Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pretenders To A Putative Presidency

After a long time, the debate on a republican Nepal has advanced a notch up. CPN-Maoist chairman Prachanda has intimated his desire to become the first president of Nepal in two years with a resounding popular mandate.
In a wide-ranging television interview with Indian journalist Karan Thapar, the Maoist supremo gave some insights into the ex-rebels’ foreign policy. Special relations with India would be refined by equiproximity to China. In the afterglow of his meeting with former US president Jimmy Carter, Prachanda doesn’t sound terribly excited about keeping the Americans out of the country.
For Nepali Congress general secretary Ram Chandra Poudel, the Maoist supremo is living in a fool’s paradise. By dint of his “character,” Prachanda is unfit for the presidency, Poudel says.
Now, Poudel’s riposte is revealing on several counts. As Peace Minister, he doesn’t want to be distracted by a premature jockeying for power. Persistent doubts about the Maoists’ commitment to multiparty democracy are enough to keep us a nation of skeptics for a lifetime.
More importantly, half the country still seems to favor some kind of monarchy, most opinion polls show. A far greater proportion of Nepalis, moreover, find it hard to believe that constituent assembly elections can be held on November 22 in order to make final decision on the future of the crown.
As for the interim constitution now empowering the interim legislature to abolish the monarchy, should the palace “conspire” to “subvert” the elections, well, both terms contain pretty broad connotations to permit easy consensus.
Poudel has a personal motive here as well. Within the Nepali Congress leadership, he remains the most outspokenly republican leader. He is by no means in the league of Narhari Acharya or Gagan Thapa, but, then, who really envisages either of them as president. Amid the Maoists’ multifrontal onslaught, Poudel believes the Nepali Congress will push for a republic at a convenient time.
When Prachanda seemed ready to accept Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala as president during the early months of the nascent peace process, things were okay with Poudel. After the two men fell out, Poudel wasn’t terribly upset, either. Now Prachanda assiduously lays claim to the presidency, the offense that can’t go unchallenged.
The Young Communist League (YCL) has come in handy. Thugs these men and women are. But ones that helped catapult Koirala to the premiership. Without the YCL in its previous incarnation, the Seven Party Alliance would probably still be working out the post-monsoon umpteenth phase of the anti-regression struggle.
It’s not for nothing that Kamal Thapa, King Gyanendra’s home minister, can muster such conviction when speaking in defense of the monarchy.
Clearly, Poudel sees himself as the first president of Nepal. Come on, who but the Nepali Congress has the international legitimacy to steer a tiny republic squeezed between two giant ones?
Moreover, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Shailaja Acharya, Sushil Koirala, Sujata Koirala – everybody else has a history of appeasing the palace one way or the other.
As deputy prime minister during the Narayanhity Massacre, Poudel didn’t shy away from publicly referring to a nexus between the new king’s old residence and the Maoists.
After King Gyanendra’s takeover, Poudel challenged the conventional wisdom that King Birendra was the model constitutional monarch the rest of the country made him out to be.
Referring to a comment he overheard in a gathering where he happened to be the only non-royal present, Poudel insisted the late monarch had never reconciled himself with multiparty democracy.
Many long-time observers like to credit Poudel with steering the anti-Mao protests under King Mahendra and the anti-Zia-ul Haq protests in 1979 into full-blown democracy movements.
With this carefully built public record under assault from a late-comer still cashing in on decades of obscurity, Poudel was bound to react.
As for the wisdom of a nasty public squabble over a job that hasn’t even been created, it’s entirely consistent with the general direction of our politics.