27 November, 2013

MAGIC TRICKS



When Prachanda’s channel ABC kept referring to the “dhandali” in this elections, including the fact the political representatives of various parties were not allowed to accompany the ballot boxes to the locations where they were stored, I suggested that this in fact may not be a fiction of the losing party’s imagination, but a concrete reality. It appeared strange to me none of the RPP factions, none of the ethnic parties, none of the Madhesh parties won in any significant way in this election, especially in light of the disillusionment the majority of the people felt with the big parties. The Maoists’s loss was understandable—but what about all the others? 

A relative of mine  got very irritated with me at this point, and said that sleigh-of-hand of any kind was impossible. It was an internationally observed elections, he said. The Army accompanied the ballot boxes to the counting stations. Any deception was simply impossible.

I asked if representatives of the political parties accompanied the ballot boxes into the trucks. He said that political parties representatives do go along on those trucks, and that the rooms are sealed overnight. “Its not that difficult to put five people to sleep, and have some storage in the floor of the truck with substitute ballot boxes,” I joked. “Don’t talk about these magic tricks to people outside, they will think you are totally nuts,” my abovementioned relative warned me. 

Of course, it appeared now that there was really no need for magic tricks. The ballot boxes were apparently in the trucks without any political party representatives to oversee them, and also left unattended overnight. Plenty of time for some sleigh of hand without needing to build elaborate, fake, ballot box holding storage in the floor of the trucks. 

Dr. Prakash Chandra Lohani also alleged fraud. According to this Kantipur report (http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/2013/11/24/top-story/more-parties-claim-polls-were-unfair/256132.html), this is what he said:

“Our agents were not allowed to travel in vehicles that carried the ballot boxes,” senior Rastriya Prajatantra Party leader Prakash Chandra Lohani told the Post. In an opinion article in Kantipur Daily on Sunday, Lohani said the ballot boxes from his constituency were allowed to be kept under the Army without the presence of the party’s agents.

The article also mentions that Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Nepal Chairman Upendra Yadav made similar claims. 

It appears, from reading various news reports from various parts of the country, that there might have been a concentrated effort to “help” the two major parties win through an overwhelming majority. 

Of course, the election process is intrinsically susceptible to fraud. Anybody who thinks voting reflects the will of the majority is fooling themselves. Primarily because there is no “majority” who thinks with such bloc mentality—in reality, people’s loyalties are probably more fractured, and if a true accounting were to be held, it would probably show a lot more minority opinions than this elections has made room for. 

For the majority of the people who did not vote (two-third of the Nepali population did not vote because they are not eligible for various reasons, or because they haven’t yet received the proper documents), the elections is a spectacle to be watched with cynicism and a sort of weary wisdom. “This is just a way for politicians to make money. Once the donors leave, these priorities will change, and all these issues will lose prominence,” one young man told me. 

The donors, however, are not leaving anytime soon. So until and unless some strong-willed Nepali leader shows up, willing to clean up the mess and impose a genuine leadership which benefits the people, it looks like the status quo is unlikely to change anytime soon.



26 November, 2013

Monsanto update



For those of us who've been following Monsanto, this will come as a news item of interest. Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, has just dumped its Monsanto shares--all $17.5 million of it.

And for those of you who followed my Tweets, there was one Tweet I wrote in 2011 in which I predicted the end of Monsanto would happen in November 2013. Go dig that up, folks!

Here's more below from the Motley Fool (oddly, I read websites that give advice on stocks and shares. I've been subscribed to the Motley Fool, off and on, for about 15 years now. Oddly, since I don't hold any stocks or shares.)
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This excerpt taken from the Motley Fool, a website that gives advice on investing.

Bridgewater Associates is the largest hedge fund in the world when it comes to assets under management. Founded by Ray Dalio in 1975, the fund's status as world's largest tells us two things: First, it has done enough to win the confidence of money managers. Second, any trades made by this behemoth are likely to move a given stock's price.
Over the course of the third quarter of this year, the fund sold or reduced positions in 234 stocks while adding only 87 different companies' shares to their portfolio. Of all those trades, three stood out as worthy of attention.

Monsanto (NYSE: MON  )

Source: Chrishonduras, via Wikimedia Commons.
Unlike Disney and Sysco, Bridgewater decided to part with all of its Monsanto shares -- worth somewhere in the ballpark of $17.5 million. The company -- a major agribusiness player that markets both pesticides as well as genetically modified seeds to farmers -- certainly hasn't been a public favorite, but that's not likely why Bridgewater parted ways.
Though it holds a 27% share of the global seed market and a 10% share of the global agrochemical market, Monsanto shareholders haven't had too much to cheer about lately. The stock is underperforming the broader market by about 10 percentage points in 2013 -- pushed lower by disappointing earnings in early October and flat sales.
The chance for lower sales of corn seeds because of a bumper crop this year, as well as some weeds and bugs developing resistance to Monsanto's Roundup-Ready products, may have also played a role in Bridgewater's decision to say goodbye to the stock.

http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/11/25/what-the-worlds-largest-hedge-fund-is-buying-and-s.aspx
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24 November, 2013

CHUTTA-CHUTTAI: THE WOMEN’S VOTE




I asked an elderly gentleman from Kapilvastu who comes to do repairs in our house whether he’d voted. He said he did, for the Nepali Congress.  Then I asked him if his family voted.

“Hah, hah,” he said. “But in our family we vote chutta-chuttai.” 

I looked at him, puzzled, unsure what he meant. His studied nonchalance told me he was revealing something of import. 

“Afno-afnai. I vote for the Nepali Congress. My wife votes for the Cow-Kamal Thapa, RPP faction.”
He said this with a studied nonchalance that made me realize that this separate voting between his wife and him it was sort of a big deal. Almost with the tone of voice people would use when saying: “yes, we eat separately. Chuttai chuttai.”

In communities where people vote in big blocs, a husband and a wife voting separately is clearly a big deal. Decisions, from economic to political, in households are made jointly, and the woman follows the man’s lead. So to have the wife vote for some other party was clearly a matter of discomfort and embarrassment, to be revealed to the public in the most diplomatic way. His tone of voice seemed to say: “Yes, we are trying to keep an united front here, but its just not possible in this matter.”

Clearly for this elderly lady to show defiance to her husband’s party and go out and vote for her own showed a) a determined woman and b) someone who felt a strong conviction in the campaign message of the Cow.

Women have been part of Mr. Thapa’s core supporters since he started his campaign. On Elections Day, the TV showed a long line of women wearing colorful saris and tikas, almost as if they were lined up at a festival or to enter a temple, waiting to vote in Mr. Thapa’s Makwanpur district. As Mr. Thapa put his vote into the ballot box, he did his Namaste with great deliberation, almost as if he was bowing to the Divine.  Mr. Thapa has been out and about for the last few years, attending Ram-Sita wedding parties in Janakpur and taking part in colorful pageantries. His “yada yada hi dharmasya” posters appeared at strategic locations around the capital, and no doubt in other cities. So it’s a bit of a surprise that he has had such a poor showing at the polls. What is clear is that while he may not have won, his platform of campaign, which includes the very powerful appeal to female voters on the issue of culture and religion, probably has a strong foundation.

Whether this voting bloc got a say in this elections is moot. What is clear is that they are part of the warp and woof of Nepal’s polity. Living in Handigaon, I am very aware that leadership in Nepal runs through religious and cultural institutions. Despite the best attempts of modern global forces to prioritize the secular and political institutions as the most important ones in people’s lives, the fact remains that the daily act of leadership is happens through religious and cultural events and institutions. 

People who win elections appear in people’s lives in the form of election posters, and a once-in-an-elections appearance given via a rally and a speech. But the ones who organize vegetable markets, raise money for the poor, find work for widows and single women, provide psychological counseling, provide bereavement and grief mitigation solace, give out rice to single mothers, interface between the all-important Sarkar and paperwork, mediate community disputes, hear out neighbourhood complaints—these real leaders performing real tasks are the religious/cultural figures in the community. 

These figures will not get to write the Constitution. Nor should they.  This Saturday I met an old monk at a cybercafe who I recognized. I reminded him that we’d met at a peace rally in New York twelve years ago. The young man at the cyber joked that they were thinking of getting this monk to run for elections, and that he would certainly win if he did. I said: “Monks should not run for elections. Once you mix religion and politics, dharma khattam huncha (the religious sphere gets corrupted.)” And I believe this firmly. 

This lack of political participation of religious figures in the material realm, however, doesn’t mean that the religious and cultural doesn’t have a powerful, day to day impact on everything from governance to leadership. And the new Constitution should make space for this reality.



23 November, 2013

WHY THE MAOISTS LOST AT THE POLLS, BUT STILL HAVEN’T LOST THE WAR




SUSHMA JOSHI
A young woman from Nuwakot from where the Nepali Congress just won the elections tells me this. First, that theirs was a Maoist area, where the Maoist won with an overwhelming margin in the last elections. This time too, they should have won—and there were strong Maoist candidates there, particularly those associated with the Vaidya faction, who would have won again, had they run. But this time, the Maoists lost.

 First, she said, the Vaidya faction, while ruled this area, called for people to vote for parties other than the Maoists.  There were community meetings, she said, and people decided to vote for Prakash Chandra Lohani, an old term politician from the same area, and his plough sign instead.  Then the second reason was the confusion created by the bifurcation of the Maoists, and the way they weren’t able to create a strong institution that could withstand the split. And third, people were upset about the whole issue of ethnic federalism, and they wanted to show their disagreement. 

When I am puzzled at why the Madeshi parties have such a poor showing at the polls as well, she says that the splitting of parties in the Madesh probably caused the splitting of votes as well. 

It appears to me people in Nepal don’t vote as individuals-they vote as communities, with the decision made consensually and driven in through community pressure. A young woman returning from Kathmandu for a day is getting phone calls from many different relatives, all of whom have agreed to support one candidate. This probably causes the sort of “block voting” phenomena associated with the big wins of one party or another. 

Prakash Chandra Lohani, of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Suryabahadur faction) is an astonishing switch for an area that had, and still has, overwhelming Maoist support. And yet, due to the split of the party and the confusion created by Vaidya, the Maoists lost to the Nepali Congress even in this stronghold. (Apparently Prakash Chandra Lohani  has launched an inquiry about why he lost in this area.)

Will the Constitution get written with only two parties winning with the overwhelming majority? The Nepali Congress and UMl may have ousted all other parties out of the political arena with their spectacular wins, but whether this makes for an inclusive Constitution making atmosphere remains to be seen. Clearly the need for a new Constitution came into being precisely because the constituency of the Maoists felt excluded from the polity. So to have these two big parties dominating brings the political field back to a moment—say, pre-1996, when in fact the same faces dominated the political scene.

In Nepal, we call this sort of situation: Back to mangalman. For those of you who’ve played Snakes and Ladders, this is when the player slithers back to the starting square. 

The winning parties are ecstatic--as they should be, in light of their poor showing at the last elections. But whether this ecstasy is good for the future of the nation remains to be seen. The issue still remains—in a poor country where many joined a People’s War because they felt excluded from a political system dominated by a few select players, an elections that gives two parties the overwhelming majority still doesn’t resolve the Constitutional crisis. In fact, it may precipitate it further--unless all  players, including the smaller ones, are given a place at the table.   

21 November, 2013

Just because the Maoists lost at the polls doesn’t mean they don’t have a say in this writing



I just watched Rajan KC of the Nepali Congress party get decorated with sindoor as he accepted his win. "Prachanda cannot say it was a free and fair elections last night, then claim its unfair the next morning," he said. "I lost against Prachanda from this same area six years ago, and I accepted my defeat then. In a Loktantrik system, he has to accept his defeat."

NTV, it appeared, was as confused as Prachanda about the loss. As it called in the winner, it ran a brief biographical profile of the winning candidate. And just by mistake, it happened to run Prachanda's biographical film--it is as if the technical staff behind the scenes just couldn't believe Prachanda had lost the election.

In all fairness, I would say Prachanda’s claim deserves a thought. If most elections in the past have had unfair things happen—Maoists strong-arming people to vote for them, ballot boxes  vanishing at night,  booths being captured, why wouldn’t similar things happen in this elections? A relative of mine mentioned that in the last elections, Prachanda won with far more votes than there were voters registered in his area—whether this is a verified fact or a rumor, I found this perception that the ballot is intrinsically vulnerable to corruption interesting. “And Jimmy Carter went away saying it was fair!” he says. I am not saying this sort of thing happened in Kirtipur—but I would keep an open mind that some of these sleigh-of-hand probably occurred in the Nepal elections circa 2013.

“Now there are no more communists in Kirtipur. We are now going to write the Constitution the Loktantrik way,” Mr. KC ended by saying. While I am not the biggest fan of the Maoists, this statement appeared a little rude to my consensual ears. First, Comrade Prachanda had apparently won 12,000 plus votes from Kirtipur, showing he still had a significant voter base in that area. Secondly, Nepal’s divided constituency is hardly going to sit down and accept defeat, just because it lost at the polls—so the need of the hour now is not to impose one’s winning credentials but to make sure an inclusive mode of Constitution making is followed, with the Nepali Congress leading.  

With half the Maoists sitting out the elections, this elections cannot be seen to have included all of Nepal’s divided constituency.  The Maoists are known for strategies other than democracy, war being a favorite tactic. So it appears to me that the Nepali Congress and the UML should tread very carefully at the moment, making extra sure the Maoists don’t feel excluded.

The Constitution has been a divided document to thresh out. Just because the Maoists lost at the polls doesn’t mean they don’t have a say in this writing. The most contentious points--federalism, the form of the political system—is something that the Maoists and the others haven’t been able to agree on. These are the points they got stuck on, and these are the points that are again going to bring on the arguments and dead-locks. So it may be in the NC and UML’s best interests to focus on other issues that all people can agree on.

The Constitution is a dead horse the big parties have been flogging for a while, without a great deal of results. It may be time now to close this chapter, thank the donors for their support, thank friendly neighbors for their great interest in Nepal’s political transition, and move on to the real act of governance.




20 November, 2013

DISENFRANCHISED




Fifty percent of the one crore, twenty-one lakh voters registered in Nepal had already voted by the time I sat down to drink some tea in front of the television this afternoon.

But I could keenly feel the sense of disenfranchisement of the 2/3 of Nepali citizens who did not get to vote, for various reasons. A woman in the neighbourhood, from Okhaldhunga, marveled at the card in my hand, and wanted to know how I’d gotten to vote. She said even her landlady and her daughter, who owned a house in Kathmandu, hadn’t managed to get the proper documents, despite great effort.

“How do people vote? How did you manage?” She asked, clearly puzzled a young woman had somehow managed to cast her vote. In her view, the voting process was restricted to elders and those with more power. I showed her my voter registration card which I had received yesterday from the Elections Office officials, and who’d told me to keep it carefully since it could be used later as the primary identity card.

“Ohhh!” she said. “That’s what you need to vote. Imagine, it even has a photograph! Esto garo raicha (I didn’t realize it was this difficult.)” She wanted to know how I’d gotten this card. I said that we’d gone to the Ward Office almost two years ago, and gotten it made then. “So many obstacles to voting. Its so difficult,” she said. “Kunai kunai manchay lay matrai vote halnu paunay raicha.” Her voice implied voting was restricted to certain people who had access to these elaborate mechanisms to get these priviledged documents. Through her eyes, it is clear that voting is restricted to elites of the Kathmandu Valley and other people with access to jumping through these elaborate hoops.

I asked her where her village was. She said it was Okhaldhunga, which of course is too far to go and vote. And besides, from what she was telling me, the process of getting the voter registration card, which happened almost two years before the elections, is not just elaborate and obscure to most Nepalis, it is also difficult, if not impossible, once the date has passed. One can’t simply stop by the Elections Office at the capital or district and ask for a voter card, which is how universal suffrage would be achieved. I admitted to her that if my parents, who pay attention to public service announcements and government notices, hadn’t told me to go to the ward office, I probably would not have a card in my hand either.

The gloomy faces of my neighbours, who own a shop in Kathmandu but whose home is in Solokhumbu, told me these young people also got disenfranchised—because it would take too long for them to travel to their district to vote. There were many of these folks in my neighborhood, who could have been given voting rights based on residency in Kathmandu or other district other than the one of their birth, but were not. A man tells me that while people from other districts can vote for the samunapatik candidates, they can’t vote for the direct track. “Some arrangement should have been made for them to vote,” my mother says. “It would have been so easy to do.”

Then there’s the 40 lakh voters who dropped off the rolls. They are all working in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and other countries. They, of all people, should definitely be able to vote. These are the young people of our country—if they don’t cast votes, who will?

The woman who owns a tailoring shop said she was from Kavre. She wasn’t going to vote—because there was no transport to go there on voting day.

The woman at the cybershop said she wasn’t going—because she didn’t want to risk life and limb to vote. Her husband, however, had left for Sindhuli a day ago, a three hour bus ride away from Kathmandu.

Then there was the young man who’d returned from Saudi Arabia, intent on work, who told me he wasn’t going to vote. Why not, I asked. “Vote garera kehi kaam chaina,” he said, “Hami jasto manchay lai.” Indicating that he thought that voting was a somewhat useless process for people like him, because nobody was going to look out for their interests anyways, even if he voted.

The new Constitution is going to be written by people chosen by 1/3 of the more empowered Nepalis—those who were able to read newspaper notices, understand radio messages, who keep in touch with the ward offices, and who are aware of the deadlines of government agencies for handing out precious cards like the voter cards. For those who are living in a district other than the one of their birth, who are living in countries where they are working to send remittances back, and for those whom the voter card may be inaccessible not just because they missed the deadline but because they can’t even access a citizenship certificate, their voting rights remain remote indeed.