| December 01, 2020

The chess players

The chess players
Let me cheer Kanak, as the risk of the chessboard itself being upturned by the Authority is too high to be ignored

Ordinarily, chess isn't a spectators' game. Unless one is a hardcore aficionado or a compulsive bettor, it's extremely difficult to pay attention to the pawns on the board as contenders whack their brains in moves and countermoves. However, things change when superstars play.
Imagine Vishwanathan Anand and Anish Giri, both grandmasters of the game, challenging each other. The Dutch genius would simply be portrayed by the patriotic press as a prodigy born of a proud Nepali father fighting an overbearing Indian player more than twice his age. Should he win—not unlikely given that Anish succeeded last week in halting Norwegian world-champion Magnus Carlsen to a draw—the Oli-garchy of the country will probably declare a national holiday to celebrate the victory! In certain encounters, plays don't matter, actors do.

Something similar seems to be unfolding in l'affair Kanak Mani Dixit versus Lokman Singh Karki. Details will probably be debated once again today the May 2nd, 2016, when Kanak is produced before a judge at the order of the Supreme Court in response to a habeas corpus writ filed last week. However, from the way this case has caught the imagination of the bourgeoisie, it would appear as if nothing less than the future of freedom was at stake.

Protean protagonists

I have known the current chief of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) since the late-1970s when Karki was still a soft-talking student of the Tribhuvan University. Those were the days when even offspring of high and mighty of the land travelled to Kirtipur in cramped buses and one freely struck a conversation with fellow passengers. He soon got onto the royal escalator and reached to the top echelon of Nepal's bureaucracy within a short period. Our acquaintance, however, has remained confined to exchanges of greetings.

I watched with fascination as Karki jumped from the unsteady royal-military ship to the Koirala bandwagon with unbelievable dexterity after 1990s and acquired enough influence to make an upright minister resign from the cabinet. During the short-lived royal-military regime of Chairman Gyanendra, his stars shone even brighter. Despite apparent setback in his career after 2006, he has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the oligarchic system that emerged after the collapse of the first Constituent Assembly.

I have known Karki longer, but my engagement with Kanak has been more meaningful. I first met him in the graphic design studio of my friend Mani Joshi in the early 1990s. Back then, he had put together some issues of Himal mountain magazine as its designer, compositor, contributor, editor, funder, and perhaps also its delivery person in addition to playing all other roles that publication of a periodical entails. He had come to Mani for some design assistance.

All I remember of our first encounter is the excitement and child-like delight of his exclamations, "We have exactly the same technologies that are being used in New York! The same level of creativity! As a country, we have great potential!" The infectious enthusiasm and boundless optimism of that afternoon on Kanak's face has never left me despite my repeated disappointments with his politics. When Himal expanded, I happily joined the adventure in late-1990s. In over a decade of our association, perhaps I wrote more cover stories for Himal Media publications than any other single journalist.

I watched in wonder as Kanak multitasked with incredible energy. He miraculously emerged from a fall down the mountain slopes to establish the first spinal injury rehabilitation center in the country. Ignoring ridicule, he ran the anti-violence campaign with panache and patience. He hosted a lecture of philosopher Richard Rorty and a soirée of Tina Sani with equal felicity. Apart from being a multi-tasking go-getter, he is also a multi-talented performer. The fictional character he created through his books for children—the amphibian Bhakta Prasad that jumps like a frog, talks like a child, and explores his own country like an awe-struck tourist—is now a legend. Along with his brother Kunda, he is perhaps one of the two best practitioners of English journalese—in descriptive rather than derisive sense of the term—in Nepal.

Kanak's politics is naïve at best. Even when it was clear that a creeping royal-military coup had begun with the dissolution of Pratinidhi Sabha in May, 2002, he believed in giving the regime a benefit of doubt. He was in favor of testing the chairmanship of King Gyanendra too and was forced to revisit his position only when he was taken into custody along with a bevy of high-profile political prisoners.

Karki is an old-school conservative who openly pays obeisance to Hindu Sadhus; publicly honors all social hierarchies; and never hesitates from espousing traditional beliefs. He represents the dying old order. The rightwing populism that Kanak has embraced points towards portentous future. It's not easy to choose a side.

Court intrigues

It may sound slightly dismissive, but Kanak is a quintessential ivy-league liberal: Generally cosmopolitan in outlook but mostly conformist in beliefs. Like legions of true-blue adherents of Fukuyama creed, he genuinely believes that free, fair and periodic elections combined with an open-market are sufficient for the proper functioning of a democracy. There are some addenda to that belief system. Philanthropic capitalism can solve the problem of "One Percent" dominance. Treating corruption, a symptom of wealth and power inequality, can cure the chronic disease of malgovernance. Political agenda of inclusion, federalism and positive discrimination are disruptive of order and harmony in society. Little wonder, limousine liberals from all over the world have sprung into defense of their ideological soulmate.

Kanak, however, hasn't gotten into trouble due to his beliefs or actions. Since the formation of the first elected Maoist government anywhere in the world in 2008, he has been freely campaigning against Madhesh movements; spewing fire at former leaders of the armed insurgency; pouring scorn over Janjati activists advocating identity politics; in addition to openly promoting patently regressive politics of monarchists and Stalinists that have a stranglehold over state power.

His latest effort to defend a fast-tracked constitution that is perceived to be divisive by at least a significant section of population has earned accolades from all establishmentarians. For over a year, he has been the most prominent spokesperson of the PEON in the international press. He probably failed to see the contradiction between supporting Oli-garchy and opposing its pillars at the same time, and fell out of favor with one of the five most powerful persons in the country.

With CIAA-chief Karki, you get what you see: A conservative Hindu with warrior ethic that has complete authority and is unhesitant of using it the way he deems fit. Kanak is a post-modern conformist: An agnostic, if not completely atheist, with a firm belief in the piety and ability of the social elite to decide what is best for everybody. The degree of difference appears remarkable, but the distinction is difficult to notice. In the intensity of dogmatism, both seem to have complete confidence in the strength of their convictions.

Kanak's latest effort has been to revive the moribund public transport of Kathmandu—the Sajha Bus Service. The most ambitious of all his endeavors so far, it will secure him a place in development history should he succeed. Ironically, he has gotten himself into a spot of bother as the Chairperson of Sajha—a responsibility that doesn't match his persona.

Shielded by contempt of court laws that resemble lèse-majesté of yore, speculation about any sub judice case is fraught with risks. In the court of public opinion, however, I stand with Kanak despite his regressive politics. Part of the reason behind my solidarity is definitely loyalty, friendship triumphs over ideological differences. But the major motive is more practical. Kanak has extensive influence but little authority. Karki has enormous authority with limited influence. It is possible to argue with an influential person, may be even change her mind. With the Authority: You either surrender or face consequences.

Karki won the first round when the Special Court endorsed his decision to arrest Kanak. He lost the second game due to outpouring of sympathy for the celebrity detainee from all over the globe. Let me cheer Kanak, as the risk of the chessboard itself being upturned by the Authority is too high to be ignored. The game of one-upmanship continues. The audience, please maintain interest.