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Sanjay Upadhya: Nepal - The Realignment Race

Nepal: The Realignment Race


By Sanjay Upadhya

King Gyanendra’s expansion of his five-month-old council of ministers last week has provoked predictable jeers of contempt from Nepal’s opposition parties. Of the 12 fresh inductees, at least four can be described as hard-line palace loyalists the parties view with profound distrust.

Prominent among them is Niranjan Thapa, a former interior minister who the parties accuse of trying to suppress pro-democracy protests in 1990. (The top bureaucrat under Thapa then, Dan Bahadur Shahi, was appointed interior minister the day after King Gyanendra took over full executive control on Feb. 1.)

Another controversial figure is Jagat Gauchan, a former martial arts luminary who went on to spend seven years in prison for his role in the attempted murder of a prominent journalist. Two other appointees have been linked to financial scandals.

The retention of the entire existing cabinet line-up, too, is being seen by the opposition as a signal of the palace’s unwillingness to compromise. Vice-chairman Tulsi Giri, named as a loan defaulter weeks after taking office, has made clear his personal opposition to multiparty politics. Opposition parties accuse Giri, then a rising star in the Nepali Congress, of helping the palace to dismiss Nepal first elected government and mount a full takeover in December 1960. Other ministers regularly unleash tirades against the mainstream parties’ record in power between 1990 and 2002.

Buried in the controversy is the fact that many of the new ministers were until recently prominent members of the kingdom’s leading parties, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists (UML).

Prakash Koirala, the son of Nepal’s first elected prime minister B.P. Koirala, was expelled from the Nepali Congress several weeks ago for supporting the royal takeover. Salim Miya Ansari, one of the few Muslim politicians in the world’s only Hindu kingdom, used to be a leading member of the UML. In the 24-member council, at least seven ministers once belonged to parties. This has raised the prospect of a palace-led realignment of political forces amid a growing closeness between the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels.

Undoubtedly, those expecting King Gyanendra to relinquish his chairmanship of the council of ministers in favor of a mainstream politician were in for a surprise. The palace, for its part, must have recognized that bending over backward could not have won over the Nepali Congress and the UML.

The mainstream parties had been relatively quiet when King Gyanendra dismissed the last elected government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba in October 2002 for its failure to hold elections on schedule. Unable to recommend a common candidate for the premiership, the parties were widely reported to have agreed on the monarch’s choice of Lokendra Bahadur Chand. Once Chand took the oath of office, however, the parties toughened their stance against the palace. What exactly transpired behind the scenes during those few days remains unclear.

Following Chand’s resignation seven months later, fellow royalist Surya Bahadur Thapa became premier pledging to broad-base the government. Media reports suggested that Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala had offered an explicit pledge to join Thapa’s government a few months later. In the end, Thapa resigned after failing to command the support of even his own Rastriya Prajatantra Party.

Deuba’s reappointment last year raised the prospect of reconciliation. A multiparty coalition – comprising, among others, Deuba’s Nepali Congress (Democratic) and the UML – took office promising to open peace talks with the Maoist rebels and hold fresh parliamentary elections. Soon the coalition partners began pulling in different directions and factions within each party began opposing the government. Talk of a direct royal takeover became rife.

With the opposition alliance demanding the restoration of the last legislature – dissolved by Deuba in 2002 exercising his prerogative as an elected premier -- and threatening to forge closer ties with the Maoist rebels, the palace ordinarily should have been on the defensive. Royal advisers seem to be convinced that the mainstream alliance has shallow roots. For instance, some of the alliance partners have only very reluctantly accepted the demand for the reinstatement of parliament. This has evidently allowed the palace to shift its focus on broader priorities.

Weeks after the takeover, King Gyanendra created the position of zonal administrators, reminiscent of the powerful palace-appointed officials responsible for the kingdom’s 14 zones. Last week, the regime amended regulations governing the civil service, heavily politicized by the two principal parties while in power. Over the weekend, it unveiled a budget that raised security spending. The palace’s message to Maoist rebels is equally clear.

The Nepali Congress, traditionally the leading advocate of constitutional monarchy, has gradually become receptive to the Maoists’ republican agenda ahead of next month’s general convention. As the head of the anti-palace alliance, Girija Prasad Koirala has begun consultations on forging closer links with the rebels.

This has annoyed some within the party. Shailaja Acharya, Koirala’s niece and a former deputy prime minister, has suggested that the Nepali Congress leader disband the party before “accepting a Maoist agenda.” Arguing that the party has always maintained a separate moderate identity, she said some colleagues had “lost their path” by calling for a republic.

Within Deuba’s Nepali Congress (Democratic), too, leading members like Dr. Narayan Khadka have cautioned against a headlong rush to join hands with the Maoists. Comprising many western-educated younger Nepalese, the NC(D) is probably more aware of the twin implications of an alliance with a hardcore communist group designated as a terrorist organization by Washington.

The mood in the UML remains defiant, at least in public. Leaders nevertheless continue to question whether a true alliance with the Maoists could be envisaged before the rebels lay down their guns. The tussle for power between general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal -- the principal proponent of pulling out of opposition street protests and joining the Deuba coalition last year -- and leaders of rival factions remains to be played out.

Another set of dynamics can be seen at the local level. Across the political spectrum, local leaders have been at the forefront of attacks by Maoist rebels since the insurgency began in 1996. Will they be eager to strike a deal with the rebels, especially considering that even tacit cooperation with the royal regime could bring power and privileges?

Moreover, this layer of leaders is highly volatile. After 1990, the 400,000 village and district leaders the partyless system cultivated formed the rural and district core of the Nepali Congress and the UML. The pendulum could easily swing the other way. Many of today’s zonal and regional administrators are experienced local operators.

Developments on the Maoist front, too, have been swift. Rebel leader Prachanda announced Monday the reinstatement of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who was suspended several months ago after voicing serious policy differences. Prachanda said the move was aimed at uniting various factions in the party.

The reinstatement of Bhattarai, known to back a broader alliance against the palace, appears to be aimed at appeasing the mainstream parties. Top leaders of the opposition alliance, however, have renewed their demand that the Maoists create an environment of trust before formal negotiations can begin.

Considering the flurry of positive statements coming from both sides, a broad working alliance between the mainstream parties and the Maoist rebels could be contemplated. Whether their unity could transcend their deep distrust and suspicions is another matter.

There is an influential section within the mainstream alliance that recognizes that an abolition of the monarchy would not necessarily translate into a triumph for democracy. They question the Maoists’ commitment to multiparty politics, citing that the rebels have not formally renounced their ultimate objective of creating a one-party communist state. The role of this constituency would be crucial in fostering a palace-led political realignment.

A little history may be relevant here. At least 55 of the 74 Nepali Congress members of Nepal’s first elected legislature King Mahendra – father of the present monarch -- dissolved in December 1960 ended up supporting palace-led non-party rule. True, much has changed since those days. In other ways, a lot remains the same, too.

*************

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

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