Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Crown In Koirala’s Space And Time

The more you hear him express it, the more assured you become that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s admiration for a ceremonial monarchy comes with a utilitarian strain of adoration.
At one level, it’s hard to feel affection for someone – or an institution, in this case – that you feel has repeatedly beleaguered you. At another, the torment is the thrill. Having fought against three politically assertive kings, overseen as prime minister the funeral of two and witnessed the enthronement of one, royalty must have left an enduring impression on Koirala.
As someone castigated for a purported attempt to impose his own dynasty on the people in the garb of democracy, Koirala would be the least likely of today’s leaders to be rooting for the monarchy. Yet that’s what he is doing at every opportunity. Having firmly supported the royal takeover and awaiting the more dispassionate judgment of history on King Gyanendra’s motives, this writer fails to see the wisdom of keeping a monarch stripped of everything but his clothes.
But even the worst critics of Koirala must acknowledge the firmness of his convictions. In the three and a half years since King Gyanendra assumed a direct political role, Koirala was unsparing in his criticism of the monarch. Amid the vituperation, one often wondered what kind of conversation Koirala could have struck up with the king during the slew of individual and collective audiences before the Feb. 1, 2005 royal takeover.
Demonized by rivals as corrupt, dictatorial, haughty and adamant, Koirala remained consistent in demanding the reinstatement of the House of Representatives. What was brushed off as a constitutionally unviable demand eventually provided the sanest political outlet. For Koirala, vindication must have come in many hues. The Maoists, who once clubbed Koirala together with the newly crowned monarch and his yet-undeclared heir as the principal enemies of the state before pressuring him into resigning in 2001, sought the legitimacy of his leadership to challenge the palace through unarmed street protests.
Koirala’s incessant invocation of the term “grand design” at critical junctures left all scurrying for clues. Today, he stands alone on the national stage emphasizing the need for a nebulous ceremonial monarchy.
To be fair, Koirala has been consistent on this count. During the apogee of royal rule, Koirala insisted the conduct of the monarch, above all, would determine whether Nepal became a republic. In dropping the traditional reference to the monarchy from the statute of his Nepali Congress, Koirala must have merely raised the stakes.
The consummate politician in him always saw the “republic card” as a bargaining chip – and he wasn’t ashamed to acknowledge that. Amid Nepal’s geopolitical realities, abolishing the monarchy without creating something to fill the vacuum was not prudent politics. (For clarity’s sake, he could have said Nepal needed the king more than the other way around, but that wouldn’t have been politically prudent either.)
As Nepal’s pre-eminent democrat, Koirala couldn’t think of pre-empting the Nepalese people’s right to determine their destiny. In the crucial transition phase, however, the leader owed it to his people to help them separate emotion and essence.
If the Maoists could insist on abolishing the monarchy through the interim constitution, then surely Koirala had the right to advocate the virtues of a ceremonial monarchy as he saw it.
The exigencies of statecraft must have intervened, too. Having deleted the royal prefix from the Nepalese Army, Koirala could have reprimanded Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa for going to the palace to extend birthday greetings to a man who was no longer his commander. As prime minister, Koirala recognized the more urgent imperative of maintaining morale in a force that still retains institutional loyalty to the crown. A legislature drawing sustenance from the political passions of the moment could not even pretend to sever by decree ties that began with the creation of the modern Nepalese state.
Koirala, for his part, has had a front-row view of the fickleness of the political moment. After mass protests forced King Birendra to abolish the Panchayat 16 years ago, Koirala was heckled for suggesting that the restoration of multiparty democracy represented a victory for the palace as well. King Birendra’s strained relations with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had undoubtedly galvanized the democracy movement in Nepal. But by the middle of Koirala’s first term as premier, his visiting Indian counterpart P.V. Narasimha Rao chose to keep much of the substantive bilateral discussions for the quiet dinner at the royal palace.
A few years ago, Koirala had assured King Gyanendra that he could get the Maoists to accept the monarchy if the palace agreed to constituent assembly elections. Having preempted the palace through street protests, Koirala has begun cracking the whips on the Maoists. His Nepali Congress colleagues like Ram Chandra Poudel and Narahari Acharya can believe all they want that their brand of republicanism can thrive with the Maoists in the driver’s seat. Koirala certainly has the right to articulate his views in support of a ceremonial monarchy.
More important, in the marketplace of ideas he envisions for all of us, Koirala’s critics can mount a reasoned challenge or garner enough votes against him. But they certainly can’t expect to silence Nepal’s most prominent democrat.