Sunday, June 12, 2016
C K Lal - No honour among knaves: how the power elite is wrecking Nepal
Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa is visiting to assure New Delhi that the time is ripe to "normalise" the Indo-Nepal relationship. Political realities, however, haven't changed since the signing of the 16-point pact that took Kathmandu's power elite closer to Beijing.
While the survivors of the earthquake that devastated Nepal last June were still reeling, key leaders of four major parties met surreptitiously to seal the 16-point deal that paved the way for "fast track" promulgation of a unitary constitution without public consultation. Like aftershocks, the unintended consequences of the divisive statute continue to threaten a fragile polity.
Madhesis and Janjatis are still agitating for constitutional amendments to ensure equality in citizenship rights; population-based representation in both houses of the parliament; proportionate inclusion in institutions of the state; and demarcation of federal boundaries that recognise the dignity of the historically-marginalized communities.
Backed by what I call the PEON (permanent elite of Nepal), the coalition of Maoists, Stalinists and monarchists in the government appears determined to perpetuate its complete control over the state. Slowly but surely, self-censorship has begun to devour what was until quite recently one of the freest media in South Asia. There is little overt restriction on freedom of expression but apologists of the regime pounce upon dissenters with such ferocity through mainstream and social media that few dare speak up in public against the government or its misguided policies. The media has become almost an extension of the establishment that uses its creativity to instil conformism.
Once the constitution was adopted, the Nepali Congress had to leave the government in a huff over to a provision inserted at the insistence of all other parties to the dubious 16-point deal. In hindsight, it seems that one of the primary purposes of the constitution was to isolate the biggest party in the parliament and make it submit to the diktats of the monarchists and the Stalinists.
There is some truth in Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal's claim that it was on his insistence that the declaration of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal was made possible through the first session of the first constituent assembly on 28 May 2008. However, the republic he helped fashion began to deform with the fall of the first constituent assembly. The second assembly convened in its place was a result of "state capture" by regressive forces. The duplicity was in full display at the republic day function this year.
Although a public holiday, there was little sign of festivity in Kathmandu's streets on 28 May 2016, the country's eighth Republic Day. Former president Ram Baran Yadav chose to stay in his hometown and away from formal functions at the Nepal Army Parade Ground in the capital. Denied a seat in the VIP enclosure to watch troops stage a ceremonial march past, former vice president Paramananda Jha walked away from the venue. The charade at the Parade Ground was completed in a ritualistic manner with little enthusiasm or energy either from participants or onlookers.
The international community, too, barely took notice of the anniversary of the young republic. Google did design a doodle to mark the event but the only foreign dignitary to greet President Bidhya Devi Bhandari on the occasion was Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of the DPRK, also sent a congratulatory message, but the occasion was erroneously termed as the National Day. In breach of protocol, the assembly's president had directed his communication to the president of Nepal rather than to his counterpart, the chairperson of the legislature. Little wonder, the government and the media downplayed the felicitations from Pyongyang.
Amid this confusion, Dahal, once better known by his nom de guerre Prachand, was perhaps the most despondent of politicians. Committed to establishing a people's republic through armed insurgency, he had thundered in February 2000: "My main thrust is that I hate revisionism. I seriously hate revisionism. And I never compromise with revisionism. I fought and fought again with revisionism. And the party's correct line is based on the process of fighting revisionism. I hate revisionism. I seriously hate revisionism." The revisionist regime of Premier Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli stands almost entirely on Dahal's shoulders, and the once ferocious but now lapsed Maoist seems to be unable to remedy the situation.
Oli is one of the first batch of Nepalese Maoists that dipped their hands in the blood of often innocent "class enemies" in Jhapa, just across the border from Naxalbari in West Bengal. In November 1969, Charu Majumdar had solemnly declared: "China's Chairman is Our Chairman: China's Path is Our Path." The slogan held great appeal for Nepal's "Nationalist Communists", who were subsequently used by the monarchists to suppress the democratic aspirations of the common Nepalese until the late 1980s. It was this reality that had prompted the late Nepali Congress leader Girija Prasad Koirala quip that the monarchists, the Marxist-Leninists and the Maoists were all one and the same.
A reformed Maoist since the 1990s, Oli fought the republican aspirations until the last moment - he mocked the movement as a journey to the moon in a bullock-cart - and has consistently opposed every other agenda of restructuring the state. He presides over the ruling coalition and there is no sign he would cede an inch of political space to address the aspirations of Madhesis, Janjatis and women through constitutional changes.
Like the military-dominated monarchist regime prior to the 1990s, Oli is convinced he can ride the storm by simply raising nationalist slogans. He often does so by slyly stoking anti-India fervor that the monarchists, Stalinists and Maoists have nurtured over decades. There is, however, a crucial difference in the posturing this time: the Chinese are no longer shy of using their leverage to prop up favourites.
Chairman Dahal knows that the longer his party stays in the ruling coalition, the more influence he would lose on the ground. But his options are severely limited. Even if the Chinese were to stop leaning on him, a vested interest of power brokers has been created inside his party - now renamed the Maoist Center - that wouldn't let him be a supremo anymore. Of late, he has been alluding to a supposedly "gentleman's agreement" reached between his party and the CPN-UML of Oli. The premier has rejected such claims outright.
The regressive regime in Kathmandu looks invincible for now. The coalition of monarchists and Stalinists is free to play with the muddled republic as it deems fit. If the Maoists withdraw their support, which is unlikely given the internal dynamics and external factors, CPN-UML can always decide to share power with the Nepali Congress as the decisive partner. It has only one worry: the unpredictability of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kamal Thapa has been assigned the duty of pacifying the Hindutva forces in New Delhi, a task he has performed with considerable success in recent past.
While in Delhi, Thapa will probably fan fears of Chinese interference, Christian missionaries, communist ultras, Muslim jihadists and try to convince his interlocutors that the ruling coalition in Kathmandu is the best guarantor of Hindutva interests. He may even go the extent of promising to revert Nepal to the Hindu state status on the condition that New Delhi must then leave the regime in Kathmandu to its own devices.
Should he succeed in this game of deception, the Indo-Nepal relationship will regress back to the level of 1980s, when two of the friendliest countries in the world had become distant neighbours that often talked past each other even at international forums.