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Sanjay Upadhya: Nepal - Contrived Candor

Nepal: Contrived Candor


By Sanjay Upadhya

A rare whiff of political candor is wafting across Nepal. The country’s two largest opposition parties have announced a move away from their support for constitutional monarchy.

Earlier this week, the top decision-making body of the Nepali Congress decided to drop its 60-year support for constitutional monarchy – a move endorsed by the party convention under way in Kathmandu.

The Unified Marxist-Leninist, the main communist faction in the mainstream, has adopted a political paper presented by general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, which urges the party to opt for a democratic republic.

However, the twin announcements, which came as King Gyanendra renewed a conditional offer to open talks with opposition parties, are unlikely to untie Nepal’s political knot. For, the candor is contrived.

Each party’s support for the monarchy was at best an expedient. The Nepali Congress, after all, mounted failed assassination attempts on King Birendra and his father, Mahendra. Party leaders continue to glorify the would-be assassins, tried, convicted and executed for the crimes, as martyrs.

After their alliance with an assortment of communist factions forced King Birendra to restore multiparty politics in April 1990, Nepali Congress leaders like Girija Prasad Koirala saw virtue in parting ways with the comrades. These leaders immediately began cultivating a politically eviscerated albeit still influential palace.

The UML, for its part, saw the monarchy as a counterweight to the Nepali Congress. With communism on worldwide decline, party leaders feared the Nepali Congress would use internal popularity and international legitimacy to monopolize power. Madan Bhandari, the charismatic architect of the UML’s neo-Khruschevian “people's multiparty democracy” was the first leading politician to acknowledge the palace as a major political force. After Bhandari’s death in a mysterious road accident in 1993, his successors pressed ahead with that view.

Between 1994 and 1999, when the Nepali Congress and the UML took turns in forming a succession of weak governments, each party assiduously sought to draw King Birendra into their partisan politics. The palace was either a spring of strength or a source of instability depending on specific issues of the day.

By their latest decisions, the two principal mainstream parties have, in effect, identified the monarchy as the key impediment to democracy and progress in Nepal. Their rejection of King Gyanendra’s four-point agenda for discussions -- terrorism, good governance and corruption, politicization in bureaucracy and financial discipline – evidently stems from their unwillingness to legitimize his regime. How long can they ignore these and other issues that would continue to plague Nepal even under a republican set-up?

The road ahead is murky, indeed. Are the parties going to organize a full-scale peaceful siege of the royal palace, perhaps cutting off supply lines? Or are they going to join the Maoist rebels in mounting a final offensive against the “old state”? In public, the mainstream parties and the Maoists still profess common cause against King Gyanendra's political assertiveness. On the ground, they appear to be working at cross-purposes.

A few weeks ago, Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala, the grand architect of such an alliance, revealed his party could not contemplate a republican Nepal in the present circumstances. If Koirala's recent threats to the palace were merely a bargaining chip, as he acknowledged, the grand old man's profit-and-loss account is deep in the red.

Supporters who risked their lives and limbs in pursuit of an embryonic republican agenda were obviously flustered by Koirala’s statement. Elections to the student wing of the party had to be put off, ostensibly at Koirala's behest, because he didn’t like the line-up poised to win. Particularly shocking for younger supporters was Koirala’s labeling of proponents of a republic – such as former minister Narahari Acharya and student leader Gagan Thapa – as pawns of the palace.

Koirala lieutenants rushed as usual to deny media reports attributing such comments to him. This time, the denials sound hollower than ever. Admittedly, the Nepali Congress central committee’s decision to omit references to the monarchy from the party statute was a belated damage-control exercise.

Within the UML, the rank-and-file accused general secretary Nepal of helping the palace takeover by pulling out of street protests and joining the last appointed government. Ever since his release from detention, three months after the Feb. 1 palace takeover, Nepal has been busy fortifying his flank. While acknowledging that the decision to join Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government, which King Gyanendra before taking full control, was a mistake, Nepal has opted for the favorite course of Nepalese politicians: blaming the monarchy for the country’s woes.

After boisterous discussions that included demands for greater inner-party democracy, the UML central committee decided to launch a "people's movement" under the leadership of Nepal. Key comrades are issuing conflicting statements on the possibility of an alliance with the Maoist rebels. Why the need for a separate committee when the UML is already part of the seven-party anti-palace alliance?

Angered by the palace’s sustained consolidation of political power, top comrades may want to reach back to their original ideological incompatibility with the monarchy for some succor. But they also recognize that the Maoist rebels have moved far ahead with that agenda for those in the mainstream to catch up. Could this be why the UML suffers from the greatest ambivalence when it comes to an alliance with the Maoists?

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, the recently rehabilitated Maoist ideologue, is flummoxed by the flux in the mainstream. Once confident in tone and content, his recent prose tends to exude imploration. He has become the principal apologist for the mainstream parties’ record in power between 1990 and 2002 – the same parties he claimed forced his organization to launch a violent campaign to overthrow the state. (Not a surprising turnaround perhaps for someone who not too long ago affirmed: “The Nepali people will evaluate highly the patriotic work done by kings from Prithvi Narayan to Birendra for many years to come.”)

Clearly, the political wing of the rebel movement fears the mainstream parties might join hands with the palace should the Supreme Court revive the parliament dissolved by the last elected government in 2002.

For Maoist fighters, enthused by recent gains against the army, a total victory against the “old state” suddenly seems feasible again. Dr. Bhattarai patched up deep differences with his boss, Prachanda, under mysterious circumstances. For many foot soldiers, the secrecy of that reconciliation is not worth deciphering. Their latest battlefield success against government forces in the western district of Kalikot – by all accounts a resounding one -- was claimed by the western divisional commander, not top general Prachanda.

Attacks on civilians, forced recruitment and other defining features of the nine-year-old "people's war" persist. Elements within the Maoist militia seem to be working overtime to forestall an alliance with the mainstream parties.

In his latest display of linguistic creativity, Prachanda has started describing an "autocratic monarchy" as the common enemy of the Maoists and the mainstream parties. Coming from the country's most prominent republican, this could be an assertion of the lowest common denominator in a putative Maoist-mainstream alliance. Or could it be a hint from the rebel leader that a deal with the palace is still possible?

Amid this confusion, Nepal’s vocal civil society finds itself hoisting the democracy banner. Professionals and activists representing an assortment of organizations that blossomed in the openness of the 1990s are becoming more conspicuous on the major streets of the capital. A word of caution is warranted here. Many leading constituents of this ebullient class are already tied one way or the other to the two main political parties. If there ever was a distinct boundary between Nepal's civil society and political elite, it is fast disappearing.

Sustained criticism from the opposition and much of the international community has not dissuaded King Gyanendra from embarking on high-profile tours of the districts. His direct interactions with people in insurgency-affected regions few politicians have ventured into lately have been splashed across TV screens and newspaper front pages. The council of ministers, stacked with controversial personalities, has done little to inspire confidence among ordinary people clamoring for real change. Its main source of strength remains the disarray in the opposition.

Officially, the mainstream parties are boycotting organizations and individuals associated with the royal regime. However, their underlying anxiety is palpable from the centrality King Gyanendra’s growing political profile has acquired in their internal deliberations.

ENDS

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