Sunday, February 07, 2010

Ex-Panchas In All Their Colors

Upholding the Perpetual Fusion-Fission Theory of Political Theatrics, two groups of former panchas have once again united. Surya Bahadur Thapa’s Rastriya Janashakti Party and Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party have come under one flag as – what else? – Rastriya Shakti Prajatantra Party. Who is going to lead the new outfit? They are going to take turns, pending further arrangements.
In a statement, Rana and Thapa declared that unification was necessary to strengthen democratic forces and preserve nationalism in the country. How amusing. (Kamal Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal sounded more credible when he explained how ‘ideological’ differences prevented him from joining his former colleagues.)
But Maila Baje is forced to muffle his chuckles and go back to the summer of 1997. King Birendra had just publicly celebrated the 25th anniversary of his accession to the throne amid great public jubilation. Several hours later, as we lay asleep, an earthquake shook the capital. Some foretellers were stunned by the bad omen but chose to keep quiet. The monarchy had become the arbiter of the political process. Even those infuriated by the king’s strict adherence to the constitution – because it harmed their politics – still praised him as the model monarch.
A few days later, an interviewer was granted a long-awaited audience with the king. Citing the monarchy’s surging popularity, the questioner sought to know whether the king could contemplate direct and drastic political intervention. The political shenanigans at the center and the Maoist insurgency in the hinterland were feeding off each other and pushing the country to the brink. Pressing the hypothetical, the monarch asked the interviewer how he thought the parties might react. Judging from the public mood, the questioner proffered, might they not welcome it even if grudgingly?
The monarch was far from sanguine. The adulation from the politicos, he continued, was politically expedient for the moment. Were the palace to step in, the Nepali Congress, UML, RPP and Sadbhavana parties would scarcely spare the king the appellation of an autocrat. Clearly, the monarch’s equation of the RPP with the other three groups was stunning. So the interviewer sought the monarch’s general opinion of the party of the former panchas. Avoiding a direct answer, he said there were far more people in the other parties who loved both democracy and the nation – and not just because those organizations were bigger than the RPP. He did not exactly say the RPP was sorely lacking on both elements of its name, but the impression was hard to resist.
Fast forward to February 1, 2005. When King Gyanendra took direct control of the state, Maila Baje was less struck by the audacity of his move. Key RPP leaders found themselves under house arrest along with the rest of the political crowd. Constituents of the putative Seven Party Alliance were unimpressed, which doubly galled the ex-panchas. What did Surya Bahadur Thapa think? How he had been hounded from the premiership in 1983 by the ‘underground cabal’ allegedly led by then-Prince Gyanendra? Sure. But he must also have been pushed back to the time he spent in prison in the early 1970s for agitating against the ‘diarchy’ that had supposedly crept in under the newly enthroned King Birendra. (The wily Thapa, of course, bounced back by demanding the execution of B.P. Koirala after the Nepali Congress leader returned home with his national reconciliation plea. But that episode must have been the farthest from his mind.)
Under royal incarceration, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, that helpless shadow of the underground cabal catapulted to the premiership, must have found it hard to maintain his mild-mannered temperament. He ended up not only voting for the abolition of the monarchy but continues to list the litany of mistakes the last king made which his late brother would have easily avoided. Pashupati Shamsher Rana had his own grudges, some resulting from the violation of his certain inalienable birthrights by the 1950 Delhi Compromise. As water resources minister during the controversial ratification of the Mahakali Treaty, he waxed eloquent on how the sun would henceforth rise from the west.
Under King Gyanendra’s rule, Rana did not reflect too much on how, as the father of the would-be bride at the center of the royal palace massacre, he and his daughter could escape with the least scrutiny from the country. What Rana seemed to remember was how King Birendra had sacked him as joint secretary in the early years of his reign.
Rajeshwar Devkota, at one point, made common cause with the Maoists against the 1990 constitution, albeit for entirely different motives. With the advent of a republic, he apparently remembered how the palace politely rejected his claim for the premiership during the Panchayat years, citing certain ‘personality’ issues. Biswabandhu Thapa must have been irked by the way Tulsi Giri found his way back at the helm under King Gyanendra. Doubly injurious to him was the fact that Dr. Giri had managed to place Kirti Nidhi Bista as his deputy.
This is not to tar the ex-panchas with a broad brush. Take Dirgha Raj Prasai, a former Rastriya Panchayat member nominated by King Birendra. Maila Baje remembers the forceful defense of the partyless system Prasai consistently mounted during the 1979-1980 campaign for the referendum. After King Gyanendra’s takeover, Prasai was one of the first royalists to criticize the monarch. Not because of the philosophy behind the takeover but because of some of the people the king enlisted.
His core belief in the centrality of the monarchy to Nepal’s resilience remains undiminished regardless of what others think. Efforts to muffle his voice have been undermined by technology. Today Prasai soldiers on as a prolific messenger in cyberspace. Maila Baje, for one, can’t wait for Prasai’s take on the Thapa-Rana unity.