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Dislodging Defeated Dictators

Dislodging Defeated Dictators

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Celebrations continue in two South Asian countries, which have just witnessed the defeat of dictatorships. The war for democracy, however, is yet to be fully and finally won in Nepal and Pakistan.

In both cases, popular movements and mandates have yet to put a period to issues involving personalities that symbolize a discredited past.

And, in both, the survival and stabilization of hard-won democracy will hinge crucially on the role of a distant superpower that claims to be the supreme savior of the system, though it has been among the dear friends of the overthrown dictators.

Take the more recent and more dramatic case of Nepal, first. In theory, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev is a totally defeated dictator with his famous palace in Kathmandu about to be turned into a museum and a 240-year-old monarchy into a fossil of feudal history. The people and the political forces of Nepal, however, are not ready as yet to treat the former king as just a reminder of a predemocracy past.

Only two low-impact bomb blasts near the capital disturbed the festivities on the eve of the first session of the newly elected Constituent Assembly (CA) on May 27. The holy "Hindu" war threatened by a rump of pro-royalty forces turned out to be a damp squib on this occasion.

The threat, however, remains - the four votes against the abolition of monarchy in the 601-member CA's historic session represent a numerically small force, which can grow significantly fierce in days to come, in the nation that has stayed a "Hindu kingdom" for centuries. It may not take too many mistakes on the part of the parliamentary parties for another political storm to hit the Himalayan state, where the people have shed their traditional patience.

It was revealing that the CA resolution did not exactly send the dethroned king packing from his Narayanhity palace in Kathmandu. It took days of diplomacy, combined with popular demonstrations in support of the resolution outside the royal abode, to dislodge him from the place. Gyanendra, in fact, kept the country guessing with his mysterious movements.

The hapless new rulers have since then decided to shift him to the lesser Nagarjuna palace, further from the capital's heart, despite growing protests against the privileges still accorded to him in a land with a large population of homeless poor. The former king has issued a Musharraf-like denial of any intention to flee the country in such circumstances. He, however, has refrained from responding to Maoist chief Prachanda's invitation to him to continue his career as a businessman and even to participate in Nepal's democratic politics.

The plans of Gyanendra and his political camp may depend on a factor independent of the internal balance of forces - Washington's approach to the Maoists, even after the end of Nepal's civil war and the electoral empowerment of the former insurgents. The approach has undergone no major alteration, despite the much-publicized meetings between US ambassador Nancy Powell and Prachanda.

After the elections, the US State Department announced it had never really tagged the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) a terrorist organization. Washington was indulging in worse than a half-truth. The CPN (M) may not figure in the old US designated list of foreign terrorist organizations - 42 of them, mostly of the "Islamist" category. The Maoists, however, were listed in October 2003, under Executive Order 13224, which President George W. Bush issued shortly after 9/11.

The distinction made no difference to Washington's touch-me-not approach to the Maoists, whom Bush's man in Nepal, James Francis Moriarty, went on calling "terrorists," until the other day, The legal implications of the different lists did not stop the former ambassador from threatening cessation of any US aid to Nepal in areas where Maoist ministers might come to yield power.

It is an open secret that until very recently, Washington and New Delhi shared anti-Maoist predilections and pro-royal preferences. Moriarty repeatedly warned that the differences between the King and the non-Maoist parliamentary parties could benefit only the CPN (M). India, for its part, was tireless in trying to sell the theory that monarch and non-Maoist parliament were "twin pillars" indispensable for Nepal's stability.

New Delhi has now officially welcomed the rapid change of Nepal from a feudal monarch to a free republic. Observers can only hope, however, that the US-India "strategic partnership," of which we continue to hear about so much, does not revive an alliance between two major democracies in defense of a discredited monarchy.

Fears in this regard are well founded. The main opposition in India, the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been among the few mourners of Nepal's monarchy. What makes the BJP's heart bleed, in particular, is the rise of a secular Nepal over the ruins of a "Hindu kingdom." The pro-democracy movement in Nepal cannot rejoice over the prospect of a general election in India in early 2009, with the BJP doing remarkably well in a string of State elections, forming the runup to the main event. The prospect must worry Kathmandu all the more for the fact that the party is the strongest supporter of the "strategic partnership" in India.

In Pakistan, too, popular unease is growing over a perceived difficulty in dislodging a defeated dictator from a position of dangerous authority. An expanding body of opinion sees no more legitimate or morally warranted a place for Pervez Musharraf in the new scheme of things than for Gyanendra in Nepal. Many Pakistani are not prepared to trust Musharraf even as a president with limited powers - and lesser ones than of the parliament and the prime minister - just as most Nepalese do not expect Gyanendra to conduct himself only as a constitutional monarch.

Those who expected Musharraf to seek exile elsewhere after the elections in Pakistan - some even talked of a plane waiting for him - have proven as wrong as their Nepalese counterparts, who were, at one point, sure of the former king's flight to India. Musharraf has even called a media conference to deny any such plan, and to deliver ill-veiled threats to some of his enemies.

The source of his confidence is no secret either. The confidence was unmistakable in the media conference, where he lambasted General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani for letting down "the institution of Pakistani Army" by siding with civilian politicians against him on the sensitive issue of the Kargil war with India (lost by Musharraf in his previous avatar as the army chief.) The conference came soon after a well publicized telephonic call to Musharraf to the White House. President Bush had felt it necessary to extend solidarity to the besieged ex-general in the "war of terror," which only elected government in Islamabad alone could wage now.

Well-wishers of Pakistan and Nepal will hope the controversies over Musharraf and Gyanendra do not halt the historic advance of the two countries. It must also be hoped that Washington and its worthy allies find ways to carry forward their crusade for democracy without protecting and providing comfort to discredited dictators rejected by the people.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. SRI RAMAN is the author of "FLASHPOINT" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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