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Nepal: No More Muddling In The Middle

Nepal: No More Muddling In The Middle

By Sanjay Upadhya

Dr. Tulsi Giri, the senior vice-chairman of the government led by King Gyanendra, soured Nepal’s holiday season this week by comparing political parties with the Rana regime that ruled the kingdom with an iron fist for over a century until 1951.

Dr. Giri could not have been oblivious to the fury he was about to unleash by clubbing political organizations struggling for the democratic rights of the people together with an autocratic elite of the past. In any case, he has offered the most lucid insight into the core of Nepal’s conflict.

It has become fashionable today to lump the Rana and Shah families together and deplore them as remnants of the feudalism plaguing Nepal. Such simplification may be politically expedient for political parties competing to project the most progressive image. However, it obfuscates a clear understanding of contemporary Nepal.

The Ranas rose to power in 1846 through violent manipulations of contradictions in the palace. They still sought to draw legitimacy from the king they had confined within royal walls. Over time, the redundancy of two dynasties became clear. Internal and external dynamics stood in the way of the Ranas’ desire to replace the Shahs as full-fledged royalty. For the British colonial rulers next door, the existence of two power centers in perpetual conflict fit perfectly into the strategy that sustained the Raj. After all, more than 75 principalities had succumbed to the Gorkha armies, bringing all of the sub-Himalayan hill areas between Bhutan in the east and the Sutlej River in the west under their control.

The compromise devised in 1951 by independent India’s first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru, upheld the tradition of the British colonialists. Regardless of how vigorously the Nepali Congress claims to be the sole source of Nepalese democracy, it is clear from the memoirs and journals of its charismatic leader B.P. Koirala that the party was but the tertiary player. Nehru & Co. had the decency of informing Koirala of the Shah-Rana compromise.

Following his restoration, King Tribhuvan moved swiftly to re-establish the monarchy as Nepal’s primary political institution, a process consolidated under his son, King Mahendra. By experience and outlook, he recognized the political centrality of the crown as the kingdom began confronting competing pressures from not only its northern and southern neighbors, China and India, but also from the Eastern and Western blocs.

When B.P. Koirala became Nepal’s first elected prime minister in 1959, he could barely disguise his desire to relegate the monarchy to the history books. The monarchy saw Koirala’s rhetoric as a modified articulation of the Rana strategy. For the palace, it didn’t matter whether the premier drew his strength from diabolic plots or popular mandate.

The struggle for supremacy would be resolved amid the domestic and international power equations of the day. The monarchy prevailed. King Mahendra introduced a non-party system under which the palace went on to govern Nepal for three decades. Political leaders went into exile, were incarcerated or cooperated with the palace. King Birendra inherited the system when he succeeded his father in 1972, setting off speculation of change.

Nepalis rose up against the Panchayat system in 1979, in the first serious nationwide challenge to the polity. But it went on to win majority support in a referendum the following year. The opposition’s allegations of electoral fraud failed to shake the system’s edifice. A decade later, the non-party regime faced a largely Kathmandu-centric insurrection. It crumbled primarily because the international balance of power had changed following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The restoration of multiparty democracy offered another important opportunity for rejuvenation. That promise was subverted at the outset by a fresh effort to marginalize the palace. The vocabulary of the democratic leaders might have been proper for a Khomeini-led clique stepping into the vacuum created by the Shah’s flight into exile. King Birendra was very much part of the new polity; in fact, he promulgated the constitution that transferred his political powers to elected representatives.

Equations began shifting with the escalation of the Maoist insurgency in the late 1990s. Corruption, factionalism and nepotism alone could not have undermined the multiparty system; they exist in the greatest of democracies. The mistrust spawned by the new leaders’ refusal to accept the palace as a partner would go on to strike the knockout blow.

As the Maoists stepped up their campaign to overthrow the monarchy, successive governments found it expedient to step out of the way. Then they began accusing the palace of sponsoring and encouraging the insurgents. The palace – reeling from a massacre that wiped out King Birendra’s entire family in 2001 – stepped right in.

Undoubtedly, the seeds of the Maoist insurgency were sown in the inequalities and injustices that have existed since the Shah dynasty founded modern Nepal in 1768. The mainstream parties are correct in contending that democratic freedoms helped foster candid discussions on long-simmering grievances. From the palace’s perspective, the democratic leadership also had the responsibility of addressing the grievances.

Some prominent members of today’s Maoist leadership once belonged to a front that had the third largest number of seats in parliament. If the two main parties ended up driving radical revolutionaries underground, the palace was not going to take the rap.

The balance of power is at a precarious juncture. The Maoists hold sway in rural areas, while the palace controls the capital and other urban centers. The rebels’ three-month unilateral ceasefire has definitely reduced the number of body bags. However, the Maoists continue their spree of abductions and extortions.

This is the third ceasefire the Maoists have announced in four years. They used the two previous ones to regroup and rearm for even bloodier conflicts. Clearly, the palace is in no mood to be deceived thrice. It is, after all, the only institution that figures in the formulation of each of the four external stakeholders – India, China, United States and Britain.

With strong international support and continuing -- if sometimes grudging – backing of the people, the mainstream parties hold the high ground. A little more sensitivity in the mainstream alliance could have helped immensely. But no, Madhav Kumar Nepal, general secretary of the main communist party, had to criticize China’s decision to support the Royal Nepalese Army while he was on a visit to India. Such inanities allow the royal regime to get away with its own contradictions – the latest being its effort to gag the independent media while pledging free and fair elections.

Internationally isolated, economically emaciated and psychologically eviscerated, Nepalis cannot fathom the depths to which they must plunge before hoping to come afloat. Simply denouncing King Gyanendra’s February 1 takeover as a misguided coup and questioning the circumstances surrounding his enthronement four years ago will not help. Especially not when the critics are primarily the same political and media organizations that blamed Crown Prince Dipendra for the palace massacre even before the investigation committee had been formed.

Pointed as it may sound, there is a prescription based on Dr. Giri’s diagnosis. The parties should acknowledge the monarchy as a partner and address King Gyanendra’s desire to play a more assertive political role in national matters. Alternatively, they should stop making empty threats and begin laying a sustainable foundation for a Republic of Nepal by, among other things, winning the confidence of all those who feel they have a stake in it. Clearly, there can be no middle way.


Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University

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