Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Repulsive Referendum Rigmarole

This whole referendum rigmarole is becoming more repulsive by the day.
First, Maoist supremo Prachanda startles the nation by demanding a popular vote on the monarchy as an alternative to the immediate abolition the communist-dominated interim legislature is already empowered to announce.
Then the nation’s premier democratic party rebuts him by suggesting, in effect, that the palace would rig the results in its favor. Now, Senior Minister Ram Chandra Poudel’s apprehensions are understandable. The last time the Nepali Congress accepted what was a referendum on the palace in all but name, it burned its fingers as well as toes.
The party doesn’t like recalling how B.P. Koirala’s “inexplicable but …” endorsement of the outcome gave a reformed but still partyless Panchayat system another decade of life.
That, too, is partly comprehensible. Like many Nepalis, Poudel probably still hasn’t figured out whether Surya Bahadur Thapa’s administrative adroitness or the Marxist-Leninist faction of the subterranean Communist Party’s perfidy bestowed on partylessness popular sanction.
Coming from Prachanda, the latest referendum call must have sounded a louder alarm bell in Poudel’s mind. If memory serves Maila Baje right, Poudel was the last politician in power who publicly referred to the residence of then-Prince Gyanendra as the top Maoist pilgrimage.
Prachanda’s proposal, moreover, must have brought alive in Poudel’s mind the image of Kumar Phodung, the retired Royal Nepalese Army major-general the Maoists nominated as a member of the interim parliament.
Poudel’s personal desire to dump the monarchy is not inexplicable. The debilitating toothache he had had to endure under detention in Tanahun during the royal regime would have turned Dipak Bohara into a rabid republican.
The Nepali Congress general secretary’s belief that the palace is on its last legs cannot be dismissed out of hand, either. After all, the monarchy is being held accountable for the cumulative 142 years it was a virtual prisoner of Bhimsen Thapa, the Ranas and political parties – corresponding to nearly 60 percent of the Shah Dynasty’s existence.
Poudel’s own contribution to our political devastation is worth mentioning here. In the summer of 2002, he had promised to head Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress faction and dispatched key supporters to the Young Turks, but then mysteriously stuck with Girija Prasad Koirala. It’s unclear whether the absence of that maneuver would have been enough to prevent the Nepali Congress split and everything else that followed. It would certainly have added to Poudel’s credibility now.
A man who is a breath away from the premiership should have come up with a better case against a referendum. (How about, say, “Since the monarchy was never installed by popular mandate, why should it get the privilege of being voted out by the people?”)
It’s all the more puerile at the practical level. Here you have the anti-palace alliance monopolizing power. Presumably, the United Nations – or at least credible international observers – would oversee the plebiscite, including the dirty tricks the Maoists or the UML might be tempted to mount against the Nepali Congress.
If the palace were to surmount those odds and still emerge triumphant in a ceremonial, constitutional, constructive or even active form, then where’s the problem?
On second thoughts, maybe that is the problem for the parties in power.