Royal republicans

From The Kathmandu Post (19 July, 2013)

It is fine to be a republic, but it is more important to be a ‘democratic’ republic, which those who pushed the republic do not seem to favour

The ‘radical progressives’ of Nepal have had the best time of their lives these past few years, riding the Maoist agenda and refusing to connect the dots between human rights, democracy and equitable growth. Under the indulgent gaze of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, these gentlemen would not be caught dead (pardon the usage) talking about accountability and rule of law—their god is the demagogue and their opportunism derived from the belief that Dahal and his cohorts would rule for the next couple decades at least.

The radical progressives have also managed to misrepresent the goals and outcome of the April 2006 Janaandolan, demeaning and airbrushing the effort of the democratic citizenry. The aboveground momentum of the Maoists, and the surrender of the democrat politicians and parties in the face of this challenge, has helped in the reformatting of the memory disc.

Since long, the dominant narrative has presented the Janaandolan as being all about ushering in a republic. While of course the republican-minded joined the national democratic surge of April 2006, the thrust of the agitating public was an end to Gyanendra’s autocracy through non-violent politics. We had not gone beyond that to think of a republican state.

Rhododendron revolution

The Janaandolan was triggered by Gyanendra’s grab for absolute power, starting with the ‘creeping coup’ of 2002 and leading up to the army-backed takeover of February 1, 2005, when he became chairman of the council of ministers. The people became restive as Gyanendra proceeded to tinker with Nepal’s geopolitical positioning, called an implausible election and set about recreating the Panchayat regime of his father Mahendra.

When the movement gathered steam, it was all about ending the autocratic ambitions of Gyanendra, a goal to be achieved through a peaceful ‘rhododendron revolution’. The cancellation of Nepal’s historical monarchy, an institution going back in direct line of succession to the unifier Prithvi Narayan Shah two-and-half centuries earlier, was not on the public agenda.

The end of the Shah dynasty was engineered through a political decision of the parties rather than in consultation with the people. Mainly, it was pushed by the Maoist leadership’s need to justify before their fighters the abandonment of the ‘people’s war’. The other political parties, while livid with the palace for its incessant meddling with parliamentary democracy, would not have gone the distance had they the energy to deflect the Maoist machine.

This writer, while joining the protests on the streets, or incarcerated with other civil society activists at the Duwakot detention centre with ears glued to radio reports of the snowballing movement outside, does not remember republicanism as the slogan of the masses. The swell of people was meant to put the political parties back in the driver’s seat—how these parties have failed the public since 2006 is another story.

No apologies

When you get down to it, Gyanendra was the most effective ‘republican’ of them all during the train of events that led to the monarchy’s eclipse. His adventurism before 2006 and mind-boggling errors of judgement thereafter allowed Dahal to succeed with his plans. This writer has had two meetings with Gyanendra, both being after 2002 and before 2006. One could see early on that he was manoeuvring to apply the excuse of the Maoist insurgency for his planned putsch. When at a public forum organised by the palace I asked him in English, “Your Majesty, why do you detest the political parties so much?” he turned abruptly away in indication of royal disfavour and dismissal.

I remember sitting down and writing Gyanendra a note which ended up being rather long and wordy, arguing that the Nepali monarchy was the property of the Nepali citizenry, rather than that of the incumbent monarch, warning him that fiddling with the constitutional status of the king would endanger the institution itself. The note was delivered to his hands by a royal associate, who later came back with: “His Majesty has asked me to thank you.” (It was the same associate who called somewhat later with Gyanendra’s invitation to join the royal cabinet—which I politely declined.)

With the people massing on the fields and terraces and situation looking dire, senior Army generals (not yet properly recognised for that initiative) went to Narayanhiti to suggest that the king pull back. Gyanendra first tried a half-way concession, which was rejected by us in Duwakot and the political parties outside. Within a couple of days, on April 24, he came back on television with a complete surrender of power.

As the calendar turned towards 2008, if Gyanendra had had the sense to apologise for his actions going back to 2002, given the national sensibility, the citizenry would probably have forgiven his adventurism on the promise of good behaviour. But by nature a man convinced of his superior intellect, Gyanendra’s stiff upper lip did not loosen and the monarchy fell on May 28, 2008. To give the ex-king due credit, the world saw the end of a powerful dynasty through a press conference and an exit from the royal palace.

While seeking to correct the record on the how the monarchy was abolished, this writer does not believe in its revival. Certainly, as a public capable of massive uprising, the people could have watchdogged a constitutional monarchy if that was what was agreed on in 2008 by the Constituent Assembly. But seeking to revive an abolished kingship now would be an awful idea, for the inordinate political clout the institution would command as a result. This would compound the challenge before the polity today, viz consolidating democracy in a politically and geopolitically weakened state.

Maoist royalists

There is no need for surprise if the idea of the kingship’s restoration were to come from the UCPN (Maoist)’s Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai, known for their opportunism and ability to use convoluted arguments to justify each u-turn during and since the ‘people’s war’. One must start with the knowledge that the Maoists began their insurgency in 1996, not against the monarchy but against parliamentary democracy—no amount of latter-day obfuscation can erase this reality.

There have been many attempted deals between the Maoist party and the monarchy (and ex-monarchy). To recap: Bhattarai announced immediately after the royal palace massacre that the Maoists had had a ‘working unity’ with the slain Birendra and after 2006, he put a trial balloon aloft suggesting a ‘cultural monarchy’. While the conflict raged, Dahal was actually in touch with Gyanendra on a plan to rule jointly, with the democratic leaders shoved into the slammer. Just before the 2008 elections, as reported recently in the digital newspaper, quoting the politician Kamal Thapa who was acting as a conduit, Dahal was in touch with the defrocked Gyanendra for joint action against the Congress and CPN-UML.

Democracy first

Whether a constitutional monarchy or republic, Nepal needs a democracy in order to build a materially rich and egalitarian society. A revived kingship would be too powerful to allow the evolution of this democracy, so it is best to consolidate it within the republic. The monarchy must be made a relic of history.

In conclusion: a) the call of the People’s Movement was not for a republic; b) the monarchy was abolished by political decision; c) the UCPN-Maoist would be willing to restore kingship for its ends; d) the kingship’s revival is a bad idea vis-à-vis democracy; e) the republic must be stabilised through free-and-fair elections in November 2013; and, f) the key word in a ‘democratic republic’ is ‘democratic’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *