Sunday, August 13, 2006

Chhaya Devi Syndrome & Uncivil Society

Chhaya Devi Parajuli, who many considered the epitome of Nepalis’ eternal quest for freedom during the recent democracy protests, is angered in the aftermath. Actually, it’s her relatives. They are criticizing the current leaders for not visiting the 88-year-old lady hospitalized with a fractured leg. (The motorcyclist who inflicted all this had no royal connections, so he’s out of the media spotlight.)
As someone who participated in every democracy movement since 1950, Chhaya Devi perhaps does deserve a little affection from those in power. The problem is that her relatives feel she is entitled to it. Barring a few members of the reinstated legislature, we are told, no one of any significant political stature has been at her bedside.
Now, it would have been a miracle if any SPA bigwig had found time between shredding King Gyanendra’s political ambitions and seeking to strip the Maoists of their guns to recall Chhaya Devi’s ebullience in the spring.
It’s useless to complain about the mindset of a handful of relatives when the Chhaya Devi Syndrome has gripped our civil society. From the tenor and thrust of this disparate group, they are determined to extract their ton of the democracy flesh. In their view, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has betrayed the April Uprising because of his infatuation with a ceremonial monarchy. The SPA is a slothful bunch in power purely at civil society’s pleasure. For them, the Maoists are Nepal’s only hope, although it’s unclear whether this compliment resonates from their fear or faith. For now, the SPA and the Maoists are appeasing this section by apportioning a third of the seats in the interim assembly.
True, civil society’s participation built the size and momentum of the protests against King Gyanendra’s regime. It is equally true that this group was energized into action only by the royal regime’s effort to tighten rules governing local and international nongovernmental organizations. That would have meant tighter government scrutiny of foreign funds and local expenditures. When Koirala, UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal and the other mainstream politicians were shackled into silence, most of our captains of civil society were still blaming them for the king’s political ambitions.
The narcissism of some of these leaders is nauseating. Take this former finance secretary under the Panchayat system, who broke with the palace-led regime because he didn’t like the way then-prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa was exploiting national resources to rig the referendum in the palace’s favor.
The act of defiance was undoubtedly courageous. But could it obscure the role this gentleman played to sustain the Panchayat system all those years before that? How many bureaucrats were fortunate to have spent almost all of their service in the lucrative Finance Ministry? More importantly, how many civil servants had worked their way up the ministry ladder, through the foreign aid unit, to reach the top? If the Panchayat system was an abomination, a portion of the responsibility surely must fall on this person.
The gentleman became finance minister in the interim government formed after the 1990 political change. A member of premier Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s entourage, our minister was at the center of those crucial talks in New Delhi. When Bhattarai got into trouble because of his reference to “common rivers,” the finance minister was reminding everyone of the “non-political” nature of his status in the cabinet.
This time around, the SPA and Maoists had named him the head of the truce monitoring committee. He refused, saying he had neither the interest nor competence for the job. Was the rebuff necessary when the country was short of people both sides could trust? (Or maybe the gentleman was far too proficient in fanning flames for a role reversal.)
Then there are these two medical doctors representing two generations. The first, long known among patients for his harangues on Nepalis’ almost congenital inability to comprehend the virtues of personal hygiene, thought it was time to show some political astuteness. King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Nepal’s last elected prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, on October 4, 2002 was constitutionally correct, the doctor diagnosed; the monarch’s appointment of Lokendra Bahadur Chand a couple of days later wasn’t. The nuances were as nebulous as ever, but they didn’t matter. The tribe of non-political personages with political prescriptions had just proliferated. His advocacy of republicanism seems to be rooted more in his allegiance to a line of Ranas with whom the monarch does not share direct blood ties.
Another medical doctor, who was the personal physician of UML prime minister Manmohan Adhikary, traces his political antecedents to his days as a student in India. In newspaper columns, he would offer his two cents on almost everything he thought ailed the Nepalese polity. In his professional realm, he was known for his sharp memory. If you had ever been a patient and advised to seek medical treatment abroad, you had to be sure you called to say ‘thank you’ if you ever expected to schedule another appointment.
This doctor, too, is upset with Koirala’s emerging royal attachment. The Maoists, UML and others are entitled to prejudicing the constituent assembly elections by demanding the declaration of a republic right away, but Koirala is no longer a democrat because he roots for the royals.
What might have come of a civil society protest if, say, Koirala and the SPA hadn’t led the charge against the palace? Our three doctors would probably still be hollering themselves hoarse on the edges of the city. What do you say, Mrs. Parajuli?