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Revisiting The Past To Revitalize The Present

Revisiting The Past To Revitalize The Present

By Sanjay Upadhya

NEPALIS are in the midst of their annual holiday season, witnessing a surfeit of contradictions in the political arena. The royal government, which King Gyanendra formed under his leadership after ousting a multiparty coalition on Feb.1 for failing to restore peace, has rebuffed a three-month ceasefire the Maoist rebels declared.

The mainstream parties scarcely squirm when they strike at an unalterable feature of constitution by dropping their support for the monarchy but warn the palace not to tinker with the statute. Having argued for long that democracy required no adjectives, they are the ones now using prefixes such as "total", "full", and "complete".

The Maoist rebels, energized by having upstaged the palace through their unilateral truce, are feeling the sting of the royal snub. Credited with organizational discipline, the group is using mid-level leaders to raise the possibility of peace talks with the royal government. The absence of the rebels' articulate ideologue, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, from the pages of the official party mouthpiece has deepened the doubts. For now, abductions and extortions define the kingdom's negative peace.

Political speculation, a passionate pastime in the best of times, is now running wild. Will King Gyanendra impose a harsher system – perhaps even martial law – in response to the deteriorating situation? Or will he extend another overture to the agitating political parties – at least to that section that still sees the virtues of dialogue with the palace. Are the Maoist rebels, distrustful of the pause in their once-budding alliance with the mainstream, preparing to cut their own deal with the palace?

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Foreign well-wishers of Nepal, too, have exhibited flashes of incongruities. A visiting European Union delegation called on the royal regime act urgently to prevent Nepal's "political collapse". In its exuberance, it went on to advise that Kathmandu reopen the offices of the Dalai Lama, shut down on the eve of the royal takeover. This audacious interference in Nepal's external affairs – so to speak -- came after an Indian delegation chose to end a "fact-finding" mission content in hearing only what the anti-palace alliance had to say.

The telling moment came when a reporter asked the delegation leader why India's zeal for democracy in Nepal did not extend to the other Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Nepalese were struggling to restore democracy, the leader explained, whereas the Bhutanese have never had one. He saw no need to mention that Bhutan already is a client state of the world's most populous democracy.

Even in the midst of opprobrium and ostracism, the royal regime remains focused on its intentions. Publicly it remains committed to restoring enduring democracy by February 1, 2008. The government has announced elections to municipal bodies, which the principal parties have vowed to boycott. How deep is the royal regime's commitment to its own agenda?

King Gyanendra has exposed himself to incessant attacks by bringing back individuals and institutions closely associated with the partyless Panchayat system through which the palace ruled from 1960 to 1990. The revival of Panchayat-era zonal administrators under the royal regime, for instance, has deepened the skepticism. It would be useful to remember that the ardor of the new constitution drafters to scrap the position came in for criticism from Girija Prasad Koirala, the leader of today's anti-palace alliance. The abolition of the zonal administrators, he contended, impeded the government's early effort to coordinate security, administrative and development activities against the Maoist insurgency.

The royal regime has one major priority wrong. Anyone familiar with the daily newspaper headlines and the slogans on the streets can easily recognize the hollowness of the autocracy claim. The government crackdown on pro-democracy activists is related not to what they are demanding, but to the reality that they are violating the proscription of protests in certain sections of the city. The distinction is not worth clarifying. Members of the royal regime should stop trying to exhibit their democratic credentials and show greater candor in addressing the partyless past.

The wholesale denunciation of the Panchayat regime is politically expedient for the anti-palace alliance. No one claims that the palace-led system was more liberal or transparent than the multiparty system. The palace has endured enough criticism for the partyless system's flaws to earn credit for its feats. If that system's exercise in nation-building through infrastructure development, economic and social integration and a heightened international profile, among other things, were rooted in systematic repression, then we probably still have to discover those mass graves.

If the 235-year-old monarchy is responsible for the conditions that fuelled the Maoist insurgency, as Dr. Bhattarai likes to explain, one wonders why the rebellion did not break out during the Panchayat system. If that regime managed to suppress discontent through brute force, why are the mainstream and Maoist press silent?

If, again, the insurgency was the outgrowth of the freedoms unleashed by the political change of 1990, what does that say about an open and transparent system's responsibility to address such grievances? If the palace was indeed in a position to impede the growth of multiparty democracy all along, doesn't that mean we need an authentic reappraisal of the events of 1989-90?

Undoubtedly, King Gyanendra is seeking a greater political role. If he manages to keep his promise of national renewal within his three-year deadline, he certainly will have earned it. From the start, the cost of failure was too obvious – yet the king took the plunge. He knows how relentlessly his late brother, King Birendra, faced political attacks – both for assertiveness and indifference -- even though elected representatives held the direct reins of power.

The palace certainly cannot hope for a complete monopoly on power. By the late 1980s, the palace was already contending with growing opposition from within the Panchayat camp. King Gyanendra, more than anyone else, recognizes that his active political role will continue to draw criticism from a political establishment and press enlivened by 12 years of freedom.

Critics contend the monarchy has lost its legitimacy rooted in history and tradition. That remains to be established outside the confines of the political and politically-affiliated domains. The world has changed too drastically for the palace to expect a 1960s-style political resurrection, these same critics claim. The monarchy, however, is the only political institution that figures prominently in the formulations of the four external powers with the most influence in Nepal – India, China, United States and European Union.

The mainstream parties and the Maoists must either be willing -- and able -- to change these internal and external realities or prepare to listen to the palace's concerns about its political role.


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