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Nepal: Euphoria As An Indispensable Energizer

Nepal: Euphoria As An Indispensable Energizer

By Sanjay Upadhya

Superlatives are being thrown around with sheer simplicity, drowning out deep skepticism from within the Seven Party Alliance (SPA). For now, supreme relief reigns over ordinary people yearning for peace. This rapture need not be tempered with realism because the risks are implicit in the 8-point accord that emerged from last week’s “summit” between Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist supremo Prachanda.

If the precariousness of the process failed to stand in the way of the signatories, then peace surely must be an idea whose time has come. The Maoists’ participation in the creation of an interim charter and government would finally allow them to shape the future they have been fighting for with such ferocity. More important, it offers an opportunity to bind them firmly to success or failure.

Prime Minister Koirala opened the campaign by stating that his Nepali Congress would go into the constituent assembly elections with an agenda of a ceremonial monarchy. It remains to be seen whether Koirala’s assertion is a reflection of his party’s reading of political realities. The anti-monarchy camp in the Nepali Congress has grown in size and stridency. Whether this group would be able to mount a serious internal challenge to Koirala’s platform would depend in large part on the Maoists.

For now, the premier has been fortified by Prachanda’s willingness to accept Koirala’s remark within the rubric of free speech. The quid pro quo is hard to miss: The crafty Maoist chief extracted a major concession from the prime minister in not having to renounce violence or pledge decommissioning of weapons.

Prachanda’s dominance over the post-“summit” news conference could not shield the stretch marks the Maoists’ famed flexibility has left. Having begun the “People’s War” against both the monarchy and the parliamentary system, Prachanda will have to educate his cadres in the objective realities dictating the alliance with one. It would be naïve, however, to equate the opaqueness of internal Maoist deliberations with inactivity. The rebel leadership’s nationwide tour can be expected to produce some insights into their political acclimatization.

The seniority and stature of the individuals representing the Maoists in an interim government might provide a good measure of their commitment to this process. Lightweights, after all, would be easier to manipulate for posturing and malign and marginalize if things don’t go the Maoist way. For now though, the Maoists recognize more than anyone else that the transparency with which the organization transform itself from a demolition crew into builders of democracy would shape their international legitimacy.

The drafters of the interim statute, meanwhile, can proceed from a consensus on keeping the palace in an entirely titular posture. In retrospect, the chairman of the panel that wrote the current constitution made a monumental blunder by dismissing issues relating to language, ethnicity and gender as irrelevant to the wider imperative of consolidating multiparty democracy. Laxman Aryal, the chief drafter of the interim statute, who was a member of the 1990 panel, would probably not be able to review the transcripts of each of those 16-year-old sessions. As the foremost critic of the successive instances of violations of the constitution – by all parties – he must have accumulated enough perspective.

Much of the groundwork has been laid by the House of Representatives’ proclamation. Since the people are mindful of the platitudes permeating all legal provisions and policy positions since the first dawn of democracy in 1951, the panelists’ real challenge is to inject enough credibility.

Limits To Change

By refusing to disturb the Nepal Army in the security shakeup, Prime Minister Koirala has recognized the limits to change. Speculation that Koirala acted primarily under pressure from the Americans fits into the institutional relationship Washington has been building with the Nepalese military in recent years. How far Prachanda can go on pressing the “de-feudalization” of the military without exposing himself to demands on disarmament is unclear.

Despite rumblings in the Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) and other constituents in the SPA, along with periodic manifestations of public ire on the streets, the palace can probably afford to sit back and let events take their course. For now, the future of the monarchy would be inextricably linked to the clarity with which the SPA and the Maoists can articulate their vision of an alternative. The SPA and the Maoists have been in the game too long not to recognize that blaming King Gyanendra for all of Nepal’s ills since the creation of the state would lose its potency. The temptation to politically eviscerate the monarchy would sooner or later have to be juxtaposed with the imperative to ensuring its ability to discharge the normal responsibilities of a head of state.

Based on his outlook, temperament and background, King Gyanendra might have his own ideas about the future of the nation and the institution. The SPA and the Maoists both succeeded in portraying the royal takeover as a power grab, assisted no doubt by the conduct of certain elements of the royal regime. The fact that the palace could not prevail in advocating the imperative of protecting a small nation wedged between the two Asian giants does not detract from the realities of history and geography. The monarchy, a product of specific Nepalese realities, can be expected to exhibit a paternalistic stake in statecraft. On the other hand, a republic – resulting either from the constituent assembly elections or a decision by the monarch not to accept an unfeasible role – could open up another political front. A system of proportional representation, which is being demanded from different quarters for different reasons, would emphasize the implications of such a development even among those tempted to write off the palace as a political force.

The Near Abroad

Despite the deep bruises it received, India has succeeded in reinforcing its role as the principal external stakeholder in Nepal. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government strongly criticized the royal takeover, the divisions New Delhi exposed while articulating and advancing its policy on Nepal reflected the fragmentation of the Indian polity.

Throughout King Gyanendra’s direct rule, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was reluctant to support the monarchy because of obvious political compulsions. The BJP’s concern over the secularization of the Nepalese state has allowed the party to back the retention of a constitutional monarchy. However, the organization was less restrained in its criticism of the leeway Prime Minister Singh offered his allies on the left to drive policy on Nepal.

All this underscores the reality that the current turn of events owes much to the quirks of Indian politics. The Indian left could not have led the initiative to forge the SPA-Maoist accord had it not held the key to the survival of the Singh coalition. Doubtless, the radicalization of the Nepali Congress and Nepali Congress (Democratic) in the wake of the royal takeover facilitated the process. The ambivalence of the Indian government was reflected in carefully calibrated leaks in the media.

Over time, the left’s self-interest in moderating and subsequently mainstreaming the Nepalese Maoists – thereby eroding their Indian counterparts’ ability to lay siege to the communist spectrum – must have impressed the Singh government. In the past, Prachanda has been episodically tentative in disowning anything but ideological affinity to Indian Maoists. The prevention of a Maoist takeover of Nepal would bolster the Indian government’s ability to treat the Naxals as an internal security problem. The left channel was worth pursuing, but certainly not to the exclusion of everything else.

The fact that Prime Minister Singh chose to send as his emissary Karan Singh – the scion of the royal family of Kashmir and related to the Nepalese monarch by marriage –underscored his Congress party’s readiness to engage with the palace as a stabilizing force. The Nepalese monarchy’s family and social ties with politically active members of former princely families could heal the political estrangement between New Delhi and Kathmandu.

Although much attention has been focused on the New Delhi-Washington-London consensus on Nepalese democracy, Indian mediation in the kingdom could not have come without close consultations with China. It would be instructive to note that, in the aftermath of the 1990 change, Chinese leaders were quite candid in their acknowledgement of Nepal’s traditional ties with India. Such sentiments were heard less and less amid the flight of the Karmapa Lama to India, ostensibly via Nepal, the resurgence of the pro-Tibetan independence campaign in the kingdom, the ascendancy of the “containment” camp in the United States, along with the intensification of the Maoist insurgency.

The nature of specific arrangements that might have encouraged Beijing to revert to its recognition of Indian role in Nepal can be expected to become clearer in the days and weeks ahead. The Nepalese people certainly deserve an extended phase of euphoria, especially considering the roughness of the road ahead.


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