Nepal: Searching For The Silent Majority
Nepal: Searching For The Silent Majority
By Krishna Singh Bam
In the midst of the triangular conflict raging in Nepal, each player believes it enjoys the support of a silent majority. The monarchy, mainstream political parties and the Maoist rebels are actively seeking to widen their base in this elusive constituency.
The prospect of a Maoist alliance with seven mainstream parties agitating against the Feb. 1 palace takeover is growing, with positive statements emanating from both sides. If the royal regime is growing nervous, it isn’t showing signs. The Maoists and the mainstream parties equate the palace’s exuberance as the last flicker on a dying candle. The royal regime’s buoyancy, in all fairness, must be juxtaposed with the demeanor of the opposition parties and the rebels.
When two close aides to King Gyanendra recently appeared to suggest that political parties should be banned, there was little proclivity on the part of the parties to laugh that off. Instead, opposition leaders and newspapers have been warning the government not to embark on such an extreme venture.
The parties have good reason these days to be cautious of what palace aides say. King Gyanendra’s dismissal of the last elected government in October 2002 and full takeover this year followed clear hints from people associated with the palace. But a ban on parties in this day and age? Come on.
The Maoists, for their part, have been enthused by the mainstream alliance’s conditional readiness to forge a united front against the king. Whether the Maoists would lay down their weapons, as demanded by the parties, remains unclear. For now, the rebels don’t seem interested in even entertaining the issue. Is the optimism surrounding a major political realignment exaggerated? Or are the Maoists somehow convinced they can have it both ways -- with or without the mainstream parties’ concurrence?
There may be another explanation. Deep internal rifts and out-of-control fighters have shaken the movement. The Maoists are nowhere near a full-blown implosion. But rebel leaders seem to be worried that a sizeable section of the mainstream alliance might jump into the royal camp at the first opportunity.
In recent articles, Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai has described the king as the shrewdest of Nepal’s political operators. This rare chance to restore full democracy (republic), he says, should not be squandered by the parties. The self-assurance normally emanating from Dr. Bhattarai’s prose has taken the form of supplication.
From newspaper reports and the rhetoric of politicians, you get the feeling that a republican Nepal is but a matter of time. However, many of these same publications and people continue citing recent polls indicating that around 60 per cent of Nepalis still consider democracy under a constitutional monarchy the best form of government.
Even the most conservative faction inside the royal palace would hardly quibble with that kind of arrangement. The difference, obviously, lies in the definition of “constitutional monarchy”. The Maoists want to abolish the throne. The mainstream parties want a monarchy akin to those in Britain and Japan. To that, a former palace-appointed minister, Gore Bahadur Khapangi, a much-needed colorful personality in tense times, had an equally colorful response a few years ago: Let Nepalis first become like Britons or Japanese first.
Beyond the frivolity lies a critical reality. If the Nepalese people want a constitutional monarchy, then the king is certainly entitled to a role he can feel comfortable with. For almost half of its existence, the hands of Nepal’s monarchy have been tied, oddly enough, by both autocrats and democrats.
For more than 100 years after Jang Bahadur, a noble, seized power in a bloody coup, hereditary Rana prime ministers wielded absolute authority, rendering the Shah monarchs as mere puppets. When it came to legitimizing their actions, though, the Ranas extracted the king’s approval. King Tribhuvan, for instance, was forced to sanction death sentences on youths after summary trials, despite the fact that he did not agree with the Rana prosecutors’ finding of treason.
Nepal’s first elected prime minister, B.P. Koirala, is hailed today as the pre-eminent advocate of a constitutional monarchy. While in power between 1959 and 1960, he hardly concealed his intention one day to place the crown in the national museum. Much is made of how the monarchy, army, former aristocracy and conservative landowning groups were uneasy about the reforms of the Koirala government. Let’s not forget how alienated opposition groups inside parliament, including the Gorkha Parishad and the Communist Party of Nepal, and outside felt by Koirala’s policies and personality. Koirala scarcely had tolerance for the king’s articulation of these grievances.
During the last year of King Birendra’s reign, virtually all of the parties in the Nepalese parliament voted for a controversial citizenship bill. The legislation, which would have granted citizenship to millions of Indians in the kingdom, was clearly seen as going against the national interest. But the parties, under pressure from New Delhi, deliberately sent the legislation to the palace for approval as a finance bill, which under the constitution would automatically become law even if the king vetoed it.
The monarch sought the opinion of the Supreme Court, which agreed with the prevailing national mood. A wholesale redrawing of Nepalese demographics plotted in the guise of democracy was averted. In the weeks before his death in a palace shootout, King Birendra was becoming more and more assertive in matters of national importance.
King Gyanendra, who by personality and temperament is more hands on, is certainly not ready to accept the role of a “passive” monarch. The king and his ministers were hardly under the illusion that they would get positive coverage after the takeover. Buried in the negative press are some encouraging signs.
Public opinion sampled by the Nepali Times newspaper during the first three months of the takeover provided some interesting insights:
A majority of Nepalis evaluated the first 100 days of the royal government as either good or satisfactory. (Actually, a week before the takeover, 25 percent – a plurality – described a royal takeover as the most-feasible political option.)
Fifty-three percent thought international criticism of February 1 move was not justified.
Forty-six percent believed the lifting of the state emergency would not be a good idea, as opposed to 41 percent who thought it would.
Some recent poll findings are equally revealing:
60.8 percent of those polled believe there should not be a foreign arms embargo on Nepal.
85.7 percent believe it is now time for the Maoists to give up violence and join the political mainstream.
68.3 percent believe the new seven-party alliance would not help in resolving the political deadlock.
How reliable should we consider these findings? Nepali Times devoted an entire poll to the question. Fifty percent of the respondents believed the polls generally reflected prevalent public opinion about Nepali issues. Maybe the silent majority is not that silent after all.