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Nepal: A Year Later, King Still At The Center

A Year Later, King Still At The Center

By Sanjay Upadhya

A palpable paradox remains the defining feature of the year since the culmination of People’s Movement II. A king supposedly sidelined by his people is very much at the center of the nation.

Amid the inexorable cycle of hope and despair of the last 12 months of peacemaking, the uncertainty gripping the constituent assembly (CA) elections has cast a new pall of gloom for many. But it would be deceitful to cite the postponement of the polls as a setback to the peace process. And not just because large segments of Nepalis feel disenfranchised heading into the exercise. Writing the election schedule into an interim constitution that failed to materialize on time was just one manifestation of the legerdemain that sustains the polity.

As someone accustomed to far worse indictments, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala can shrug off the latest censure from his partners in power. His public pronouncements on the palace had turned sufficiently hostile to deflect charges of coddling the crown. Deep inside, though, Koirala rests confident in the recognition that no party wanted the elections in June.

The Maoists are in a slightly different league. As the owners of the CA agenda, they are entitled to make the loudest noises. Yet their abolish-the-monarchy-first clamor serves more as a cover for their internal churning process. This is a do-or-die situation for the Maoists in the literal as well as figurative sense. The ex-rebels’ claim to have represented the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and geographical grievances that were swept under the People’s Movement I carpet has been thoroughly debunked by, among other things, the madhesi and janjati movements.

Furthermore, as the Maoists were pressing the CA demand for much of the past decade, virtually every party argued that it would open a Pandora’s Box. Now that those parties have gone along, the Maoists are unwilling to acknowledge the steady discharge. In their pointless search for scapegoats, they have merely reinforced the centrality of the monarchy.

Prime Minister Koirala stiffened his stance on the palace only after having lined up a pro-monarchy constituency in his party under daughter Sujata. Even then, the premier’s option envisages placing King Gyanendra’s four-year-old grandson on the throne. It’s pointless to even begin wondering how such an antiquated vision could chart the course to a new Nepal.

That inanity pales in front of the proposal from other quarters to enthrone a granddaughter of King Birendra. The idea of tinkering with such a central element of royal succession when the future of the institution is hanging in the balance was wrong-headed enough. Long before that, the difficulty the female biological cycle would pose to the religious and cultural roles a ceremonial monarchy would have to confine itself to should have been apparent.

Those decrying such chauvinism would do well first to either redefine the rules of our rituals or the role of the monarchy – and possibly both. The rest are perhaps realistic enough to recognize that the monarchy, by definition, offers the least scope for the people to choose their head of state. (This debate has been complicated by the campaign, if only tepid, to create a republican Hindu state.)

The Maoists can claim the high ground here by calling for the outright abolition of the monarchy. Yet their rationale remains spurious. The ex-rebels’ detection of a royalist hand in the madhesi and janjati movements raises interesting questions. If the 238-year-old Shah Dynasty was indeed responsible – as the rebels have long claimed – for the systematic impoverishment of these groups, what might have led the aggrieved seek their salvation in their long-time tormentors?

The Maoists’ refrain that national and international forces are trying to save the monarchy raises its corollary. What might have impelled these forces – obviously the loudest critics of the royal takeover in February 2005 – do so? It’s one thing for the principal domestic actors to claim that Nepal can do without the monarchy. It’s quite another to persuade major international players increasingly driven by the imperative of defensive imperialism.

As for the principal external player, King Gyanendra’s attempt to tether his regime tightly to China was a greater sin than the nature of his regime. Prime Minister Koirala’s call in New Delhi earlier this month for China’s inclusion as a full member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – from its current status as an observer – must have cast new light on Nepal’s much-maligned “China card.”

Juxtaposed with the “stability” school of thought resurgent in a section of the New Delhi establishment vis-à-vis the neighborhood, the wider dynamics of the preceding year do not necessarily conform to those being projected by the Nepali parties in power.

King Gyanendra’s critics succeeded in portraying the palace takeover as nothing more than a power grab. By directing public wrath to a handful of Panchayat-era individuals in power, Seven Party Alliance (SPA) leaders sidestepped the stark reality that many of their former colleagues were part of the royal regime. It became all the more convenient to ignore the technocrats and entrepreneurs who also underpinned King Gyanendra’s government.

A year later, as the peace process hobbles ahead, the royal regime’s role as a catalyst for the SPA-Maoist alliance has acquired greater clarity. This must have been among the successes King Gyanendra referred to in his much-criticized Democracy Day message in February.


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