Sunday, May 19, 2013

United For What, Again?

After fits and starts, the Rastriya Janashakti Party (RJP) of Surya Bahadur Thapa and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) of Pashupati Shamsher Rana have held a unity convention. Thapa, whose acceptance of the premiership during the first phase of King Gyanendra’s direct leadership led to the RPP’s split, has been trying to justify the new organization’s abandonment of the monarchy.
“Yes, we have nostalgia for the monarchy,” Thapa told reporters the other day. “But so do we for the days we used walk around without clothes during childhood. That doesn’t mean we get to do that today.”
In terms of pastoral pithiness, Thapa has offered by far the most powerful defense of his shift. But that does not answer the manifold questions surrounding his persona and politics. (Given the dress code of today’s younger Kathmandu, Thapa’s analogy might not be entirely apt, either. But that’s a different matter.)
Thapa and Rana were pillars of the palace-led partyless Panchayat system. By temperament and ambition, many perceived Thapa as having harbored Jang Bahadur-like authoritarian tendencies should such an opportunity arise. We don’t know the full story behind the ‘84 cases’ controversy of 1982 and the chain of events that led to appointment of the outgoing army chief to the ambassadorship of a country where we heard whispers that he was being held in virtual house arrest and re-education by the host government. But the whispers were powerful enough to those who remember having heard them.
In the end, Thapa, who tried to cash in his ‘contribution’ to the victory of the partyless camp in the 1980 national referendum, sought to project himself as a firm democrat. He wanted a confidence vote. When he got one in the summer of 1983, fewer than half a dozen loyalists stood with him to the very end. Thus was born the narrative of the emergence of an underground cabal led by the two brothers and the mother of the king who wanted to turn back the clock of time.
Rana, for his part, had been unceremoniously ousted from administrative service under King Birendra. On the surface, at least, he overcame any bitterness to master the Nepali language, nurse his constituency, and build a vibrant political future under that same king. But could he have really forgotten that he was born a general and would have automatically been a hereditary ruler had Jawaharlal Nehru fully continued with the British Raj’s foreign and regional policies.
In private, Pashupati had none of the humility and goodwill his father, Bijay Shamsher, possessed in remarkable abundance. In public, Pashupati’s persona was one of a firm adherent of an active monarchy, more than what Thapa was willing to contemplate.
Thapa and Rana were on opposite camps before and after the no-confidence vote. For those sitting in the gallery, their exchanges, some drawing from the Bhimsen Thapa-Mathbar Sing Thapa-Jang Bahadur Rana parables, was not only entertaining but enlightening in terms of the turn Nepali politics would subsequently take.
Although Rana became part of the effort the led to the transition to multiparty democracy during the 1990 People’s Movement, his group had already lost any relevance to the process.
During the multiparty decades under Kings Birendra and Gyanendra, neither Thapa nor Rana found it inconvenient to be identified as royalists. And why should they? At a time when the CPN-UML and even the Maoists were trying to win the palace’s backing for their partisan endeavors, the ex-panchas were prudent enough.
After another cycle of fission and fusion – and stints in and out of power – Thapa and Rana found themselves together in the united RPP. In the aftermath of the June 1, 2001 Narayanhity Massacre, Maila Baje was struck by Rana’s ability to disassociate himself with his daughter, Devyani, that mysterious but central figure in the narrative peddled after the carnage. How many fathers could have expected to escape the probing questions of investigators or reporters or concerned citizens given the scale, scope and implication of that tragedy?
Sher Bahadur Deuba, whom King Gyanendra sacked as incompetent in October 2002 before taking executive control, still blames Thapa more for egging on the palace. When Thapa himself got the top job, he couldn’t even win the support of his own party, now headed by Rana. Thapa then broke away to form the RJP.
In retrospect, the turning point for Thapa and Rana must have come when King Gyanendra took over full executive control in February 2005. Thapa and Rana found themselves lumped together with the rest of the political class in detention. Evidently, in their view, the king made no distinction between supporters and opponents.
But could that one episode really have been enough to embitter these people with the palace? They were, after all, detained in the comfort of their homes and not in real prisons or thrown into exile as the other democratic leaders were.
Or is all this part of a ruse? If the monarchy were to be restored in Nepal, it will have been done so with the support of the major parties. If the Maoists, Nepali Congress and UML could do so, how difficult might it be for these ex-panchas?
Or maybe there is something really sinister here? Perhaps Thapa, Rana and the other republican panchas of today had actually infiltrated the palace-led system for some other purpose? With public attention focused on opponents of the system who were in incarceration or exile, could these ‘loyalists’ have found it easier to do what they were ‘assigned’ to do?
B.P. Koirala often claimed that, with enough time and effort, the monarchy could be trained to coexist with democracy. Asked by Maila Baje once to explain the real challenge he felt here, B.P. replied: persuading the king who his real friends and his real enemies were.