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Dipta Shah: Making Sense out of Non-sense

Making Sense out of Non-sense: The Calculation behind the King's Decision

Prevalence of Reason Over Reaction - the Need for Informed Decision-Making on Nepal
By Dipta Shah

With the Royal proclamation of February 1, 2005, Nepal has once again been thrust onto the international arena, grabbing headlines and courting controversy. The image portrayed has all the elements of international disapproval, dissention, and emotionally charged political rhetoric.

What is lacking, however, is a range of perspectives emanating from those to whom political developments in Nepal matter the most - Nepalese citizens.

At this critical juncture in Nepal's history, it is absolutely vital that the perceptions portrayed by the international media and select groups of Nepalese are not considered exclusively in influencing the decision-making process of the international community.

As the saying goes, there are always "two sides to every story," and where the recent events in Nepal are concerned, the risk that the predominant views of a well-organized and politically motivated Nepalese minority may inundate an opportunity at balanced, rational reasoning is becoming increasingly apparent.

The underlying rectitude behind the opinions expressed by various actors is not at issue - the chance at informed decision-making is. The question at hand is not whether those in support of or against King Gyanendra's proclamation are correct.

Given the prevailing conditions, the question is what the prescribed course of action for the international community should be, so that the majority of ordinary Nepali citizens are afforded a chance at peace. In an attempt to provide an answer, it becomes necessary to dispense with some of the more common mis-perceptions that mainstream media outlets have capitalized on, at the expense of what in effect, is on-the-ground reality.

First, media reports have been rife with official statements from foreign governments which have bluntly demanded the immediate restoration of "democracy" in Nepal.

To name a few, the Australian Foreign Minister was quoted as follows: "Australia supports the immediate return to multi-party democracy and respect for civil liberties and freedom of expression." British Trade Minister Douglas Alexander called for "the immediate restitution of multiparty democracy," and US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called for an "immediate move toward the restoration of multiparty democratic institutions under a constitutional monarchy."

While these statements were undoubtedly made with best intentions, they are somewhat misleading.

Those who subscribe to the underlying ideals of democracy (and comprehend not only democratic freedoms but also associated responsibilities) cannot seriously insist on the re-establishment of a set of principles that did not exist in Nepal to begin with.

What Nepal had was a judiciary with the power to indict but not to prosecute; political parties with the ability to incite, but not to be held accountable; security forces with a broad mandate to protect but no clear objectives upon which to execute.

Surely, when world leaders call for the restoration of Nepal's system of "multiparty democracy," one would hope that they are not implying a move towards the status quo, ex-ante? Second, the right to assemble, freedom of speech, and the right against preventive detention (to name a few) are not the only principles enshrined under the broader democratic umbrella.

The right to peaceful co-existence without constant fear of extortion, the right to education without continuous political disruptions, the right to a proper childhood without being subjected to forceful indoctrination - these too are freedoms that every Nepali citizen is entitled to, independent of the prevailing system of governance.

And, if a temporary curtailment of the former can guarantee the latter, one could speculate that 90% of Nepal's population (the rural poor) would gladly "vote" for normalcy, peace, and sustained stability over a fleeting dream that has eluded Nepal for the past 14 years.

Third, it would be misleading for the international community to formulate its course of action based on the assumption that a minority 2% (representative of Nepal's relatively educated and politically savvy elite) accounts for the collective views of a nation of 24 million.

This is especially true when there exists no unified view within the 2% minority itself. The notion of possible mis-representation is amplified further when considering that a significant portion of the elite 2% reside outside Nepal, in functional democratic settings.

Naturally, the desire to promulgate the freedoms enjoyed elsewhere to the motherland is always present. Unfortunately, what we have in Nepal is not what is present in functioning, Western democracies which themselves achieved stability through considerable violence.

Hence, to formulate one's opinions, by extrapolating the observed behavior of an insignificant sample size, unnecessarily exposes the decision-making process to the phenomenon of adverse selection.

If anything, the quality of "democratic" leadership that Nepal has produced over the past 14 years should prompt caution over the representative capacity of Nepal's politicians.

The height of hypocrisy has been a handful of politicians, preaching to ordinary Nepalese, the difference between "right" and "wrong," when they themselves do not possess the capacity to make that distinction.

Also erroneous is the underlying assumption that this same supposedly "representative elite" is guided purely by populist concerns.

No more need be said on this except to note their self-serving nature and absolute unwillingness to even begin to grapple with the problems of the country.

And although it is unfair to group all Nepali politicians in this inept category, it would also be a great dis-service to imply that there are more than a handful of respectable leaders, who in any case are themselves tarnished by the company they keep.

If performance-based evidence is insufficient, one may pose the question: for whom do our politicians actually speak? This query is particularly relevant when considering the fact that most politicians haven't ventured beyond district headquarters to meet with their constituencies for years.

If majority representation is the chief criteria by which the international community wishes to pass judgment on Nepal, the candidate of choice to rectify Nepal's problems is clear - the Maoists.

If elections were to be held today (whether through terror, coercion or intimidation), the Maoists would beat every single mainstream political party, hands down.

After all, by virtue of their unchallenged campaign of political cleansing, the Maoists face no political opposition in areas where they remain active.

Clearly, endorsing Maoism is not a viable option by national or international standards.

This is even more the case when considering the Indian position that has not swayed from its declaration of the Maoists as terrorists and the US government's addition of the Maoists to its terrorist watch list.

What sort of precedent would dealing with terrorists send to other so-called "freedom fighters" in South Asia and beyond?

Opposition to the King's move, based on allegations that the King cannot be permitted to "determine the fate of the political parties" or steer the direction in which Nepal is headed, is therefore a losing proposition.

Similarly, opposing the King on the assumption that he may become too popular at the expense of a democratic polity defies the most basic tenet of democracy itself - the right to self-determination.

Should the Nepalese majority opt for one system over another, it is their democratic right to do so.

Without a guaranteed minimum level of education for the majority of Nepal's population, the forced introduction of a system of democratic governance (that relies so heavily on the assumption of informed, rational decision-making) is a tall order.

It is precisely this realization, that has prompted democracies such as the US, the UK, and India to endorse a multi-party democracy and a constitutional monarchy for Nepal.

The need for a guardian figure to "steer" the nation in times of crisis is the motivating factor behind the promulgation of a "two-pillar" policy.

Based on the past 14 years, to think otherwise is simply naive. High Stakes for the Royal Palace Where internal Nepali politics is concerned, the King has played his final card.

This is significant not only because there is (supposedly) nothing else that can come out of the royal palace, but also because this move demonstrates the degree to which the situation in Nepal has spun out of control.

Granted, the King's move appears ill-timed and ill-advised. However, before jumping to conclusions, it is important to acknowledge that this move is neither risk-free nor a guaranteed "win-win" situation for the monarch.

To the contrary, the King's decision to assume emergency power is more hazardous to the institution of monarchy than any other actor in Nepali politics.

Personal opinions aside, debating the accuracy of the said statement is futile. Just as naive would be to speculate that King Gyanendra failed to account for the heightened probability of risk in his decision-making.

One's perception in this regard will likely be influenced by preconceived notions which could fall loosely into one of two major schools of thought.

The first school of thought claims that successive monarchs (and the current one in particular), have been responsible for the lack of political unanimity in Nepal.

Ironically, a lack of political unanimity was the very basis upon which the current system was disbanded. The crux of this argument is that a model of "constitutional monarchy" and "multi-party democracy" are incompatible in Nepal.

The second and opposing school of thought accords more blame to the political parties for Nepal's current plight. This group asserts that had it not been for successively more corrupt and immoral leadership (under democratically elected governments), the Maoist insurgency in Nepal would not have gained the cumulative momentum it currently has.

According to this group's logic, the cause for the demise of Nepalese democracy is attributable to the misdeeds of those who initially fought for democracy in 1990. Further, proponents who subscribe to this logic believe that Nepal's political leadership has betrayed the people - both in terms of moral responsibility and in safeguarding democracy.

Again, to which of these competing schools of thought one adheres is a matter of choice and political orientation. While evidence can be brought forth in support of the first school of thought, much of it is circumstantial.

To the detriment of the image of political parties (and particularly their leadership), substantial evidence exists in support of the second school of thought.

The availability of such evidence does not bode well for either the leaders of political parties or their recent calls for protests.

To think of it another way, the Nepali Congress (Girja faction) and associated parties have launched protests against "regression" through the fall of two successive governments.

Consider the amount of resources (time and money) that has been squandered in organizing meaningless protests, general strikes, and shut-downs.

Serious doubts arise as to whether ordinary citizens will heed their political masters' call to protest, especially if the King's move generates a semblance of "normalcy." Despite the overwhelming evidence indicting the misdeeds of past government officials, the King's decision to assume power does not appear to be based solely on this premise.

By eliminating the "political buffer" between the Royal Palace and the Maoists, the King has committed Nepal's security forces in a do-or-die duel against the Maoists.

Although the formality of proposing negotiations will undoubtedly be fulfilled, the likelihood of positive reciprocation by the insurgents is virtually non-existent.

The only option that remains is head-on collision between the Maoists and Nepal's security forces - a decisive battle in which the stakes on both sides are exceptionally high.

Should the RNA fail to bring the Maoists to the negotiating table by force, the future of the monarchy will be in question. By gambling the continuity of the Shah dynasty and the very sovereignty of Nepal, King Gyanendra appears to have placed tremendous belief in the capabilities of Nepal's armed forces and the resilience of the Nepalese people.

Only time will tell whether or not the King's moves will pay political dividends. What one is forced to recognize is the audacious personal risks this King has undertaken for the sake of Nepal.

His statement is clear - desperate times call for desperate measures, and 14 years are sufficient to gauge whether or not the same discredited group of "democratic" individuals can be relied upon to run Nepal again. Shock and Awe for the Maoists The Maoists appear to be temporarily disoriented by the King's unexpected move.

They have lost their most significant bargaining chip - the political parties. This in turn, has severely undermined their "best alternative to a negotiated settlement" (BATNA). Long before there was any hint at the King's takeover, conflict resolution pundits had already begun to claim that resolution of the insurgency could be possible if the tri-lateral conflict (King, politicians, and Maoists) could be reduced to a bilateral one. The Western model for Nepal revolved around aligning the political parties and the King in a common front to face the Maoists.

Despite numerous attempts at fostering a set of conditions whereby the King and the political parties would join hands, such a situation failed to materialize. Rampant in-fighting persisted within and amongst the political parties, and between the parties and the King.

Although arguments can be forwarded that the King did not act in earnest to join hands with the political parties, it cannot be denied that all options were exhausted. On two separate instances, the King had asked the major political parties to forward consensus candidates for the post of Prime Minister. On both occasions, the politicians failed to forward candidates, simply because of their inability to subdue inflated egos.

This was made painfully clear in the behind-the-scenes efforts of the rival NC faction to block the reinstatement of Deuba, apparently even as the latter was driving into the palace gates. Be this as it may, a bi-lateral conflict has now emerged in Nepal - not quite the type envisioned by the US, the UK, India and leading conflict resolution think tanks, but a bilateral conflict nonetheless.

Provided that the spheres of influence where Nepal is concerned (India, China, US, UK -- in order of importance) publicly denounce the Royal move but privately condone it, the Maoists are in for a hellish time. Although the international media has done a poor job of outlining inconsistencies in Maoist statements, one is certainly long overdue.

When asked by the recent Deuba government to return to the negotiating table, for instance, Pushpa Kamal Dahal made a crude allusion to the possibility of negotiating with only the "master" and not his "servants" (translation - the demand to negotiate directly with the King and not with the Deuba government). Now that a government headed by the King has offered the Maoists an olive branch, the Maoists are screaming "foul play" and calling for all mainstream parties to join them in their struggle against the monarch.

For practical purposes, this call was merely a public statement announcing an alliance that has been in existence for months - the Maoists had mastered the art of manipulating political parties to undermine the King and the presiding government.

Plus, actually integrating with the mainstream political parties in practice would do more harm to Maoist organization than good. They know it, and so does the royal palace. Despite the inconveniences that have resulted from the King's proclamation, there have been positives also.

For the first time ever, the Maoists call for a three day nation-wide strike was humiliatingly dispensed with. Second, the Maoists application of the possibility of negotiations as a tactical maneuver, has been exposed. With two failed attempts at negotiations and a legacy of inconsistencies within their leadership hierarchy, serious doubts exist over the willingness (and capacity) of the Maoists to negotiate at all.

Their view of "negotiations" is to agree upon the terms of surrender by the state. More to the heart of the matter, for as long as the Maoists believe that they have the upper hand, there is little reason for them to negotiate with the government. The Regional Player that Counts - India International media is rife with reports of Maoist cadre fleeing into India via the open border. Since most of the Maoist leadership is known to be hiding within Indian borders already, it comes as no surprise that the grass-roots cadre should follow suit.

Even the remote possibility that the Indian government is unaware of this reality is unfathomable. Aside from the standard objections raised at the nullification of a dysfunctional democracy, India's harsh statement towards the King may signify more embarrassment than practical considerations.

Although the absolute truth may never be known, India appears to have been caught completely off-guard by the Royal proclamation. As the regional power and a major contributor to Nepal's fight against the Maoist insurgency, India's annoyance/embarrassment is understandable.

The question now isn't whether India should continue to support Nepal, but how India should work to maintain its outward annoyance and simultaneously engage the King's government. India's initial statement appeared somewhat harsher than expected, perhaps a byproduct of India's concern at suddenly losing all of its political agents in Nepal.

More of this is to be expected, because now the Indian security apparatus is forced to deal with the Maoist problem on its side of the border more aggressively and seriously. Given India's own growing Maoist problems, there can be no more delays or excuses. As already noted by several Indian media outlets, India simply cannot afford to alienate Nepal at this critical juncture.

In doing so, India would be risking a campaign to its north that it cannot afford. If Delhi was to abandon Kathmandu, all bets would be off (including certain arms procurement covenants in the 1950 Treaty), which would then give Nepal a free hand to deal with the Chinese - a complete nightmare for the Indians and the US.

Simultaneously, it would be foolish of Delhi to even consider the possibility of military action within Nepal's borders. Doing so would run the risk of a Sri Lanka rerun, which cost India heavily, 1987-90, as well as a possible confrontation with China.

More seriously, it would open the door to the Maoists' long-sought Compact Revolutionary Zone (CRZ), wherein the Indian and Nepalese Maoists functioned across national and state lines in much the manner of the communists in Southeast Asia in their fight against the Americans. Where South Asia is concerned, the US government's policy will undoubtedly be closely aligned with Indian policy.

And gone are the days when Great Britain would dictate policy initiatives to India (or Nepal for that matter), so the UK will simply follow America's footsteps.

Arguably the most petty reaction to the King's power-grab in Nepal has been the revocation of seats for RNA personnel to the UK's military academy, Sandhurst. All this accomplishes is two less professional military assets for the RNA and two less professional soldiers who could be relied upon to act responsibly and spread the rule of international law within the RNA.

In stark contrast to such a move and others conjured up from the same ill-considered kitbag of options, the best the international community can do at this point is to convince the King to adhere to his self-mandated time-table: 6 months' suspension of certain constitutional provisions and a maximum three year tenure as head of state.

The international community and India should realize that ultimately it is in the best interest of the King and democracy to deal a decisive blow to the Maoists and then return executive powers back to the people. Doing so would not only bring peace to Nepal and ensure stability for the region, it would also guarantee legitimacy of the royal institution and assure its continuity (albeit in a democratic setting).

The King undoubtedly must be aware that attempts at keeping power indefinitely will only prolong the inevitable - the demise of the house of Gorkha - an eventuality that is not in the King's best interest. Moving Forward… (Nepali audience) The time has come for all Nepalese to make a fundamental choice, a choice that cannot be permitted to be made on Nepal's behalf. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and each 6

Nepali must set priorities and make the best choices with the information available. The cycle of radicalization initiated by the Maoists has reached full circle; and for better or worse, the Maoists have succeeded in dividing us. The time to act is now, and there is no room left for error.

Now is the time to decide whether the struggle should be to re-instate the likes of Girja Prasad Koirala and Khum Bahadur Khadka, or to confront the Maoists on their turf on Nepal's terms. There are some who cite history to highlight the fact that a dysfunctional democracy is still preferable to any semblance of autocratic rule.

This is certainly the case when a credible alternative (i.e. responsible political leaders) exists. Unfortunately for Nepal, such is clearly not the case, thus emergency rule in time of emergency. While the prospect of strict authoritarian rule is repulsive, one must take into account what the alternative is - the Maoists.

And hoping for the miraculous emergence of an option is not an alternative. "Hope is not a method," goes the saying: We do not have the luxury of time on our hands when scores of our brethren are dying on a daily basis.

It is high time that people stop fanaticizing about the possibility of a stable, democratic polity when every fundamental element required for a democratic setting has been systematically eroded by the Maoists and our flawed politicians.

The sooner we come to terms with this reality, the more coherent decisions we can collectively make. Fighting three different battles on three different fronts is simply not a tenable proposition. If the coming struggle is to be fought in the name of Nepal and the majority of Nepal's people, it would be prudent for all to mobilize intellectual capital, economic resources, and collective will to force the Maoists to see reason.

Had the King not taken the measures that he did, the next move on the political parties' agenda was to force the re-instatement of parliament, and Heaven only knows where that would have left us.

Had Deuba declared elections (amidst disagreement with his coalitions partners), the legitimacy of the elections would forever have been contested, thus opening up yet another front in the war.

Alternatively, the King could have fired Deuba and forwarded another candidate. This would have accomplished absolutely nothing. Aside from our corrupt and ineffective politicians, who have given up their chances at redemption, the Maoists are the gravest threat to Nepal's sovereignty.

We have an opportunity now to deal with them on our terms, not theirs, and hopefully to deal with this insurgency once and for all. The choice every Nepali is faced with today, is clear - it's either the King (with the plan for a gradual reversion to democracy later), or it's the Maoists (and history has shown us where this path leads).

The genuine desire for the establishment of a multi-party system of democratic governance in Nepal is championed by all of Nepal's well-wishers. There is no ambiguity or ulterior motive where this demand is concerned. The time to forward this agenda aggressively will undoubtedly come and will be accomplished with the unanimous support of the international community. However, that time is not now.

And lobbying the international community to force the King to reverse his decision, to cut off all foreign aid to Nepal, and to alienate the new government – is certainly not the manner in which to ensure democracy for Nepal.

Following that path guarantees only one thing - the irreversible loss of Nepal's sovereignty. If the King is willing to gamble his life and the continuity of his lineage on his actions, the least we can do is give him the benefit of the doubt. We are simply out of options at this point and cannot afford to have another generation of Nepali children grow up in the midst of an insurgency- racked, war-torn nation.

If we as Nepalis cannot unite at such a critical juncture in our history to face the Maoist challenge, to seek the welfare of our impoverished majority, and to guarantee the sovereign integrity of our nation, there is no honor, no pride in calling ourselves Nepalis. If we are unable to put aside our personal preferences now and align for the common good, we as individuals are no better than the politicians we abhor.


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