Monday, May 07, 2007

The Nepali Congress’ Monarchy Machinations

If anything, the Nepali Congress has reaffirmed its status as – well – a true status-quo party. The district chiefs of the country’s pre-eminent – some would say only – democratic party had assembled in Kathmandu to hear their president enunciate a clear line on the monarchy ahead of the constituent assembly elections. What they got from Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala instead was a theorization of the fuzziness that has passed for party policy for the past year.
“A republic should be established in the country gradually by removing the king’s power,” the Nepali Congress president told his befuddled supporters. “A republic cannot be achieved in just a decision – whether that of mine or any other political parties.” A big fat no to the Maoists’ demand that the interim legislature announce the abolition of the monarchy. (Not to be outdone, UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal chose precisely this time to rubbish rumors of a broader republican front with the Maoists.)
The idea of inflicting a slow and painful death on the monarchy is not new. Stratfor, the Texas-based intelligence agency, had expounded on that option during the height of the April Uprising. In its Geopolitical Diary titled “Countdown to a Coup in Nepal?” on April 18, 2006, the private-sector equivalent of the CIA had said: “Recognizing that Nepal’s fate depends primarily on the mindset of its generals, India’s attention likely is fixated now on the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). Senior army officials feel that New Delhi, formerly one of its chief suppliers, ditched the army when it cut off military aid to Nepal following the royal takeover.”
India might begin to draw the SPA away from the Maoists with the promise of RNA backing to topple the monarchy, the Stratfor Nepal desk had postulated. Evidently, that promise does not seem to have been forthcoming, as evidenced by the royal salute the military gave at Dakshinkali. So the Nepali Congress has been left with making peace with the palace via the generals.
Despite the brouhaha over Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal’s purported meeting with King Gyanendra the other day, that prospect doesn’t seem as implausible as it sounds. More so in light of the Nepali Congress’ own history.
After the 1951 Delhi Compromise, the dominant section in the party began hating King Tribhuvan when he appointed as premier Matrika Prasad Koirala – the “dictator” of the anti-Rana revolution – instead of B.P. When Tribhuvan reappointed Matrika Babu after a spell of direct rule, the Nepali Congress had reason to be livid. The eldest Koirala had formed his own Rastriya Praja Party. So B.P. & Co. focused their attention on Crown Prince Mahendra, who had emerged as the de facto ruler amid his father’s failing health. The Nepali Congress mouthpiece hailed a letter from Mahendra, still regent, supporting the party’s demands for the early election of a constituent assembly and an independent judiciary as the Magna Carta of Nepal.
Why did B.P. Koirala agree to abandon the demand for constituent assembly elections in exchange for legislative polls under a constitution gifted by the king? Was it because the Nepali Congress saw this as the only way of advancing the process of democratization? Or was B.P. really influenced by the lukewarm public support for his civil disobedience campaign as well as his party’s dismal showing in municipal elections held in Kathmandu?
Regardless, that shift helped the Nepali Congress, which won a two-thirds majority in Nepal’s first elections in 1959. Impressive as that mandate undoubtedly was, we do need to recognize that the vote was staggered over 45 days. More relevant to our inquiry, the results from constituencies that had voted earlier had been available long before other Nepalis had cast their ballots.
Once the verdict came in, King Mahendra didn’t want B.P. Koirala as premier. If he had some personality issues with B.P, he certainly wasn’t alone. Dilli Raman Regmi had already christened B.P. as the new oligarch when he was home minister in the Rana-led government. It is also important to recall that a sizeable section in the Nepali Congress agreed that B.P. did not have an automatic claim to the premiership.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that King Mahendra had been expressing his distrust in political parties and politicians long before he sacked the Koirala government. Moreover, people like Tanka Prasad Acharya and K.I. Singh had been calling for the ouster of the Koirala government on account of policy issues (or at least they framed it as such).
It’s easy to see the December 1960 move as a conspiracy hatched by an autocratic monarch. That doesn’t explain why at least 55 of the 74 elected Nepali Congress MPs in the lower house should subsequently have joined the palace-led Panchayat system.
After that blow, the Nepali Congress still couldn’t make up its mind on the monarchy. It tried to assassinate King Mahendra in Janakpur but did not lose hope in an eventual overture from the monarch. The party’s hopes of becoming a catalyst of and beneficiary from the political elevation of Prince Basundhara – King Mahendra’s colorful and supposedly more liberal younger half brother – evaporated with the Sino-Indian war two years later.
King Mahendra eventually freed B.P. Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh after eight years in prison only after they signed a pledge of loyal cooperation with the palace. Exile came months later when it became clear the palace wasn’t about to restore Koirala to power.
King Mahendra’s death, weeks after the “liberation” of Bangladesh allowed the Nepali Congress to moderate its stance on the monarchy. That wait for a phone call from western-educated King Birendra proved too excruciating. So B.P. warned of a Bangladesh-like military action. The implications were so apparent to New Delhi that it had to issue a formal statement dissociating itself from B.P.’s comment. The party mounted another assassination bid, this time on King Birendra in Biratnagar, and hijacked a Royal Nepal Airlines flight, stealing millions of rupees it was carrying. (And widening fissures in the party, we are told, because the Koiralas kept all the loot.)
In 1976, B.P. Koirala’s national reconciliation slogan provided a cover for India, Nepal and the Nepali Congress to address an untenable situation: Koirala’s exile. Almost three years later, student protests forced King Birendra to announce a referendum on the future of the Panchayat system. When the verdict came in favor of partylessness, B.P. Koirala stunned his party and country by accepting it. But, then, long before that Koirala had been assuring relatives that he expected to become prime minister by 1980.
That hope lived on. Koirala wanted to contest the 1981 Rastriya Panchayat elections. There must be a good reason why he couldn’t for once overrule Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. B.P.’s death left the party in deeper confusion vis-à-vis the palace.
After People’s Movement I, Ganesh Man Singh had actually urged King Birendra to head the interim government. The king felt compelled to point out the incongruity of that request considering all that had happened over the previous weeks. Once the Constitution of 1990 – the best in the world accord to its architects – was promulgated, the Nepali Congress couldn’t stop extolling King Birendra as the model constitutional monarch. Ganesh Man Singh found it convenient to denounce Girija Prasad Koirala’s government as being worse than its Panchayat predecessors.
Singh was the least of Koirala’s woes. During the climax of the Tanakpur imbroglio, visiting Prime Minister Narasimha Rao barely concealed his desire to hold the real and substantive talks with King Birendra over “quiet dinner.” The S.D. Munis, too, had begun to recognize the cost of mentoring Koirala so brazenly in public. And President Shankar Dayal Sharma? In his banquet speech in King Birendra’s honor, the Indian president had space for a sentence on King Mahendra, but none on the supposed triumph of people power.
In a bout of revisionism, we discovered that King Birendra wasn’t really what we were told he was. After King Gyanendra took over power in October 2002, Ram Chandra Poudel recounted overhearing Birendra mocking politicians in a group of non-politicians. Of course, Poudel didn’t bother to explain how he found himself as the only pol within earshot of the royals.
But there were telltale signs beyond the palace’s refusal to deploy the military against the Maoists. For instance, the robust exchange that took place between the monarch and premier over the shabby state of the VVIP restroom during that extended welcoming ceremony for Mongolian President Bagabandi. (The government had forgotten to inform the palace that the dignitary’s flight had been delayed several hours.)
Prime Minister Koirala was too busy up until the afternoon of the Narayanhity Massacre explaining how he eagerly looked forward to becoming a truly free head of government. Deputy Premier Poudel could have made a greater contribution to historical inquiry by shedding light on Crown Prince Dipendra’s studious opposition to the importation of those Heckler & Koch GmbH assault weapons for the military. That contract, one might add, was a greater life-and-death issue to the extended Koirala family than the Lauda Air accord could ever become. And perhaps Poudel could explain how a royal relative happened to be the only candidate denied advancement in the police department he oversaw as home minister.
From Day One, King Gyanendra turned out to be quite shrewd in dealing with Koirala. The premier, palpably perplexed by the unspoken “request” not to take the traditional ride on the royal carriage to the palace after the new monarch’s enthronement, seemed to get the message. He emerged with a tonsure after many ordinary Nepalis were already struggling with their scalps trying to pull on or off their undershirts.
To pre-empt Koirala’s non-cooperation, King Gyanendra, we are told, cited the location and registration numbers of the bullet-proof Mercedes he wanted to use for the daily Nirmal Niwas-Narayahity drives during the yearlong mourning period.
The monarch nominated four members to the upper house in time for the 1pm news on Radio Nepal, long before the scheduled 4pm consultations in which the premier was expected to present loyalists as candidates. The rest, as they [should] say, is a history of power struggles with all permutations and combinations.
The mainstreaming of the Maoists has injected a new dynamic into the Nepali Congress’ survival strategy. The whole argument about the interim legislature not being empowered to declare a republic is hogwash. If the ruling elite didn’t need any sense of constitutionalism to secularize the country or to democratize the military why should it feel constrained to exercise powers the second amendment to the interim constitution already envisages through the interim legislature? Prominent Nepali Congress allies in academia, such as Professor Lok Raj Baral, are among those vociferously raising this question.
Clearly, the Nepali Congress’ stand on the monarchy is conditioned by its proximity and ability to exercise full power. And who better to articulate this truism than that man who has been at the center of every political movement since those workers at Biratnagar Jute Mills rose up against the Ranas?