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Nepal: All Not Quiet On The Southern Front

Nepal: All Not Quiet On The Southern Front

By Sanjay Upadhya

A month after King Gyanendra bowed to mass protests and reinstated the House of Representatives (HoR), a constitutionally dead legislature has been exhibiting remarkable political life.

Considering that a government-opposition standoff prevented the winter session of parliament from holding a single session a couple of years ago, the current unanimity is encouraging. Those MPs who were more inclined to use their fists more than their fiery oratory inside the chamber today seem capable of keeping up civility. Perhaps King Gyanendra should be commended for his sustained shock therapy.

Palace-bashing is something the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) has spent little time on. This stands in sharp contrast to the aftermath of the 1990 political change. The reason could be less dignified than a shared commitment to look ahead. From the day he was enthroned, King Gyanendra has heard anything but criticism. The worst the SPA or the Maoist rebels can say now would merely be a tedious reiteration of familiar calumnies.

Furthermore, the SPA and the Maoists have largely desisted from exulting in an air of finality. Deep inside, each is not fully confident of the other’s motive. Publicly, though, each remains confident of molding the other in its spirit, if not in shape.

For all their posturing, the SPA and the Maoists recognize that the royal regime’s failure was not rooted in the palace’s lack of procedural content. The palace’s failure to articulate its convictions will remain a PR model any government would studiously avoid emulating. Clearly, the royal regime’s refusal to acknowledge any association with the Panchayat system was its principal flaw. The return of pre-1990 faces could still have been justified on account of their loyalty to the palace. If Narayanhity Palace was really embarrassed by that other P word, then the last thing it should have done was to revive the zonal administrators.

Contradictions abound under the SPA government, too. Since political expediency will continue taking precedence over constitutionalism in the near term, the HoR Proclamation will remain the locus. By obliterating the government’s royal prefix, taking from the king command of the army and the ability to name his own successor, eliminating royal perks and veto powers and imposing taxes on the king’s income and property, the SPA has succeeded in appeasing the streets in the run-up to the constituent assembly elections.

Predictably, the apparent open-ended tenure of the HoR has rankled the rebels. Despite their opposition, the Maoists will find engagement with the SPA their best route to reshaping the state. As long as his foot soldiers use their R&R to raise funds, Maoist chairman Prachanda can afford to lash out at the SPA’s superciliousness and also claim a stake in government. (According to one newspaper report, he appears to have lowered his sights to the deputy premier’s post.)

On the external front, India has emerged as the principal stakeholder, a status reinforced during Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran’s recent visit to Washington. The State Department spokesman emphasized that Washington and New Delhi were virtually of one mind on Nepal. The National Security Strategy released by the White House earlier this year, after all, lists Nepal as a challenge requiring a regional approach, just like the Israeli-Palestinian issues and the conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Since China is unlikely to reverse its full faith in quiet diplomacy, India will determine and drive the public manifestation of regionalism.

What is disturbing, however, is India’s own quandary. The anti-government sections of the political class and the media have been savaging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s virtual subcontracting of his government’s Nepal policy to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The establishment of a secular Nepal has worried not only the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party but also Congress leader Karan Singh, the foreign minister in waiting who New Delhi dispatched to Kathmandu when the royal regime was in its dying days.

For many Indians, it seems the world’s only Hindu republic had contemporary relevance. When you hear some newly empowered Nepalese complaining of India’s complicity in pro-Hindu-state demonstrations, you cannot avoid an eerie foreboding – one that transcends whether Nepal remains a ceremonial monarchy or becomes a republic.


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