Saturday, January 05, 2008

Singhs In Perfidious Pitch

Among the enduring mysteries surrounding the collapse of King Gyanendra’s direct rule two years ago is the precise content of Indian emissary Karan Singh’s road map. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh endured much criticism at home – as well as from the opposition alliance agitating against palace rule – by dispatching a former Indian royal related to King Gyanendra to restore the democratic process.
Emerging from his talks at the palace, Karan Singh seemed sanguine to reporters. The monarch, he asserted, would speak to the nation soon. The king did, inviting the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) to form an interim government. The rest of the democratic world was ecstatic. But that approach didn’t work with the Nepalese people.
After King Gyanendra reinstated the House of Representatives, Karan Singh claimed that the transfer of power to the SPA was precisely in keeping with his initiative.
Now we are told that India had engaged in hectic bargaining with the palace during those tumultuous days. “Give us control of your foreign and defense policies and we’ll put an end to the violent street protests,” the trade-off purportedly went. Din Bandhu Aryal, a former Nepali Congress minister turned palace supporter, made the revelation at a public program the other day. Actually, it was hardly a revelation. Every Nepalese ruler since Padma Shamsher Rana has received such a proposal from independent India.
What makes Aryal’s disclosure interesting is King Gyanendra’s purported response. “I can’t agree to those terms. Get whatever concessions you want from Girija, Madhav and Prachanda,” Aryal quoted the monarch as saying. “They claim to represent the people and have brought out millions to the street to prove it.”
Aryal obviously is not a disinterested communicator here. He was among the most active supporters of King Gyanendra’s takeover of executive powers in October 2002. Before that, he was an assistant minister in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s cabinet in 1991. (Yes, the one he reconstituted after sacking those Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai loyalists upon returning from his visit to India.)
The fact that Koirala had entrusted Aryal with the Ministry of General Administration at a time when the premier was reinvent the bureaucracy in his own image surely meant something. But, then, Aryal wasn’t the only Nepali Congress leader to break with the premier.
Aryal’s disclosure – made at a talk program on how the ruling alliance had become pawns of foreign powers – forced Maila Baje to ponder a bit deeper into the Karan Singh mission. Another princely Singh – the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Jaswant – had already announced plans to visit Kathmandu. Prime Minister Singh evidently couldn’t let Saffron Brigade subvert the 12-point accord the Reds had helped his government pull off in New Delhi.
The prevailing view was that India had dispatched someone who the king would listen to attentively. In retrospect, that seemed true, but perhaps not for the reason we were led to believe. Karan Singh arrived primarily as the former regent of Kashmir. In that capacity, he could most easily sweeten Delhi’s proposal. Six decades after India absorbed Kashmir, people still blame Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Ballabh Bhai Patel for the massive drain on the nation’s resources. No matter how hard India tries to convince the world that Maharaja Hari Singh – Karan’s father – had signed the instrument of accession, there are woefully few takers.
And Karan Singh? Well, he embarked on a political life that far outweighed his stature as heir apparent of a landlocked Himalayan state. And, yes, Kashmir conceded – at least theoretically – only defense and foreign affairs to the Indian Union.
Prime Minister Singh’s public persona doesn’t quite permit us to conclude that he is relishing some historical justice here. Many Sikhs, after all, do resent Nepal for keeping Rani Jindan Kaur – Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s widow and political successor who sought asylum here after an abortive uprising – under virtual house arrest, thereby snuffing out the last hope of regaining Punjab’s independence from British rule.
Of course, it ceases to matter, in our current political climate, that King Gyanendra’s forebears were hardly freer than Rani Jindan was under the Rana rulers of the time.