Sunday, November 26, 2006

Story Of Betrayal Amid Peace Tantrums

Protestors injured in the April Uprising want representation in the interim parliament. Can the relatives of those killed be far behind? Yet this is just a fraction of the farce masquerading as our peace process.
The elaborately named Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought out our euphoric tendencies in a multiple hues. Those who rejoiced at how King Gyanendra had now become the most humiliated man in Asia perhaps didn’t expect the palace to issue a statement hailing the accord. It does, after all, take uncommon effort to extol the success of your adversaries.
Since that couldn’t be the story line, the palace’s motives dominated the news. But the fallout was conspicuous. For the same critics, Asia’s most humiliated man now retained the power to take over the state if the political actors failed yet again. (Talk about the irrelevance of the monarchy.)
On the republican side, exasperation at the monarchy’s staying power is becoming more and more evident. The feeling in this camp seems to be that Nepalis might not be able to part with the institution so easily. Privately, key campaigners now decry the people as imbeciles.
The anti-monarchy constituency across the southern border remains equally vexed. Why hasn’t the monarch fled the country with whatever he can managed to stash aboard his aircraft? A passive monarch’s motives are being pursued with equal vigor.
It was interesting to read, courtesy an Australian newspaper, how King Gyanendra must be feeling. The monarch feels betrayed, according to former army chief Sachit Sumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, a close adviser to the royal regime.
“The Indian envoy told His Majesty if he stepped down he could become a ceremonial king again,” Rana said in an interview with The Age. “The next day (they) said, ‘India has no role in the future of the monarchy, it’s for the people to decide’,” he said.
Rana added: “The king felt he had been set up… He reinstated the defunct parliament and then everything started to go wrong … the agenda coming from the south (India) was to remove the king, weaken the army and weaken religion.”
Rana makes a point that needs to be advanced. King Gyanendra’s second proclamation on April 22 must have come after hectic negotiations among the principle political players and external stakeholders. The palace’s climbdown was apparent in the text. The draft must have been okayed by the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) in advance. Who took part in those negotiations and what was on the table? With the monarch available to swear in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the SPA must have made certain commitments to the palace.
We do know that a U.S. House of Representatives delegation led by Speaker Dennis Hastert called off a visit to Nepal as the protests grew ugly. We also know that the American Embassy had closed down, shifting its visa operations to Delhi. Ambassador James F. Moriarty had warned of a “messy abdication.”
The SPA must have been power-hungry to have accepted the palace offer to reinstate the house. Why didn’t the Maoists continue with the protests and unfurled their flag atop Narayanhity? Were the rebels so convinced of the palace’s opposition to a reinstatement of the legislature that they focused only on the divisions a bloodier crackdown would have created within the royal regime?
Sure, Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai savaged the SPA for having accepted royal crumbs. But that sounded more like a cover for restraining their cadres’ from marching on the palace. Was the 12-point SPA-Maoist accord that set the alliance rolling actually intended to maintain that tripartite balance of power New Delhi has always thrived on in Nepal?
Perhaps the palace should claim its share of nominees in the interim parliament. If it hadn’t cracked down on all those curfew violators, we’d still be living under the royal regime.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Anxiety Behind The Exultation

Behind their exultation in the Rayamajhi Commission’s indictment of King Gyanendra for “suppressing” the democracy protests in April, you can feel a deepening disquiet among the monarch's opponents over his seeming indifference to the successive pounding his image has taken.
For all his bluster at the New Delhi leadership conference and in media interviews on the sidelines, Maoist chairman Prachanda still believes the monarch is capable of preventing things from going the rebels’ way.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala said more about the state of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)-Maoist consensus than about the palace’s plight in rejecting demands for a referendum on the monarchy. A referendum, the prime minister said, would allow King Gyanendra to demonstrate his standing and thereby demand some “space”. Even the nation’s preeminent ceremonial monarchist doesn’t seem to believe in the soundness of his own platform.
The wily UML comrades, for their part, are quietly keeping their options open. In the emerging realignment, the mainstream Reds know they hold the strongest royalist card fortified by an innate advantage of plausible deniability.
How does King Gyanendra feel about all this? Amused, might be the appropriate word. He is being asked to take responsibility for the deaths of 22 protesters (hadn’t the toll reached 24 at one point?), while the man responsible for 13,000 deaths gets to rub shoulders with former prime ministers in the world’s largest democracy where his organization is still considered a terrorist group. (Who knows when Prachanda will disclose how and where he met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi? When neither is able or unwilling to respond, perhaps.)
Forget the 13,000 lives claimed by a decade of violence the Maoists started. Take the Madi bus bombing in June 2005 that killed 36 people. What kind of responsibility are Prachanda and his people going to take? The rebel chief once said he would offer compensation to victims’ family, but then demurred after discovering how that gesture might prompt an enquiry into Maoist finances.
At least the 22 (24?) dead protesters and their families knew there was a curfew in place and that the state had vowed to enforce it with the full force of the law. The Madi bus passengers couldn’t have known there were soldiers on board even if they had been aware of the “crime” in sharing a trip.
King Gyanendra knew he was gambling his throne when he took over direct control. From February to November of last year, the hectic haggling of his external critics in exchange for their support was audible. Only when China backed its arrival as an observer at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation with arms supplies to the Royal Nepalese Army did the SPA-Maoist alliance gain any traction. (If the African summit in Beijing and China’s reiteration of its claim on India’s Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s arrival in New Delhi is anything to go by, Nepal can hardly consider to have attained geopolitical equilibrium.)
If that 12-point accord – and the staid string of successors – had even half of the robustness the signatories flaunted, Nepalis would have by now voted in a constituent assembly elections without the monarchy being in the picture. The Maoists, forget the SPA, wouldn’t have called off the movement if they had really owned the message or momentum.
It was clear when Prachanda reinstated Dr. Baburam Bhattarai to his party positions without having resolved the original dispute that he was acting under some pressure. When Prachanda went a step further and dispatched Dr. Bhattarai to hold talks first with Indian mediators and then SPA leaders summoned to Delhi, he had to either outdo his deputy’s India-friendliness or perish.
With allies like Comrades Gaurav and Kiran in detention in India, Prachanda knew what his priority had to be. Whipping up the bogey of Pakistan’s ISI and making all the sounds his audience would love to hear, Prachanda tried his best in New Delhi over the weekend to burnish his credentials.
How could King Gyanendra not feel the heat from the first official report in the history of Nepal indicting the monarch? For a man who ascended to the throne amid allegations of having committed regicide, fratricide and everything else imaginable, nothing could be painful. Moreover, the monarch knew that whatever he said wouldn’t have stopped the Rayamajhi Commission from blaming him anyway.
As for the notion of a god-king having fallen from his pedestal, well, the palace is most familiar with the pitfalls. The Ranas used the divinity argument to keep successive kings out of public sight and any role.
King Gyanendra, for his part, clearly told that interviewer from Time magazine that he didn’t consider himself to be divine in any way. If the western media love the news peg, then they’re free to use it.
After all, Vishnu’s halo didn’t prevent King Birendra’s entire family from those wicked calumnies nobody could either prove or have the courage to retract. When it came time for the parties to deliver, they had to change course and project him as a model constitutional monarch. Of course, it was only after King Gyanendra’s takeover that party leaders began explaining how the slain king was not the exemplar they had so assiduously made him out to be.
As for the future of the crown amid all of today’s turbulence, a monarch who never planned his official coronation throughout the three and a half years he was in total control, King Gyanendra must have thoughts of his own.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kingmaker In A Republic?

Khum Bahadur Khadka’s acquittal in a corruption case the other day came as an odd relief. At a time when Girija Prasad Koirala – the embodiment, in the view of many, of the ills gripping Nepal’s second phase of democracy between 1990 and 2002 – leading the campaign for national renewal, corruption has become a non-issue indeed. One hopes this latest development encourages Khadka to come out of hibernation.
Khadka pretty much used to be at the forefront when governments rose and fell. If there was any one person responsible for the split in the UML, by common consensus it was Khadka.
With at least two dozens MPs always in his pocket, Khadka kept his own party bosses constantly on their toes. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Girija Prasad Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba all needed his support to gain power. Once they did, it was always Khadka they were anxious about.
A few months after snatching the premiership back from Bhattarai with the help of Khadka in 2000, Koirala was forced to sack him from the cabinet. Then a little while later, Koirala tried hard to get him back – and failed.
Deuba couldn’t have created his second premiership or subsequently his separate party without Khadka. For some reason, Khadka and Bijay Kumar Gachchadar seemed to be the only ministers King Gyanendra liked to meet directly and let the country know about it.
When Deuba agreed to postpone the 2002 parliamentary elections and was preparing to make a recommendation to the king, Khadka, as home minister, continued to insist that the government could hold the poll in phases. (Imagine how differently things might have turned out had the country heeded him.)
When King Gyanendra sacked the Deuba government on October 4, 2002, Khum Bahadur soon found himself in the lockup. Rumor had it that he had actually evaded the royal dragnet and had reached a southern Indian city, before New Delhi handed him back to Nepal. But, then, that’s just a rumor.
Incarceration must have spurred much introspection. One of the most powerful home ministers was at the mercy of the police force he reigned over. Then one morning, Koirala made a phone call to assure Khadka his full moral support. Deuba was still sulking somewhere.
When he got out on bail, Khadka returned to the Koirala Congress. His inactivity might have been forced; the coterie that had sought to insulate Koirala after the party split certainly didn’t want to cede any influence. Or maybe Khadka kept quiet because his return was an act of expiation.
Asked to explain the source of his wealth after his acquittal, Khadka reminded a reporter that he belonged to well-to-do family. That’s pretty much the standard defense of most crooks. Except, that in Khadka’s case, it might be true.
You can still find Nepali Congress people who know how Khadka used to sneak into his hometown Dang and slip out with crop-generated cash to sustain himself and allies in exile. Whether there are any people still willing to vouch for that is a different matter.
Khadka was in B.P. Koirala’s entourage when the ex-premier returned from exile in India in 1976 with his national reconciliation plea. Khadka wasn’t particularly thrilled with the monarchy and he didn’t shy from voicing that in the 1990s. And let’s not forget those were times when it was mandatory for the political class to extol the perfection with which the monarchy had conformed to its constitutional role.
Khadka is probably in the ceremonial monarchy wing of the party today, and only because he doesn’t want to undercut Koirala in his current enterprise. If he gets back even a fraction of his former ardor, Khadka can certainly emerge as the preeminent kingmaker in a republican Nepal.

Monday, November 06, 2006

It’s Aishwarya, After All

Coincidences can be cruel and some should not be commented upon, especially where much-earned conjugal bliss is involved. Yet the case here has crucial relevance for modern Nepali history.
Devyani Rana, the women at the center of the Narayanhity massacre five years ago, was formally engaged to Aishwarya Singh, grandson of India’s Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh, in New Delhi on Sunday. Devyani can finally hope to put the past behind her. But wishes alone cannot put asunder what chance has put together.
The fact that the bridegroom shares his name with Devyani’s would-be mother-in-law will remain etched in some recess of the Nepali psyche. What happened on that tragic night has been examined from all conceivable quarter. As a political expedient, the Seven Party Alliance as well as the Maoists have used the tragedy to denigrate King Gyanendra and his family.
What hasn’t received sufficient attention is what Devyani knew and when. When Crown Prince Dipendra, as patron of the Nepal Olympics Committee, left for the Sydney Games, even Devyani’s closest confidantes didn’t have a clue she was heading that way. Yet two weeks sounds to long for a couple to maintain secrecy, especially amid all the other congenitally inquisitive Nepalis in the entourage.
Surely, Minister of State for Communication Dilendra Prasad Badu, who accompanied Crown Prince Dipendra to the Sydney Games as assistant sports minister, must be in a position to shed light.
Specifically, why had Devyani phoned Crown Prince Dipendra’s ADC sounding almost desperate for her boyfriend’s wellbeing when in fact the host of the Friday dinner was still playing billiards?
What she said must have been compelling enough. For ADC Raju Karki, due to leave for the United States the following morning, went to the palace to inquire about the crown prince after his initial protestations to Devyani that he was off duty.
If the probe commission got its timeline wrong, then Devyani could have disputed it. Yet she has chosen to remain silent. Silence is her right.
After all, Devyani’s own emotional travails were submerged in the obsession with Crown Prince Dipendra’s inner conflicts. A steady relationship with the crown prince must have excluded a bevy of suitors reconciled to the good fortune of a future monarch.
Devyani’s refusal to depose before the probe panel was understandable, considering how distraught she must have been. Yet her flight to India when all of the other living protagonists remained in Kathmandu to face the condemnation/commiseration of ordinary Nepalis seemed a little disconcerting.
In any case, Devyani is too central to the most tragic episode of our history to take the Nepali equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.
With her dad, Rastriya Prajatanta Party President Pashupati Shamsher Rana, recently having sounded ambivalent to the idea of retaining the monarchy in any form, Devyani might be able to shed some light on Nepal’s road ahead without even knowing it.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Relentless Sounds Of Royal Silence

Seven months after he was shoved to the sidelines, King Gyanendra is now tormenting his critics by his silence. Could this be the lull before a thunderous storm? Or is the hush symptomatic of a drawn-out obliteration of Nepal’s oldest institution?
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala may have articulated the ceremonial-monarchy agenda in keeping with his illustrious brother’s attitudes. B.P. Koirala, after all, accepted King Mahendra’s decision to grant the constitution the Delhi Compromise envisaged an elected constituent assembly would draft. Decades later, by accepting the 1980 referendum results in favor of the Panchayat system, B.P. almost single-handedly extended the partyless system’s life by a decade.
G.P. may have bested his bro. Avowed republicans like Nepali Congress general secretary Ram Chandra Poudel now argue that their party would contemplate kinglessness at its own convenience. The Narahari Acharyas can demand an official declaration of Nepali Congress policy on the monarchy all they want. They might get a better hearing in the anti-king lobby in the rival Nepali Congress (Democratic) under Bimalendra Nidhi.
For all their anti-king bluster, the Maoists and the CPN-UML seem to be competing to woo the palace. If the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)-Maoist accord were actually made of real stuff, Nepalis already would have voted in a republic. Filling all those blanks in the interim constitution draft would be as difficult as agreeing on the number of keys the locks to Maoist arms should have. Once that is decided, someone might want to ask whether the Maoist-palace accord Narayan Singh Pun facilitated in 2003 has actually been repudiated by either side.
The UML is in a worse mess. Government engineers may still be able to squeeze in the Maoists into an already crowded parliament chamber. The UML would have to cede some of its prime positions in the cabinet to make room for the Maoists. (Unless, of course, the donor community is ready to make a one-time exception and accede to the creation of more ministries in the name of peace.)
The UML’s referendum-on-the-king posture thus makes sense as an exercise in self-preservation. Yet the real motive may be to draw the palace into an electoral contest. (A taxpaying king, after all, is entitled to representation, isn’t he?)
Disgrace former home minister Kamal Thapa made a bold beginning by stepping down as president of his Rastriya Prajatanta Party faction. The more important news is that Rabindra Nath Sharma has taken over as party chief. Add Surya Bahadur Thapa to the Koirala-Sharma combine and you can see the clear contours of the pro-monarchy front to challenge the commies.
The days and weeks ahead are likely to get more interesting regardless of what transpires in the “summit” talks. With its traditional pillars having shed their prefix, can royal activism henceforth be really seen and heard from now on?
It sure can be felt. Having braved SPA arrows for months, the judiciary has hit back by reinstating Major General Pradeep Pratap Malla. It would be harder to equate a military coup with the palace’s quest for absolute power when the king is no longer supreme commander.
It is tempting to ridicule that right-wing outfit’s threat to launch an armed movement in support of the king. But look at the cost we’re still paying for having dismissed the Maoists the same way a decade ago?
US Ambassador James F. Moriarty and UN Representative Ian Martin have elaborated on Comrade Rohit’s contention that the key to our peace process lies in Delhi. Maoist leader Matrika Yadav has narrowed the custodian down to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
If so, protocol might prevent Deputy Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli from unlocking the problem during his current visit. Age and health allow Prime Minister Koirala to make another trip to Delhi to click everything open.
And consider one political change there. The Ministry of External Affairs is now headed by a traditional Congress member who as defence minister was the principal advocate of engagement with King Gyanendra’s regime. A mere shuffling of portfolios is unlikely to have altered Pranab Mukherjee’s basic position, especially concerning the preponderance of royal scions in the Congress party.
To those who wonder whether Singh or Mukherjee have the clout to influence Nepal policy with Sonia Gandhi calling the shots, here’s something to chew on: We don’t really know whether Rajiv Gandhi’s troubled relationship with King Birendra really extended to the current monarch, do we?
In the end, here’s what everything boils down to: Nepalis may believe they are capable of running the country without the king. The external stakeholders don’t seem to be so sure. Now, isn’t the royal silence getting real scary?