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Nepal: Prime Minister’s Pragmatism Or Preemption?

Nepal: Prime Minister’s Pragmatism Or Preemption?


By Sanjay Upadhya

The steady stretches of the Nepalese plains have spurred Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala accentuate the virtues of the monarchy. Addressing workers of his Nepali Congress party in his hometown of Biratnagar, Koirala said King Gyanendra should be given a ceremonial role in order for the country to enjoy peace and stability. “Denial of space to all players,” the premier cautioned, “would lead to frustration and to even revolt.”

Media coverage of Koirala’s comments left the precise context unclear. Did the premier extend unconditional support for a “ceremonial monarchy”, his contribution to the Nepalese political lexicon? Or did Koirala favor the king’s continued ceremonial role in the run-up to constituent assembly elections, which would ultimately determine the fate of the institution?

Evidently, such hair-splitting did not matter. Irate students took out protests against the premier’s remarks. Maoist supremo Prachanda refused to accept the concept of “ceremonial monarchy” as anything but an oxymoron. Koirala’s assertion, however, did not dissuade the Maoists from holding a second session of peace talks with the government. Within the ruling Seven Party Alliance (SPA), the mood is firmly in favor of a democratic republic. Yet the premier’s remarks did not contain enough firepower to demolish the government.

Why did Koirala make those comments? During his recent visit to India, political prudence prevented his hosts from offering any overt expression of support for the monarchy. Even the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, long considered close to the palace, seemed to acknowledge the supremacy of the Nepalese people’s right to choose their polity. (The party seemed more miffed by Koirala’s haste in making Nepal a secular state.) However, Indian media coverage of Koirala’s visit clearly signaled his hosts’ desire to see the retention of a titular monarchy.

That stood in sharp contrast to the series of events Koirala presided over during preceding weeks. In its effort to democratize the state, the reinstated House of Representatives almost exclusively focused on emasculating the monarchy. Legislators approved a proclamation that imposed sweeping curbs on the king's powers, ending his control over the army, forcing him to pay taxes and leaving him open to questions in parliament and the courts. Under subsequent guidelines, the monarch will no longer open or end parliamentary sessions or announce government policy.

By taming the monarch to the extent of depriving him of a role played by the most titular of heads of state, the SPA may have endeared itself to the Maoist rebels. Those envisaging a peaceful and stable transformation of the Nepalese state had little reason to rejoice.

Could Koirala’s pro-monarchy sentiments be a reflection of his perceptions of India’s thinking? Perhaps. But you cannot accuse the man of inconsistency. He has expressed pro-monarchy sympathies during more trying times in the past. During the height of the Nepali Congress debate last year over whether to delete the party’s traditional commitment to constitutional monarchy from its statute, Koirala appeared at times to lean heavily toward a republic. In private conversations, though, he was known to have described his anti-monarchy tirades as a pressure tactic against the king. Koirala urged more radical members of the party to consider the vacuum the monarchy’s departure would create in a geopolitically sensitive nation.

At one such gathering, Koirala described Narahari Acharya and Gagan Thapa – the two preeminent republicans in the Nepali Congress – as agents of the palace. After the Nepali Congress dropped the reference to constitutional monarchy, Koirala continued to criticize the king’s “autocratic” tendencies in public, all the while keeping open the possibility of a ceremonial monarchy.

After King Gyanendra appointed him premier in April, Koirala overruled his SPA colleagues and went to the palace to take the oath. By retaining the defense portfolio and keeping the home ministry with his Nepali Congress, among other things, critics insist, Koirala is trying to “save” the monarchy against the “spirit” of the democracy movement.

As the custodian of his own political dynasty, Koirala may have baffled many by his defense of the monarchy, especially during its least popular phase. His stand, moreover, would seem out of step with his party’s record. The Nepali Congress, after all, tried to assassinate Kings Mahendra and Birendra, an audacity magnified by the fact that even the Maoist rebels never attempted to physically harm the monarch they are fighting to overthrow.

Maybe Koirala really had the Maoists in mind. The SPA is vexed by the endless conditions the rebels have been putting forth. By extending an olive branch to the palace, Koirala could be alerting the Maoists to the perils of insatiability.

In the end, the anti-Koirala protests, too, serve a purpose. Behind the SPA-Maoist bonhomie lurks some anxiety in the mainstream parties that the palace might strike a separate deal with the rebels. Through the protests, the SPA could be sending a message to the palace.

Regardless of whether Koirala’s comments were a mark of pragmatism or a mode of preemption, they underscore the reality that the palace remains a major player during these precarious times.



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