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Nepal: Spine, Head And Heart Of The Matter

Nepal: Spine, Head And Heart Of The Matter

By Sanjay Upadhya

With the government adamant on holding municipal polls early next month in the face of escalating Maoist attacks and the mainstream parties' intensifying boycott threats, Nepalis are staring squarely into a murky tunnel.

In such circumstances, postponement of the polls, as the mainstream parties have demanded, becomes an appealing option. But in exchange for what? The royal regime, after all, sees these elections as the first important opportunity to prove its critics wrong.

A few weeks ago, Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala offered to hold talks with King Gyanendra's government if the monarch postponed the polls. Other members of the opposition alliance chastised Koirala for offering that trade-off.

Dr. Tulsi Giri, the senior vice-chairman of the royal government, picked up the theme – keeping it within the realm of possibility. However, it remains unclear whether delaying the municipal polls would be enough to spur reconciliation between the palace and the parties to pave the way for broader based elections later.

Even if it were, on what terms would a compromise be struck? The wholesale dismantling of the royal regime, as the alliance has demanded? In the given circumstances, it would take a huge leap of faith to expect the royal government to sign its own death warrant.

In any case, would a new government be able to draw representation from – or at least the overt support of -- all the seven members of the alliance? Or would there be holdouts – like the Nepali Congress and smaller communist groups during the UML's coalition with Sher Bahadur Deuba's Nepali Congress (Democratic) -- ready with new pretexts for a new phase of political confrontation?

If the mainstream parties and the Maoists, on the other hand, are still prepared to chart their own course without the palace, then would their 12-point agreement retain enough resilience to hold elections to a constituent assembly? In that case, another question arises: If the royal regime is so irrelevant to their scheme of things, why worry about how it might use the municipal polls to legitimize itself?

Whether a government truce in response to the Maoists' four-month unilateral ceasefire could have fostered peace and stability will continue to be debated. The royal regime's refusal to do so is as understandable as its critics' decision to hold it responsible for plunging Nepal into a fresh spiral of death and destruction.

In retrospect, the greatest flaw of the 12-point agreement – and the wild optimism it generated -- was not its ambiguity. It was its confidence that peace and stability could be restored by bypassing the real power center of the day. No wonder, the royal regime seemed unperturbed by the "tremors" generated by the accord. King Gyanendra's decision to continue with his much-maligned "African safari" was not a manifestation of royal aloofness. He was merely providing an opportunity for the accord's contradictions to play out.

The Maoists have made good on their pledge of "climbing on the spine to hit on the head." By zeroing in on the highways, supply routes in the periphery and areas of military presence – the spine – they intend to gag Kathmandu – the head – in time to thwart the municipal polls. Few bought the peace pledges the rebels made to the U.N. human rights czar in Kathmandu, Ian Martin, anyway.

Undaunted by the ferocity of the latest rebel offensives, the government seems prepared to confront its two adversaries collectively and separately. Eagerly awaited is the next move of the mainstream parties. For now, the haziness continues.

Nepali Congress vice-president Sushil Koirala rules out republicanism as the alliance's agenda. Unified Marxist-Leninist general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal sees the palace crumbling within a month, a sentiment shared by his ideological soulmates across the southern border. With that kind of confusion, the dissonance emanating from the smaller constituents of the alliance does not seem to matter.

Doubtless, the growing public participation in opposition rallies in different parts of the country has emboldened the alliance. If the weekly head counts have frightened the palace, like the alliance leaders insist, then one must conclude that King Gyanendra and his ministers are pretty good at concealing their inner feelings.

All the same, the "we-told-you-so" look alliance leaders seem content wearing following the Maoists' return to full-scale violence will not be enough to obscure the heart of the matter: clarifying their position vis-à-vis the royal regime.

Through their rhetoric, party leaders have stood vociferously against reconciliation with the palace. Moreover, the rank and file, along with the wider civil society, is cautiously watching whether the leaders would follow tradition and jump at the first offer of compromise with the palace. So any understanding with the palace must come from a position of strength – or at least carry the public perception as such.

If that final offensive against the "tottering vestiges of feudalism" is what alliance leaders really have in mind, then clarity of purpose – much more than a common platform with the Maoists – would be important. Significantly, the non-communist constituents of the opposition have become the most energetic in moderating their anti-palace invective.

As for the municipal polls, they could still be postponed -- either through massive popular mobilization against the royal government or through overt reconciliation overtures. Either way, the ball is in the mainstream parties' court.


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