Sunday, March 28, 2010

Of Day-Dreaming And Nightmares

The interviewer captured the moment the best. Asking former king Gyanendra Shah how he felt to be living as a commoner, Suman Giri used the mundane tapai and brought considerable poignancy on the television screen. By Giri soon couldn’t help adding the hajur honorific.
Shah answered each question patiently and reflectively, almost weighing every word. The intonation and cadence were strikingly similar to his late brother’s and father’s. And it scared the wits out of the political class.
If the former monarch were daydreaming about the possibility of a restored crown, as the political class continues to claim, President Ram Baran Yadav, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and the entire pack down the line of wouldn’t have gone nuts. The nightmares before that interview must have been frightening.
Their collective castigation couldn’t obscure the wider message. The last king had no problem acknowledging how he had learned a lesson from his people. Ouch. The collective slap on the post-April 2006 political class was stinging. Leaders generally blame their defeat on rigged elections. They rarely see it as popular reprimand. And the Maoists? Well, the ex-king suggested that he found life in the jungle could be productive, too.
Shah underscored not only the interim nature of the current transformation but its entire premise. The politicians thought they could do a better job, so Shah left the palace. Those who denied the king his three years to complete his roadmap are about to enter the fifth of theirs. But look at the bravado. The president, who was saying the constitution didn’t envisage presidential rule, still asserts his duty to preserve the republic.
The political class is not the only ones shamed here. Remember the doctors, engineers, lawyers and journalists who believed they were far better than the politicians were? Since they led the leaders four springs ago, the change would be real. Yet today, Asia’s most humiliated man – as one civil society leader was impatient to claim Shah had become – shows not the slightest trace of mortification. The February 1, 2005 coup (yes the reporter used that word and Shah did not dispute it) turned out to be a mistake, but, in view of the preceding circumstances, appropriate. And our politicos thought they could evade their responsibility.
As the day of judgment looms, the dissonance is becoming starker. The politicians believe merely the constitution is at stake here. A deadline missed here or there might not have mattered much if the people could really believe in the class’s ability to deliver. The ex-king spoke of the need to clear misconceptions about the monarchy. Nepalese are already doing so about their collective identity. With Brahmins and Chhettris in agitation mode on the urgency of inclusiveness, unity in diversity has shed at least some of its pejorative ring.
There is still a long way to go. Indian guru Ram Dev emphatically asserted Buddha was born in Nepal at a time when an American television network was close to airing a documentary claiming the contrary. There was no Nepal or India in Buddha’s time. Does that give the Indians the right to claim what’s not theirs? No. But it certainly doesn’t stop the rest of the world from seeing the incongruence of Nepal being so selective in reclaiming its past.
What alarms the political class the most is the prospect this time of the international community rallying the other way. Our two giant neighbors are both worried by the deepening crisis but neither is in a position to intervene drastically. The international community – regardless of the UNMIN fiasco – has no appetite for an open-ended commitment that would make Afghanistan look like a picnic. When the world stood behind the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists, it was not interference but friendly interest, we were told. What would that amount to now?
In the end, Gyanendra Shah put his faith in the people. Let them decide what they want. During the constituent assembly elections, the parties crafted a republican agenda and won a resounding victory. All but four members, including the mild-mannered hard-line ex-pancha Lokendra Bahadur Chand, voted for the abolition of the monarchy. So why the controversy over the finality of that decision?
The flimsiness of that exercise was always apparent to the most ardent republicanism. The assembly elections were held in a climate in which the monarchists weren’t simply allowed to function. At least the Maoists would appreciate that, especially since one of their earliest complaints against the 1990 order related to how the Nepali Congress and UML were monopolizing the political center and edging out other voices. If republicanism were the true will of the people, then that would represent the end of the story.
If not, history will have been vindicated. Nothing shows that the April 2006 uprising was against the monarchy. Sure, millions took to the streets and raised slogans against the monarchy. But far too many millions stayed home for whatever reason. An adverse referendum verdict – on the monarchy, secularism, federalism – would allow the political class to admit failure. That shouldn’t be so hard, now that it didn’t seem so for the only person who supposedly could do no wrong.