Sunday, April 27, 2008

From Where To Eternity?

From Sikkim, Bhutan and Fiji we’ve transitioned to Algeria and Gaza. Despite being the largest party in the newly elected assembly, the Maoists are not quite sure they would get to head the government. Subverting the popular mandate could have consequences more devastating than those that erupted in Algeria in 1991. The Islamic Salvation Front wasn’t known for its capacity for mayhem before the election.
As for Gaza, at least Hamas has a sympathetic Egypt. For the Maoists, the most Jimmy Carter could ever do is help withdraw the US terror tag. That won’t keep the supply lines open, especially when you’re under the constant vigilance of both neighbors. No wonder the Nepali Congress, still dazed by its electoral drubbing, is scheming to keep the premiership.
The Maoists, mortified by the mandate for change, have been exhibiting strange symptoms. No sooner had party chairman Prachanda decided to take the premiership from Dr. Baburam Bhattarai than he began speaking of a “graceful exit” for King Gyanendra. Struggling to keep his composure, Dr. Bhattarai tried to do one better by seeming to acquiesce in a cultural monarchy. That was too much for Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’, who tugged the debate back to the non-residual theory of post-monarchism.
With better half Hisila Yami preoccupied with wooing India, Dr. Bhattarai did the next best thing to register his displeasure. He simply moved out of Prachanda’s residence. (Fears of the “preventive detention” phase preceding the 12-point-agreement in November 2005 must have played some part.)
If Dr. Bhattarai is indeed in some form of disfavor, proletarians vexed by his insistence on wearing the Dr. prefix must be among those most delighted. Yet loyalists can’t afford to squander time on the man either, especially when the party is under multi-pronged assault.
By rejecting the resignation of cousin Sushil as acting party chief, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has given us a foretaste of his appetite for incumbency. This time, he can count on a unified party. (Unified Marxist-Leninist [UML] general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal made his own graceful exit because his position was more untenable.)
With our perpetual premier-in-waiting out of the way, the Nepali Congress and the UML want to do away with the two-thirds majority provision in the interim charter vis-à-vis the new government. A vote-of-no-confidence by a simple majority may or may not be able to tame a Maoist government. But such a provision would surely do some good to legacy-driven Koirala’s spirits, considering his own travails with Tanakpur-era supermajorityism.
Nepali Congress vice president Gopal Man Shrestha’s stipulation must have come as more startling to the Maoists. If Nepalis couldn’t tolerate the supreme commander of the Royal Nepal Army as head of government, how would they countenance the People’s Liberation Army’s counterpart? Consigning all those weapons to the beyond-use stage may not be enough. The one-man-one uniform rule must prevail to consummate the novelty of a new Nepal. More so with the Supreme Court just having endorsed the proclamation made by the now-defunct reinstated House of Representatives that stripped King Gyanendra of most of his royal powers, prerogatives and privileges.
If not Algeria or Gaza, then where do we go from here? Things might drift along until the Beijing Olympics. Amendments to the interim constitution as well as to the assorted documents known collectively as the peace accords could remove the roadblocks.
And who knows what might come of that meeting between Prachanda and King Gyanendra? A decision to organize a referendum on the monarchy? How much more egalitarian can the outer edges of the left and right get than that?

Monday, April 21, 2008

People’s Peacemaker, ‘Garden Variety’

For years, Comrade Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ had a favorite anecdote. As a student in the former Soviet Union, ‘Badal’ met peers from other developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. He would listen fervently to fellow students describe the true beauty of their home countries.
If only these thriving tribes of autocrats, who invariably doubled as kleptocrats, could be swept away, the brilliance beneath the dirt everywhere could bedazzle everyone. ‘Badal’ rediscovered Nepal as a garden festering under a pile of cow dung. Ever since, he has been struggling to remove the manure and unveil the magnificence.
Hailed as the military strategist of the Maoists’ “people’s war”, ‘Badal’ ceded ground to junior commanders quite early. The Maoist strategy never got past the equilibrium phase on the battlefield, but ‘Badal’ remained the center of attention.
When he emerged as a member of the rebel negotiating team during the 2003 peace process, ‘Badal’ presented himself as a self-effacing advocate of the people. The garden parable wasn’t the only one he borrowed from King Prithvi Narayan Shah to rewrite. In a television interview, ‘Badal’ had described Nepal as a dynamite between two boulders.
Lacking the garrulity of Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, ‘Badal’ nevertheless projected confidence over his convictions. Unable to rein in restive foot soldiers, he was credited with the Maoist pullout from the peace process. (The collapse of the first peace process in November 2001, too, was attributed by many to ‘Badal’.)
After the nation plunged into a bloodier conflict, ‘Badal’ wasn’t quite conspicuous as a political strategist. Still, his presence loomed over deliberations. At one point, he was said to have been behind an oust-Prachanda campaign over the Fierce One’s creeping mellowness.
During the Prachanda-Baburam split, ‘Badal’ maintained the equilibrium. When the duo patched up, joined an anti-palace alliance with the mainstream parties, and acquiesced in the reinstatement of the legislature, the silence of ‘Badal’ became menacing to many. Was he going to join Rabindra Shrestha and Mani Thapa in rebellion against this wholesale sellout of the cause? Or was ‘Badal’ negotiating a better place in the hallowed hierarchy. Soon he denounced the antics of Messrs Shrestha and Thapa, standing firmly behind the top honchos.
The constituent assembly elections, in the view of ‘Badal’, merely affirmed the agenda of the “people’s war.” This was no radical departure from the party line. In an interview with the Maoist daily, Janadisha, ‘Badal’ sought to project himself as a pragmatist. In the process, he couldn’t eschew the platitudes associated with political triumph.
Nor could he avoid contradicting himself. Hailing the poll results as a defeat for “status quoists”, ‘Badal’ sounded quite miffed by the Unified Marxist-Leninists’ decision to quit the government. Magnanimous in victory, he wants the Seven Party Alliance to continue in power to lead an economic revolution.
Actually, ‘Badal’ wants much more than that. He is in favor of an alliance of nationalists, capitalists and every other constituency you’d normally consider anathema to communists. But, then, you wouldn’t expect the Maoists to clean all that manure alone, would you?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Home (A Few Miles) Away From Home

So “Asia’s most humiliated man” has been asked to vacate Narayanhity Palace gracefully – or else. Now, we aren’t really sure whether King Gyanendra is going to oblige top vote-getter Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. But we’ve heard enough in recent days suggesting that the monarch might be planning to settle down in ex-royals-packed Rajasthan state down south.
Sikar, being the seat of Crown Princess Himani’s family, sounds plausible as domicile in exile. But not when you start figuring out how long ago the crown princess stopped calling the city home.
The names of other Indian cities have popped up in between. The northern pilgrimage of Benares, for instance, where kings Rana Bahadur and Rajendra Bikram had spent some time in exile. Their fate after returning to Nepal would probably be enough to dissuade King Gyanendra from making that choice.
Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi where president-in-waiting Prachanda once resided, is touted as another destination. But wouldn’t it be so disgustingly conspicuous to trade residences at the highest national level so soon?
No one is suggesting Beijing, where Norodom Sihanouk – that other monarch another generation of Maoists flirted with – called home away from home. (Sihanouk’s third abode, Pyongyang, could have been considered a destination, considering North Korea’s long-established embassy in Nepal. But, then, the Chinese seem to have started turning off the oil pipelines periodically.)
Dubai, London, New York City and all the other places King Gyanendra is said to have business interests could be lucrative destinations. But India is somehow the national fixation. From Dev Shamsher to Mohan Shamsher, fall from grace has invariably entailed a southward hurtle. We seemed to be caught in that rut.
Still, it’s hard to see King Gyanendra settling abroad, if he were to vacate Narayanhity at all. (An audacious qualification, perhaps, considering the redness all around us, but certainly not an improbable one.) New Nepal simply has too many promises for an ex-monarch. And one who intends to mix business with politics for pleasure and much more.
In comments to relatives and confidantes, the monarch has insisted he would stay in the country come what may. Moreover, exile in India makes little sense. An ex-monarch leaves his country only if he is chased out or to avoid persecution. King Gyanendra stood firm when the multitudes on the streets two years ago forced then-US ambassador James F. Moriarty to fear a messy abdication. His Excellency ended up shifting much of the embassy to New Delhi, but couldn’t see the king anywhere near a whirring helicopter.
As for persecution, the threat will always exist. And exile in India wouldn’t offer any cushion. The Indians wouldn’t miss a heartbeat to make an ex-monarch the first subject of that tightened extradition treaty. Considering their record, they could choose to use him as a prod against the Maoists. That would be another reason for an ex-king to stay in Nepal.
A monarchy abolished contains an element of finality, unless you’re a Sihanouk or a Juan Carlos. It would take a leap of faith of worldwide Hindus to pull that off here. Ordinarily, having ascended to the throne twice is a good enough record. Why not burnish it by becoming the first monarch to have been democratically discharged?
King Gyanendra’s New Year’s message forced Maila Baje to ponder a bit deeper. The satisfaction he derived from Nepalis’ emphatic reiteration of their “firm resolve not to compromise the nation’s existence, independence and integrity under any circumstance” could not have gone down well down south. Chastisement in exile is doubly demeaning, a sentiment only Dr. Shashank Koirala, among the newly elected lawmakers, could really share.
Then something else struck Maila Baje. In addition to his royal stock, King Gyanendra shares the blood of a Maithili Brahmin (Rana Bahadur’s consort Kantavati) as well as a lower caste forebear. (Historians can’t seem to agree on the antecedents of Johar Kumari, one of Dhir Shamsher’s wives. But they do know that family elders elevated her status in a formal rice-eating ceremony, thereby ensuring their son Juddha Shamsher’s place on the roll of succession). If unity in diversity still has any meaning, then it runs in King Gyanendra bloodline.
By far, the strongest case for King Gyanendra’s continued presence in the country is provided by the Maoists themselves. He would be welcome to stay as a commoner, Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai have reiterated since their electoral triumph. Translation: “If we could benefit from all those people around the palace, we certainly wouldn’t mind befriending the man who once lived inside.”

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Keep (’Em) Guessing

With the Maoists sweeping the polls thus far, it is tempting to see the rest of the way toward republicanism neatly laid out. Once the constituent assembly meets for its first session, King Gyanendra can expect his letter of eviction. End of story? Not quite.
First, the 600-plus body would have to identify the oldest member who could then swear in the members. Considering the ruckus before the election, that could less easier than thought. After the recess, the assembly would have to elect the presiding officer.
Let’s say everything goes smoothly, and the letter is instantly dispatched to the Narayanhity reception desk. There is something called ‘bato ko myad’ in bureaucratese. It’s not as if the person who received the letter would rush it up the chain to the monarch. The palace bureaucracy, like its civilian counterpart, has its own institutional lag time. Miffed by the exclusion of tax-paying royals from the voters’ list, King Gyanendra might calibrate his move.
Let’s say the monarch accepts the notice and decides to drive off to Nirmal Niwas forthwith. It’s not as if his family alone is the problem. What would become of the royal guards, numbering anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000? We learned after the Narayanhity Carnage that they aren’t under the Nepal Army. We know that their arms and arsenal aren’t under any kind of United Nations supervision.
Surely, the Maoists wouldn’t ask the royal family to leave behind the elite force as republican guards. Any special consideration extended there would anger the ex-people’s warrior. They have been seething since they were told they are no good for the national army.
Let’s back up and take the good-case scenario. Some lawyer files a petition at the Supreme Court arguing that the assembly can’t be considered empowered to abolish the monarchy just because its interim predecessor mandated so. Forget the bench, the registrar would probably need some time to reflect on this one.
The house, meanwhile, could proceed with the preliminaries. It would not need a quorum to gather or even vote. Our legislators, even in the best of times, have perfect a range of stalling techniques. They may not be quite as sophisticated as a filibuster, but they are no less effective. Blocking the rostrum, repeating high-decibel chants, and delivering physical blows are all within legislative precedent. With ex-commissars and ex-commanders entering the chamber armed with the people’s mandate, they would not be constrained from taking matters into their own hands.
The Maoists won’t take long to discover the chink in their armor. They won’t have the luxury of focusing on the vanguard party because the threat of rearguard action remains real.
Khum Bahadur Khadka outside the legislature would be far more perilous than inside. In retrospect, his campaign had a principal flaw. (No, not the fact that the Nepali Congress heavyweight demoralized supporters by withdrawing his candidacy and failing to stick with that for a day.) Instead of reminding the country that he was a republican during King Birendra’s reign, he should have flaunted the fact that he returned with B.P. Koirala from exile in 1976 with a plea for national reconciliation.
Things haven’t gotten out of hand yet, though. It’s far easier to swear by B.P. out of power. Moreover, with the extended third generation of Koiralas now craning their necks, Narayanhity has acquired a new look.
This becomes important since the palace remains central to the Nepal-view of India, China and the United States. Don’t be fooled by the befuddlement of Delhi. The Indians always wanted the elections above everything else. The corollary was that they were prepared to deal with the outcome later.
Mayankote Kelath Narayanan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s national security adviser, had made his country’s preference known well in advance. The day after our election, Singh reconstituted the National Security Advisory Board. Although M.K. Rasgotra was replaced by another ex-foreign secretary who hadn’t also served as ambassador to Nepal, Singh brought in Shyamala B. Cowsik. She was South Block’s Nepal hand during the 1989-90 crisis and would ostensibly complement K.V. Rajan, another former ambassador, who keeps his job on the panel.
King Gyanendra threw up another imponderable in his New Year’s message. Expressing satisfaction at the enthusiastic participation of the people in the elections, he went a step ahead and lauded the emphatic reiteration their “firm resolve not to compromise the nation’s existence, independence and integrity under any circumstance.” Now your head is spinning right? That’s the point. Keep ’em guessing.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Our Wellspring Of Surprises

In our innate ability to throw up surprises, Nepalis have exceled yet again. The constituent assembly elections, which many -- including this keyboard pusher -- thought would see another postponement, went off to a stellar conclusion. Predictions of violence, chaos and the rest fell flat.
Three decades after his "Cardiac Ailment" regaled audiences in the National Dance House, Gopal Prasad Rimal got a fan revival that broke all records. Maybe the man was saner than he got credit for.
Rimal's one-day-in-an-epoch exhortation appealed to an unlikely quarter. "Asia's most humiliated man" -- in the words of a veteran royal enabler (from June 1, 2001-February 1, 2005) turned inveterate critic -- surprised us all. King Gyanendra urged us to vote in droves. Whether we loved or hated him, we did.
The smoothness of the polls brings us to another question. Were the two postponements really a result of our inability to get things right? Or was the extension meant to allow the political forces some pre-poll equipoise? That shall be clearer as the votes are counted. For now, we must read between the media lines.
On the eve of the voting, one could not avoid the transformation in the tone of a section of the Indian media. Those pushing the line that the elections were about bidding adieu to the monarchy began sounding a less definitive tone.
The western media, for its part, has stuck to its line. Now you could attribute that to the Judeo-Christian temptation to avenge Prithvi Narayan Shah's expulsion of the Capuchin priests. (Something that gains credibility with the Southern Baptists' most prominent layman, Jimmy Carter, already detecting paradise in a republican Nepal.) And what better target than the successor who wore his religion on his sleeve.
The last time this media divergence became so stark was after the royal palace massacre. The Indian media were reporting that no male royal had survived the carnage and that how the Maoists were about to storm Narayanhity. The American-led western counterparts were reporting how Prince Gyanendra was alive in Pokhara.
The fact that those who had explicitly blamed Crown Prince Dipendra for the regicide as well as its specific familial dimensions and had urged us to be thankful for King Gyanendra's safe pair of hands turned out to be his bitterest critics after the February 1, 2005 takeover might sound like a footnote during these heady moments. But juxtapose that with the head of the constitutional lawyers' association's post-election assertion that the new assembly is not bound to follow the interim legislature's stricture. It all comes down to surprises, doesn't it?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Revisiting The Spring of 1959

As Nepalis prepare to vote for national newness, the architects and abettors of change presage a proliferation of post-poll pockmarks. Maila Baje, for one, has been pushed into the depths of Nepal’s first elections. The following recap is intended for recreational as well as therapeutic purposes.
Eight years to the day democracy dawned on the country, on February 18, 1959, Nepalis began voting in elections to the House of Representatives. That wasn’t what the Delhi Compromise envisaged. The wait for elections to a constituent assembly seemed excruciatingly long. King Mahendra proposed gifting a constitution and the parties accepted.
Both figured out that electing a parliament wasn’t a bad idea. The palace seemed confident no organization would command a majority. The parties sounded even unsure of their prospects. Voting, staggered over 45 days, ended on April 3.
The Election Commission had recognized 11 national parties on condition that they would contest at least 20 percent of the total number of seats. Only nine actually took part: the Nepali Congress, Nepal Praja Parishad (Tanka Prasad Acharya Group), Nepal Praja Parishad (Bhadrakali Mishra Group), Nepal Rastrabadi Gorkha Parishad, Nepal Communist Party, United Democratic Party (UDP) of K.I. Singh, Nepali National Congress of Dilli Raman Regmi, Terai Congress of Vedananda Jha and Nepal Prajatantrik Mahasabha of Ranga Nath Sharma.
For a total electorate of 4,248,836, about half the national population, some 40,000 polling booths had been set up. Each of the 109 constituencies covered approximately 80,000 people. Eight hundred and sixty-five candidates were in the fray. Of these, 339 were independents.
The Nepali Congress contested every seat, while the UDP fielded 90 candidates. The Gorkha Parishad put up 85 candidates, the Prajatantrik Mahasabha 70, and the Communist Party 48. The Acharya and Mishra factions of the Praja Parishad fielded 45 and 40 respectively. The Nepali National Congress had 22 candidates, one more than the Terai Congress.
The council of ministers, comprising the Nepali Congress, Praja Parishad, Nepali National Congress, Gorkha Parishad as well as independents, had all the hallmarks of a national government. It mounted a vigorous publicity campaign. Radio Nepal played songs aimed at educating the voter. The major parties, barring the communists, participated in mock elections.
At first, the people of Mustang and Manang refused to register as voters, citing their historical detachment to the state. Limbus, too, had decided to boycott the elections in defense of their ancestral land-holding system. The three groups eventually participated. Some 17,000 government officials were mobilized for elections, but were barred from voting.
Polling throughout the country was peaceful. At many places, turnout of women was higher than that of males. Nearly 43 percent of the electoral cast their ballots, of whom about half were women. Not a single ballot box was found empty. “[D]espite its handicaps, Nepal ran smoother elections than many a more advanced nation,” TIME magazine pronounced.
An interesting feature was that results from certain constituencies were out before voters in others had cast their ballots. “First Nepal Returns Go Anti-Red,” The Washington Post chimed. That hardly amused some of the candidates. After three days of elections, K.I. Singh and Ranga Nath Sharma sent a joint memo to King Mahendra requesting him to dissolve the council of ministers for its failure to uphold the secrecy of the ballot. They reinforced their petition with a threat to pull out their parties from further elections. Tanka Prasad Acharya, too, demanded the dissolution of the cabinet alleging electoral malpractices. All three parties went along until the – traumatic, for them – end.
The Nepali Congress led the pack winning 74 seats, while the Gorkha Parishad emerged a distant second with 19 members. Tanka Prasad Acharya’s Praja Parishad saw two candidates triumph, one of whom later joined the Nepali Congress. Bhadrakali Mishra’s faction won one seat. The Communist Party, which opposed the constitution as “feudal” for leaving the king with massive discretionary powers, won four seats. The same number of independents were elected. The UDP won three seats.
Apart from B. P. Koirala, the chiefs of main political parties lost. Former premiers Tanka Prasad Acharya and K.I. Singh were defeated, the former forfeiting his deposit. All the ministers, except chairman Subarna Shamsher Rana, lost. The parties of Ranga Nath Sharma and Dilli Raman Regmi could not win a single seat.
Although some were pessimistic about the prospect of a stable party system, many sounded upbeat. The transition from a feudal order to a democratic one would perforce see the creation and re-creation of parties with no particular attachment to principles, it was argued. Internal crises, personality clashes, floor crossing were touted as common roadblocks on the path to newness. And, oh yes, all this was said amid fears of a communist takeover of Nepal.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Enigma Of Electoral Arithmetic

If – and it’s still a big if – the constituent assembly elections are held as scheduled on April 10, it will be because of our two neighbors’ fervor to bid farewell to the United Nations mission in Nepal. If a contrived culmination of a nation’s quest for reinvention is what it takes to keep out international peace-mongers from the region for good, it’s worth every bit of artifice.
The latest bomb blasts in Kathmandu Valley – like other acts of violence in the run-up to the polls – can be conveniently blamed on a palace desperate to avoid the denouement. Harder to ignore is the anxiety of the leading political parties, which are in search of an excuse to postpone the imponderables of the polls.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, facing a fractious party, is reportedly waiting until April 8 to make a final decision on whether to go ahead with the polls. The Unified Marxist-Leninists are intent on preventing the Maoists from claiming the mantle of the left. The Maoists, for their part, are flabbergasted as to why the UML feels so threatened.
Prachanda, whose marauders once proudly claimed to control 95 percent of the country, is forced to confine himself to the capital. The Maoist chairman can paranoically rail all he wants against everyone else, because this much is clear: death has come to haunt its greatest purveyor.
In his moments of reflection, Prachanda probably recognizes how easily he could have staked a middle ground between the Indians and Chinese and prospered. Unable to swim in clear waters after decades of subterraneous existence, he took the easy way out. He froze his feet on both boats. Neither neighbor trusts him to replace the king in the game of triangulation. For all their rivalry in Nepal, Beijing and Delhi believe they are better off keeping their brawl in the neighborhood. That’s the nub of the polls-at-all-costs credo.
The power equations and the second amendment to the interim statute – more than public opinion – makes a republic a foregone conclusion. Kamal Thapa’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) – the only organization advocating a monarchy – won’t be able to tap into the pro-monarchy sentiment most opinion polls see prevailing in half the country.
Surya Bahadur Thapa’s Rastriya Janashakti Party and Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party are silent on the type of head of state they envisage. Recently, Thapa stunned many by proclaiming the end of the monarchy. But, we are told, he has made repeated representations to the palace claiming that he was misquoted.
Pashupati Rana would probably want to avenge the Shahs’ usurpation of his birthright to the Shogunate. The Chandra Shamsher-Juddha Shamsher bad blood ostensibly raises the stakes here. But with the Maoists and other lefties waging war on feudalism the proper noun, there is a chance that Rana would go further back in history to seek reconciliation. King Gyanendra and the RPP chief, after all, are great-great-grandsons of Dhir Shamsher.
Yet the two Thapas and Rana would be hard-pressed to match their united RPP’s showing in the 1994 mid-term elections, when it displaced the Maoist forerunner, United People’s Front, as the third largest group in parliament. The Madhesi parties are already royalists, we are constantly reminded. Since the Madhesis would make the same claim on the other parties, this dimension must be discounted as a variable. So officially, the numbers don’t add up for the palace.
And the palace has set its terms. Clever questioners may have sought to make a distinction between the person and the institution, but they can’t fool ordinary Nepalis. No one gets to choose a king. The construction of the line of succession in Nepal has made that an even stark no-no. If a majority of Nepalis want to throw the crown away with the wearer, fine. Lok sammati predates loktantra. Still, to quote Kamal Thapa, King Gyanendra believes he will be wearing the crown next year and after that. What does the monarch know that the rest of the country doesn’t?
Clearly, a Maoist boycott of the first session of the constituent assembly might give the Nepali Congress and the UML some voting leeway. But will that much-anticipated royal address on the real deal behind the reinstatement of the House of Representatives be enough for them to vote for the monarchy?
There are other imponderables. Take the proportionally elected members. Can they be held accountable to the republican manifestoes in the same way those directly elected are? Let’s say they’re off the whip. How will the Chaudharies, Murarkas and Tibrewallas vote? Will they remember a businessman prince whose regalia gave him an edge in all matters commercial? Or will they exhibit some kind of solidarity for a taxpaying king who would be fully immersed in the trade, barring the episodic ceremonialism he may be called upon to exercise? And let’s not even begin talking about the war-chest the Japanese have purportedly promised to open to save the king. (To save theirs in 1945, lest we forget, they let the Americans write their constitution.)
The directly elected representatives may not be set in so much concrete, either. The Nepali Congress and the UML could blame each other and the Maoists for faltering on the road to a republic and vote for a Koirala-introduced resolution on keeping the monarchy. If the Dixits, Pandeys and Pahadis would be unable to maintain civility in society, they can go back to wearing those black arm bands in and around Ratna Park.
So why is King Gyanendra confident? Because he knows that in politics, mathematical precision doesn’t always count. If it did, Hillary Clinton would have conceded the Democratic Party nomination for the US presidency to Barak Obama long ago. Maybe former president and super-delegate Jimmy Carter might want to go to Narayanhity Palace to compare notes for the Denver Convention.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

As He Prepares To Speak…

It finally looks like King Gyanendra is ready to divulge the details of the agreement that catapulted the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and Maoist rebels to power two years ago.
Reports of an agreement primarily committing the SPA and the Maoists to the continuance of the monarchy have been circulating from the start. The king had made an oblique reference to the existence of such an undertaking in his conversation with journalist Hari Lamsal earlier this year. He had promised to speak in greater detail at the opportune time.
That time seems close at hand. Regardless of whether the constituent assembly elections are held on schedule this month, the monarch is expected use his Nepali New Year message to tell his side of the story.
Admittedly, it is unclear whether the agreement was oral or written. In the first case, the monarch would have a far greater challenge in providing credible evidence. In the latter, the resultant questions are no less vital. Was a formal agreement signed? If so, who were the signatories? If not, did the contracting sides depute representatives with full powers of attorney? Did General Pyar Jung Thapa, army chief at the time, do all the legwork? Or was royal secretary Pashupati Bhakta Maharjan the pointman? Were there witnesses, such as, say, foreign ambassadors who were active during the height of the April Uprising?
Clearly, the answers would have to come from the king. The response of SPA and Maoist leaders would then help to clarify a vital phase of current history. For now, we must rely on the king’s comment to Lamsal as well as a public comment Girija Prasad Koirala made on April 17, 2006.
Speaking to, Koirala provided what must be the most explicit undertaking that the Nepali Congress could get the Maoists to agree on a ceremonial monarchy if King Gyanendra reinstated the House of Representatives.
The fact that the 12-point agreement the Indians mediated between the SPA and the Maoists merely pledged to end an “autocratic” monarchy buttresses that reality. The same proviso underpinned the formula brought by Karan Singh, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special representative.
Now, as premier, Koirala and other partisans could argue that events overtook that pledge. However, it cannot diminish the fact that political events were spurred by that undertaking. Clearly, there was little else in terms of clarity than the continuance of the monarchy in New Delhi’s initiative. For proper context, it is essential to step back a couple of weeks.
King Gyanendra’s prolonged absence from Kathmandu was scorned as a stark symbol of royal aloofness. While at the royal retreat in Pokhara, the monarch certainly wasn’t donning “Christian Dior sunglasses and military uniforms, listening to Indian love songs and consulting astrologers,” as The Washington Post’s John Lancaster had us believe. If he “greeted supplicants in a ceremonial tent” and “boarded a French-made Puma helicopter for forays around the countryside,” it was part of his consultations.
More importantly, King Gyanendra sought to give the Indians time to get their act together. Consider the context. Washington, impatient with New Delhi’s deepening ambivalence on the crisis, was prepared to start its own initiative. The Bush administration had just created a wider South and Central Asian Bureau in line with its national security strategy.
Richard Boucher, the new assistant secretary of state, was in Delhi in the first week of April. While his public comments focused on the “failure” the royal takeover had proved to be, Boucher was vexed by the stranglehold Indian communist parties had on the Singh government’s Nepal policy. Sitaram Yechury & Company, for their part, were anxious to mainstream our Maoists before India’s own Naxals acquired enough fervor to choke the Kolkata communists.
The National Security Advisory Board saw mainstreamed Maoists in a more sinister light but was unable to come up with a credible roadmap. (The board continues to be headed by former foreign secretary Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra – who as ambassador to Nepal very discreetly oversaw B.P. Koirala’s return on a plea of national reconciliation and, before that, had served as King Tribhuvan’s liaison during his brief exile in India. He, along with another former ambassador, Krishna V. Rajan, had met with King Gyanendra before the October 4, 2002 dismissal of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.)
The Indian defense and home ministries were still having a hard time persuading the external affairs ministry of the Maoists’ capacity for mendacity in the democratic process. The palace knew that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had struck inextricable ties with the Kolkata Reds as a journalist long before he became India’s ambassador in Kathmandu.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, irked by the Singh government’s unwarranted indebtedness to Yechury & Co, announced it was sending former foreign minister Jaswant Singh for talks with King Gyanendra and the mainstream parties. Prime Minister Singh and his Congress party grasped the implications of that mission, especially since U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert – third in line to the presidency – and former president Jimmy Carter had announced plans to visit Kathmandu. The Chinese, meanwhile, were already delivering military supplies to the royal regime, undercutting New Delhi’s leverage.
The Singh government had to do something. It dispatched Karan Singh as an envoy to the king, who had returned to Kathmandu in the expectation of substantive Indian proposals.
Karan Singh, who had Shyam Saran and Pankaj Saran, the Nepal desk chief, in tow during each of his meetings with political and military leaders in Kathmandu, met the king alone.
The message of reconciliation the Indian envoy brought was not new. Karan Singh’s family ties to the Nepali royal family may have allowed him to hold candid discussions. However, he wasn’t able to assuage King Gyanendra’s concerns vis-à-vis the Maoists, particularly those relating to India’s real stance.
After all, the complications gripping the 2003 peace process were clearly rooted in India’s double game. The Nepali public, including those flooding the streets in April, had no way of knowing that. (Could India’s decision in 2003 to arrest Maoist leader C.P. Gajurel as he prepared to board a flight to London at the time King Gyanendra happened to be in the British capital have been coincidental?)
Nor were Nepalis familiar with the pressures India exerted on the palace to de-link the Maoist peace dimension from a royal takeover. It was precisely in anticipation of India’s double dealing that King Gyanendra chose to name himself head of government as well. Having failed to place their own confidante in the premiership, the Indians peddled the line that they had counseled the king against a takeover.
At Jakarta, three months after his takeover, King Gyanendra saw the necessity of personally explaining the contents of his talks with Prime Minister Singh. The monarch’s announcement in a television interview that New Delhi had agreed to lift the arms embargo may have bordered on diplomatic indiscretion. The palace considered more important the urgency of limiting the Indian establishment’s opportunities to play foul.
The next opportunity for a breakthrough arose when Rao Inderjit Singh, India’s junior foreign minister, arrived in Kathmandu to seek Nepal’s support for New Delhi’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations. The significance of Nepal’s support could be discounted only by those who did not understand the U.N.’s region-wise mechanism on building agendas.
Naturally, the palace sought – unsuccessfully – Indian support on resolving the Maoist insurgency. The royal regime told New Delhi it would put the request “under consideration.” In their disappointment, the Indians, in characteristic fashion, spun the story in an entirely different way.
Remember the Indian media hype that Prime Minister Singh was going to deliver a stern lecture to King Gyanendra on the sidelines of the Dhaka SAARC summit on the need to restore democracy? Well, the palace pre-empted that virtuous poppycock by spearheading the campaign to tie China’s inclusion as an observer with Afghanistan’s full membership of the South Asian organization.
From the Indian media as well as our own partisan outlets, this seemed like little more than a royal snub to New Delhi. Of course, the fact that Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka rallied behind Nepal was unpalatable to the Indians for a host of reasons.
After the April Uprising, the palace must have anticipated the frequency with which the goal posts would be shifted throughout the peace process under Indian inspiration. Ceremonial monarchy, baby king, the republic-amendment to the interim constitution are different manifestations. The Nepali media, which can catch Maoist leader Prachanda inside the Indian Embassy, won’t report on the Indian ambassador’s forays into the palace with various overtures.
In his state of virtual suspension, King Gyanendra must have found it easy to decline offers of Indian hospitality – under such diverse covers as medical treatment for Crown Prince Paras and wedding invitations – because of his conviction that a positive Indian role would always remain central to Nepal’s well-being.