Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Tooth And Reconciliation

Pokhara's lakeside breeze has inspired a fresh round of royal consultations on Nepal's political future. Speculation is rife that King Gyanendra is looking for a prime minister. Most of the people the king began his latest brainstorming with were either members of his government or acknowledged royalists. They probably had rehearsed the lines they thought the monarch wanted to hear.
House of Representatives Speaker Taranath Ranabhat, who still remains a Nepali Congress member, appeared optimistic about a resumption of talks between the king and the agitating Seven-Party Alliance (SPA).
The SPA isn't terribly impressed by the monarch's olive branch, at least in public. Officially, opposition leaders see the king's gambit as an instance of too little too late. In reality, they still seem to be weighing the fallout from US Ambassador James F. Moriarty's admonitions against the SPA getting too comfy with the Maoists.
Some SPA leaders have unmasked their anxiety by insisting that the palace's reconciliation plea was only a scheme to split the opposition.
However, there has been one voice of moderation: Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. He has acknowledged the inevitability of holding talks with the king in rather stark terms. "Even to demand the king's abdication, we would have to meet with him," the former home minister proffered this week. Last week, he urged the Maoists – and the country – to understand American concerns in their right spirit.
Oli is understandably cautious. After his last major one-on-one with the monarch a couple of years ago, he had waxed eloquent on King Gyanendra's vision for the country. Before and following those remarks, Oli was widely expected to get a top slot in a palace-appointed cabinet. Loyalists insisted that Oli was entitled to nothing short of the premiership, all the while conceding that the deputy PM's job wouldn't be that bad.
Oli's optimism prompted his boss Madhav Kumar Nepal to cut short a foreign visit. Privately, Nepal was reported to have expressed his strong disapproval of Oli's freelancing. So the scale of the tremors Oli had set off within the UML was pretty obvious.
The cabinet line-up the palace announced after Oli's palace parleys did much to erode his image. He didn't get a place in power; worse, none of his loyalists did. Suddenly an embittered Oli was seen and heard in every forum ready to receive him.
This time, Madhav Nepal might not be able to step in. Theoretically, the UML general secretary's detention order, extended recently, could be revoked in the spirit of conciliation. The cabinet chaired by King Gyanendra would have to issue such an order.
But the monarch seems to have set his eyes equally on the other opposition front. Leading palace confidants have signaled that a palace-Maoist channel might already have been active.
Maoist supremo Prachanda evidently understands the implications of a palace alliance with non-communist elements of the mainstream opposition. Although he once called him a brave man, Prachanda today probably hates Sher Bahadur Deuba more than he does the monarch. Reason? Deuba's close ties with Nepali generals and the Americans. For Prachanda, the worst news of the year was perhaps Deuba's release from detention.
Having stuck his neck so far into the democratic republic bandwagon, the Maoist leader is probably still taking time off to explain to the rank and file why an abandonment (if that is what it is) of the original objective of establishing a Maoist republic has become such a prudent priority.
If they believe recent developments really portend the isolation of all communist forces in Nepal, Maoists leaders could easily think up a reason for striking a deal with the palace. Another reason why the SPA might want to make it to the finish line before the rebels. All eyes on Pokhara.