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Nepal: Lies, Damned Lies And Theatrics

Nepal: Lies, Damned Lies And Theatrics

By Krishna Singh Bam

In the intensifying struggle for supremacy in Nepal, there have been putrefying displays of passion. Few have been as revolting as those related to the three-month truce announced by the Maoist rebels earlier this month.

A government professing an abiding commitment to peace stubbornly refuses to reciprocate the rebels' overtures. At least it has the excuse of remaining unconvinced by their peace protestations.

The real stench comes from the seven-party mainstream alliance, which considers the royal regime illegal. Leaders and supporters are risking their lives and limbs on the streets to end what they consider an abomination. But things go a little too far when they start criticizing the royal regime for not declaring its own ceasefire. What is the point of accusing as irresponsible a government you refuse to recognize?

The two main parties in the mainstream – the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists – have made much about their having abandoned their explicit support for the monarchy. This has brought them a significant step closer to the Maoists' republican agenda. The opposition parties should have pressed ahead with substantive talks with the rebels on remaking the Nepalese state.

But the Nepali Congress' new general secretary, Ram Chandra Poudel, insists that the revival of the House of Representatives remains very much the centerpiece of the mainstream agenda. That stands in direct conflict with the Maoist posture. So much for shared commitment.

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That legislature -- dissolved amid much political rancor in 2002 – would long have completed its natural five-year life even if Nepal's last elected prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, had been more judicious in exercising his prerogative. Mock sessions have been held in the name of reviving the real thing.

It took the palace's dismissal of Deuba a second time for the parties to stop asking the king to restore the body. Now the Supreme Court is hearing petitions on the matter. Here, too, the opposition's sleight of mind is apparent.

The mainstream parties considered the appointment of the new chief justice, Dilip Kumar Poudel, just another link in the palace's continuing chain of illegitimate actions. Since he announced he would revisit the petitions, however, Poudel has won the adulation of many. How long such praise continues would depend on the nature of the court's verdict.

The Maoists, who are firmly against the restoration of a house they never recognized, seem to have sunk deeper into their narcissism. After scuttling King Gyanendra's United Nations visit, they joined the mainstream in celebrating their triumph. The royal snub now appears too stinging to bear.

King Gyanendra has laid down a challenge to the insurgents: prove your commitment to a durable peace. Not an unreasonable demand, considering that the rebels broke off from two previous peace processes after using the hiatus to rearm and regroup.

Rebel supremo Prachanda, who insisted that his latest truce was aimed at bolstering the mainstream parties campaigning for full democracy, has his priorities wrong. He should have started confidence-building measures with opposition leaders before going on a media offensive over the prospects of talks with the royal regime. Specifically, the rebel-in-chief should have known the principal pitfall of a three-month truce: it allows the adversary to simply wait it out.

You can argue endlessly over its wisdom, but King Gyanendra has made his vision for Nepal amply clear. Gone were the days when the king could not see, hear and speak, he said after ascending the throne four years ago. Over the last three years, he has proved just that. If the mainstream parties and the Maoists believe the monarchy is Nepal's real problem, they should stop preaching to the choir and extend their gaze to the congregation.

The parties in the anti-palace alliance won 85 percent of the popular vote, on a turnout of 65 percent. This amounted to some 7.25 million votes. Even if a tenth of those voters today were to reassert their decision then as eternal -- which many leaders seem to imply -- that represent at least 725,000 men and women.

If a tenth of those were to come out in support of the democracy movement in Kathmandu each day, we would have had crowds of 72,500 defying prohibitory orders. What we see are the same few thousand faces protesting alternately on behalf of political parties and civil society. Clearly, it would take much more than empty posturing to force King Gyanendra to abandon his understanding of Cicero's dictum that the safety of the people is the highest law.

Why is the monarch so convinced of his righteousness? Perhaps the palace has learned its lessons well between 1990 and 2002. A constitutional monarch that had stepped out of active politics should have ceased to be the subject of endless calumny. But not so under Nepal's multiparty leaders.

The throne was either a symbol of stability or the source of instability, depending on which side of the issue you were on. Those who spent most of the last 15 years glorifying the current constitution as a tripartite compromise failed to take in the palace as a full partner.

Four years after his murder in a palace shootout, King Birendra continues to be cited by many as a model constitutional monarch. Not entirely so when he was alive. A royal interview with a Kathmandu weekly on the circumstances leading to the restoration of multiparty democracy following three decades of non-party rule would have been a crowning moment for Nepal's emerging free press. But the leader of the 1990 democracy movement, Ganesh Man Singh, saw the king's comments as a plot of undermine democracy.

The monarch then chose to leave politics to the professionals. He was accused of trying to subvert democracy through crass indifference. When the Maoist insurgency began spreading, King Birendra started becoming more assertive in grilling the government. The palace was once again accused of seeking to undermine democracy.

As King Birendra's last prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala described growing public unrest on the streets of the capital as a clear manifestation of popular ire against royal political ambitions.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't. Would today's critics have remained quiet if King Gyanendra had not dismissed the Deuba government and assumed full executive powers on February 1?


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