Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Crowning Of A Democratic Front?

If the eight parties in power can agree on one thing, it’s the transience of public opinion. So it’s hardly surprising that the purported meeting between King Gyanendra and Nepal Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal has kicked up the storm it has.
Obviously, the two men didn’t spend all that time ruminating on how King Mahendra might have dealt with the kingdom’s crisis. As any two Nepali adults are likely to do, the king and the commander in chief must have reviewed the year’s politics.
Long on bravado and theatrics, the first year of “loktantra” was devoid of both the popular and procedural connotations of the word. By linking Nepal’s salvation with the abolition of the monarchy, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists simply overreached. In blaming the 238-year-old crown for Nepal’s plight, the failed to project themselves as agents of real change. Through word and deed, the SPA and Maoists continue to show that the king is the only thing keeping them together.
Whipping up anti-palace fervor will no doubt continue to energize their base. The “people” whose “mandate” the ruling alliance invokes ad nauseum cannot be taken for granted. After all, it was the royal regime’s persistence in going after the mainstream parties in the name of subduing the Maoists that really set off the final countdown.
Nepalis in general may not yearn for the sense of regularity the royal regime could maintain. Nor may they recall the monarch’s invocation of Article 127 of the erstwhile constitution as the paragon of rule of law. The rest of the world watching Nepal has had time to ponder.
The United Nations is becoming uncharacteristically candid in admonishing the Maoists. The United States’ intolerance for the SPA’s reliance on the ex-rebels’ good faith has had reverberations in the Nepali Congress and other constituents. Indian public opinion seems to be struck by the sudden spurt in anti-Indian militancy – in its Islamic as well as Naxal dimensions – stemming from democratic Nepal. The Chinese may be typically quiet. But the frequency of Kathmandu-datelined stories the Free Tibet movement has been generating must have raised a new set of questions in Beijing.
Surya Bahadur Thapa, fresh from extensive talks in New Delhi, has urged Koirala to lead a democratic front against the communists that dominate the interim legislature. Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula has used the customary “medical treatment” excuse – he is said to be suffering from hearing loss – to fly into New Delhi. Yet Sitaula, who had managed to slip into India a week after the royal takeover to announce that the Nepali Congress would join hands with the Maoists, can expect an earful from his political handlers.
US Ambassador James F. Moriarty is said to have advised Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to send the army chief with a message to the king seeking support for a democratic front. (How ironic. It was the other way around in April 2006.) To fortify his flank, the premier acquiesced in – if not instigated – the leaking of that news. (Nothing new for the Nepali Congress. It was interim prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai in 1990 who had leaked that “odious” palace draft of the 1990 constitution.)
If a democratic front including the monarchy is actually being conceived, what form might it take? Specifically, what would be the role of the monarchy? Those who know King Gyanendra, more so after April 2006, recognize the consistency in his understanding of the role and responsibilities of the monarchy.
Clearly, nomenclature won’t matter here. During the height of the Panchayat system, Nepal was still called a constitutional monarchy. The removal of royal prefixes from the army and other state institutions shouldn’t make that much of a difference. The monarchy’s leadership of the army remains at the center of the history of modern Nepal’s emergence.
The renaming of the Royal Nepal Airlines and the Royal Nepal Academy cannot obscure the fact that both institutions were created under the monarchy as part of its campaign to consolidate Nepal’s independent identity. The much-publicized removal of King Gyanendra’s portrait from banknotes cannot change that key piece of monetary history: It was under King Mahendra that the rupee began its rise as the national currency under a fully fledged central bank.
Conceptually, a “ceremonial” monarchy remains as elusive as the “constructive” monarchy King Gyanendra’s had envisaged a few years ago. On the road to a “new” Nepal, it’s precisely this amorphousness that alarms our republicans the most.