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Nepal: Much Ado About Something

Nepal: Much Ado About Something

By Sanjay Upadhya

A tempest in a teacup? Or a grand conspiracy against democracy? Dr. Tulsi Giri, the senior vice-chairman in the government headed by King Gyanendra, has sparked a furor across the Nepalese political spectrum. An acknowledged straight-talker with pretty hard-line views, Giri's latest contention is that the current constitution is the principal obstacle to the king's roadmap to peace and progress.

Giri was careful to assert that his views, expressed at a conference of local administrators in eastern Nepal, were his own. That provision did not prevent the association of Nepalese lawyers from filing a contempt of court petition against him at the Supreme Court.

Some have dismissed the remarks of Giri, 79, as a reflection of growing senility. Others argue that he was speaking King Gyanendra's mind. Has a constitution barely clinging to life received the final blow? Whatever the case, the uproar over Giri's comments must not obscure the context in which they came.

Since Oct. 4, 2002, when King Gyanendra dismissed Nepal's last elected prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, for failing to hold national elections on time, the monarch has based his actions on Articles 27 and 127 of the constitution. The first article specifies the king as the protector of the constitution. The second grants him the power to remove difficulties.

Whether the monarch's bold actions -- such as shuffling three prime ministers before eventually appointing himself head of government on Feb. 1 – were constitutional would be debated ad infinitum. He is unlikely to relinquish his political assertiveness until he is convinced the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels can present a durable framework to end Nepal's existential crisis.

The mainstream parties and the Maoists believe that is just a palace ruse to hold on to power. They seem convinced that massive street protests like the ones in 1990 – which prompted the late monarch, Birendra, to restore multiparty democracy – would force the palace to capitulate. History, in this case, may prove to be an unreliable guide.

The palace's understanding of the dynamics of the 1990 changes is not consistent with that of the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists, the two major constituents of the mainstream alliance. King Birendra later described the changes in the following way: "Unforeseen economic factors and the question of political change within Nepalese society coincided with changes in the international arena which were unprecedented in recent history and monumental in scope and magnitude." The royal references were to the trade and transit embargo imposed by India and the democratic wave spurred by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To be sure, anti-monarchy sentiments have grown considerably in public in the eight months since King Gyanendra's takeover. Whether this represents a real change in the general national mood or is merely a reflection of a more vigorous articulation by avowed republicans remains to be seen.

The palace, for its part, has not shut the door on talks with the mainstream parties or the Maoist rebels. Laying the ground rules for meaningful dialogue last month, King Gyanendra urged the parties to clarify their agenda on four issues—terrorism, good governance and corruption, politicization in bureaucracy and financial discipline. This framework is consistent with the directive principles of the constitution.

The parties rebuffed the overture, asserting the king had no right to lecture on such issues when his hand-picked cabinet contained controversial personalities. There is a problem with this argument, though. Assistant Minister Jagat Gauchan, the opposition's poster boy for palace misrule, was sentenced to prison for the attempted murder of a prominent newspaper editor in the late 1980s. The interesting thing is that he was released early by then-prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the leader of the mainstream alliance.

Opposition ire has also fallen on the top bureaucrat appointed by the palace, Lok Man Singh Karki. After taking charge, Karki urged civil servants to remain loyal to the crown. Karki has the rare distinction of having been appointed to the civil service by royal decree, without having to undergo the competitive procedures of the Public Service Commission.

Analysts and editorial writers sympathetic to the opposition instantly pounced on this fact in their effort to discredit the royal government. But they conveniently left out one key fact. Five years ago, Koirala had appointed Karki as water resources secretary over the objection of the concerned minister, who eventually resigned in protest. If people like Gauchan and Karki were good enough for Koirala's government, could they be considered unfit now?

Giri himself was caught in an embarrassing controversy after it emerged he had failed to repay a bank loan. Earlier this month, an obscure partner emerged to pay back the money. In a profound way, Giri's personality irks the opposition. A former general secretary of the Nepali Congress, he became a key architect of the three-decade non-party regime that ended in 1990. Disenchanted by the way the non-party system was operating in its final decade, Giri went into self-imposed exile in the mid-1980s, only to make a startling comeback in February.

His latest remarks has much to do with principle, too. In their zeal to tame the king, the Nepali Congress and the UML last month withdrew explicit support to constitutional monarchy. For the latter, acceptance of constitutional monarchy was a matter of convenience, considering its ideological orientation. The Nepali Congress, despite public professions of support, actually considered the monarchy little more than a bulwark against political rivals.

A formal withdrawal of support, therefore, is hardly an earth-shaking event. In hyping their decisions, the two parties struck at the core of the constitution they drafted. Constitutional monarchy is enshrined in the basic law as an unalterable feature of the Nepalese state.

Giri's contention merely reflects the sentiment that the royal regime need not be constrained by a constitution repudiated by the drafters – a sentiment, one might add, that is not confined within palace walls. Senility or strategy, pick your favorite.


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