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Nepal's Year Of Clarity Without Conviction

Nepal's Year Of Clarity Without Conviction

By Sanjay Upadhya

A year after seizing full executive powers, King Gyanendra has baffled many in Nepal and abroad by essentially pledging to the stay the course. After a tumultuous year – a qualification opponents, supporters and those indifferent to the royal takeover would probably agree on – the punditocracy had expected the monarch either to begin a process of reconciliation with the mainstream opposition and Maoist rebels or to take a harder line against them.

In a nationally televised address on Feb. 1, marking the first anniversary of his takeover, the monarch insisted that Nepal's overall situation had improved. He vowed to hold next week's controversial municipal elections as scheduled, clearing the way for national elections next year. In content, tone and demeanor, the monarch appeared resolute. Widespread international condemnation and growing internal opposition do not seem to have distracted him terribly.

In the weeks and months since he dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's multiparty government, King Gyanendra has made it amply clear that his roadmap for Nepal's renewal draws important coordinates from its partyless past.

The monarch was quick to appoint prominent members of the Panchayat system to his cabinet. Some senior bureaucrats of the time were brought back for public duty. Although politicians who broke away from the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists continue to serve in the royal cabinet, they don't seem to be setting the agenda.

Panchayat-era institutions like zonal administrators have been revived. The state media has been projecting the royal roadmap with Panchayat-era zeal. King Gyanendra himself has been regularly touring the countryside, mingling with ordinary people in a way befitting a politician running for office.

Despite this clarity, the royal government continues to face a serious credibility crisis. Palace advisers must have factored in the stridency of the criticism the takeover would trigger from Nepal's mainstream parties, civil society, the private-sector media and much of the international community. Barely months after the takeover, prominent royalists began voicing disenchantment with the palace's rule.

Haunted By The Past
Within the mainstream alliance, the loudest criticism of King Mahendra – the father of the present monarch who introduced the Panchayat system after ousting Nepal's first elected government in 1960 – resonates as the sturdiest confirmation of one's democratic credentials. The newly ascendant ex-panchas seem to be held back by a sense of collective shame. Clearly, the royal government's real crisis is one of conviction.

King Gyanendra has carefully avoided using the word "Panchayat" in his public pronouncements. His ministers have been speaking of their past cryptically, if at all. By no contemporary standard could the Panchayat regime be defined as democratic. In retrospect, the three-decade ban on political parties alone was enough to expose the emptiness of any such claim. But was the regime really the monster its critics continue to denounce it as?

No doubt, the Panchayat philosophy considered political opposition as an alien institution detrimental to Nepalese society. Countless politicians and activists were imprisoned for years purely for their political beliefs. Countless others lost their lives trying to restore democratic rule.

However, these facts do not tell the entire story. Political opposition existed in at least three forms since King Mahendra's takeover. At the first level were the banned Nepali Congress and communist parties, which sought to overthrow the royal regime by overt or covert means.

The second front consisted of smaller opposition parties that offered policy alternatives without directly challenging the royal regime. The third group consisted of legislators who sought to liberalize and democratize the partyless system from within.

By casting the Panchayat system as the product of an ambitious king's desire to monopolize power before elected politicians gained excessive control, critics have blocked a broader contextual inquiry. King Mahendra repeatedly characterized parties as corrupt, divisive and pawns of foreign powers. In fairness, his strong distrust of parties as agents of modernization partially rested on their performance during the 1950s.

Nepal, more importantly, was part of a wider group of newly emerging nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America that could not shield themselves from the emerging dynamics of the Cold War. The competing pressures exerted by the United States and the Soviet Union, in search of newer spheres of influence, were enough to turn many of these countries into non-party, one-party or military regimes. Nepal confronted added pressures from the growing tensions between its two giant neighbors, China and India.

Within its quadrangular confines, the Panchayat system's achievements in developing infrastructure, integrating the economy and heightening the kingdom's international profile stood out. Democratic leaders who praise King Birendra for his emphasis on peace and development are, in effect, lauding the role he played during the Panchayat years.

Through regular national and local elections, the partyless system contributed to raising the people's democratic awareness. There was no shortage of accusations of rigging and other electoral machinations. But, then, such complaints were no less clamorous during the parliamentary and local elections held after the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990.

If the Panchayat system's achievements rested on the systematic repression of the people, as critics continue to claim, then Nepalis probably still have to unearth all those mass graves buried somewhere out there. If the monarchy is indeed responsible for the impoverishment of Nepal, then one must wonder why the Maoist rebellion did not break out during the Panchayat system, when the palace was at the zenith of its power. If the repressiveness of that regime foreclosed that possibility, then the openness of the last 15 years seems to have left much uncovered.

For their part, western governments warning King Gyanendra against a return to the past are being disingenuous. In a clear display of bipartisanship, the White House invited King Mahendra and King Birendra on state visits – the first under Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson and the second under Republican Ronald Reagan. President Reagan not only endorsed King Birendra's proposal to have Nepal declared a Zone of Peace, he recommended that other governments should do so. The White House's clear reference was to India, the principal critic, which saw the proposal as the king's effort to undermine New Delhi's influence in Nepal.

Queen Elizabeth paid two state visits to Nepal, the first weeks after King Mahendra's takeover. King Birendra played host to European luminaries like French President Francois Mitterand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Indian presidents and prime ministers basked in royal hospitality while singing paeans to the monarchy's role in strengthening the traditional ties between the two nations. Could the partyless system have been sustained without the generous financial assistance provided by the international community?

In ignoring the broader context in which the palace-led partyless system existed for three decades, Nepal's post-1990 democratic leadership ended up unprepared for the post-9/11 shift in the dynamics of international relations.

Indeed, for the anti-palace alliance and Maoist rebels, the wholesale denunciation of the Panchayat regime, understandably, continues to be politically expedient. The palace had endured enough criticism for the partyless system's flaws to have started advancing its achievements.

King Gyanendra's cabinet includes diverse elements from the Panchayat past, beginning with Dr. Tulsi Giri, the man who broke with the Nepali Congress in 1960 to bolster the royal regime. Kirti Nidhi Bista, another politician with an early background in multiparty politics, remained a favorite with Kings Mahendra and Birendra. Tanka Dhakal, Kamal Thapa, Niranjan Thapa and Bhuban Pathak entered politics as pro-Panchayat student leaders, emerging as first-generation panchas.

Conventional wisdom dismisses these men as nothing more than Stalin's henchmen or Hitler's storm troopers. However, they could have begun to set the record straight by showing greater candor in addressing their partyless past in the wider canvas of that system's context, nature and role. Instead, they spent most the past year trying to flaunt the government's supposed democratic credentials. After all, the Panchayat system, even during its most restrictive form between 1975 and 1980, was far more accountable to the people than the current regime is.

Through forthrightness, the palace could have entered more forcefully in a constructive debate about its future. The cost of failure is all too apparent. The royal regime's proposal to develop Nepal as a "transit corridor" between two Asian powerhouses has failed to generate the national discussion it deserves. The palace's effort to correct the distortions in Nepal's foreign policy, in keeping within its rights as a sovereign nation, continues to be brushed off as the brandishing of the "China card" by the Nepalese media. The Royal Nepal Army is subjected to the most stringent human rights standards, while the Maoist rebels can get away with blatant violations of commitments made to the international community.

Can the people really be blamed for failing to grasp, much less be galvanized, by a royal agenda so clear yet so lacking in conviction?

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

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

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