Monday, February 21, 2011

Democracy, Discontinuity And Deceit

In the cacophony gripping the latest commemoration of our quintessential February ritualism, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s voice seemed to make the most sense. “With the country already having been declared a republic,” our national dissenter in chief observed, “celebrating Democracy Day is irrelevant.”
Come to think of it, it’s far worse than irrelevant. If you pursue the vision of the votaries of New Nepal all the way through, it’s outright hypocritical. The prevailing storyline today is that the democracy that dawned on that February morning in 1951 was merely a restoration of an autocratic monarchy.
Every popular struggle since has been against successive monarchs’ refusal to announce elections to the constituent assembly – the cornerstone of the promise of the heady morn – according to the fable so assiduously constructed after the April Uprising. Today, if Nepalis finally find themselves saddled interminably with such an assembly, it is only after they had vanquished the monarchy.
But history, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, has many cunning passages, corridors and issues, making sense of which involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past but of its presence.
If mere intentions were worthy of commemoration, Maila Baje feels going back to Padma Shamsher Rana’s still-born reformist constitution – a response to the contagious freedom movement of the times – might have been more sincere. Celebrating the National Movement of 1842, in which the army-backed nobility pushed King Rajendra to restrain Crown Prince Surendra, would have better illustrated the depths of the Nepali quest for change.
There were those who pronounced the Delhi Compromise – the heart of Democracy Day – a betrayal. These people included members of the Nepali Congress, which supposedly spearheaded the democracy movement. Together with the communists, these dissidents might have been able at least to mount a symbolic resistance aimed at redirecting history. But the dominant political class driving the preponderant party chose to memorialize its own version of history.
Even there, the scale with which compromise has prevailed over conviction has been striking. The Nepali Congress has always claimed how it brought back a king that had fled to Delhi. That assertion has not been able to hide its pain at having had to sign the dotted line in New Delhi and to serve under the very prime minister it purportedly overthrew.
The communists were locally too miniscule to challenge the Delhi Compromise. Their newly ascendant Chinese ideological soul mates might have stepped to help in. But, then, that was precisely what pressed the advocates of compromise. Amid the political and military pressure to maintain the Delhi Compromise, the communists’ torpor led them to produce some of the strongest royalist collaborators.
But why have the Maoists – hitherto the loudest advocates of collective national discontinuities – acceded to Democracy Day? They could have taken a stand against public observations. Better still, they might have energetically disrupted celebrations to bolster their credentials. Revolt or peace, after all, the vision of each Maoist camp is aimed at correcting the ills of traditional democracy.
But, then, who better knows the promise inherent in compromises? Didn’t Dr. Bhattarai, in the aftermath of the Narayahity carnage, write how Nepalis would always highly rate the contributions of King Birendra and all of his predecessors – all in an effort to isolate and illegitimize the new monarch? And more germane to our times, didn’t he advocate a cultural monarchy as King Gyanendra had pretty much made up his mind to pack his bags?
Nikita Khrushchev is a name Dr. Bhattarai would probably not want to hear, considering the parallels the late comrade has evoked within the Maoist party. But it would be instructive here to recall what Jawaharlal Nehru had once conveyed to the Soviet leader. Because, deep down, Dr. Bhattarai, like most current drivers of change, know that you don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall.