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Sanjay Upadhya: Crystal-gazing Through The Crisis

Nepal: Crystal-gazing Through The Crisis

By Sanjay Upadhya

The most levelheaded assessment of Nepal’s current crisis has come from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In a delayed disclosure, US Ambassador to Nepal James F. Moriarty last week quoted Madam Secretary as saying that what King Gyanendra had done would “crystallize” events.

Some of the cloudiness has begun to lift. Seven mainstream parties have begun what they call a final fight for full democracy. In a clear application of the pre-emption doctrine, their student wings have vowed to resist the royal government’s plan to rewrite the school curriculum along “nationalistic” lines. Journalists, too, are out on the streets for the protection of press freedom from, among other things, a draconian order in the offing. Other professional organizations are mulling all means of protest short of thronging the streets, which, of course, they have not ruled out.

In yet another sign of a return to normalcy, senior politicians have begun visits to India for consultations with exiled colleagues, Maoist leaders and – not too surprisingly -- influential Indian personalities. (At least those who have not been turned back from the airport.) All this suggests that the royal regime may be in its final breaths, right?

Not quite. The mainstream parties have not been able to inject credibility into their claim of forging an alliance with the Maoists. King Gyanendra has long dismissed such threats as “pressure tactics” and the parties have done little to prove him wrong.

Forget the congenitally republican communist parties in the mainstream. The key question here is whether the Nepali Congress would abandon its faith in constitutional monarchy and go all out for a republican agenda.

Over the decades, the party has thrived on perpetuating the myth that Nepal’s monarchy somehow owes its existence to the democrats’ magnanimity. The monarchy, moreover, proved to be a vital cushion when the party was in power. Blind royal assent of its policies meant firm adherence to the principles of constitutional monarchy. When the monarch sought clarifications on critical national issues, it represented unwarranted royal interference.

Indeed, if the rank and file shares Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala’s contention that the monarchy has been at the root of Nepal instability, then a republican alliance with the Maoists should not be difficult to reach. After all, this is a party that tried to assassinate two kings in the 1960s and 70s.

The Maoists, for their part, remain skillful practitioners of realpolitik. Having succeeded in exploiting rifts within political parties and between mainstream parties and the palace over the years, they are now getting a taste of their own medicine. Maoist supremo Prachanda, weeks after justifying the disciplinary action he had taken against chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, suddenly dispatched his nemesis to read the pulse of the Indian establishment. Lest we read too much into the turnaround, Prachanda replaced Dr. Bhattarai with confidante Krishna Bahadur Mahara as president of the underground Maoist government.

Vacillation is a term few associated with the Maoists until recently. But, then, who knows what kind of possibilities this unpredictability can throw open. Dr. Bhattarai, whose mastery of the language has dignified the Maoists’ pursuit of crass convenience, urged a BBC Radio interviewer not to take politicians’ public utterances too literally. Translation: the Maoists want to keep open their channels of communication with the palace, too.

As for broad-based consultations with external powers he has so long demonized, Dr. Bhattarai is too erudite a student of history. The United States ended up supporting the Khmer Rouge, after it became the dominant partner of a coalition in exile. Pol Pot may go down in history as one of the worst mass murderers. His henchmen – from Hun Sen downwards – dominate the leadership of today’s democratic Cambodia.

In successive public pronouncements, King Gyanendra appears firm on carrying through the agenda he unveiled in the Feb. 1 proclamation taking over full executive powers. Terms like globalization, free trade, knowledge-based society are primarily coming from an institution that has been reviled as the most archaic in Nepal. Critics often wonder why a king committed to reactivating a multiparty democracy attuned to the challenge and opportunities of the 21st century can be so dismissive of the political leadership. Because he sees a distinction between the message and the messengers. Now, Dr. Rice, isn’t that clear as crystal?


Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University

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