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Sanjay Upadhya: Clarity Above The Cacophony

Nepal: Clarity Above The Cacophony

By Sanjay Upadhya

Six months after King Gyanendra dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's multiparty government and took over full executive control, critics have a litany of lamentations.

Nepal has sunk deeper into crisis. The palace has pushed the political parties closer to the Maoists rebels. The country stands isolated in the community of nations. The economic situation is deteriorating by the hour.

Such claims are entirely predictable in a nation where a favorite pastime is to begin predicting a government's demise the moment it takes office. Royal critics, however, do have a point. Senior members of the regime – many controversial figures -- have alienated the mainstream parties with their often-intemperate comments on the kingdom's experience with multiparty democracy between 1990 and 2002. The conviction of Deuba on a corruption case late last month has further fueled the opposition's anger.

The absence of parliament, dissolved by an elected prime minister three years ago, has led to governance through royal ordinances. Many segments of society – students, journalists, lawyers, professors, government employees -- are up in arms. Six out of the 36 months the palace said it needed to create an enduring and enabling multiparty democracy have produced sharp polarization.

Even the palace's worst critics, however, should not have difficulty granting one accomplishment to King Gyanendra. He has put his agenda for Nepal with the utmost clarity. From the royal regime's priorities, if not explicit arguments, central to the agenda are elements of the partyless Panchayat past.

The revival of the post of zonal administrators, the effort to discourage political activity in the civil service, the desire to foster equiproximity between giant neighbors China and India, among other things, signal the palace's belief that the forces of renewal lie within.

During the Panchayat decades, the zonal commissioners enjoyed extensive powers and in practice were answerable only to the king. Among the most controversial elements of the Panchayat edifice, the multiparty constitution of 1990 abolished the post. However, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala regretted that decision as the Maoist insurgents began overrunning police post after police post.

Keeping the zonal commissioners, he argued, would have helped operational coordination among the army, police and the home ministry to snuff out the insurgency in its infancy. Koirala ended up instituting the position of regional administrators. The return to power of several Panchayat-era personalities who served in those positions serves to confirm the palace's conviction.

The civil service ordinance prohibits politically inclined unions in the bureaucracy. The politicization of the civil service by successive elected governments was a key source of contention among the mainstream parties. Appointments, transfers and dismissals based on political allegiance served to demoralize morale in the service. Baldev Sharma Majgaiya resigned as water resources minister in Koirala's government protesting a politically inspired appointment of a top bureaucrat.

The palace's moves to integrate Nepalese foreign, economic and commercial policy with China have generated a robust debate. The king's emphasis on positioning Nepal as a transit hub between the rapidly growing Chinese and Indian economies has been dismissed by some as an empty pledge to justify his rule. Here, too, critics conveniently forget that the transit issue is a product of proposals from both neighbors.

Contrast the royal regime's clarity with stance of the mainstream parties and the Maoists rebels. To be fair, opposition activities could resume only three months after the takeover, when the king lifted the state of emergency. Seven opposition parties demonstrated remarkable resolve by forming an alliance for the restoration of democracy. But the alliance soon began revealing fissures on two fronts.

The shallowness of the alliance's base is something leading members have pointed out. For instance, some of the constituents have only very reluctantly accepted the demand for the reinstatement of parliament as a solution. Despite ongoing moves toward building a joint front with the Maoists, the mainstream parties are not of one mind when it comes to details.

The Maoist leadership, hardly known for equivocation, has been demonstrating that trait of late. The real extent of party unity following Maoist leader Prachanda's rehabilitation of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai's remains unclear. Dr. Bhattarai, whom Maoist leader Prachanda dispatched to hold talks with Indian and Nepali politicians in New Delhi after apparently suggesting he was an "Indian agent", remains angered by such continuing allegations.

In a recent interview with The Washington Times, Dr. Bhattarai rejected reports that rebel militia were out of the leadership's control as "exaggerated". Does that statement implicitly acknowledge the restiveness in rebel ranks?

You can detect some vacillation on the question of unity with the parties. Explaining the raison d'etre of a unified front, Dr. Bhattarai conceded the possibility of some constituents in the mainstream eventually siding with the palace. While his commitment to total victory appeared undiminished in much of the interview, Dr. Bhattarai said that Maoists felt constrained to settle for a compromise acceptable because of "the sensitive geopolitical setting of the country sandwiched between the two huge states of India and China, and both hostile to a revolutionary change."

Particularly revealing was his indication that he saw no "immediate" prospects of talks with the royal regime. By keeping the door open to such negotiations, is the chief Maoist ideologue signaling that some behind-the-scenes maneuvering may be under way?

Although publicly opposed to the royal intervention, the international community, too, is exhibiting some diffidence. Top American officials have visited Kathmandu for updates and have departed calling for reconciliation between the palace and mainstream parties. With the spread of democracy remaining the last operative justification for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration's stress on reactivating multiparty democracy is only to be expected.

Former U.S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle could come out so heavily against the palace because he did not -- by his own admission -- reflect official Washington thinking. In highlighting Daschle's departing remarks, Nepalese media reports conveniently underplayed his appeal to the parties to commit publicly to genuine party reform, internal democracy, transparency, and accountability, and the removal of corrupt figures from their ranks.

Daschle also urged the parties to offer a clear and detailed blueprint for change, progress, and peace to the people and recapture the Nepali people’s faith through their actions and commitments. "They should also unconditionally and unambiguously offer to begin dialogue with the King, regardless of past wrongs, real and perceived," he stated.

American Ambassador James F. Moriarty's recent appeals for reconciliation included admonitions that the mainstream parties should begin dialogue about taking part in the municipal polls announced by the king. Those, too, was buried deep in news columns.

Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Rao Inderjit Singh came to Nepal last month seeking support for India's bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. The government refused to commit itself on the issue, while the mainstream parties argued that Kathmandu throw its weight behind New Delhi.

The Indian minister's contention that he felt the king was committed to democracy confounded the opposition. Particularly flustered were those politicians who had just returned from consultations in New Delhi convinced that the opposite reflected official Indian perception.

Singh's comment instantly sparked speculation of a quid pro quo between the palace and India. For Nepali Congress stalwarts like Koirala, this must have brought back bitter memories of the on-again off-again anti-palace insurgency his party had launched from Indian soil in the 1960s – largely influenced by New Delhi's posture vis-à-vis the palace.

The Indian press, known to convey official thinking faithfully, reflects some of New Delhi's contradictions. After gleefully noting how miserably the palace's "China card" failed, some newspapers went overboard in reading into the implications of military supplies Beijing had delivered to Kathmandu – consignments, one might add, contracted well before the royal takeover.

Officially, the United States, together with Britain, continues policy coordination on Nepal with India. Washington's refusal to join New Delhi and London in announcing a formal embargo on military aid to the Royal Nepalese Army may have stunned Nepalese opposition leaders. Those following the United States' decision to set up its own permanent dialogue mechanism with China on a host of global issues, including Nepal, were less surprised.

With British Ambassador Keith Bloomfield openly affirming that the Maoists are not terrorists – contrary to official stands of Delhi, Washington and Kathmandu – the limits of the troika have started becoming apparent.


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

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