from making further inroads, while allowing India to espouse more indirect but more effective means of pursuing that broader rivalry.
Thus, our national political future would only be the outward manifestation of the ebb and flow of geo-political/-strategic realities and assumptions, predilections and preclusions.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Flashback: Freedom, Fluster And Fatalism

Viewed from a section of the south, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s northern sojourn was a damp squib. That the Maoists’, like their ideologically disparate forerunners in power, never intended to set off fireworks, was beside the point.
Beijing, according to the dominant Indian media storyline, did not shower financial largesse on Dahal suggestive of a patron-client relationship. The trust deficit, therefore, must still be too wide. By alienating Delhi, Dahal only contributed to shortening his tenure as premier. The last conclusion stems locally, from analysts allied to the opposition Nepali Congress known to reflect Indian opinion.
Yet the sting still seems to burn in other parts of New Delhi. The Manmohan Singh government is anxious to welcome Dahal on his way to the United Nations General Assembly. Landing in New York City is not tantamount to visiting the United States, but the Indians don’t want to be downgraded another notch.
Dahal, upon return, immediately went on damage-control mode. He said he would make his first political visit to India. Why this sudden surge of obsequiousness? Did the Chinese really cold-shoulder him?
There’s probably a very basic explanation. Dahal must have had ample time during his shadowy subterranean existence – before the People’s War, if not during it – to study the range of India’s capabilities in Nepal.
Shortly after his election as our first democratically elected premier in 1959, B.P. Koirala had rebutted his Indian counterpart’s suggestion that Nepal fell within India’s security perimeter. In response, Jawaharlal Nehru yielded to B.P.’s assertion of Nepali sovereignty. But he chose to make public the letters exchanged with the 1950 treaty. Mohan Shamsher Rana, the Nepali signatory, could afford to laugh off the time lag; history had ensured an irredeemable reputation for his clan.
B.P., on the other hand, wasn’t going to be beholden to the Ranas eight years after their ouster. Certainly not when he was building bridges to Israel, one of Nehru’s favorite whipping boys.
B.P.’s assertion was bold, but it would mark the beginning of his travails. After eight years’ imprisonment in Sundarijal, B.P. went into exile in India to discover that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had almost become nanny to his daughter Chetana during his official visit as premier, couldn’t schedule a mutually convenient meeting for quite long.
A pattern of sorts emerged. In 1971, the Nepali Congress’ arsenal for the second insurrection against the palace had to be redirected to Bangladesh. Amid the 1975 emergency in India, B.P. somehow concluded that Sundarijal had been more comfortable. (At least he could gauge the mood of the royal regime by the quality of the cheese it offered each day.) Clearly, he died ruing the capacity for greatness his Indian friends had squandered in Nepal.
Yet B.P. was lucky. Few can decouple UML leader Madan Bhandari’s death in 1993 from his fierce opposition to the Tanakpur accord. Marx had enough space to live a life of influence in Nepal. He didn’t have to hobnob with the commies in West Bengal in an effort to paint Bihar and Uttar Pradesh red.
It’s hard to miss the connection between the Narayanhity carnage eight years later and King Birendra’s refusal to sign that controversial citizenship bill. The struggle between the palace and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala over the precise number of the treaties to be signed during Chinese premier Zhu Rongji’s visit might seem like a footnote today. Could it be any coincidence that the ones that weren’t would have had integrated Nepal’s economy closer to the north, leaving it less vulnerable to political manipulations from the south?
That ex-king Gyanendra owes his commoner’s status to his effort to bring China into SAARC as an observer is well known. Until then, efforts by one section of the Indian establishment to create a Maoist-mainstream alliance against the palace were being ridiculed by the other end. Honestly, how many of us haven’t wondered whether the last king could have avoided a fate worse than his brother’s were it not for the dimness of the potentially expedient line of succession?
Clearly, Prime Minister Dahal took a great risk by boarding that flight to China. His subsequent clarifications should not substantially diminish its importance. It would be safe to say that his personal well-being is now intertwined with Nepal’s.

Originally posted on Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday, April 09, 2017

As Bad As New

When Naya Shakti chief Dr. Baburam Bhattarai the other day decried the government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as the most corrupt in Nepali history, the reproach said more about the state of affairs the accuser finds himself in.
Doubtless, Dahal has descended from his furious revolutionary perch with an eerie rapidity. His rhetorical emasculation has been accompanied by sleazy deals aimed at facilitating his hold on power. Yet the Maoist chairman has been able to camouflage his flip-flop-flips in the garb of flexibility that Nepal’s convoluted politics so desperately needs to keep showing life.
Ordinarily, Bimalendra Nidhi, as the ranking member of the largest party in parliament, should have been designated the senior-most deputy premier. But, then, Nidhi, is not the leader of the Nepali Congress, whereas Kamal Thapa heads the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, although it is the fourth largest party. Nidhi the individual versus Thapa the institution? Cold calculation on Dahal’s part, yes. Put differently, pragmatism in power to depict a process.
On the other hand, Bhattarai, Dahal’s one-time chief propagandist, has lost much of his luster without seeming to have realized it. Things did not start to go bad after he left the Maoists. But they sure did get worse faster after he broke away. Bhattarai has stopped taking single-handed credit for turning Nepal into a republic – sort of. But he has not been able to turn into a leader who can persuade too many people to follow him right now.
The mess in front of the Election Commission earlier this month was emblematic of what plagues the doctor’s persona-infused politics. The police no doubt perpetrated excesses against the former prime minister. Still, Bhattarai should have let the country rage against it, not politicize things into a farce wherein the state eventually shrugged him off as being unworthy of detention on the public dime.
Indeed, such mortification is nothing new to Bhattarai. During the early 1990s, after the legalization of the party politics and before the Maoists went underground, Bhattarai was regularly roughed up at and hauled away from protests. Today the state should have considered the man’s age and profile. Yet Bhattarai, like the rest of us, saw the RPP’s Pashupati Shamsher Rana & Co. undergo similar treatment and must have known what he was getting into.
Then Bhattarai’s wife, Hisila Yami, stepped into it. Anyone could have misused the word ‘desh’ for ‘adesh’ in a frenzied and semi-conscious state. But Yami had to take that extra leap and tie the whole thing to supposed disadvantages linked to her janajati-ness. If her apology went on to exacerbate the damage of original statement, it was not for nothing.
All this has come amid the malaise surrounding Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti. Leading founding members have left in frustration and those who are still there continue to grumble and grouse. An election symbol is not the point when your party is struggling to symbolize anything.
Newness can retain a modicum of relevance as something that binds together disparate elements and events to complete the task at hand amid the creepiness of the alternatives. Let the newness we have already embarked on culminate in something tangible before we shift gears and try something newer.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Mandating Amity, For Heaven’s Sake

Now, this is getting exasperatingly familiar.
Nepal has been struggling eternally to find strategic equilibrium between its two giant neighbors. When complementarities pertaining to India find prominence and Nepal’s relations with its southern neighbor seem to acquire a semblance of steadiness, the Chinese find something somewhere and intimate their displeasure.
When newer manifestations of technology, transport and trade mesh with tradition to promise a rejuvenation of Nepal’s relations with China, the Indians make their concerns apparent, often in immensely punitive ways. The counsel Nepal then tends to get from the Chinese is to build better relations with India.
Oftentimes, Sino-Indian dynamics not immediately relevant to Nepal force themselves upon us with utmost mercilessness. At other times, anxieties and apprehensions over how unfolding global trends might impact the relationship between the Asian behemoths unleash forces that inevitably push us further into the corner.
When Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ visited China last month, it was hard to ignore history. During his last term in office in 2008, Dahal made Beijing his first foreign port of call.  Dahal stepped back from his initial contention that his visit to China was a demonstration of new Nepal’s new diplomacy, to subsequently assert that his first official visit was indeed to India. (The China trip was merely to attend the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games.) The Indians, unimpressed by the invocation of that technicality, never forgave Dahal for this breach of protocol.
Although this time Dahal was technically up north to attend the Boao Forum for Asia, he did meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. During that meeting, Xi urged Nepal to maintain good relations with India. Not a bad thing to say, right?
Consider the context. Reports suggested that the Chinese government had declined to give a more official cloak to the visit – which Dahal desperately needed to dispel his burgeoning pro-Indian reputation – citing lack of time for preparations. Still, Xi was also perceived to have played his version of tit-for-tat. After all, Dahal had declined to do bilateral deals with Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa last year.
The clear bruises on Nepali pride should have made the Indians even more happy with Xi’s latest exhortation. In the past, when Chinese leaders made such statements, New Delhi was quick to interpret them as China’s abdication of any aspiration or interest in Nepal in the interest of expanding far more important ties with India. (In fact, Premier Li Peng gave precisely such advice during his visit to Nepal at the height of India’s 1988-89 trade and transit embargo.)
Not so this time. Indian media reports, the best gauge of official thinking down south, noted that Dahal left for China after meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who arrived in Kathmandu at the head of a high-level military delegation. And that, too, days before the new Indian Army chief, Bipin Rawat, was scheduled to arrive here for his investiture as an honorary general of the Nepal Army as part of a longstanding reciprocal tradition.
Consider this specific reaction. “Despite New Delhi’s efforts to cement its economic relationship with Nepal”, the Indian Express editorialized the other, “Beijing’s raw economic muscle will make it hard for India to maintain the choke-hold it has long had over Nepal’s strategic destiny.” The newspaper added: “India will need to find new, adroit strategies to maintain its strategic leverage.”
Maybe the Chinese should be mulling something else. What mellows someone like Dahal? The realization that he was left out to hang dry in 2008-09? Or could it be that President Xi keeps postponing a visit to Nepal that he says he is so interested in? Or is it that much-hyped railroad link with Tibet that keeps receding into an indeterminate future?
After meeting with President Xi, US President Donald Trump may or may not abandon his campaign-era desire to challenge the core tenets of Washington’s ‘One China’ policy. Beijing has every right to pursue every option, including attempting to woo India away from any putative formal US-led structure to contain China.
“Using barbarians to control barbarians,” the aphorism up north goes. But using a ‘near’ barbarian to defeat both ‘near’ and ‘far’ barbarians simultaneously? What heaven would mandate such hardhearted inversion of tradition?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Status Quo Again And Again

This sure does not look like a good time to be Sher Bahadur Deuba – not even by Deuba’s standards.
The doyen of the status quo seems dumbstruck by the shocks and surprises coming from every conceivable corner.
Wresting the presidency of the Nepali Congress last year certainly capped a remarkable political career for the man. But Deuba does not seem to know what to do now that he finally sits at the top. Has our condition of continual convulsion finally gotten in the way of the conciliator in chief?
A return to the premiership should have been the next logical step, according to the supposed power-sharing deal that preceded Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ ascension to the top job. Not that Deuba thought the path would be easy. But all this?
The Supreme Court struck down his preferred choice for police chief. But before that, his top representative in the cabinet, Bimalendra Nidhi, was not too thrilled by the nomination. Rival factions in the Nepali Congress were bound to get restive again sooner or later. But this soon?
Deuba finally convened a central working committee meeting after a gap of five months and formed a work execution committee, ostensibly to breathe new life into the party ahead of the local elections.
But the real news that emerged from the day was the proposal submitted by Khum Bahadur Khadka seeking a referendum on whether Nepal should be redesignated a Hindu state.
For now, the complexity to watch is the one that subsists between Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi and Deuba. When Prime Minister Dahal refused to name an acting head of government before leaving for China, Nidhi was understandably miffed – at Deuba. Nidhi believed he deserved the full support of the party president in his seniority claim over Deputy Prime Minister Rastriya Prajatantra Party’s Kamal Thapa.
That row got so unbearable that Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara felt compelled to remind everyone that held real seniority, without really staking his claim.
Deuba, for his part, was already unnerved by Nidhi’s demonstration of independence vis-à-vis the Nepali Congress’ relations with India. Deuba no doubt respects the late Mahendra Narayan Nidhi and his contributions to the party and country. The son could easily have earned such regard through his actions. But to somehow assert dynastic reverence – even the perception of doing so – was not something palatable to Deuba, someone who takes palpable pride in his sustained challenge to the Koiralas’ supremacy. It was not for nothing that talk about bringing Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar back into the Nepali Congress suddenly accelerated.
Despite all this, Deuba probably can afford to wait out events. The Koiralas are still in a state of flux. Shashank’s stars are on the rise, while Sujata and Shekhar have been sidelined – and there is a reason there too. Khadka has injected an issue that might have more than a few new takers in the party, even just enough to keep the pot boiling for a while. Preserving the status quo might not look like prudent policy. But is not that how Deuba has always succeeded?