Monday, November 8, 2010

Beating around the bush

John Narayan Parajuli

Last Monday, CPN-UML Chairman Jhalanath Khanal hurled a broadside at Nepali Congress’ prime ministerial contender Ram Chandra Poudel—that should have resonance across the political spectrum. “Repeated defeat in the PM polls reduces his [Poudel’s] qualification [for the top job],” Khanal told reporters emerging from the CA hall after the failed 15th round of election. Few minutes later Poudel ventured with a ready retort: “How much has his qualification increased?”

In last three years no politicians have been able to burnish their credibility, except perhaps late Girija Prasad Koirala and Baburam Bhattarai. Khanal certainly can’t claim the moral high ground now. His spirit for consensus may be admirable, but he has done very little to translate his idea into reality. Khanal is as guilty as Poudel and Dahal for the erosion in the public faith from the political system.

The hair-splitting over whether Poudel’s withdrawal or an overarching agreement should come first is equivalent to the chicken-and-egg conundrum. There is probably no right way of deciding it. But in any case, Dahal and Khanal, if they are serious about consensus, should be able to assure that they (especially Dahal) mean what they say.

The Maoist leaders have a serious credibility issue, as far as Nepali Congress is concerned.

They feel that the former rebels have reneged on many written and unwritten agreements. While both sides are calling for a new set of agreement, their understanding of why is it necessary varies. Congress and others want a new agreement to implement the past agreements. The Maoists feel that at least some of the past agreements have outlived their utility. They also argue that the solution to the political stalemate lies in Delhi. There is fundamental difference in the perception among them as to where the crux of the problem lies: Delhi or the Maoist dubiousness. Though each agrees that if the other side is flexible, solution isn’t far away.

For Congressites, and those who share their worldview, the problem lies in the undependable nature of the Maoists. They find it hard to take Maoist commitment at face value. They complain that Pushpa Kamal Dahal tells them what they want to hear, but never goes as far as implementing them. In short, Dahal doesn’t make his word count. There is a fatalistic acceptance among the Congressites that India’s ‘influence’ is inescapable, and they find Dahal’s effort to neutralise it via Beijing unrealistic, and even dangerous.

To a certain extent they are right. But it doesn’t at all help the image of Nepali Congress, as a party that espouses liberal democracy to adopt a ‘take it or leave it’ absolutist approach. As the largest party and one half of the peace process, the Maoists should do their fair share. But there has to be a middle ground, where both the Congress and the Maoists feel comfortable. Dogged insistence on past agreements without the flexibility or imagination to achieve the same ends will only stall the process further. Onus also lies on the new NC leadership to take a proactive approach in addressing Maoist concerns. There is no right formula for integration, and it is right that there has to be solution to issue of armed combatants before the Constitution is promulgated. But parties should also be willing to come up with a framework where the Maoists can detach themselves from the combatants (without a total surrender) before a constitution is drafted. That is where an honest broker can play a role.

The Maoists also have to get better at voicing their concerns and reservations more clearly. By simply committing to complete the integration and rehabilitation within four months (of which only two and a half remain) either to regain power, or under UN pressure, or both, without actually intending to do it, will only raise more questions about their words and deeds. The Maoists clearly do not want to give up their combatants before they can be assured of their ‘desired’ type of constitution. One way of ensuring a win-win formula is to have a neutral third-party oversee the combatants until the day of constitution promulgation, more or less in UNMIN’s mould, but with a clear enforcement mandate to hand them over to government control on day of constitution promulgation.

With less than seven months to go for the extended deadline of the CA, no politician wants to think about the prospect of another extension. They rightly fear that they would overreach any claims of legitimacy—inviting unintended consequences should they go for second round of extension.

A renewed sense of urgency in resolving the outstanding disputes in the constitution drafting is palpable, perhaps triggered by the hanging Damocles sword. But that by itself may not sufficiently built momentum for integration. There are legitimate concerns on both sides that are preventing a progress on the issue. They can only be resolved through clear and sustained communication among parties. Rather than beating around bush through the media, or taking detours through foreign capitals, they should sit down and talk—and talk really long and hard.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Change in the air

The Introdcution of television debate has ended the dreariness of the British elections
John Narayan Parajuli
Following the first television debate on April 15 between the leaders of the top three parties in British politics, the campaigning for elections to be held on May 6 have certainly come to life. The appearance of Nick Clegg, the leader of the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, is creating new excitement in electioneering. Overnight, Clegg became media’s darling. Many have begun to draw parallels with Obama’s campaign. Previously shunned by the media as a straggler, Clegg’s party has shown a meteoric rise in the polls following the two debates — now standing in the second position ahead of Labour.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown had tried to woo him during the first debate with copious amount of “I agree with Nick” or “Nick agrees with me” refrain — which had backfired — rather personally for Brown. Clegg has now suggested Brown’s head as a precondition for a Lib-Lab pact in the event of a hung parliament with Labour in the lead.

Lib Dems are emboldened by the prospect of a kingmakers’ role. Most polls have shown the possibility of a hung parliament. On three previous occasions Britain had a hung parliament, the last one in 1974, there was a mid-term election within a year. Though the big parties are dreading the prospect, the Lib Dems are relishing it.

Defining moment

This is a defining moment in the British politics — against the backdrop of financial crisis that threatens to unravel the welfare state, burgeoning public deficit that has put UK in the ranks of Greece, Spain and Ireland, and MPs expenses scandal that tarnished the image of every politician. The gap between what the British government raises in taxes and its spending stood at £163.4 billion for the last financial year. The Conservatives favour a radical reduction in public expenses to reduce the deficit, but they have refused to support Labour’s proposal to raise the national insurance contribution calling it a “tax on jobs.” Then there is the issue of politicians’ own finances. A number of MPs from all parties have wrongfully claimed expenses for a whole host of items.

The MPs expense scandal has brought the parliament into disrepute. Many fear a lower turnout this year given the high level of cynicism among the British public. All these have made the job of politicians harder. David Cameroon, the leader of the Conservative party, has failed to exploit the anti-incumbency factor so far. Though polls have shown that the Tories would emerge as the largest party, but the ground could very well shift by May 6 as number of swing voters continue to swell.

Brown faces even tougher challenge. He has seen already three ‘coup’ attempts to dethrone him from the top job from within his party — since he took over from Blair in 2007. Outside his party, he is blamed largely for letting the financial sector run wild during his stint as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And now with the introduction of American-style television debates, Brown’s fate looks even more precarious. Even Labour strategists admit Brown is not cut out for a television debate. He looks old (and he is), worn out and out of fresh ideas. Sensing his disadvantage, Brown expressed his frustration in no uncertain terms during opening for the second debate. “If it is all about style and PR, count me out. If it is about the big decisions, if it is about delivering a better future for this country — I am your man.”

The debate

Immigration and economy are the two most debated issues in this election. On economy, Labour and Lib Dems appear to be leading in the polls, but the Conservatives seem to be carrying the public on the immigration. The conservatives have proposed a cap system that will limit the number of immigrants in each category. The Lib Dems, though they oppose a cap system, have equally drastic proposal to check the rising immigration. They want to limit the mobility of the immigrants by tying them down to a particular area. They want to introduce a regional clause to the point-based system. Under the proposal immigrants with a particular region stamped on their visas won’t be able to move to another region of UK and take jobs. The Labour concedes that the immigration system needs to be tightened, but it remains iffy about bringing more drastic measures like two other parties.

On the issue of economy, the Lib Dems favour a tax on banks and breaking up of the financial sector to prevent them from taking excessive risk and stopping the recurrence of the ‘too big to fail’ government bailouts. They also want to repeal taxes on low and middle earners, in addition to getting rid of the Trident, the submarine-based nuclear deterrence system. On the other hand, the Conservatives are pushing for a restructuring of the ‘broken’ British society and change the ways public services are delivered. They want to give more ‘power’ to the people in running schools, hospitals and police stations. And there is the issue of electoral reform including changes to the House of Lords. Labour, because of its policies or lack thereof, appears to favour the status quo on most issues.

British parliamentary elections are a dull affair by most measures, but advent of television debates have given a crucial opening to Clegg and his party to punch above their weight and present a viable alternative to two major parties. As Jeremy Paxman, the irreverent host of BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight challenged Nick Clegg during an interview recently, there is little prospect of Lib Dems leading a new government: “Let’s first of all establish which planet you are on, you are not going to sit there, are you, and claim that you could be the next prime minister?,” Paxman told Clegg.

The debate is more than just a personality contest. There is a yearning for change in Britain. But the issues are muddled in rhetoric, party labels and political mathematics for public finances that do not add up.

There is an echo of Obama’s campaign of hope and change in all three parties’ electioneering, however only Clegg appears to have his leg up at the moment as a relative outsider. Labour can’t be seen as an agent of change after being in power for 13 years, the Conservatives appear rather oxymoronic when ‘change’ is put next to the party name — plus the privileged background of some of its leaders isn’t helping the way they are perceived. That leaves Clegg. But even for him, the prospect of matching Obama’s success or chances of becoming the next prime minister is pretty slim. And unlike Obama, as one commentator put it, ‘Clegg is not the messiah; he’s just a pretty boy.’

(Parajuli is doing his Masters in War and Conflict Reporting in Swansea University, Wales)

Friday, April 9, 2010

UN bodies should stay

UN bodies' untimely exit will make the peace process more susceptible to manipulation and will increase China and India's opaque influence

At a time when the crisis of confidence between the parties in the peace process has taken a serious blow, not least due to the demise of Girija Prasad Koirala and by the intentional ratcheting up the conflict on many fronts, the term of two UN bodies is coming to an end. The mandates of the UN’s political mission, UNMIN, and the UN’s human rights agency, OHCHR, expire on May 15 and June 9 respectively. Whatever the argument against them may be, the argument for their continuing presence is compelling for one simple reason: if nothing else, they provide a framework for a veneer of trust and confidence for both sides (the Maoists and the state) to operate. Despite the Maoists’ rhetoric and even threats to return to violence, they know that they cannot do so without massive provocation. Even on the side of the state, the army is equally beholden to its commitment, however reluctant it may seem to fulfil its end of the bargain. The presence of UNMIN, symbolic as it may be, is a guarantee against incidents like the Doromba massacre from ever recurring. At least, that is the idea.

Both sides have plenty to dislike about UNMIN and OHCHR, primarily because they perform a thankless job and are not doing either party’s bidding. So when UNMIN stuck to the letter and spirit of the Agreement on Monitoring and Management of Arms and Armies (AMMAA) and refused to divulge details about combatants (something that was in the Maoists’ favour by default), the government and its media operatives began a smear campaign. Now the government is even trying to terminate their mandate that is up for renewal

Nitpicky neighbours

There is more to the government’s reluctance than just the disenchantment of the ruling coalition. Nepal’s two giant neighbours are railing against it. China fears both UN bodies will make a foray into its underbelly, the Tibetan issue. India also has qualms about UNMIN limiting its role, and fears that the intention of OHCHR Nepal office to ‘oversee’ South Asia will bring in unnecessary meddling into its own rights issues — causing embarrassment on the international stage — especially its right record will be up for Universal Periodic Review in 2012. Both neighbours who claim to look out for Nepal’s best interest seem willing to push Nepal up against the wall when their own perceived interests are at stake. If India wants to play a role commensurate with its influence in Nepal’s peace process, why is it then shying away from declaring it formally? Why hasn’t New Delhi even appointed a special envoy? Why has it been left to unaccountable intelligence operatives and bureaucrats?

New Delhi needs to come clean on what it wants. It is unbecoming for a big democratic power like India to continue to conduct its affairs in stealth and secrecy in the neighbourhood. What makes Nepalis suspicious of India is the clandestine nature with which it exercises its influence in Nepal. This is not to disparage the importance of India to Nepal: It has been an ardent supporter of our democratic aspirations and millions of Nepalis eke out a living from jobs throughout India. But its good deeds are overshadowed by its reliance on shadowy intelligence figures and clumsy and piecemeal handling of crisis in Nepal. That’s where they differ from the Chinese.

If India wants to play a role in Nepal in proportion to its influence and new found global position, it needs to shed the colonial hangover of its bureaucracy and exercise its influence at the level of its political leadership. It should also have the courage to wield its influence formally and transparently. That’s a decision India has to make.

But Nepal government’s reluctance to extend the stay of UNMIN and OHCHR is self-defeating and myopic. If the government can’t resist neighbourly pressure now on issues that are important for the country, it will have to forever cave into that kind of hounding. It will set a precedent that future governments will find hard to overcome. It is vital that both UNMIN and OHCHR stay until the peace process is completed and a semblance of normalcy returns. The idea that UNMIN should pack its bags the day the issue of army integration is resolved is rash and inconsiderate of the contingencies that are a normal part of any peace process. The idea that the peace process would somehow lend itself to a speedy conclusion is too optimistic to be true. The progress so far is indicative that assumptions about quick resolutions are unrealistic. As for the fate of OHCHR, lobbying from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has partly played out against its extension. Office bearers in the NHRC are getting unnecessarily territorial. All the efforts the NHRC has made so far suggests that it is a work-in-progress, at best.

Smear campaign?

A section of UML-leaning intelligentsia has been trying to mitigate blame of the government by misdirecting it on UN bodies (the shortcomings of the UN agencies is topic for another discussion). First the diarrheal epidemic in Jajarkot was blamed on bad rice delivered by the WFP; the NHRC and INSEC’s grudge against OHCHR has been building up for quite some time; and now the gun has been trained on UNMIN for its ‘pro-Maoist bias.’ It hardly seems to be a coincidence that these allegations are coming mostly from those affiliated to UML in some way. It also seems rather convenient that it all started with the formation of the Madhav Nepal-led government.

Like Afghan President Hamid Karzai blaming the UN and the European Commission for orchestrating the electoral fraud in last August’s presidential elections in Afghanistan, these allegations in Nepal also have a familiar ring to them — they are survival tricks of a desperate government propped up by the self-serving political elite. One can only hope that the situation won’t deteriorate further. The only deterrene that stands between the current situation and full scale escalation of conflict is the presence UN bodies and the international community. It is also the only deterrence that stands in the way of more opaque and hence unaccountable involvement of the neighbours. Those who point to the UN’s failure elsewhere as an argument for UNMIN’s early exit would do well to remember that it is ultimately up to the political leadership in Nepal and that the UN’s presence in itself is no guarantee of success. The least it does is assure that the trust gap between the parties would not lead to renewal of large scale violence.

But it is also the responsibility of the international community not to be discouraged by partisan quarreling or sucked into it — and to make sure that the UN’s political presence continues uninterrupted in Nepal as long as the peace process isn’t complete.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Building blocks of civilisation

The Kathmandu Post on Saturday
Photo: Buddha K.
MAR 05 -
As a world heritage site and a major cultural jewel of the U.K., Stonehenge is place of extraordinary importance for historical, mystical and aesthetic reasons. It is a thing of beauty and a thread that ties us with the past, however distant it may seem. At least 800,000 visitors come to see the site every year. Located near the intersection of the two highways in the grassy fields of Wiltshire County in the Salisbury plains of England, it consists of a circular ditch surrounding an inner circle of stones. There are plans to reroute the intruding highway to restore the ambience surrounding the monument in the run-up to the preparations for the 2012 London Olympics.

Along with the Stonehenge in nearby Averbury and a series of burial mounds, the region appears to be a part of a prehistoric time capsule with secrets waiting to be unlocked. Although the site in Averbury have been pillaged for stone chips for construction, visitors can still enter the circles to share a similar experience with people entering these hallowed ground millenniums ago.

UNESCO, the United Nations body responsible for preserving heritage globally (in conjunction with national authorities), describes Stonehenge as “one of the most impressive prehistoric megalithic monuments in the world on account of the sheer size of its megaliths, the sophistication of its concentric plan and architectural design...”

My first reaction on seeing the site was that of disappointment and even guilt—of having spent a fortune to see a pile of stones. The site isn’t as impressive in reality, as it appears in the pictures. Hyper-reality is perhaps always more mystical and conveys a degree of profoundness than reality does. But what appears to be a betrayal of expectations at first glance soon turns into an overwhelming sense of belonging and continuity. These are not just stones or any stones. The mortals who built them did so without the impressive heavy-lifting technology of the modern era, and whose purpose remains a mystery.

There are many theories about the origin and the purpose of the Stonehenge, some of which seem ludicrous. Many offshoots of new age movements have sprung up with supernatural explanations to boot. Though no known religion of that time exists, later religious groups like druids believe that it is a sacred site for both healing and worship.

This is where I let my thoughts to wander off in a direction that science and modernity would not easily permit. I wonder if these mere mortals—barely a notch up from the ‘barbarism’ of the Stone Age—were really capable of what stands proud even today, affirming some eternal idea. Could there be more to these relics that remains hidden from our understanding? I wonder if our faith in linear evolution of human civilisation militates against our ability to comprehend what these sites have to tell us about our past.

A colossal irony of our modern times is that we think we know everything there is to know. We are confident of our civilisation, but at the same time increasing insecurity and uncertainty seem to be hallmarks of our age. At least, the ages before us believed in certain truths and had a certain moral compass. What we believe today is clear, and perhaps easier to articulate things the other way round: the list of things we don’t believe in.

We think that we are the best that there has ever been in terms of human civilisation—a linear civilisation understanding. Any civilisation before ours was at best primitive who by fluke achieved monuments like pyramids or Tiahuanacu (also called Tiwanaku in Bolivia believed to be about 1,700 years old), so the mainstream thinking goes. There are many other anomalies of the past which mainstream history and archaeology brushes aside as mere flukes. Hence any suggestion of alternative thesis to history as we have been told raises eyebrows.

But coming back to Stonehenge, there are five theories that have been proposed. Many archaeologists have concluded that the site is a burial ground and have unearthed evidence in support of their claim, but not everyone agrees that it had only one purpose. Given the enormity of the site and the work that has gone into building it, it is likely that the site served multiple functions. New age groups see the site as a place of healing, while others insist that it was an astronomical observatory. Others see it as a place of worship.

The stones are aligned almost precisely with the sunrise on the summer solstice, and many gather for prayer during solstices. But some have gone a step further and have linked the site to extra-terrestrials. There have been many ‘reported cases of UFO sightings.’ As the theory goes, aliens helped build the site. Such theories are bound to arise when the nearest source of the bluestones that the henge consists of is in the Prescelly Mountains in Wales, about 300 km away; and when the largest stone weighs as much as 26 tonnes.

Stonehenge has kept a vigil over the earth for over 5,000 years and despite efforts to understand them, their true purpose eludes us. Nonetheless, it continues to inspire different ideas among different people—some of which are as equally fantastic and far-fetched as the monuments themselves.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A pacifist legacy

The Kathmandu Post On Saturday
Feb 27 - Howard Zinn, a radical historian best known for his book A People’s History of the United States, in which he celebrated the contribution of feminists, workers and coloured people, died on Jan. 28. He was 87. An incorrigible peace-monger and often referred to as a “people’s historian”, he inspired a generation of activists and authors to oppose wars and other military interventions. In his July 2009 column for the Progressive, he wrote, “…We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.”

His opposition to wars was shaped by his personal experience as a bombardier during the Second World War. When the war ended, he put his medals in an envelope, and wrote ‘never again’ on it. Referring to the Second World War, he said in a recent interview with The New York Times: “I would not deny that war had a certain moral core, but that made it easier for Americans to treat all subsequent wars with a kind of glow. Every enemy becomes Hitler.”

After the war, he worked odd jobs, and entered New York University on GI Bill and received his bachelor’s from there. GI Bill was a government scheme that provided education and training to returning World War II veterans. Later he received his Master’s degree from Columbia University.

He was a polarising figure in a country where chauvinism, the idea of American exceptionalism, and songs of benign hegemony continues to be sung to this day. He chose to shine light on the atrocities of the past, and tried to unravel the tidying up of history books. Even in the left-liberal circle, despite admiring his candidness, some took a skeptical view of his version of history.

I had corresponded with him over email in September 2004 while reviewing one of his books for the Nation Weekly, a short-lived newsweekly. In a typical journalistic illusion of being a resourceful individual, I shot an email to him after I found his address through Google; I was rather surprised by how accessible he turned out to be. I had not expected to hear back from him; I just wanted to feel better that I at least tried. He was against elitism and practised what he preached.

I asked him what was the message he was trying to get across in his book On War (it is published in South Asia as Rule by Force)? In response, Zinn said that his “book is intended to show by historical example, personal experience and logical argument that war is not morally acceptable or practically effective as a solution for whatever problems we face in the world.”

The title of his lucid, engaging autobiography—You Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train—sums up the position he took. Zinn’s views are always powerfully expressed and often sharply at odds with conventional wisdom. He once said that his own experience crystallised his opposition to all wars. “After my own experience in that war, I moved away from my own rather orthodox view that there are just and unjust wars, to a universal rejection of war as a solution to any human problem.”

Equally unorthodox is his rejection of the common view of the historian as an impartial observer. He once remarked, “Objectivity is impossible, and it is also undesirable.” His writings are powerful partly because they are partisan. He contends that American history is an account of how an air of nobility was accorded to “ugly realities” by sympathetic chroniclers. He gives many examples of how even profound believers in democratic ideals have trampled on others’ rights in the name of “nationalism and expansionism” since the period immediately after the American independence.

Noam Chomsky said of his old friend Zinn: “Both by his actions, and his writings for 50 years, he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the Civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.”

Writing on U.S. foreign policy, Zinn said: “In the United States today, the Declaration of Independence hangs on schoolroom walls, but foreign policy follows Machiavelli.” He further claimed that a nation’s relative liberalism at home often serves to distract domestic attention away from the ruthlessness abroad.

His criticism of the American government may strike many as hyperbolic. In his essay On Libya, he argued that if the Libyan leader Khadafi was one face of terrorism, the other was President Ronald Reagan during his presidency. “Does a Western democracy have a better right to kill innocent people than a Middle Eastern dictatorship?” In one of his essays Of Fish and Fishermen, Zinn offers a powerful metaphor about the need to reverse the perspective to see the horror of war: He refers to an eerie movie clip in which the fisherman gets hooked instead of the fish and makes a desperate bid for escape. For the first time the fisherman gets to see himself from the standpoint of the fish. The image of the fisherman is used to explain why there was a Japanese pacifist movement following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He was involved in the civil rights movement, but Vietnam soon became the focus of his opposition. In his essay, A Speech for LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson) he suggested that the then-president tell the nation: “No one in the world needs to be told how powerful we are. We can stay in Vietnam as long as we like. We can reduce the whole country to ashes. We are powerful enough to do this. But we are not cruel enough to do this. I as your president am not willing to engage in a war without end that would destroy the youth of this nation and the people of Vietnam.”

Zinn would find the equivalence between Vietnam and Iraq obvious. “All wars,” he said, “present agonizing moral questions,” and every war has two faces. If one face of the war in Iraq is promoting democracy and emancipating Iraqis from the ruthless chains of Saddam’s tyranny, the other face is unending violence and mounting human casualties.

Writing for the Nation, the American newspaper, right before he died, he said he was struggling to find a “highlight” of Obama’s presidency. Speaking at a Boston University lecture series named after him, where he was a professor emeritus of political science, he criticised Obama for not delivering on his rhetoric. “I believe he is dominated by the same forces that have determined American foreign policy since World War II—the military-industrial complex,” Zinn said. “He showed his subservience to the militarists as soon as he appointed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Robert Gates as secretary of defense. By surrounding himself with hawks, he has made it inevitable that he would pursue an aggressive military posture,” he told his audience.

Zinn’s insistence that there is no such thing as a “just or righteous war” is a challenge to the world to confront issues of justice, not without a struggle, but without war. And perhaps that anti-violence, anti-war conscience is his legacy.

All those years ago

The Kathmandu Post
Feb 24 - In January 2008, I was in Narsingh VDC in Sunsari district, a predominantly Madhesi area, on a reporting assignment. I was forced into an argument with a group of locals about the mistreatment of Madhesis by the state. As the discussion progressed, a teacher raised a point about my job that forced me to think. She said that the fact that a Pahade had come to report from Madhes was evidence in itself of the continuing domination of Madhesis by others. Was I guilty?

That encounter shook me up a bit; but the incident also revealed the level of animosity between the two communities and its misdirection. I managed to convince them that I as an individual could not account for their suffering though I condemn any mistreatment, and that only the state could answer their charges; and that as a journalist, I was doing something to get their views across. Though legitimate, their grievances and anger were clearly misaimed.

Does the fact that the ruling elite had been dominated by Pahades/Chhetris/ Brahmins — which nevertheless also included the elite from other communities including Madhesis — in the last 30 years justify painting all Pahades with the same brush? Of course, any sensible person will disapprove of it. But like any other society passing through a phase of half-boiled revolution and transformation, a sense of historical right and wrong is among the preoccupations of certain sections in Nepal. And in times of crisis, expediency, not factualness, drives these considerations. Like all re-readings of history, one can’t escape from the inherent flaws associated with the process for it takes place entirely to justify or condemn the larger political process.

Prithvi Narayan Shah and his conquests have been a subject of much debate in the last few years. Many have condemned him and his acts, while others still see him as one of the few visionaries modern Nepal ever had. It is not surprising that Shah’s inadequacies are glossed over in the history books. All history is embellished or distorted, and no historical figure can withstand critical scrutiny for that matter.

Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in his essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”, said that an excess of history was harmful, and that it prevents a man, nation or culture from acting “unhistorically” — meaning without the past in the mind. Such an acute sense of history shackles a nation and does not make it free. He identifies three types of history: monumental, antiquarian and critical.

The monumental approach is preferred by the powerful and men of actions who see no peers in contemporary society and instead look back to the past for comfort and guidance. Even the past suffers at the hands of monumental historians. Sections of the past are wilfully forgotten or ignored, whereas a few selective facts and individuals “rise out like islands”. The antiquarian approach reveres and strives to preserve the past; it looks more at the past and its glory than towards the future. The critical approach judges and condemns the injustice and the cruelty of the past, but also upholds what is right. It is not a sweeping condemnation.

Nietzsche argued that each of these approaches may be appropriate depending on the “soil and climate”. But he cautioned that excess indulgence or lack of clarity of purpose was always dangerous, “A critic without the need for the criticism, the antiquarian without the piety for the past, or the man who recognises the greatness of the past but himself cannot accomplish any greatness.”

It is easy to make sweeping statements (good or bad) about the past; it is still easier to condemn and crucify historical figures, but that doesn’t undo the past, nor does it make it right. We cannot force our modern sensibilities on the past. It is one thing to use history for a context and completely another to attempt to rewrite it. I think it is tempting to disown the past entirely and rewrite it according to the mood of the time. But how does that make us any different from the historians of the past who wrote the history to suit the winners of the time? A critical reading of history is desirable as long as it is not motivated by vengeance. A wholesale rejection of our “monumental” history suffers from the same folly as wholesale acceptance.

People who indulge too much in the past without the need are merely trying to find an excuse for their present failures. These are not ordinary people who have to slog day in and day out for mere sustenance, but rather demagogues, moral and ethnic entrepreneurs who lack solutions and instead create problems. Many of our “revolutionaries” who tried to strip the country of its past in a zeal of corrective vengeance by demolishing many statues around the country should hear this piece of admonishment from the original republicans and revolutionaries in the modern sense.

During the French Revolution, a tide of popular iconoclasm had swept the country that led to the destruction of works of art that were associated with the monarchy. In his address to the revolution’s foot soldiers and vandals, Abbe Gregoire, a prominent member of the revolution’s Committee of Public Instruction, made his case clear in a rhetorical question: “Because the pyramids of Egypt had been built by tyranny and for tyranny, ought these monuments of antiquity be demolished?”

Should we let the tyranny of Nepal’s past make its present equally tyrannical? Or should we learn from the past’s tyranny to not repeat it? Whether we choose to use history in the right vein or abuse it for short-term political expediency will determine how the present is judged by the future, and more importantly whether we remain shackled to the past or move forward into the future. Prof. Mahendra Lawoti, in his article (“It ain’t so,” Feb. 19, Page 6) suggested that an apology would begin the “healing process”. But I wonder who it should come from.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Himalayan howler

The climate debate has exposed the entangled link between press, politics and science
The Kathmandu Post
John Narayan Parajuli
FEB 14 -
The Nepali cabinet meeting at Everest base camp in December last year may have helped to highlight the effects of climate change in the Himalaya in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, but the revelation of a serious omission in the projection by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set in motion a debate that is likely to undermine the very basis of climate claim in the region. Facts on the ground notwithstanding, such high profile “crying wolf” about the intensity of the process is likely to weaken even realistic claims about the region. Add to that Indian Environment Minister Jayaram Ramesh’s hard line against melting glaciers in the Himalaya or cutting carbon emissions by India.

It is understandable that India, like China, does not want to commit itself to a target that would jeopardise its own growth, but it is myopia of Himalayan proportions not to take into account a cost-benefit analysis of the long-term environmental impact. There is clearly a divide even among the developing countries. Those that are rapidly developing and industrialising do not want to give up their “right” to burn more fossil fuels on their path to prosperity. Those who are downright poor and have no greater prospects for an industrial revolution and are at the worst receiving end of climate change are clamouring for action. But who is listening besides, of course, the lip service and unbinding commitments?

A glance at the geopolitics of negotiating international environmental negotiations on climate change at the Copenhagen Summit draws attention to the tricky issues of international political economy — different North-South priorities and responsibilities, as well as different levels of susceptibility to climate change. Poorer countries are much more vulnerable than richer countries; logically they want prosperous countries to cushion the effects for them. But the overriding assumption at the Copenhagen Summit was that science as an international enterprise is a neutral process aloof from political and social underpinnings of the environment it operates within. But the work of Golinski and others indicate that even the very “hardest” strain of science is not free from social relations.

Prof. David Demeritt of King’s College London, in a journal article in 2001 entitled “The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science”, said. “[T]o insist, therefore, that science is also political, in the broadest sense of that word, is not to say that science is only political and thereby collapse entirely the distinction between the two. It is to recognise how problematic this distinction is. The social relations that science involves necessarily influence both the character of scientific understandings upstream and the particular political outcomes that may result from them downstream in legislation or administrative law rulings.”

The extent of ideological closure on issues on both sides of the climate change divide (anthropogenic/natural or happening/hoax) in the global North, and between the countries in the North and the South, is now becoming more apparent. The IPCC’s cavalier sourcing of WWF’s erroneously published report on Himalayan glaciers combined with the e-mail scandal from the University of East Anglia has emboldened the critics so much so that the British minister responsible for climate was forced to declare war against the climate change sceptics. It almost sounds like some politicians need climate change to be happening to grind their own axe.

Is this unravelling simply a human error or is it more human than researchers would like to admit? What does this tell us about the gung-ho climate change believers (including East Anglia scientists who have shied away from being transparent about the process by which they drew their conclusions) or the gung-ho sceptics? Can we say for sure that their work is entirely apolitical, and that they are not driven by some ideological considerations? For example, the belief that the climate is changing, hence it must be proven by any means. Or it is a left-liberal conspiracy, and that all the facts are cooked. And how does the media fare, where a contest for the hearts and minds of the public is raging?

The answer to these questions is not easily forthcoming. But the debate on climate change has highlighted how entangled the relationship is between the press, politics and science; and how different perceptions are formed from the same facts. Different interpretations of scientific facts have either belittled or exaggerated the science behind environmental degradation; both extremes are risky because it foments either complacency or panic among the public and the policy makers. Politicians and interest groups have hijacked the scientific agenda. For better or worse, the scientific claims have now become part of the international political and corporate agenda, and public attention is not necessarily drawn by new scientific findings and urgency based on facts, but rather shaped by political action, industry lobbying or extreme weather patterns.

In Germany, where the green industry is booming, the media stands accused of exaggerating the climate change claim. In the U.S., the challenge to scientific claims of global warming due to human activity benefits certain industries. The fossil fuel industry provides substantial financial assistance to its “political allies” and a small number of dissenting scientists to dispute the claims of the larger scientific community. The reliance of politicians and political parties on the financial contributions of the fossil fuel industry in large part (because of their good earnings) to win re-election makes even well-meaning politicians susceptible to the pressure and lure.

Politicians provide a powerful voice to those whose profits depend on continued emission of carbon or green subsidies and funding for alternative energy. It becomes a media event when a politician remarks on a “controversial” topic. In addition, dissident scientists in league with the fossil fuel industry, or NGOs and lobbyists spreading the climate change message and their respective public relations machinery provide a drama that a media bound by journalistic norms gives equal space to the two sides and sensationalises it.

At a certain level, it seems fair to give equal weight to both parties in a dispute. But the problem is that this competition is not about mundane things like groceries, and presenting science as a purely ideological contest is neither fair nor balanced. But even the alternative of supporting one claim or the other is equally fraught with problems. After all, there seems to be a bit of politics built into all aspects of climate change.

युरोपेली संघका चुनौती

जोननारायण पराजुली


फाल्गुन १ -
गत साल लन्डनको हिथ्रो विमानस्थलको अध्यागमनमा एक अधिकारीले मलाई केही प्रश्न सोध्ने क्रममा मेरो बेलायत बसाइमा लाग्ने खर्चका बारेमा पनि सोधे । यसको जवाफमा मैले यति खर्च लाग्छ भन्दा 'पाउण्ड' मा नभनी 'युरो' मा भन्न

पुगेछु । सायद यात्राको थकान वा केही महिनाअघिमात्र नेदरल्यान्ड बसेकाले मेरो जिब्रो चिप्लेको हुनसक्छ । तर ती अधिकारीले त्यसलाई गम्भीरतापूर्वक

लिए । उनले भने, 'हामी यहाँ बेलायती पाउन्ड स्टर्लिङ चलाउँछौं र यसमा गर्व पनि गर्छौं ।' मजस्ता तेस्रो देशबाट युरोप प्रवेश गर्ने आगन्तुकले युरोपेली संघ -ईयू) का सदस्य राष्ट्रभरि नै समान नीतिको अपेक्षा गर्नु स्वभाविकै हो । अझ खासगरी नेदरल्यान्ड, जर्मनीजस्ता 'युरोपको मुट' भनिने मुलुकमा केही समय बिताएपछि संघका अन्य राष्ट्रमा पनि त्यस्तै व्यवहारको अपेक्षा हुँदोरहेछ ।

भूतपूर्व अमेरिकी विदेशमन्त्री हेनरी किसिन्जरले विभाजित युरोपप्रति व्यङ्ग्य गर्दै युरोपमा रहँदा मैले कोसँग छलफल गर्नु भन्दै प्रश्न उठाएका थिए । किसिन्जरको प्रश्नलाई उक्त संघका विरोधी एवं समर्थक दुवैथरीले आज पनि युरोपको सवालमा प्रयोग गर्ने

गर्छन् । गत मंसिर १६ गतेदेखि कार्यान्वयनमा आएको लिस्बन सन्धिले दुईवटा पदको सिर्जना गरेर किसिन्जरले उक्त सवाल उठाएको ३६ वर्षपछि जवाफ दिएको छ । यसैबीच संघको प्रथम राष्ट्रपति र विदेश मन्त्रीको निर्वाचन पनि सम्पन्न भइसकेको छ । तर आलंकारिक कार्यकारी पदको सिर्जना गर्दैमा संघको भावी कार्यदिशाप्रतिको विवाद र संरचनागत कमजोरीको पूर्णरूपमा समाधान हुन्छ भन्ने ग्यारेन्टी छैन ।

बेलायतले अहिलेसम्म पनि 'ओप्ट आउट' -कुनै नीतिबाट बाहिरिने व्यवस्था) मार्फत युरो साझा मौदि्रक नीतिजस्ता संघका साझा नीतिबाट आफूलाई टाढा राख्दै आएको छ । त्यसो त डेनमार्क चारवटा 'ओप्ट आउट' मार्फत टाढा बसेको छ । संघका २७ सदस्य राष्ट्रमध्ये त्यस्तै नीति अख्तियार गर्ने सदस्यको सङ्ख्या ६ पुगेको छ । बेलायत तथा अन्य सदस्य राष्ट्रभित्रै पनि 'एकता र समायोजनको हद' र 'सीमा' बारेमा विवाद उठ्दै आएको छ । मूलतः राष्ट्रिय सार्वभौमिकतालाई युरोपेली समायोजनको लागि कुन हदसम्म समर्पण गर्ने भन्ने विवाद हो । तथापि राजनीतिज्ञहरू यस विषयलाई टाढै राख्न चाहन्छन् ।

बेलायतका लेबर र कन्जर्भेटिभ दुवै पार्टीले युरोपेली संविधानको बारेमा जनमतसंग्रह गर्ने वाचा गरेका थिए । तर हाल आएर दुवै पार्टीले आफ्नो अडान परिवर्तन गरेका छन् ।

युरोपेली संघमा भित्री मनदेखि सहभागी नभएको भन्ने आरोप बेलायतले खेप्दै आएको छ । बेलायत आफूलाई अमेरिका तथा अङ्ग्रेजीभाषी राष्ट्रको समूहबाट टाढा राखेको देख्न चाहँदैन । बेलायती दैनिक 'द गार्जियन' का अनुसार केही महिनाअघि युरोपका लागि पेन्च मन्त्री पियरे लेल्युचेले कन्जर्भेटिभ पार्टीलाई 'युरोपमा बेलायतको स्थानलाई अवमूल्यन गरेको' भन्ने कडा टिप्पणी गरेका थिए । 'कसैले पनि संघसँग खेलबाड नगरोस्, अब इमानदार भएर संघमा बस्ने कि बाहिरिने भन्ने निर्णय गर्नुपर्ने समय आएको छ,' मन्त्री लेल्युचेले भनेका थिए । आगामी मे महिनामा बेलायतमा हुने आमनिर्वाचनपछि कन्जर्भेटिभ पार्टी सत्तामा आउने अनुमान गरिएको छ । उक्त पार्टीले आपनो अनुदार युरोप नीतिका कारण आलोचना खेप्दै आएको छ ।

युरोपका थुप्रै समस्याहरू छन्, बढ्दो आप्रवासीको समस्या, उत्पादकत्वमा ह्रास आइरहेको अवस्थामा विद्यमान सामाजिक सुरक्षाको व्यवस्थालाई कायम राख्नु, 'आधुनिकीकरणको जन्मभूमि' को रूपमा आपनो साखलाई बचाइराख्नु आदि । त्यति मात्र होइन, युरोप अब कतातिर जान चाहन्छ भन्ने प्रश्न युरोपको लागि सबैभन्दा ठूलो टाउको दुखाइको विषय बनेको छ । युरोप एउटा विभाजित तथा कमजोर शक्तिको रूपमा रहिरहन चाहन्छ वा एउटा बलियो संघ हुनका लागि युरोपेली समायोजनलाई अझ मजबुत बनाउन चाहन्छ ?

जनमत सर्वेक्षणमा तुहिएको संघको संविधान र भर्खरैको लिस्बन सन्धिले केही संकेत दिएको छ । लिस्बन सन्धिभन्दा अघि प्रस्तावित संघको संविधानलाई डच, पेन्च र आइरिस मतदाताले जनमत सर्वेक्षणमा अस्वीकार गरेका थिए । यसरी संघलाई सञ्चालन गर्ने दस्तावेजलाई संविधानको नाम दिँदा जनताको राय लिनुपर्ने धेरै सदस्य राष्ट्रको बाध्यताले र अनुमोदन नहुने जोखिमले गर्दा सन्धिको रूपमा उक्त संविधानलाई ब्युँताइयो । सन्धिका लागि

भने सदस्य राष्ट्रले संसदीय अनुमोदन मात्र गरे हुन्छ ।

उता युरोपेली संघको एक मुख्य खेलाडी जर्मनी पनि अन्य प्रमुख राष्ट्रजस्तै अन्तरद्वन्द्वमा फसेको छ । जर्मन राजनीतिक सम्भ्रान्त वर्ग बृहत्तर समायोजनको पक्षमा देखिन्छ भने जनमत उक्त विषयमा विभाजित छ । लिस्बन सन्धि अस्वीकृत संविधानकै नयाँ स्वरूप हो र यसले आमजनताको मतको खिल्ली उडाएको छ भन्नेहरूको संख्या बढ्दो छ ।

ईयूको सबभन्दा ठूलो आलोचना 'डेमोक्रेटिक डेफिसिट' -प्रजातान्त्रिक घाटा) हो जसको फलस्वरूप ईयूले गर्ने निर्णयमा जनमत प्रतिविम्बित हुँदैन । युरोपेली संघको कार्यपालिका युरोपेली आयोग प्रत्यक्ष निर्वाचित अंग होइन, जसले गर्दा पदमा बसेकाहरू जनताप्रति सोझै उत्तरदायी हुँदैनन् । लिस्बन सन्धिअनुसार युरोपेली संसद् यति बढी शक्तिशाली हुनेछ कि ईयू जस्तो विशाल अन्तरदेशीय संगठनभित्र जति नै टालटुल गरे पनि 'प्रजातान्त्रिक घाटा' कम गर्न असम्भव नै हुनेछ ।

राजनीतिक र आर्थिक समायोजनको एउटा उदाहरणीय र अद्वितीय नमुना भए पनि युरोपेली संघ अझै पूर्ण र सर्वगुण सम्पन्न छैन । युरोप महादेशभित्र पनि शंका-उपशंका व्याप्त छन् । सदस्य राष्ट्रको सार्वभौमिकता समाप्त पार्दै एउटा महाशक्ति 'सुपरस्टेट' को उदय हुने कुराप्रति संघमा विश्वास गर्नेहरू पनि सचेत देखिन्छन् ।

गत जुनमा कार्लस्रुहेस्थित जर्मनीको संवैधानिक अदालतले लिस्बन सन्धिले गर्दा ब्रसेल्समा बुझाइएको थुप्रै क्षेत्राधिकार अझै जर्मनीमै रहनेछ भनेर फैसला सुनाएको थियो । सो निर्णयमा संलग्न आठ न्यायाधीशले लिस्बन सन्धि अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय सहयोगको लागि गरिएको एउटा संयन्त्र मात्र भएको तर्क गरेका थिए । सो अदालतले जर्मन सरकारलाई सो सन्धि यदि संविधानको रूपमा नै स्वीकार गर्ने हो भने जनमतसंग्रहमार्फत् जनताको राय लिनुपर्ने सुझाव पनि दिएको थियो । तर जनमतसंग्रहमा नजानकै लागि लिस्बन सन्धि बनाइएको थियो, किनकि चेक गणराज्य, डेनमार्क, आयरल्यान्ड, पोल्यान्ड, पोर्चुगल, बेलायत तथा अरू राष्ट्रमा सार्वभौमिकताको विषयमा कुनै पनि निर्णय गर्नुअघि जनमतसंग्रहको प्रावधान छ ।

बाहिरबाट हेर्दा युरोपेली संघ क्षेत्रीय एकता र समायोजनको एउटा राम्रो उदाहरण देखिए पनि सदस्यहरूको विचलन र संघको भावी कार्यदिशाप्रति बढ्दो असन्तुष्टिले उक्त अन्तरदेशीय संरचनाको स्थिरतामाथि प्रश्न उठ्न थालेको छ । युरोपेली संसद्का लागि भएको गत सालको चुनावमा थुप्रै त्यस्ता सांसद पनि निर्वाचित भए जसले पहिले ईयूको खारेजीको पक्षमा नारा उठाएका थिए । राजनीतिज्ञहरूको नाराकै आधारमा ब्रसेल्सको शक्ति घट्दै जाने कल्पना गर्न सकिन्न । तथापि ती सांसदको जितले युरोपेली जनताको ब्रसेल्सप्रतिको असन्तुष्टि र नैराश्यता भने स्पष्ट रूपमा उजागर गरेको छ ।

युरोपेली संघका हर्ताकर्ताले संघका उपलब्धिलाई जनसमक्ष पुर्‍याउन नसक्नु एउटा ठूलो कमजोरीको रूपमा देखिन्छ । संघको अन्तरदेशीय संरचनाले गर्दा संघलाई ४१ करोड आमजनतासम्म -जो २७ राष्ट्रमा फैलिएका छन्) पुग्न कठिन पार्छ । त्यसमाथि 'प्रजातान्त्रिक घाटा' दुईधारे तरबार हो । राजनीतिज्ञलाई यसले जति फाइदा पुर्‍याउँछ, त्यति नै घाटा

पनि । विश्वव्यापी आर्थिक संकटले ब्रसेल्समाथि समस्या थपेको छ र ईयूका विरोधीलाई थप मौका दिएको छ । केही सदस्य राष्ट्र जस्तै ग्रीस टाट पल्टिने अवस्थामा छन्, जसले गर्दा युरो प्रचलनमा रहेको युरोजोनको विघटनको अड्कलबाजी पनि चलिरहेको छ । ग्रीसलाई उद्धार गरे, आयरल्यान्ड र स्पेनलाई पनि गर्नुपर्ने हुन सक्छ । फलस्वरूप सबै आर्थिक भार जर्मनीको काँधमा आउने देखिन्छ । ईयूसमक्ष अब सङ्घर्ष गरिरहेका सदस्यसँग ऐक्यबद्धता व्यक्त गर्ने वा आर्थिक अनुशासनहीनताको लागि दण्डित गर्ने, दुई मात्र विकल्प छन् । तर जुन विकल्प रोजे पनि ईयूको लागि चुनौती भने कम छैन ।

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Voice of the Nation

The Kathmandu Post on Saturday

A combination of private and public media will nurture democracy and ensure pluralistic vibrancy
FEB 06 -
The Nepali state has been besieged by voices demanding transformation from all directions, but little has been said about the need to transform the archaic state-owned broadcasters and the press to make them more socially-responsible. Politicians have paid lip service to the idea from time to time, but they have never seriously considered it when they have had the power to implement change.

Interestingly, on Jan. 13, the UCPN (Maoists)’s publicity and publication department reportedly decided to establish ‘pro-public daily newspapers and television channels.’ The tendency among the Maoists to characterise anything they fancy as ‘pro-public’ is nothing new. The fact that they have a coherent and well-coordinated media strategy and they seem to regularly review its effectiveness is even less surprising. But if Maoists are such shrewd media operators (which we think they are), why do they fail to understand that editors and journalists do not sit down and conspire to write in favour of or against a group? Journalists simply respond to issues and developments as they come using tools of the trade they know best. However, the Maoists do have a legitimate claim when they allege the media of not being socially inclusive, or representative.

But the answer to their gripe does not lie in launching another Maoist mouthpiece, or another party-funded television channel. The answer lies in a publicly-funded national broadcaster and press. Converting Radio Nepal, Nepal Television, and Gorkhapatra Corporation into an independent institution with a claim to credibility will not only ensure public engagement in the political process, but will also provide an inclusive counter-media narrative to the current media discourse. If the Maoist leadership stops thinking like electioneering politicians for a moment, they have an opportunity here to take an initiative on something whose results will be beneficial to both the state as well as the public—by levelling the playing field.

The media plays and will play a crucial role in how the debate on state restructuring will proceed, which issues are conferred a degree of legitimacy, and which are sidelined and ignored. Only an independent national public service broadcaster may be able to be representative enough in a country with so much diversity. Despite good intentions, private or community-run radio broadcasters may not have the inclination or the wherewithal for a thoroughly-inclusive coverage.

As a country emerging from serious conflict, Nepal is lucky to have a vibrant private media that has played an important role in nurturing a degree of accountability. But private media has its own limitations. It is mainly urban-centric, and often gets constrained by its own political economy. A public service press and broadcaster can bridge that gap. There is no alternative to a professional market-oriented free press, but trends in Europe and the U.S. have shown that it is not without its weaknesses. The media conglomerates failed to critically report on financial institutions and their shenanigans, and to adequately inform the public of what was to come. Similar conduct in the run up to the Iraq war has brought media performance under scrutiny.

As the processes of globalisation intensify, media is also increasingly being driven by the same expansionist logic of capitalism. It is only a matter of time when this tide of expansion strikes our shore. Given the vagaries of global information economy and in the absence of a credible publicly-funded independent national broadcaster, private media alone may not be able to nurture democracy to the fullest.

Social responsibility

The idea of social responsibility in relation to the media was first introduced by the Hutchins Commission (1947) in the U.S. and has subsequently been used by Siebert and others. They have argued that a responsible press should ‘provide a full, truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning, serving as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism, and be a ‘common carrier of public expression, giving a representative picture of the constituent groups in society,’ while ‘presenting and clarifying the goals and values of the society.’

Only a combination of a successful public sector along with private media can set the stage for professional journalism with a socially-responsible component. An important sector such as the media cannot entirely be left to the whims and fancies of the market or the incompetence of the state. In the Netherlands, public broadcasting (PBS) is thriving alongside a competitive commercial broadcasting. It has led to the development of a professional free market-oriented press, with a socially-responsible public system, competing and complementing each other for the greater good.

The conversion of state-owned press and broadcasters into an autonomous public system to ensure more dissemination of public interest information in areas where private press or broadcasters have failed is long overdue. Even journalists and editors admit that Nepali private media is urban-centric and ‘parochial’. Many media critics see the proliferation of private media outlets without a commensurate demand from the public as lack of their social responsiveness, which is more the reason for the continuation of state broadcasting as an independent body governed by an independent board that produces content that reflects the demography and geography of the country.

Private media has often been criticised for its excessive coverage of politics with little content diversity. Especially, given the diversity of Nepal, only an independent PBS can cater to needs of both the privileged and the marginalised. For example, Netherlands has a proper public broadcasting system that has been fully able to compete with private commercial media and is still able to retain a big market share.� The result of the competition is often surprising, with private media producing content that normally would be a PBS forte, and vice versa.

The Dutch PBS is financed through a mixture of license fee, contributions from members, and a small amount from advertisement revenues, whereas the BBC runs on license fees. Perhaps a combination of the Dutch and the British system may work well for Nepal. The state broadcasters already have a strong market presence here, and the government will need to do very little to make it work. As C.K. Lal’s informative article published in the Nepali Times pointed out, the state broadcaster dominates the market in non-news programming. That edge can be turned around into a credible strength with editorial independence.

At the end of the day, only a healthy combination of a free market-oriented media and a public system will ensure both the vibrancy of the free market and create instruments of social responsibility and accountability. Clearly, the creation of a public broadcasting service should be central to any vision of an inclusive Nepal.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

White Lies

Our leaders are at each other’s throats, but peace work is progressing behind the theatrics

John Narayan Parajuli, The Kathmandu Post

JAN 21 -Girija Prasad Koirala told European ambassadors last week that he did not share the dire assessment of the United Nations about Nepal’s peace prospects. What makes Koirala optimistic and not others? Perhaps the political developments in Nepal in relation to the peace process should not be taken at face value. There is more to them than meets the eye. Despite the bitter feud among the major parties and the propaganda war between the Maoists and those in the centre-right, there is a positive aspect that has been overshadowed by the public displays of acrimony. For example, we seem to have forgotten to attach enough significance to the release of disqualified Maoist combatants that has taken place at a time when relations between the Maoists and other parties are at their lowest ebb. If the strain on the peace process was so grave that it was teetering on the verge of collapse, why is there ongoing cooperation between the two sides? Moreover, parliament has surprisingly resumed without any public agreements being made.

Perhaps the answer lies in the approaches adopted by successful peace processes elsewhere. The Good Friday agreement that cemented the road to lasting peace in Northern Ireland should be of particular interest to the situation in Nepal. The peace process is far from complete, and it has been occasionally beset by dissident militants. More recently, even personal tragedies at the helm of affairs in Belfast have deferred the process. Early this month, Peter Robinson, the First Minister of the Northern Ireland executive, had to step aside for several weeks after revelations that his wife, a member of parliament and the local assembly, took monetary gifts inappropriately to help her lover. There are telltale signs that the First Minister knew about it and failed to report it. On Jan. 8, a car bomb believed to have been planted by dissident members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) critically injured a police officer — a reminder that even 12 years after the historic agreement in 1998, remnants of the conflict linger on.

But the details of how peace was secured through a complex negotiation process for almost a century-old problem in Belfast makes a fascinating read. There are some salient points that could be of use in Nepal. Of particular value is the approach taken to manage the expectations of the different constituencies that both the republicans and the unionists represented. The British and the Irish governments played an important role both publicly and privately in nudging the parties forward. Progress was made amid rows and public displays of mistrust among the parties in the peace process. The peace process in reality is much longer than the formal agreements. Subsequent agreements took place even after the 1998 agreement as the process moved forward.

Paul Dixon, lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, has identified nine political skills among the individuals and parties involved in Northern Ireland that he believes gave the peace process momentum even during difficult times. Out of the nine, seven seem relevant in understanding the nuances and dynamics of the peace process in Nepal.

First, choreography and play-acting: Dixon points out that both the British government and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, coordinated events such as the ceasefire through a back channel, yet they maintained room for deniability to manage unintended consequences or fallout. Apparently, the British government even advised the Sinn Fein leader how “best to manage public opinion and criticise the British government”. It is hard to tell if there is any ongoing choreography of the road to peace in Nepal, but the umpteen private meetings that have been held between the top leaders, despite the war of words in public, indicate that a certain level of coordination to manage expectations exists.

Second, smokescreen: Using “hostile rhetoric to disguise a marginally more accommodating stance”. The top leaders on both sides of the ideological divide tried to co-opt and appease “their hardliners by justifying a moderate move as an act of aggression”, whereas a compromise would be rationalised as “a gambit” to gain moral high ground that the opponent cannot match. Excessive rhetoric was utilised as a distraction to push the agreement forward. In Nepal too, the lack of consistency in public deliberations of both the first and second tier leaderships of all the three major parties and constant revisions of their positions suggest different “front stage and back stage realities”.

Third, salami slicing: Dixon argues that the momentum provided by the distraction of a smokescreen would then be used for articulating a more “accommodative line”. This will ensure that hardliners would not interpret it as selling out on ideology. We have seen this tactic being adopted more often by the Maoists. But even within the two non-Maoist parties, the conservative bloc has long accused its top leadership of “surrendering to the Maoists”. Since the fall of the Dahal government, this group has savoured a semblance of victory over the Maoists — securing influential positions in government and the ruling coalition. Recently, in the guise of escalating their agitation, the Maoists without much warning allowed parliament to resume.

Fourth, hard cop/soft cop: Politicians from the same party presented “different faces to different audiences” in a bid to win them over. The leaders of all the three parties make use of this theatrics. The label of hardliner or moderate is distinctly clear among the Maoists. But even within the NC and the UML, there are those who prefer reconciliation with the Maoists and others who favour a tougher approach, at least publicly.

Fifth, kite flying: This approach allows politicians to test the waters before deciding to take a new course of action or moderate their stance. Leaders would write an op-ed piece or ensure a deliberate leak to the press to gauge the reaction of either the party’s constituency or the wider public. Again, the Maoists appear to be leading in the use of this tactic.

Sixth, constructive ambiguity: The key agreements in the peace process were deliberately left vague so that the parties involved could interpret them in their own ways to claim a victory for them. Nepal’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement can be described as being constructively ambiguous — especially the clause dealing with rehabilitation and integration of Maoist combatants.

Seventh, necessary fiction: From time to time, outright lies have been told or given sufficient spin to amount to fiction. The purpose of doing this in Northern Ireland was to win over sceptics on both sides. Only time will tell how much fiction we have fallen for in Nepal. Have the politicians deliberately engineered a crisis from time to time to give momentum to the peace process?

It is hard to tell. There are many similarities between the process in Northern Ireland and Nepal. It is possible that the political skills employed for securing peace in Belfast has some resonance in Kathmandu. Of course, Northern Ireland had the relative advantage of concerted international support and mediators like Bill Clinton, John Major and Tony Blair. But without the character and commitment of local actors like Gerry Adams, David Trimble, John Hume and others, the process could have failed.