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Nepal’s Shrinking Political Space Portends Calamit

Nepal’s Shrinking Political Space Portends Calamity

By N.K. Pandey

King Gyanendra’s birthday on July 7 lacks the pomp and circumstance of previous years. Enthusiasm over what used to be a national festival has considerably waned as the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) government continues to pour its wrath on the monarchy.

The government has decided to drop the king’s birthday from the list of national holidays; only people working at the Royal Palace are entitled to a day off. Individuals and organizations that used to lead the birthday celebrations in the past are palpably hesitant.

Indeed, if ostentatious carousing, complete with congratulatory arches every couple of blocks and clamorous pro-monarchy slogans in the air, had any intrinsic value, King Gyanendra would have been enjoying sky-high popularity ratings today.

A monarch who took every opportunity to project himself as a 21st-century leader was surrounded by shady and infamous characters of the past intent on keeping Nepal in the 18th century. It is no exaggeration to state that this group of royalists pushed the country to the brink.

Ostentatious celebrations of the king’s birthday and the tendency to marginalize the event are both extremist positions. If programs tailored to the people’s welfare had replaced the flamboyance of the event, the king’s birthday would have acquired its own significance.

Those praising the king on the streets ignored the country’s real problem. Instead, these royalists attempted to impose themselves as rulers on the people. Doubtless, this is why the monarchy is equated with feudalism today. Had royalists served the people, the institution would already have been recast in the King Gyanendra’s modernist vision.

Nepal’s 238-year-old monarchy today finds itself in a grave transition period. State institutions reflecting Nepal’s status as a monarchy are being restructured. Statues of the current monarch and his predecessors have become targets of popular ire.

The army, which considered the king its supreme commander in chief, is in a pitiable plight. Considered the most pro-monarchist organization in the nation and often reviled as the instrument of royal autocracy, the military is searching for relevance.

Although it was under the king’s command, the military operated only within the framework of the government’s policies and directives. However, the army remained passive on issues of national importance, another reason for the king’s unpopularity.

The giant neighbor bordering Nepal on three sides has been shifting border pillars into Nepalese territory. This neighbor has consolidated its military camp in Kalapani ever since it occupied this piece of Nepalese territory decades ago.

Eager to monopolize the use of Nepal’s vast water resources, this neighbor has been flooding Nepalese land to save its side of the border. But Nepalese authorities have not so much as alerted the neighbor about such offenses. Worse, there has been a palpable effort to support them.

Susta, Pashupatinagar, Purnagiri, Kalapani, Banbasa -- all these places have become symbols of our neighbor’s avariciousness. Unfortunately, they have also become symbols of our collective indifference to nationalism.

The deepening Bhutanese refugee crisis stands as a “gift” from India. Despite Nepal’s effort to internationalize this issue, the world and our giant southern neighbor still refuse to listen. However, this same neighbor is engaged in brazen interference in Nepalese affairs.

The neighbor’s aggression failed to elicit a response from the army. The SPA was less interested for obvious reasons. Even the Maoists, who project themselves as most sensitive to issues of nationalism, seem to be willing to barter away national sovereignty to achieve their ultimate goal of a republic.

No one can achieve lasting popularity without being responsible to the country and people. For a brief period, the king was popular. So, too, were the mainstream political parties. The Maoists do not show signs of embarking on a path to enduring popularity.

There are many examples where politically inspired violent movements have concluded after their leaders sighted political power. The Maoists, too, may be able to gain state power through its violent activities. The more important lesson is that many regimes catapulted to power by violent revolutions have been swept aside by bloodless uprisings.

While recalling the February Revolution, October Revolution and Cultural Revolution, one must also analyze the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of today’s China.

The Soviet-inspired wave of world communism halted with the collapse of the USSR. Nepal’s communist resurgence has bucked that trend. The Maoists have an opportunity to look beyond the attainment of political power and to address issues of social, economic and cultural transformation.

Through an inclusive framework built upon prudent deliberations, the royalists and the mainstream parties can make a meaningful contribution to this process. The temptation to negate the existence of others by emulating the October Revolution and Cultural Revolution could spur the royalists and the mainstream parties into waging a battle for self-preservation. Unfortunately, Nepal seems to be moving in this unhealthy direction.

If royalists cannot feel free to celebrate the king’s birthday, such an atmosphere certainly cannot be considered democratic. The shrinking political space in Nepal can only portend calamity.


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