Saturday, June 28, 2014

Generalspeak: Platitude Or Portent?

An already ailing prime minister diagnosed with another serious malady has reignited a leadership struggle in the principal ruling party, pitting its dynastic claimants against the plebeians.
The other major coalition partner is mired in a party convention wherein the two prime contestants for leadership are slinging mud over who brings more royalist baggage to the ring.
The once-feared rebels, splintered, exhausted and relegated to third place, insist the two ruling parties are bent on restoring the monarchy and unitary state by reinstating the previous constitution.
And when the only avowedly royalist party in the elected assembly insists it would not accept any constitution that did not formally accommodate the monarchy and Hinduism, even the most committed republicans do not pretend to rise up to offer a rebuttal.
So when Gen. Gaurav Shamsher Rana, chief of staff of the Nepal Army, reminded us other day that the armed forces were the last line of defense, he created a flutter.
In the best of times, such platitudes would have been easily shrugged off. Even in the worst – like today’s – a been-there-done-that attitude should have sufficed. Yet the attempt to read between the top general’s words persists. It’s an age-old syndrome: When you don’t know what you really want, you try to seek meaning in everything.
A little history lesson may be in order. The last time our top general gave the same message, stirrings of change were in the air. Except it wasn’t the kind we expected. When the entire family of the supreme commander of the then Royal Nepal Army perished inside the heavily fortified palace perimeter, the same army chief wanted us to be believe that his organization was not responsible for the royals’ security.
Clearly, army bosses pushed then king Gyanendra to seize full control of state powers in February 2005, confident in their ability to control the situation. Superficially, the monarch confronted a two-front battle. In reality, though, the mainstream parties were still discredited and the monarch initially had the people’s palpable – if wary – support. Why then could the army, unencumbered by the political imperatives inherent under party rule, make no dent against the insurgents? If the shortage of arms and ammunition resulting from the post-takeover embargo was the reason, what did that say about the generals’ political acumen?
Admittedly, you could accuse the monarch – as so many continue to – of squandering the brief window of opportunity by packing his cabinet with discredited politicians from the partyless and multiparty past. What else could he have done amid the sustained boycott mounted by the mainstream parties? Name key generals to top cabinet positions?
In the end, you could say the generals persuaded the monarch of the impossibility of his enterprise and encouraged him to step back. To assert that claim, the generals would have to inject some honesty to the discourse.
The army ultimately absolved itself by undergoing a name change and distancing itself from the palace. Any new such adventure would be far more perilous to the armed forces and, by extension, to the nation.
Now, if Gen. Rana’s intention was to assure us that the armed forces, which unified Nepal, sustained Bhimsen Thapa’s thirty-year autocracy before underpinning a century of the Ranas’, and went on to bolster the democrats, the panchas, multiparty practitioners, royalists and republicans of a still independent nation, then he should not have taken the trouble. If anything, we’ve wizened up to our history these past few years.