Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Geopolitics And Garish Gimmicks

The month-long aftermath of King Gyanendra’s capitulation to mass protests and reinstatement of the House of Representatives has spawned a vast array of speculation over the circumstances leading up to the event.
The Seven Party Alliance (SPA) continues to insist that it drove the popular surge for democracy with the moral support from much of the world. The Maoists, rebuffing the SPA’s claim to exclusivity, maintain they had a preponderant role in the demonstrations. Even in their battered state, members of the royal government appear to stand by their contention that the “democracy movement” was neither: The Maoists, using the SPA cover, were close to capturing Kathmandu and establishing their much-cherished totalitarian communist state. Part of this contention was asserted by U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty in an interview with CNN during the height of the street protests.
Another version has it that King Gyanendra relented after Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala – the supreme commander of the movement and current prime minister – and Unified Marxist Leninist general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal personally assured the monarch of their ability to retain a ceremonial monarchy as well as rope in the Maoists in a broad national framework.
Could the drama of the UML leader being returned to the Armed Police Force’s barracks in Kakani halfway through his transfer to the Supreme Court in Kathmandu have been merely a smokescreen for his and Koirala’s meeting with King Gyanendra?
A little noticed report on the People’s News website suggests that the reinstatement of the legislature was intended to forestall a greater spiral of death and destruction. Under the headline “India prepared to invade Nepal in April,” senior journalist Bhola B. Rana writes that India had kept five fighter helicopters on high alert at a military camp in Dehra Dun along with a special military contingent.
Quoting a delayed report from Janamanch, a Nepali weekly, Rana adds that the Indian Embassy had informed the then government an Indian Airlines aircraft was on standby to evacuate the personnel of the embassy.
What seemed to have precipitated the pace and content of the subsequent turn of events was China’s deployment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers along five points of the border. Moreover, according to the report, China put its Air Force in high alert in air bases in Tibet and Chinese satellites and radar were monitoring Nepalese airspace. In effect, the royal proclamation on April 24 owed its genesis to geopolitical pressures.
Considering the poor sourcing of the report and the delay in its dissemination, it would be tempting to dismiss it as a red herring. However, any student of contemporary Sino-Indian relations can easily view the report against the background of the cooperation and competition that has defined the Asian giants’ assertion of their regional and global roles. Moreover, it was King Gyanendra’s sustained moves toward reinforcing Nepal’s ties with China as a way of pulling the kingdom out of India’s menacing embrace that led New Delhi to forge the SPA-Maoist alliance against the palace.
The utter travesty the SPA has foisted on the country in the name of taming the palace, empowering parliament, democratizing the military and secularizing the state becomes all the more tragic.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Anyone Seen Her Lately?

Perhaps the most controversial woman during Nepal’s 1990-2002 brush with democracy, she went on to become one of the fiercest critics of King Gyanendra’s direct rule. Her daring escape from Kathmandu after the Feb. 1, 2005 royal takeover made headlines across India.
In Sujata Koirala’s retroanalysis, narrated to one Indian reporter, King Gyanendra certainly had something to do with the Narayanhity bloodbath not because of his family’s fortuitous survival or because the crown fell on his head a second time. It was because Nepal, under his watch, had accelerated toward an autocracy always associated with his personality and predilections.
Sujata was among the first Nepali Congress leaders to advocate an alliance with the Maoist rebels. Weeks later, she traveled to Washington D.C. to rally for democracy in front of the White House. Remember that was a time most Nepalese still blamed her, more than anyone else, including King Gyanendra, for distorting democracy.
Nepalese society wasn’t prepared for such a strong mix of stubbornness, self-assurance and a scent of sleaze in a woman. The fact that she was modern enough to marry a German didn’t matter. Actually, that reality was held against her. (If marriage and life abroad were ever a bar to democratic ebullience in neighboring Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi would probably still have been in Britain.)
Sensing the royal regime’s vulnerability once her father, Girija Prasad Koirala, arrived in New Delhi for his first series of “medical treatment” in mid 2005, Sujata returned home with him to galvanize the pro-democracy protests. (At one point, she was rumored to be paying between Rs.300 and Rs.500 per person per protest day.)
Soon the Nepali Congress dropped its five-decade fealty to constitutional monarchy.
Sujata, however, stunned a Kathmandu audience by asserting that her party would be ready to accept a ceremonial monarchy if King Gyanendra acknowledged his errors. Moreover, she almost extracted a similar pledge from the other SPA speakers on the podium.
With the reinstatement of the House of Representative – an unwavering demand of Girija Prasad Koirala since the day it was dissolved in 2002 – there was little doubt that the NC octogenarian would return as premier. This time, Sujata is conspicuous by her absence.
There could be several explanations. With Maoist supremo Prachanda scripting each act in Kathmandu, there is perhaps little for the prime minister to do, much less for the Koirala coterie.
Or, having finally secured a formal place in the Nepali Congress, Sujata herself must have found it prudent to focus on party organization. (Her last effort was sabotage by someone within the family who whispered into the returning officer’s ears that Sujata had not spent the mandatory five years in the country to be eligible for any Nepali Congress office.)
Maybe the crass politician she is sometimes castigated for has come to surface. Obscurity, no doubt, would shield her from needless controversy. But the corollary must have been more convincing: prominence would pummel those expected to perform in full public view.
Whatever her motives, politics does seem a little different without Sujata Koirala. Unless, of course, that’s the whole point of the historic House of Representative Proclamation.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Has The Backlash Begun?

Thousands of Nepalese have protested in Birgunj against the House of Representatives’ proclamation turning Nepal into a secular state. More than 5,000 people burned tires and logs, and blocked roads in the southern commercial hub, about 150 km south of Kathmandu.
Shouting “Jay Shree Ram!” demonstrators forced shops to pull down shutters and forced vehicles off the streets. They are demanding that Nepal be declared a Hindu nation.
The secularization of Nepal was part of a series of changes designed to clip King Gyanendra's powers drastically and reduce his links with the army. That was probably why the collapse of the world’s only Hindu kingdom prompted barely a flutter in a nation where 80 percent of the 26 million inhabitants are Hindus. The measure was hailed by ethnic indigenous communities as well as Christian and Muslim organizations.
Nepalese Hindu groups, widely perceived as supporters of active monarchy, could not have found the political atmosphere very congenial to mount a vigorous opposition. It fell upon India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to highlight that hitherto obscure distinction between the Hindu character of the preponderant part of the Nepalese state and its monarchy. The BJP, which hesitated to come out in full support of the royal takeover, blazed the trail. A world that has a multiplicity of Islamic republics could certainly have made room for its first Hindu nation regardless of whether Nepal remained a monarchy or became a republic.
Birgunj has some symbolism in the Hindu-versus-secular Nepal debate. Last month, when the anti-king protests were at their height, the World Hindu Federation (WHF) had celebrated its silver jubilee by holding a lavish program in the city, which was attended by King Gyanendra.
WHF chief Bharat Keshar Simha, a strong supporter of the royal takeover, had urged Hindus all over the world to support the monarch. On Wednesday, Simha said his organization would continue to fight against the parliament’s decision, calling it “illegal” and a “conspiracy against the country”. A decision taken by a handful of people, Simha continued, was not acceptable to all Nepalese.
More portentous was his next assertion. “If political parties are convinced that the state should be declared secular, they should have courage to go for a referendum and get people’s mandate rather than making a proclamation in an illegal way.”
Juxtapose Simha’s challenge with the commiseration of Chintamani Yogi, principal of Hindu Vidyapeeth, who believes the harmonious co-existence of several religions in Nepal could be endangered.
Injecting some color into his contention, Yogi added: “Muslim brothers sell bangles to Hindu sisters in front of Krishna temple in Lalitpur. Such harmony might be destroyed if we try to politicize religious matters.”
Has the backlash begun?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Furious One Gets Angrier

Nope, these aren’t easy times for the Maoists. Rebel supremo Prachanda announces that he would lead the insurgents to a summit with the new representatives of the old state on building a new Nepal. It takes Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala several days to respond, and then he ends up naming Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula to head the government team.
Sitaula isn’t the problem here; he was the Nepali Congress representative most closely involved with the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA)’s 12-point accord with the Maoists. It’s his rank. King Gyanendra had shown greater deference to the Maoists in 2003 by deputing Deputy Prime Minister Badri Prasad Mandal to the negotiating table once it became clear that Maoist No. 2 Dr. Baburam Bhattarai would represent the rebels.
Although the Maoists have gained much from King Gyanendra’s capitulation, they have solid reasons to feel bruised. Even in victory, the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) continues be tight-fisted, insisting that People’s Movement II was primarily an enterprise of the mainstream. The evidence clearly exonerates the disgraced and detained ex-home minister, Kamal Thapa, who unleashed the full force of the state against the street protests contending that the Maoist had infiltrated them as part of a revised strategic offensive.
Specifically, King Gyanendra’s reinstatement of the House of Representatives last month was hardly the triumph the Maoists wanted. They had, after all, raised arms against constitutional monarchy AND parliamentary democracy.
After denouncing the SPA’s “sellout” to the palace, primarily to placate the rebel base, Prachanda acquiesced in the roadmap. The legislature was expected to assemble only for a short session and that, too, to invite the Maoists to join the interim government that would hold elections to the constituent assembly. Instead, the legislature seems to be acquiring supernatural powers of its own with each sitting.
With the Nepali Congress heading the executive and the UML at the top of the legislature, it’s all in the SPA family. Prachanda makes Matrika Prasad Yadav – whom the SPA government recently freed from prison as a goodwill gesture -- to assert the Maoists’ right to lead the interim government. UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, in effect, dismisses such talk as premature.
Now Prachanda has internationalized the issue. In an interview with The New York Times in an Indian city – which correspondent Somini Sengupta refused to identify on Prachanda’s insistence -- the rebel leader has let off his pent-up fury.
While The Times led with Prachanda’s refusal to disarm his fighters before the CA elections, unless the Nepal Army does, the rebel leader resonates the most in his frustration with SPA leaders.
“Now they want to marginalize us, they want to bypass us, and they want to
minimize the role of the Maoist movement,” Prachanda says. “That's why we are seriously concerned.”
Prachanda delineated what he described were his bottom-line demands for a new Nepal: a
federal structure that offers greater rights to Nepal's ethnic minorities, a new constitution that scraps the monarchy, and “revolutionary land reform” along the lines of Mao Zedong’s principle of “land to the tiller.”
Adding some background and context, Sengupta reminds readers that the rebels have said they would accept the verdict of Nepalese voters on whether the nation should remain a constitutional monarchy. Prachanda probably won’t shoot off a note to the NYT foreign desk clarifying that position.
Ever since emerging a step closer into full public view, Prachanda has been extremely elastic on the monarchy. Invariably, he demands that King Gyanendra be ousted, tried and executed, only to express a readiness to accept the popular will – often in the same breath. The thing to measure in the days and weeks ahead, therefore, will be Prachanda’s malleability in his references to the monarchy.

Friday, May 19, 2006

King Gyanendra The Commoner

With the Nepalese Army now firmly under the command and control of the Government of Nepal, King Gyanendra can safely put away his uniform and pursue his pre-enthronement business, environmental and literary interests.
The last thing palace advisers should be thinking about is challenging in the Supreme Court the People’s Proclamation unanimously approved by the reinstated House of Representatives.
Constitutionality stands no chance against politics during these fluid times. Moreover, the next couple of weeks are going to be busy. As Maoist Chairman Prachanda prepares for his summit with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the royal family, under the new legislative provisions, can expect to have their day in court.
Litigation is likely on everything from the accumulation of noses and earlobes during the War of National Unification of the 1700s to the abuse of countless quintets of buffaloes, sheep, goats, ducks and chickens slaughtered by the monarch in the name of Hinduism’s sweet lords and lordesses.
This embarrassing emasculation of the monarchy should not obscure the bright side of things. Since the royals’ property will now be taxed, King Gyanendra might want to consider that 30 percent voluntary disclosure scheme introduced by Ram Sharan Mahat during his last stint as finance minister and settle property matters once and for all.
The next thing the monarch should do is request the House of Representatives is to begin working out a schedule for his coronation. Since MPs will have to begin by voting on the fee structure for the panel of astrologers tasked with determining the most propitious planetary alignments, advance planning is highly desirable. That would leave sufficient time for the legislators to determine who should get the contract to clean up Hanuman Dhoka’s Nasal Chowk. This might seem tantamount to jumping the gun, especially with the constituent assembly expected to determine the fate of the monarchy still up in the air. Consider the other side of the argument. Depending on who’s doing the calculation, the monarchy will be around for another year to 18 months. Four years on the throne, all but four months as an active monarch, has brought King Gyanendra much denigration and denunciation. If he is to be castigated as the symbol of the institution that emaciated Nepal, the least he deserves is a formal coronation. At a minimum, the pomp and circumstance must befit a ceremonial king.
Crown Prince Paras should quit worrying about his public persona. If the constituent assembly decides to stick with the monarchy, parliament will decide what role Prince Paras should assume when the time comes. There will be plenty of political convulsions to contend with before the next cataclysm strikes, according to trend analysis, in 2018
The secularization of the Nepalese state might not be a bad thing, either. The whole idea of a Hindu kingdom cozying up with godless Chicoms and rabidly religious Pakislamists was incongruent. A Hindu ceremonial monarch of a secular state would be free to expand all kinds of ties with all kinds of royals beyond the seven seas. Prince Hridayendra won’t have to worry about his right to the throne every time a non-Hindu happens to catch his fancy.
The greatest possibility the People’s Proclamation opens up for King Gyanendra the Commoner lies in promoting the agenda he failed to advance as executive monarch. Ironically, the most antiquated institution of Nepalese society became the most vigorous advocate of World Trade Organization-led globalization. There is still time to build a lasting legacy.
Soaltee Group can start competing with the Chaudharis, Khetans, Vaidyas and Jyotis in patronizing parties and politicians most favorably inclined to free-market economics. Better still, the royals can build their own party that could pursue the twin goals of environmentally sustainable tourism and developing Nepal as a transit hub between the India and China that would offset the boisterousness and bitterness of its political arena.
India is still dominated by ex-royals and the Chinese are no doubt annoyed by perceptions that they are sponsoring the Nepalese Maoists rebels. There must be some temptation in Beijing to get even by instigating a secessionist movement in the Terai.
With Hindu nationalists fortifying the flank in India, China won’t face the embarrassment of supporting an executive monarch shunned by the rest of the whole world. Promoting fraternal ties with a palace-built party could be a safe bet both strategically and commercially for Beijing.
With the Nepali Congress, UML and the Maoists expected to be tied up in governance, King Gyanendra might even feel comfortable mingling with the Darbar Marg crowd without the encumbrance of royal guards far sooner than anyone of us expected.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It’s Back To Bashing Deuba

From one crude standard, at least, Nepalese politics does seem to be returning to normal. Sher Bahadur Deuba is once again being bashed for his royalist tendencies. News reports, ostensibly leaked by constituents of the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA), have blamed the Nepali Congress (Democratic) president for the delay in the parliamentary proclamation curtailing King Gyanendra’s powers.
Deuba had reportedly forwarded a proposal that would allow the monarch keep his post of the supreme commander of the RNA. From angry demonstrators on the streets to raging denizens of cyberspace, Deuba has enraged entire communities. The former premier was forced to reject what he called a campaign aimed at assassinating his character.
“This is grossly unfair to me,” Deuba told reporters. “I have repeatedly emphasized the need for a constituent assembly, changing the current national anthem, renaming ‘His Majesty’s Government ‘Nepal Government’ and bringing the army under the Parliament. Why should I support the King when he has repeatedly victimized me?”
The latest phase of Operation Demolish Deuba began the day he was freed from detention by a Supreme Court order. The more Congressi-than-the-Koiralas camp in the parent party was quick to draw comparisons. B.P. Koirala, Nepal's first elected premier, walked out of prison in 1968 after pledging to cooperate with King Mahendra, the man who had ousted him eight years earlier. (Of course, B.P. didn't have to actually demonstrate his fealty to the partyless Panchayat system because he slipped into
exile in India.) Deuba walked free on his own terms.
The anti-Deuba coterie in the Nepali Congress has had a long list of grievances against the man. This group hasn’t been able to forgive Deuba for becoming Nepal’s first prime minister who studied in the West. (The London School of Economics, to be precise.) Almost every time this fact is brought up, angry critics emerge to assert that Deuba was too preoccupied with more menial responsibilities in and around London to have visited the LSE more than a couple of times. The LSE didn’t see things that way, considering the reception it held for Deuba during his first stint as premier.
Then Deuba’s proximity to a former American ambassador is brought up. If the ambassador was good enough to facilitate the return of multiparty democracy in 1990 then there’s no reason why she shouldn’t have served as Deuba’s marriage facilitator – if indeed that was she had done.
If Deuba is in favor of boosting Nepal’s relations with the world’s only hyperpower, he is just representing a generational shift in a party that sees the world beyond the Hindi-speaking belt of northern India. Deuba shouldn’t have to apologize for that; in fact, he should bring in more people like Dr. Minendra Rijal and Dr. Prakash Sharan Mahat.
Deuba is castigated for having imported the “Pajero Culture” into Nepal. But his critics won’t explain that Deuba had to lead the country’s first parliamentary coalition where every MP felt entitled to his or her pound of flesh. And, worse still, most of his strongest critics on this count today are people who imported those gas guzzlers.
Deuba’s meeting with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office and his leadership of the SAARC summit during his second premiership were too much for his party rivals to bear. King Gyanendra may or may not have instigated Deuba to dissolve the House of Representatives in May 2003. If anything pushed Deuba to break away from the Koirala Congress and veer toward the palace, it was the coterie’s incessant subversion. Ram Chandra Poudel, who decided at the last minute not to join Deuba’s Congress as president, at one point insisted that you couldn’t blame a heavily cornered cat for jumping out the first window it found.
In accepting the third premiership, Deuba was taking a serious risk. A second sacking in as many years was bad enough. It was a travesty of royal justice to see Deuba jailed for corruption in a deal the principal donor agency considered clean, while all those certifiable sleazebags got to reinvent themselves as the greatest democrats on the streets of Kathmandu. And let’s not forget that Deuba was virtually dragged from home in the middle of the night to face trumped-up charges.
To understand Deuba’s strenuous denial of having backed King Gyanendra at the SPA meeting, you must go back to the first few interviews he gave after his release earlier this year. He thanked the United States, along with India and European nations, for their consistent pressure on King Gyanendra’s regime. He was forceful in projecting the ambiguities in the 12-point SPA-Maoist accord.
The most significant portions of Deuba’s post-freedom interviews were his tributes to the selfless service of the military. As someone who once made peace with the Maoists and also barely survived an assassination attempt mounted by the rebels, Deuba recognizes more than anyone else the perils of politically-inspired efforts to weaken the command and control structure. If he had indeed forwarded a proposal that would allow the monarch keep his post of the supreme commander of the RNA, maybe he was being pro-military.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Military And National Insecurity

What an argument to delay a “landmark” plan to strip King Gyanendra of almost all of his powers: Let’s wait for the monarch to expand the cabinet and then we will revisit the issue.
In effect, that’s what the leaders of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) said while postponing a landmark a parliamentary vote on a proclamation overriding the 1990 constitution.
Technically speaking, yes, King Gyanendra would be naming new ministers on the recommendation of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. And, yes, those ministers won’t be sworn in by the premier at the Royal Palace. And, yes, the cabinet won’t be serving His Majesty’s Government once the proclamation is adopted. Even by that circuitous logic, aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?
There is unanimity on the proclamation’s contents. Apart from “democratizing” the designation of the administration, the SPA intends to abolish the privy council. They accuse the king-appointed council of egging on the monarch to take absolute powers 15 months ago. (Prime Minister Koirala, one understands, agreed to take the oath from King Gyanendra on condition that he would not take his ex-officio seat on that council.)
The draft proclamation also aims to tax the king's income and property and allow his actions to be challenged in court.
The SPA controls more than 90 percent of the reinstated House of Representatives. So the proclamation would have breezed through. But MPs, we are told, decided to put off the vote because of “minor” differences within the SPA. Such a sweeping structural transformation of the state is now contingent on the SPA constituents’ agreement on the distribution of cabinet portfolios.
The “minor differences,” according to press reports, relate to the army. Reuters news service, quoting an independent Nepalese TV channel, said some politicians were not comfortable with the idea of also stripping the king of his formal title of supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Is the latest development an outcome of Royal Nepal Army (RNA) chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa’s hour-long one-on-one with Prime Minister Koirala the other day? That meeting touched off much speculation. According to the benign version, the army chief wanted to commiserate in front of the premier – who happens to be his boss on the National Security Council -- the double agony of having to send off his daughter in marriage to a foreign land at a time the country badly needed his undivided attention.
The more sinister version was that Gen. Thapa went in to inform the premier that the army – royal or not – was fully prepared to mount a real coup this time. Don’t try fixin’ what ain’t broke.
But that doesn’t answer why a section within the SPA would feel uncomfortable with the king shedding his formal military title. Could this be Prime Minister Koirala’s camouflage? Or has there been some belated acknowledgement within the SPA that the head of any state with a standing army holds an equivalent title?
It looks like the alliance leaders were impelled by the same reality that left control of the army and the exercise of emergency powers with the palace last time. It is tempting to believe that King Gyanendra somehow detected loopholes in the 1990 constitution that his late brother hadn’t and began plotting his takeover the moment he wore the crown.
The don’t-ask-don’t-tell reality was more elaborate. Once the euphoria of triumph wore off, the Nepal Congress and the communists recognized they were still rivals. For each, the monarchy was the lesser threat and therefore acceptable as the custodian of the coercive powers of the state.
Admittedly, the task of governing is much more arduous this time around. While confronting their internal rivalries, this time the SPA constituents have to contend with the Maoists, complete with their own army as well as agenda.
So the king stays as the supreme commander in chief but the army sheds its royal prefix? Now it’s really getting convoluted.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Watchdog’s Growl Of Good Sense

The sanest voice on the latest developments in Nepal has emerged from the Asian Center for Human Rights (ACHR). Condemning the arrests of five ministers in King Gyanendra’s cabinet, the New Delhi-based watchdog has urged Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's government to uphold the rule of law and not abuse preventive detention laws.
To the newly empowered Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and its supporters, the five ex-ministers -- Kamal Thapa, Ramesh Nath Pandey, Tanka Dhakal, Shrish Shumsher Rana and Nikshe Shumsher Rana – collectively represented the worst face of the royal regime.
Therefore, in the eye-for-an-eye… exuberance gripping the kingdom, it must be gratifying to the SPA that such prompt and decisive action has been taken against their former tormenters. The failure to act against the Panchayat leadership after the political change of 1990, we are told, allowed the “cancer of regression” to return to the body politic.
Countless SPA supporters, however, must be disappointed by the purported leniency shown by the government to the former ministers, security chiefs and bureaucrats. No justice is swifter than a lynch mob's.
The detainees themselves probably were not surprised by the Koirala government’s harshness. Having signed off on the incarceration of almost the entire SPA leadership more than once, the ex-ministers must have pondered the consequences of a reversal of roles amid the volatility of the country. Former home minister Kamal Thapa, for his part, had defied the SPA government to prove he had done anything unlawful in ordering the crackdown on the April protests, adding his readiness to face any consequence based on due process.
It is becomes easy to dismiss criticism of the SPA government’s purported gallantry as despicable defense of the indefensible. But here’s the news. During King Gyanendra’s direct rule, the ACHR was perhaps the most consistently ferocious critic. It was among the first organizations that had called for sanctions on the monarch and his ministers.
In his latest statement, ACHR Director Suhas Chakma is still unforgiving. He pointed out: “[A]ll illegal acts and human rights violations have been done under the leadership of King Gyanendra as the chairman of the council of ministers. Therefore, the commission must investigate the chain of command accordingly.”
The operative reality here is that the ACHR and, oddly enough, Kamal Thapa are on the same side as advocates of due process. The organization made a distinction between the detention of the former ministers and the suspension of nine security officials. It said the suspension of the chiefs of Nepal Police, Shyam Bhakta Thapa, Armed Police Force, Shahabir Thapa, National Investigation Department, Devi Ram Sharma and six other security officials was indispensable to prevent destruction, tampering of evidence and misuse of official powers. Chakma also urged the government to suspend Royal Nepalese Army chief, General Pyar Jung Thapa, in the interest of a “fair inquiry”.
The ACHR, however, considered the arrest of the ministers under the Public Safety Act as unwarranted. “The government should have waited for the conclusion of the Justice Krishna Jung Rayamajhi commission of inquiry before making any arrests for alleged violations of human rights,” Chakma said.
Recalling that the Public Safety Act or the Public Offences Act were dreaded instruments used by previous kings to suppress pro-democracy uprisings, Chakma urged Prime Minister Koirala government to repeal the two draconian laws.
The ACHR is entitled to its own interpretations of the intentions and actions of the royal regime and it is difficult to agree with all of them, considering the wider malaise gripping the nation. What’s less difficult, though, is to commend the organization’s ability to zero in on the finer points to uphold the cause of due process. And more so at a time when Nepalese politics has lost even that fragile base of constitutionalism the royal regime stood upon.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Eight-Party Dalliance

Rarely must have politics so brazenly outpaced constitutionalism as is being witnessed in Nepal. An elected legislature dissolved by an elected prime minister in keeping with his constitutional prerogatives has been revived through royal proclamation – that, too, two years after the expiration of its natural life. Technically, the upper house of parliament is still alive. No one seems interested in bicameralism.
The Supreme Court had validated Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s decision to dissolve the lower house of parliament in 2002. The justices had not considered the eventuality of fresh polls not being held within the stipulated six months. If anything, the apex court should have been allowed to revisit the case. Instead, the monarch whose absolutism the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) claimed it was fighting against ended up reviving the legislature by decree. With Article 127 always on his side, King Gyanendra’s 15-month rule was a model of constitutionalism compared to what is going on now.
It was assumed the House of Representatives would meet briefly to formalize the SPA roadmap to bring the Maoists into the political process. Now Madhav Kumar Nepal, the general secretary of the Unified Marxists and Leninists (UML) wants the legislature to continue functioning until the ambiguous goal of “total democracy” is achieved.
What’s more, the leader of the opposition in the dissolved house is now threatening to pull out the UML from Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s multiparty government unless the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) is immediately rechristened and brought under the control of parliament.
The RNA generals must be dying to say what they have to say on the matter. There must be different versions under consideration, conveying the same core message: Sorry, gentlemen, but we enjoy being under the king.
The Maoists, who have made noises about the irrelevance of the legislative proceedings, must be privately relishing the spectacle being enacted at the “butcher’s store palming off dog meat as mutton” they once derided. They must be biding their time for the total victory the heavily indoctrinated wing of the rebels has always desired.
The assumption, of course, is that the royalists are a spent force. But are they? Dr. Tulsi Giri, the much reviled senior deputy in King Gyanendra’s government, wants to give the Koirala government the customary honeymoon period before making any comment. That is a view shared by Shrish Shumsher Rana, King Gyanendra’s communications minister and the government spokesman.
Former home minister Kamal Thapa rejects the suggestion that the royal government responded with unwarranted harshness to the burgeoning protests. Thapa, moreover, has indicated he would come out with a detailed explanation on why he thought the royal roadmap failed.
And then there’s retired general Satchit Sumshere Rana, who as army chief in 1990 urged King Birendra to militarily suppress the foreign-inspired unrest masquerading as the People’s Movement. Satchit Rana, considered a close adviser to King Gyanendra, says he will open his mouth in about a month and a half’s time.
On the surface, the Koirala government has sought to assert its authority by recalling 12 ambassadors the king had appointed and by rehabilitating senior bureaucrats marginalized during palace rule. Several royal decrees have been annulled and more drastic decisions are expected. It’s intriguing why the government hasn’t sacked RNA chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa and the three heads of the security agencies under the Home Ministry?
The Maoists and certain sections within the SPA are disappointed in the government’s laxness. They want an interim constitution leading up to a constituent assembly. Strike while the iron is hot. Surely, the last four years must have been cathartic for SPA leaders. After all, they had been projecting the current constitution as one of the best in the world proclaiming that it didn’t need to be amended for at least 30 years.
True to its reputation, the “dependent” media has been hyping the imminence of an Indian “Marshall Plan.” With issues of economic security being addressed with such promptness, could political and strategic imperatives remain in New Delhi’s back burner?
Why not save much time and energy by building on UML general secretary Nepal’s proposal. Our honorable legislators should formally request the Maoists to nominate 205 representatives to the august body. The expanded institution should then be designated the constituent assembly.
Having resolved to draft a republican constitution, and cleared the monarchy out of the way, the legislators could then spend the rest of their lives working out the articles, clauses and schedules. At least, the next generation of Nepalese impatient for radical change would have precedent on their side.

Monday, May 08, 2006

(Counter)Revolutionary Command Counsel

It must be a testimony to our twisted times that, in a matter of a fortnight, Nepalis have graduated from discussing a nebulous “total democracy” to deliberating on the threat of a “counterrevolution.”
On the surface, things are moving according to the Seven-Party Alliance + Maoist (SPAM) plan. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and the reinstated House of Representatives are taking all kinds of confidence-building measures to woo the Maoists. His Majesty’s Government will soon be known as the Government of Nepal. If the Unified Marxist-Leninists have their way, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) is increasingly likely to shed its regal prefix.
Maoist Chairman Prachanda thinks the speed at which the country is heading toward a constituent assembly is too good to be true. He’s started wondering why hardcore royalists like Pashupati Sumshere Rana have suddenly become the most ardent champions of a body conceived to formalize the abolition of the monarchy.
The general atmosphere, however, still seems so conducive that Prachanda feels it may be time to emerge from two decades in the netherworld.
Beneath this rosiness, cautionary notes abound. At a recent program, military experts warned of a military coup should the legislators further delay the rechristening of the RNA. All kinds of conclusions, moreover, are being drawn from King Gyanendra’s resumed religiosity.
The mood in India, too, seems to have turned a little somber on at least three dimensions. Some analysts have started speculating on how long Nepal’s squabbling political class can expect to sail smoothly between two armed institutions – the monarchy and Maoists.
Others close to the ruling alliance in Delhi are wondering how Kathmandu’s newly empowered politicians could end up trusting Indian Marxists more than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Yet another group of Indians seem embittered by the greater faith the Nepalese political leadership has placed in the United Nations on the question of monitoring the emerging peace process. (Surprise, surprise.)
The recent visit of Karan Singh, the son of the last maharajah of Kashmir, underscored the influence “Nepalese feudalism” continues to wield in India. It’s getting better. Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad, the 35-year-old son of the youngest brother of Baroda's last ruler, will be tying the knot with the daughter of RNA chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa. (No disrespect to Gen. Thapa’s upbringing and background; the political vocabulary permits the interchangeable usage of the terms monarchy and the military.)
It’s another Thapa who has sounded the most ominous warning, at least in Maila Baje’s view. Former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa’s Rastriya Janashakti Party (RJP) is concerned by the spate of political decisions the government and the legislature has been making. No prizes for questioning decisions of an executive and legislature of questionable constitutional standing. The RJP goes a step further.
Fearing that such a trend might lead to anarchy, the party has urged the government to prioritize the “genuine” Maoist issue to guarantee security and unobstructed movement to the people.
A meaningless rant from yesterday’s man? Of the three ex-premiers who have served Kings Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra, Surya Bahadur Thapa is the only one who stood against the palace’s 15-month direct rule. (The other two, Dr. Tulsi Giri and Kirti Nidhi Bista, served as the executive monarch’s deputies.)
More important, though, is the perception that, among all the principal politicians in Nepal, Thapa commands the greatest respect across the southern border – and thereby enjoys the full aura and privileges that come with it. It would be prudent to mark his words.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Royalist Rues SPA Recriminations

Some time around 2000, when Nepalese politicians were being derided and deprecated as inefficient, corrupt and power-hungry, a newspaper interviewer gave Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader Pradeep Nepal an opportunity to respond.
Our articulate comrade was almost defiant in his defense of his tribe. Politicians were the only accountable people alive in Nepal, he said. “If we crave the gates of Singha Darbar, we do so knowing that the doors to Nakkhu are very close by.” Or something of that order.
Maila Baje was struck by the power of this Pradeepism. When King Gyanendra dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s elected government on October 4, 2002 and began hiring and firing prime ministers, the political class was blamed for the resurgence of royal assertiveness. Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala, the man widely reviled as the symbol of Nepal’s democratic decay, was instantly at the helm of the anti-palace front. There could have been no better illustration of the fact that allegations of corruption cannot diminish one’s allegiance to core principles.
As a staunch supporter of an active monarchy from the Panchayat days, Maila Baje disagreed with Koirala’s equation of royal activism with right-wing autocracy. If monarchy were to remain relevant in Nepal, the palace and the parties would have to devise some formula for sharing political powers. King Gyanendra, in Maila Baje’s humble opinion, would be able to contribute more to the country as an ordinary citizen than as a titular monarch. Still he was marveled at the way the octogenarian Koirala traversed the country to advance his cause.
When King Gyanendra took over full executive powers on February 1, 2005, placing much of the political class in detention, Maila Baje recalled Pradeep Nepal’s words. Despite their tattered public image and enticements from the palace, the political class stuck to its vision for a democratic Nepal.
Now that the people have voted with their feet against King Gyanendra’s direct rule, royalists are on the run. Maila Baje supported the royal takeover because of a set of shared beliefs. In essence, they related to issues concerning Nepal’s sovereign existence between its two giant and increasingly assertive neighbors and its place in the larger comity of nations. That is something Nepal will continue to confront under a republican set-up. Let’s leave that for another day.
For now, achieving equilibrium among the triumphant political forces has become the overriding priority. It’s here that Maila Baje feels Pradeep Nepal is being unfairly hounded. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s government has yet to strengthen itself sufficiently for the mammoth task ahead. Drawing the Maoists into an interim government is vital to holding the constituent assembly elections with any degree of credibility. For one thing, the rebels must directly participate in an endeavor they have pressed at such great human and physical cost. Moreover, such participation is essential to ensuring their enduring commitment to the outcome.
Before that, however, the SPA constituents must be able to reconcile themselves to a proper and equitable sharing of responsibility. If the UML is seeking some of the vital portfolios like home, defense, communication, then that cannot be construed as greed for power. The SPA was an alliance constructed for a specific undertaking. Once the House of Representatives was restored and the SPA felt satisfied enough to take over governance, serious internal deliberations were bound to follow.
If the UML is uncomfortable with its role in the common endeavor the SPA is embarking on with the Maoists, then the effort may be doomed from the start. If the Nepali Congress believes the UML is unnecessarily throwing up roadblocks but cannot persuade its ally to see things its way, then the weakness of the alliance must be acknowledged for remedial action.
Multiparty democracy will continue to throw up a multiplicity of issues and ideas that need to be reconciled. If homogeneity could be a successful policy premise, then every Nepali would probably have been a happy pancha today.
Civil society, non-government organizations and all the other folks admonishing the politicians should bear one thing in mind. Their participation to the anti-palace movement may have been critical. Without the Nepali Congress, UML and other parties at the helm, the movement would not have received the legitimacy it has. The democratic process is capable of resolving its contradictions and must be allowed to do so. Governing requires much more strength than does hollering slogans on the streets.
In castigating Koirala, Nepal and all the other people for conducting deliberations that are central to the quality of the overhaul Nepal desperately needs, care must be taken not to undermine the endeavor. And, remember, this is a word of caution from a diehard royalist.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Monarch, Monarchy And Moral

The eKantipur.com headline screamed out on the screen: “Martyrs' families have no heart for monarchy.” After all the country has gone through, one would have thought such a sentiment was a given.
What impelled Maila Baje to continue was the desire to know how badly these hapless relatives felt the king was really bad for the wellbeing of Nepal and Nepalis. They were killed, after all, by security forces mobilized by the king in his capacity as head of government.
During the 1990 movement, the family of Nirgun Sthapit could at least blame Prime Minister Marich Man Singh Shrestha for their grievous loss. (Niranjan Thapa, the junior home minister in that government was a member of the royal regime. He’s out of the hate list probably because his portfolio was not directly related or responsible for the crackdown.)
By the second paragraph, Maila Baje was stunned by the real story. “Among members of three martyrs' families, two were in favor of a republic while one said monarchy could be granted a ceremonial role. Similarly, among five persons injured during the recent pro-democracy protests, four wanted a "democratic republic" without a king.”
Wasn’t this the equivalent of the relatives of Dharma Bhakta Mathema and Tanka Prasad Acharya rooting for Sree Teen Juddha Sumshere Rana provided he returned the panjapatra to Narayanhity?
How could these people reconcile themselves to the monarchy? The same way the respondents in a recent Himal Khabarpatrika poll came out? Two thirds of those polled, one recalls, blamed King Gyanendra for Nepal’s crisis, while almost half said they believed the country still needed a constitutional monarchy.
If one out of four victims’ families and one out of five injured protesters can draw a distinction between the monarch and the monarchy so soon after their loss, is there a moral or three here?
Can Nepal set an international example in truth and reconciliation?
Can a country gripped by ancient hatreds dating back to King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s national unification campaign really lay down its burdens and move ahead?
Can we even pretend to predict the outcome – vis-à-vis the monarchy – of a constituent assembly election who knows when will be held?