The questions the "old" Nepal hand is asked these days. Here for a month or two, and everyone wants to know: can the constituent assembly elections take place in June? Instant political analyses. Add journalist and stir. Well, here's a mea culpa from my past and a promise to be more thoughtful about such questions from now on.
Nearly nine years ago, I was in Mumbai meeting interesting people in culture, local government, and journalism. My employers had sent me to see what made India's liveliest city thrum, and it was a welcome interlude from Delhi's constant politics.
It was also the early days of the Atal Behari Vajapyee-led coalition government.
Part of the deal was a BBC radio talk show with listeners asking questions to a correspondent, in this case, me, BBC\'s South Asia reporter. I had just covered India's second election in three years and reported the historic ascent of Vajpayee, as well as ministers and hardliners from his Bharatiya Janata Party.
Most questions were about this. Would the BJP launch pogroms against Muslims, try to change to Indian culture and history books, would they start a war with Pakistan, and so on. I tried to be thoughtful and balanced and often found cause to praise Vajpayee's credentials as a popular, moderate consensus-seeking leader.
In this spirit, I addressed a question about his government's nuclear weapons intentions. Would the BJP test India's atomic arsenal, as promised in their campaign? Would years of ambiguity end in a flash of light in the Rajasthan desert? On live radio, I considered the costs of international outrage, the new government's political instability, the mood of the people, and concluded: no.
It was 10 May 1998. The next day, as my Jet Airways flight bore me back to Delhi, India crossed the nuclear rubicon and became an overt atomic weapons power. Weeks of relentless, near-hysterical media coverage ensued. I was probably the only person who remembered how I'd got it wrong the night before the tests. In good faith perhaps, but wrong as can be nonetheless.
Now in Nepal I find myself asked to pronounce on whether elections can possibly take place in June. At first, reading newspapers and talking, I found myself saying "no, can't happen, mayhem in the countryside, insincerity in Kathmandu, SPA too smug, incompetent, Maoists not ready for democracy, UN monitors late, VDCs not back, etc etc".
It's a tempting enough analysis. And I have yet to find anyone involved in pushing the election process who can truly explain to me how it's going to happen, freely, fairly, and peacefully in June. That may be because some of them-in the UN, diplomatic, and NGO sectors-are too busy to talk, or because they simply can't at this point admit the possibility of failure.
So, as a remarkable year in Nepal's history comes to a close, I choose uncertainty over instant political analysis. I hedge my bets and talk of trends and possibilities. I admit that I don't know everything. The most honest thing I can say about elections in June is this: I don't see how they can happen.
The key words are "I" and "see". They could happen. They could be fair and efficiently run. They could set the stage for the true transformation of Nepal. I don't see this yet. But nor do I have a crystal ball which tells me the process is doomed, that politics will fail, and conflict return. I honestly do not know what will happen over the coming months in this bloodied, deserving land.
I even worry a little about jinxing the process with a prediction either way. Look at my record on Indian nuclear weapons.