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.