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Madan Prasad Khanal: Nepal - Fact And Fiction

Nepal: Separating Fact And Fiction

By Madan Prasad Khanal

For far too long, discussions on the current crisis in Nepal have centered on King Gyanendra’s purported ambition for personal power. Critics of the monarch have it right to the extent that all leaders have a quest for personal fulfillment.

Considering the evidence on the ground, there is enough room to believe that King Gyanendra was impelled to act by a firm conviction that multiparty democracy being practiced in Nepal was doomed to take the country down the drain. Not because the core principle of government by consent per se was inherently wrong. But because of the conduct of those in power, who equated democracy with the right to ignore the pleas of the governed.

At the root of the feebleness of the Nepalese polity is the collective failure to acknowledge that the People's Movement of 1990 was a misnomer. To be sure, the Nepalese quest for democracy coincided with the global wave that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. What happened during those few weeks of 1990 was neither "popular" nor a "movement," but a manifestation of the pressures the Indian government exerted on the palace to keep Nepal within its sphere of influence.

A political transformation based on the perpetuation of a fiction was bound to be a flawed one. True, democracy was retored in Nepal after three-decades of palace-directed non-party rule, but it was still-born.

The political component of the People's Movement was lost midway, when the student protesters gave way to professional anarchists interested in furthering Indian interests. The Nepali Congress and United Left Front spent a long time praising what, admittedly, was their unnatural alliance. They ignored the fact that they were rising up against a system already weakened by the stranglehold of a trade and transit embargo imposed by India in response of Nepal’s purchase of a consignment of arms from China.

The last phase of the People's Movement included the massive participation of Kathmandu valley's indigenous Newar population against the Royal Palace. The fact that these Newar demonstrators had more than multiparty democracy in mind - their historical grievances against Prithvi Narayan Shah's conquest of Kathmandu and installation of the Shah dynasty being the prime motivation - was conveniently deleted from all subsequent political discourse.

The then-banned political parties failed to acknowledge their inability to come to a common definition of the "democracy" they were supposedly agitating for. The logic that restraining the palace would automatically translate into democracy was ludicrous from the outset. Any death is an unmitigated tragedy. However, it was politically irresponsible on the part of the movement's leadership to seek to declare every casualty, be it the random bystander caught in the crossfire or the curious homemaker who happened to look out from the window, as a martyr to the cause of democracy.

The temptation to consolidate the immediate gains of the People's Movement by drafting a new constitution and holding multiparty elections may have saved Nepal from further instability. However, an unfortunate result was that the real issues of poverty and underdevelopment of the country were swept under the carpet.

This encouraged turncoats in Nepalese political institutions, bureaucracy, the media, police, and universities to exhibit themselves as skilled practitioners of realpolitik. The newly empowered political parties often amply rewarded these people, inaugurating a whole new series of patron-client distortions.

Despite all the pains Nepalese political parties take in invoking the people's name while referring to the restoration of multiparty democracy, a major flaw of the 1990 Constitution remains the fact that the people have never directly endorsed it.

Those drafting the constitution based their terms of reference on a revolution that really never happened. Technically speaking, the now-memorable late-night meeting at the Royal Palace in April 1990 resulted merely in the unbanning of political parties - not the end of the Panchayat system.

Whatever happened in the subsequent days was the result of negotiations in which compromises were made – mostly from the Royal Palace – in response to organized attempts to seek legitimacy on the streets.

In a highly disastrous misreading of the situation, the constitution drafters were overly eager to equate the process of vesting sovereignty in the people with clipping the wings of the monarchy.

The country has been paying a high price for its failure to leave enough powers with the Crown that would have acted as a hedge against the opportunistic politics seen during majority, coalition and minority governments.

Worse still, political leaders still found it convenient to get away with their inefficiencies by playing up fears that a politically active monarchy by definition would represent a threat to democracy.

In this day and age, the futility of any quest to present an alternative to multiparty should have been self-evident. Any less open system of governance would have to lose the support of Western powers, an especially unpalatable prospect for a country that relies so heavily on foreign assistance. Moreover, institutional pluralism in non-governmental organizations and other associations would act as bulwarks against the highhandedness of any other institution. Harping on the supposed hijacking of democracy by the palace is an insult to the intelligence of the Nepalese people, to put it charitably.

There is no doubt that the greatest victims of the three-month state of emergency were the mainstream politicians, the press and civil society leaders. There was a reason for this. The mainstream parties were the principal tools India used to foster instability in Nepal since the restoration of multiparty system in 1990. The media, which flourished in the new open atmosphere and whose existence the emergency threatened, were naturally inclined to support the parties. Whether they recognized their role as accomplices in the perpetuation of Indian-inspired instability remains a moot question during a time of crisis.

The challenge before the mainstream parties is clear. If they think their reading of the public mood is correct, then they should lose no time in joining hands with the Maoists and campaign for a republican Nepal. They can work out the details of republicanism – either through civilized discourse or a resumption of civil conflict -- once the monarchy is out of the way. However, if the mainstream parties think history and tradition have given a monarchy a place in Nepal, they should work to give the king the powers he needs to discharge his responsibilities.


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