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Nepal: Above The Din, King Reframes The Debate

Nepal: Above The Din, King Reframes The Debate

By Sanjay Upadhya

King Gyanendra was probably the last person who expected the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) to jump at his latest olive branch and call off the ever-surging street protests against his direct rule. For one thing, the SPA leaders could not afford to avoid a certain degree of posturing in the interest of self-preservation amid the increasingly strident anti-monarchy sloganeering.

For another, the mainstream political parties, much like the palace, would want to measure how much of the sentiments expressed on the streets could actually be extrapolated as the collective sentiment of the nation. Nepal’s experience with the people’s pulse is far from reassuring.

The People’s Movement of 1990 undoubtedly represented Nepalis’ aspirations for democracy and accountability. However, the riots sparked a decade later by Indian actor Hrithik Roshan’s alleged slander of Nepal and Nepalis did not reflect our overall view of Indian pop culture. Nor could the upheaval triggered in 2004 by Iraqi insurgents’ murder of 12 Nepalis be interpreted as an endorsement of U.S. President George W. Bush’s war against Islamic extremism.

The unpredictability and fickleness of mob psychology are not the only reasons behind the SPA’s belligerence. King Gyanendra’s speech on Friday assured a return to the pre-February 1, 2005 status, when political parties – barring those in power -- were already agitating against the monarch’s dismissal of an elected government and his practice of hiring and firing premiers.

Then there is that other imponderable. Until the Royal Proclamation, the Maoists were surging ahead with the urban-uprising phase of their much-touted strategic offensive against the state. By reaching out to the palace at this stage, the SPA would have vindicated the Maoists’ contention that the political mainstream was congenitally predisposed to perilous compromises.

Instead, the rebels are now facing their moment of truth. Will they succeed in roping in the mainstream opposition – or at least a considerable section of the communist constituents -- into an avowedly Maoist utopia? Or, grasping the content of the street protests, will the rebels become more energetic in espousing open and competitive democratic republicanism of republican democracy – whatever it is?

What Friday’s royal proclamation did was redraw the battle lines of the political conflict. By returning executive power to the people and urging the SPA to name a new premier, King Gyanendra appeared to have met a major demand of his principal foreign critics. The sense of relief expressed in New Delhi, Beijing, Washington and London was uniformly palpable.

Whether a new multiparty/interim government is formed under the controversial Article 127 or Article 128 or on any other basis may be a bone of contention for the principal domestic players. Those professing a huge stake in Nepal’s security and stability would see the greatest redeeming value in the shape and form reconciliation would assume.

For the palace, the restoration of the House of Representatives could finally emerge as an attractive proposition. The 1990 constitution, after all, envisages the crown as integral a part of parliament as the upper and lower houses. It is unclear whether that would be enough to appease the streets. At another level, it may be beside the point.

Admittedly, the demonstrations Kathmandu Valley has seen over the last three weeks dwarf those of 1990. Moreover, the protests are more widely spread across the kingdom. These realities, however, must be juxtaposed with other principal differences. In 1990, there was a resurgence of democracy across the globe. Philosophically, too, the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets then connoted a sense of finality – the end of history in the memorable words of Francis Fukuyama.

Today, the grand enterprise of democracy building is rooted in the imperative of an enabling state as well as an acknowledgement of local realities. Fukuyama, for his part, has had no problem acknowledging that his exuberance was rather premature.

Amid the continuing mass defiance of curfews, more and more people would be tempted to draw parallels between what is happening in Nepal and the French Revolution. King Gyanendra, no doubt, has an eye on that moment of human history. Looking past Louis XVI, his gaze – like that of much of the world -- seems fixed on avoiding the fate Marat, Danton and Robespierre subsequently brought upon themselves and their nation.


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