Monday, May 16, 2011

Staged fright of the inevitable

CK LAL, from Republica daily news paper
Once acolytes of Krishna Prasad Bhattarai stopped patronizing Laxmi Didi’s teashop at New Baneshwar over a decade ago, Saturday mornings ceased to be politically significant for the residents of the neighborhood. Politics these days is discussed over rounds of harder drinks during Happy Hours in the evening at one of the various restaurants along the main road.

The April Uprising in 2006 reenergized the minor intersection in front of distinctive water tower as it became a favorite site for protest programs. Since the formation of the Constituent Assembly (CA), all kinds of pressure groups use the place to proclaim their position on various issues of national importance. Last Saturday it was the turn of the twitterati (The Urban Dictionary definition: “The Tweet elite, whose feeds attract thousands of followers and whose 140-character spews capture the attention of the rapt who doggedly monitor them”) to declare that they were angry, very, very angry, with their elected representatives.
It was a motley crowd of about hundred to two hundred youngsters. Most of them were in trendy slacks and t-shirts. One demonstrator had made up his hairs to resemble the famed mane of late-lamented Satya Sai Baba (May his soul rest in peace) and apparently did not believe in shouting slogans. Cheerleaders of the rally appeared to be mostly UML-types: The kind who are protected and patronized by Chakre Milan and Dinesh Adhikari Chari, the Marxist-Leninist strongmen of Kathmandu valley. However, the most offensive part of the rally was the language of the placards protestors carried. It heckled CA members to deliver a constitution, now that they had taken full wages. The contemptuous tone in the taunt was unmistakable.

Lawmakers need not fear the direct rage of the urbanites in white: These marchers would disappear at the first sight of scuffles or possibility of any trouble. City-slickers do not like to get their branded sneakers dirtied in the melee inescapable at any political barricade. However, the impact of their demonstrations upon international community is often far in access of their absolute numbers or the lack of political influence inside the country. The outside world may not know or care that the digital divide in Nepal is so acute that Facebook posters hardly represent a significant section of Nepali society. All that foreign masters of Nepali fate get to see are fashionable faces articulating their views in impeccable English in the You Tube videos. It is necessary to debunk their position for that reason alone.

Naturally imperfect

No textbook method of doing prefect democratic politics has yet been developed. The dictum “Tried again? Failed again? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” describes the art of politics most accurately. The alternative is war, which is again politics by other means with its own pitfalls. While it is true that most CA members have failed to live up to the expectations of people who had voted for them three years ago, it needs to be emphasized that a large part of the blame for not delivering a constitution within stipulated period has to be borne by the leadership of three big parties.

Unlike NGOs or business houses where promoters or chief executives usually exercise absolute authority, political institutions have to put up with various contradictory forces often acting at cross purposes. Framing of a constitution is a mechanism of conflict resolution, not a consultancy assignment where the expert must deliver results within the stipulated time and budget or be prepared for the penalty clause of the contract. If honorable members of the CA decide that they need more time to sort out differences between diverse political forces, they shall have it. All that the twiterrati can do then is go and paint their Facebook walls with obscene slogans.

It is also extremely condescending, if not downright disrespectful, to claim that CA members are ‘wage-earners’ in the sense of the term applicable to NGO-operators, bankers or professionals. One may disagree with the politics of Sadrul Miya Haq, Rukmini Chaudhary, Bishwendra Paswan, Buddha Ratna Manandhar and Raj Kumar Malbo Limbu—legislators that have been interrupting the very function they were assigned to perform. However, what they have been doing over last few weeks is in itself an important function of a people’s representative, which includes venting frustrations of marginalized groups in an attention-grabbing manner. Their very presence works as an effective check and prevents the rise of left-wing extremism or right-wing militancy. The twitterati fail to realize that very few of them would be able to save their deposits if they decided to contest an election anywhere except on internet portals where it is possible to be friended by people without sharing any of their concerns or ‘like’ a page before reading its fine prints.

The forced closure enforced by NEFIN turned out to be counter-productive—they have lost some of their foreign sources of funding and their support base has probably been irreparably damaged. Similar fate may await caste-based groups like Chhetri Samaaj or one-person political platforms. But unless a political tsunami hits Nepal, the electoral equation will continue to remain more or less the same as in the CA. That itself is reason enough to give it continuity despite all its failings. To defend the bad against the worst, said an English poet, was the main responsibility during times of crisis.

Accepting inevitable

The permanent establishment in Kathmandu is gripped with the nervous tension of manufactured anxiety. The ruling clique, which stealthily runs the affairs of the state, knows that nothing spectacular is going to happen on May 28, 2011 when the extended term of the CA comes to an end. However, they have to pretend to be worried about the possible fallout of demise of CA without promulgating an ‘acceptable’ constitution in order to maintain sufficient pressure on the political class to continue doing their bidding. Supremo of Maoists Pushpa Kamal Dahal knows that his political opponents have no stomach for the game of brinkmanship and has decided to call their bluff by deciding unitarily for the extension of CA’s term.

Rather than waiting for the denouement, Dahal made his move and stole a march over his adversaries. The moment rumors began to float in Kathmandu that UML would be willing to sacrifice premiership and support Dr Baburam Bhattarai to create a rift in the ranks of UCPN (Maoists), the Maoist Supremo made Jhalanath Khanal cut short his foreign jaunt and return back to the country post-haste. Legal eagles close to Maoists had papers ready for the premier to process through the cabinet and submit to the CA secretariat for the extension of its term by one year. The ball is now in the court of Khadag Prasad Sharma Oli faction of the UML who does not seem to know whether to hide it, hold it or throw it towards Nepali Congress (NC).

The grand old party with its freshly-painted facade at Sanepa, the NC, is even more confused and is looking toward Madheshbadis to make a counter move. Dahal has acted and now it’s up to anti-Maoist forces to react. The problem with reaction is that no matter how well thought out, it ends up appearing reactionary.

Anti-Maoist forces in the legislature now have three choices, each of them equally unpalatable and fraught with immense risks. Should they choose to actively oppose the move, a division in the ranks of UML would be inevitable. Failing to garner the support of two-third of existing members in the parliament, the bill to extend CA’s life will then fall short of required majority and the house shall stand dissolved. With no other alternative, the government will remain in place until next elections are held. Such an eventuality will be suicidal for NC, which then may invite presidential intervention and get mired in the quicksand of authoritarian politics.

Should NC decide to just keep quiet and let the term of CA lapse due to internal contradictions within the UML, Maoists will lose no time in forming an anti-democratic alliance with the support of a section of Nepal’s permanent establishment that believes in the power of coercive politics to maintain it control over resources of the state. The establishment may later discover that Maoists are as undependable allies as Marxist-Leninists, but it will be too late by then.

The NC can decide to support Maoists, but then their posturing of all these months will begin to look foolish. Compared to the ham-handed manner he had played his cards last May prior to the imminent dissolution of the legislature, Dahal has been remarkably skilful this time round. But dexterity alone is not enough in mainstream politics; it needs to be combined with magnanimity to be truly effective.

The direction of future politics will depend upon the kind of deal Maoists are ready to offer to NC leadership looking for any piece of scrap to hide their faces. The Facebook crowd can then go, eat cheesecakes, have a beer party and dance the night off in celebration of the extension of CA’s tenure

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