Sunday, September 23, 2007

History As Tragedy And Farce

For a nation hurtling toward a nebulous newness, history is becoming an increasingly hard thing to beat. The political discourse is oscillating wildly between Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 and the storming of the Bastille a century and a half earlier.
Considering the way things are going, Prachanda & Co. may actually end up bypassing the constituent assembly to seize full state power. Whether they would be able to keep it is a different matter.

A cluster of the chatterati has shifted course. Having considered Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala a potential Alexander Kerensky for the past year and a half, this group is now firmly attuned to the French Revolution. Never since Jang Bahadur Rana’s voyage to France has the name Napoleon loomed so large over Nepal.

In a realm of perpetual ranters, replacing an absolute monarchy and feudal privileges for the aristocracy with the principles and practices of liberty, equality and fraternity becomes too hard to resist.

Cautionary tales of how the subsequent reign of terror led to the restoration of the monarchy in France become badges of defeatism. To be sure, two additional revolutions eventually gave that country its modern democratic polity. Whether the Maoists would let Nepalis complete that cycle of history remains unclear. Tragedy and farce have collaborated in a hugely sinister way well before a recurrence of that history.

Shooting the messenger has become the sport of the season. When Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the man who oversaw Nepal’s transition to democracy in 1990 as interim prime minister, recently admonished republicans within the Nepali Congress, the conversation instantly shifted to his purported senility. The following day, the old man paid a visit to Crown Prince Paras in hospital to prove his lucidity.

It is easy to dismiss the royalism led by the likes of Khum Bahadur Khadka and Govinda Raj Joshi as rank rancidity. (Add Sujata Koirala to this camp and people start covering their noses harder.) Sleazebags they may be, but these two men – both as former home ministers – know the Maoists better than anyone else does.

True, Khadka had famously vowed to crush the insurgency within a week. Yet that may have had less to do with hubris than with history. Khadka, after all, had seen two Nepali Congress-led insurgencies fizzle on account of geopolitics.

Let’s not miss the broader picture here. Khadka was on the same flight B.P. Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh took to Kathmandu with their national reconciliation program in 1976. The mid-air conversation must have covered much more than the quality of their impending incarceration.

Joshi, for his part, was booted from the cabinet by then-premier Koirala after he savaged the military for silently watching the rebels clobber the cops in early 2001. That, in retrospect, was when the minister and the generals were on opposite sides. Time and space have chastened Khadka and Joshi – and the Maoists know that. It’s no coincidence that the ex-rebels have singled them out for “physical action”.

When these men assert that the Nepali Congress would be, in essence, digging its own grave by espousing republicanism, they are perhaps merely conceptualizing a collectivization of calamity. As free thinkers, the party rank and file enjoy the freedom to head in any direction – including the subterranean.

For the nation at large, there’s that nagging question. If the Nepali Congress central committee’s mere decision to draft a post-monarchy manifesto is enough to precipitate a Maoist pullout from the interim government, what might a complete immersion in republicanism produce?

With Prime Minister Koirala on steroids and Maoist supremo Prachanda straining with spondalytis, the national oscillation can only get odder.