Saturday, September 21, 2013

Annals Of An Unapologetic Pancha

Of the stalwarts of the Panchayat system who soldiered on until the very end, Navaraj Subedi largely faded into oblivion after the collapse of the partyless edifice in 1990. Admittedly, the name continued to command some political attention during the multiparty era, but it belonged to a radical communist.
Marich Man Singh Shrestha, the last prime minister of the partyless system, emerged four years later to contest the second parliamentary elections, which he lost. Niranjan Thapa, the state home minister in that much-reviled cabinet, returned several years later to serve as King Gyanendra’s law minister. However, Subedi, chairman of the Rastriya Panchayat and the Panchayat Policy and Evaluation Committee, receded into the background.
Maila Baje always thought Subedi, if he wanted to, could make one more important contribution – to history. The man was in the higher echelons of politics during those tumultuous final weeks of spring. As part of King Birendra’s entourage during the monarch’s inordinately extended regional tour, Subedi was ostensibly privy to the palace’s discussion of the available options vis-à-vis the burgeoning ‘people’s movement’.
Moreover, he had served under King Mahendra, having joined the Panchayat system straight out of university, unlike the former party workers who formed the bulk of the early panchas. And he had a flair for words.
So when Subedi’s memoirs, Itihaas Ko Kalkhand, (An Epoch of History) came out earlier this year, yours truly’s delight knew now bounds. The book, which found some unsympathetic early reviews, is a remarkable read on several levels. For one thing, it provides a rare contrast between the working styles of two monarchs, so different temperamentally yet united in their vision of Nepal’s independent and sovereign place in the world.
In the public realm, King Mahendra died an autocrat, while King Birendra got to reinvent himself as a democrat before suffering a tragic end. In Subedi’s portrayal, the efficiency of one-man rule and confusion of the consensus-seeking are sharply juxtaposed: take your pick.
Someone who became a pancha by ‘accident’ – in his accounting – Subedi concedes it took him a while to develop loyalty to the system. Working under King Mahendra, he explains how he saw the monarch listening to everyone but making his own decisions. In Subedi’s telling, Mahendra never saw partylessness as permanent.
Under King Birendra, who was more forbearing than his father, political parvenus gradually gained the upper hand. Subedi saw a system atrophying, ironically at a time when it had emerged strong through its referendum victory.
In blaming the ‘mandale’ hardliners for the demise of the system, Subedi joins a legion of panchas led by Surya Bahadur Thapa. There is a broader point that comes out. Under King Mahendra, panchas were more likely to be self-assured individuals who, reconciled with the existing political reality, believed they could do something for the country. And they found a monarch they felt respected their views.
King Birendra, too, had an abiding capacity for listening to others. But the multiplicity of opinions seemed to confound him, giving the queen’s camp a greater say in affairs. Even when the royals were persuaded of the wisdom of a particular course of action, there was no guarantee it would past muster with the king’s secretaries and ADCs intent on preserving their own fiefdoms.
Despite all this, Subedi has fulsome praise for the intentions of King Birendra. Many today revel in denouncing wholesale the system they prospered under and expect to retain credibility. Subedi does not denigrate the royals in a holier-than-thou tone. Critical of influential albeit unaccountable individuals who derailed what could have been a less turbulent transition, Subedi doesn’t set himself apart from the system. With unusual candor, he concedes he failed to save a system he had invested decades nurturing. Yet he remains as unapologetic a pancha as he can be.
The book is replete with interesting tidbits. Subedi recounts with almost comical flair how he was coerced to switch constituencies (and districts) during the first Rastriya Panchayat election. He speaks of how he raised money from controversial businessman Choth Mal Jatiya to fund the Panchayat camp’s electioneering, conceding the existence of a quid pro quo. But he also laments how, once victorious, his side ended up reneging on its promise to the man. Examples of personal vendettas and family tragedies are sprinkled with acts of kindness and consideration to give the book an eminently human touch.
There are times when Subedi reveals a hard-to-believe proximity with Kings Mahendra and Birendra. Some of the conversations he recounts do not seem to be of the kind that royals would engage in so easily outside the family. At other points, the writing appears breezy and disjointed. Subedi claims credit for quite a few positive decisions. Yet he does so not with brazen self-righteousness but with the pride of having been part of the system.
The record of the Panchayat decades – particularly the Mahendra years – has been distorted. The obsession with the undemocratic nature of the system has largely overlooked the global context and the domestic realities in which it arose. By definition, a system that outlawed political parties could not be considered democratic. Yet Panchayat-era Nepal never resembled Mao’s re-education camps or Stalin’s Gulag. The foundations of a modern and viable state were laid during those partyless decades, when Nepal could firmly establish its independent identity in the world.
Mercifully, time is slowly permitting a more dispassionate view of the Panchayat decades, enabling a separation of the wheat from the chaff. Subedi’s book is great addition to the literature both in terms of content and comportment.