WHEN KING Gyanendra of Nepal sacked the Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and began direct rule on February 1, 2005, he said he did so under a constitutional provision that enjoins the monarchy to uphold and protect the Constitution. While he repeated many times his commitment to constitutional monarchy and multiparty rule, the King’s drastic action on Tuesday went patently against those principles. First, he was taking over as executive monarch on the basis of a personal decision. Secondly, the royal address was replete with castigating references to political parties, who are the intermediaries for pluralism and democratic practice anywhere in the world.
King Gyanendra’s antipathy towards the political parties is well known and has been often expressed. But by sidelining them completely and planning to rule as well as reign, the King has removed a buffer between himself and the rough and tumble of politics. To that extent, he has taken a great risk and put the institution of monarchy in the line of fire. Clearly, the King believes the risk is worth taking. Which brings us to the matter of whether Narayanhiti Palace has a trump card vis-à-vis the raging Maoist insurgency.
If such is indeed the case and there is rapid movement towards tranquillity, with the insurgents being routed or laying down arms, the palace may be able to overcome the turbulence it has introduced into the Nepali polity. Peace and an end to the insurgency would put the monarchy back on the pedestal as a respected institution, but everything depends on how soon that would happen. At one time, the Maoists did announce that they would negotiate only with Prime Minister Deuba’s `master’. Are we to hope that now with the King directly in charge the Maoists will extend a hand? We can hope.
Further, the Nepal Army’s fight against the highly motivated and increasingly brutal insurgents thus far has been lacklustre. Will the palace’s direct control of national affairs mean the military will now put up a spirited fight, and that its human rights record will improve? We will have to see.
What is clear is that this has been a radical step exposing the monarchy to flak, when other approaches could have been tried. Such as using the inherent powers of kingship to cajole the political parties to work together and put up a political front against the insurgents. But the King’s deeply held feelings towards the parties seem to have blocked off this avenue towards resolution. The calls made since King Gyanendra took over informally in October 2002 for an all-party government or revival of the Third Parliament, all of which would have provided political challenge to the Maoists on their home ground, have come to naught.
King Gyanendra’s announcement of a takeover for `up to three years’ provides a long window in which Nepal’s highly successful experiment with democracy of the last dozen years may be eroded. Unless there is a rapid move towards resolution of the insurgency, the Maoists may try to make common cause with the political parties. The political parties are unlikely to go with the insurgents as long as they hold on to the gun. However, the King’s action is certain to add strength to the insurgents’ demand for a republican constitution and government, a call that has been taken up lately by many politicians.
How does the palace plan to attend to the criticism that is bound to erupt in the domestic political arena as well as in the international community? In castigating the political parties, King Gyanendra preferred to hark back to the Parliament dissolved three years ago, while keeping silent over the interim period and the rule through palace-appointed Prime Ministers. This is the period when the peace and security of the country’s populace plummeted most.
In the speech, King Gyanendra highlighted the great contribution of the Shah dynasty to the creation of the nation and ventured that he was speaking for thejanabhawana, the Nepali people’s feelings. While it is true that the desire for peace overwhelms all other political desires among the people, the question arises whether the royal takeover was the proper way to address the chahana (desires).
It would have been a much more popular and realistic move for the King to have used his prerogative as head-of-state to bring the bickering parties together at this critical juncture.
In the end, unless King Gyanendra is able to come up with the trump card of peace with the Maoists in the near term, his unprecedented action of February 1 will have exposed Nepal’s monarchy to the vicissitudes of day-to-day politics and power play. Did the Nepali monarchy deserve this at so late a date in history?