Belated Acknowledgment Of Key Contradiction
Belated Acknowledgment Of Key Contradiction
By Sanjay Upadhya
For a brief moment this week, Nepal’s political gloom gave way to a flash of fidelity. Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala met ousted prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and discussed the current political situation in the kingdom.
During the 45-minute meeting on Tuesday, Koirala, the leader of the seven-party anti-palace alliance, also briefed Deuba on his recent tour to India. Koirala’s talks in New Delhi with prominent Indian politicians – together with his reported discussions with the Nepalese Maoist leaders in the Indian capital – have raised speculation of a new turn in the kingdom’s politics.
Deuba, under detention following his refusal to deposit bail demanded by a royal anti-graft panel on a corruption charge, evidently needed an update from Koirala. Here were two men, who barely managed to exchange pleasantries during unintended encounters, on what seemed like a full working relationship.
When King Gyanendra dismissed Deuba the first time in October 2002, for his failure to hold parliamentary elections on schedule, there was almost a palpable sense of relief among his opponents. An alliance of mainstream parties had pressured Deuba to go to King Gyanendra with a recommendation to postpone the elections because of the raging Maoist insurgency. The following day, addressing a party conference, Deuba asserted his government could have held free and fair elections on time. He favored a postponement only because all the other mainstream parties demanded that he do so.
After hectic consultations with top leaders, King Gyanendra decided to dismiss the Deuba government. He asked the mainstream parties to recommend a common candidate to head an interim election government, someone who would not be a contestant. Stunned by the proviso, the parties failed to agree on a common name. It was only when the palace appointed a royalist, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, that the opposition began decrying the palace’s actions as regressive.
If democracy were the mainstream alliance’s real concern, it probably would have insisted on the restoration of the Deuba government. Over the months, King Gyanendra refused to heed the mainstream’s democratic pleas primarily because of this inherent contradiction. The sordid state of Nepalese politics must have provided palace advisers with their key thesis: unilaterally appointing any candidate from the mainstream parties would energize all the others to join hands against the new premier.
The deepening of Nepal’s political crisis over the last three years owes much to the Koirala-Deuba conflict. Deuba was forced to resign as premier in 1996 after his coalition lost its parliamentary majority. His supporters blamed Koirala for abducting two Nepali Congress legislators who would have voted for the government. Deuba became the principal dissident in the Nepali Congress and mounted a serious challenge to Koirala for the party presidency. As Nepal was reeling from the royal palace massacre in June 2001, prime minister Koirala confronted the combined onslaught of opposition parties on the streets in addition to a Maoist insurgency that had become ever more ruthless. A little over a month later, Koirala stepped down as premier after failing to mobilize the army against the rebels. By this time, Maoist leader Prachanda had made it clear that his men would not talk to any government other than one led by Deuba. Talk they did, but briefly. The rebels ended the peace process by mounting coordinated attacks on army bases. Deuba ended up deploying the army against the insurgents.
In July 2002, Deuba wanted to extend a state of emergency to combat the Maoist insurgents. That went against the wishes of his Nepali Congress, which saw continued emergency rule as a dangerous prelude to authoritarianism. As head of government, Deuba was in the best position to know the mind of the security agencies.
Deuba assured the party and his cabinet colleagues that he would abandon plans to extend the emergency. Late that night, he reportedly went into a meeting with King Gyanendra and the security chiefs. After that meeting, Deuba exercised his prerogative as premier, dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections. Virtually all of his ministers learned of the dissolution on the news. Three ministers quit, although most of Deuba’s colleagues stood firmly behind his decision.
The Nepali Congress responded by expelling Deuba, which eventually led him to break away and create his own Nepali Congress (Democratic) faction. Those closely involved in a brief reconciliation process say Koirala was initially ready to forgive Deuba. He had submitted a formal petition of contrition for his decision. But key Koirala supporters counseled harsh action against what they saw as Deuba’s egregious act of insubordination. The lines of communication between Deuba and his one-time mentor lay virtually frozen.
In the final months of 2002, a Koirala-led alliance began a campaign against the palace’s dismissal of an elected government by systematically shunning the principal victim, Deuba.
When King Gyanendra reappointed Deuba as premier last year, the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML), the second largest constituent of the democracy alliance, joined his coalition. The rest of the opposition alliance, including Koirala’s Nepali Congress, continued ridiculing Deuba as a puppet of the palace.
Deuba was entrusted with opening peace talks with the Maoists and holding elections. In retrospect, critics of King Gyanendra claim the palace stood in the way of the new government from the outset. Hard-core royalists, the argument went, wanted the Deuba government to fail so that the palace could mount a full takeover.
Cutting through the chutzpah, it was clear Deuba’s task was made impossible by dissensions within the UML. An influential section was uncomfortable with the party’s decision to abandon street protests at the first opportunity to grasp power. The Maoists, too, affirmed their intention to hold talks only directly with the king. The pro-democracy alliance, specifically the Nepali Congress, could have bolstered Deuba at that critical juncture. It took King Gyanendra’s Feb. 1 takeover to bring the two Nepali Congress factions closer in a formal alliance.
How far the restoration of the Koirala-Deuba channel would go toward energizing the political mainstream remains to be seen. Many still see Deuba’s consensus-seeking temperament as nothing short of a tendency toward total capitulation.
The Maoists, who were so instrumental in Deuba’s rise to the premiership in 2001, were subsequently embittered to the point where they tried to assassinate him. Their position on Deuba’s future role would undoubtedly go on to define their putative alliance with the seven-party democracy movement.
More importantly, the prospect of a restoration of parliament, which is at the center of the alliance’s agenda, would put Deuba at the forefront. After all, the undivided Nepali Congress enjoyed a majority there and Deuba was the leader of the ruling party in the legislature.
In any case, the Koirala-Deuba talks mark a belated recognition of a glaring inconsistency gripping the political mainstream. For now, at least, the symbolism alone counts.