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|June 27, 2002||
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
A kingdom under siege
Normally the visit of a constitutional monarch is largely ceremonial. But in the case of Nepal, that has never been so. After the restoration of the Shah dynasty to the throne in 1950, the king has remained not only the symbol of the country's unity and integrity, but also the custodian of executive power, in many respects even after the introduction of multi-party democracy, first in 1959 and again in 1990.
The visit to India of His Majesty King Gyanendra Bir Bikaram Shah Dev is significant on many counts. He comes to Delhi after the horrible palace massacre last year in which almost the entire Shah dynasty was wiped out. He ascended the throne for the second time, his first being for a few months as regent in 1950. Accession to the throne in Kathmandu is from father to son. So Gyanendra was never, not even in his wildest dreams, a king in waiting.
Last year there were unpalatable rumours of a conspiracy comparable to the royal massacre in 1819 that brought the Ranas to power. Today, though people may have forgotten the massacre and taken Gyanendra as their new king, they have not accepted the official findings of the palace massacre.
This is Gyanendra's first visit outside the country marking the end of a year's mourning of the tragic event. As before, the mandatory balancing visit to China starts on July 8. The Nepalese tend to follow this balancing act between India and China.
Much has been made of the Maoist insurgency, now in its sixth year and at the expense of multi-party democracy. Although the Maoists control more territory than the caretaker government whose writ runs mainly in Kathmandu-Pokhara-Surkhet-Ghorai, the main townships and districts and most of the Terai, the greatest threat now in Nepal is to the institutions of democracy restored after a bitter revolution.
This time, due to an imperfect constitution, the actual transfer of power from the palace to the democratic forces and government did not take place. Worse, because the country was bestowed a constitution with many loopholes, a whole lot of political and security problems have cropped up.
Nepal is facing its worst ever politico-security-economic crisis in history. Democracy has failed to take root while the monarchy, which took a harsh beating last year, is on the rebound. There have been nine prime ministers and 11 governments in as many years.
The Maoist problem is the result of misgovernance, corruption, poverty and the lack of any development reform. The insurgency has been used by political parties to secure power. This has led to Maoist influence and control spreading throughout the country.
Emergency has been clamped in Nepal since November last year when the Maoists attacked the army. Parliament was dissolved on account of political infighting. The Nepali Congress has split vertically. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, expelled by his own party, heads a caretaker government. He claims to represent the real Nepali Congress. Hearings are on in the Supreme Court over the restoration of Parliament.
An election must be held before November 13, otherwise a constitutional impasse could occur. A free and fair election is impossible unless the Maoists co-operate. They are demanding an interim government, a new constituent assembly placing the army under civilian, not palace control, and unconditional talks. But they are flexible in their demands as they contend that compromises have to be made in order to achieve their final goal, which is a republic.
In these conditions of political uncertainty and a power vacuum, the power poles have shifted back to the palace. Deuba is seen as the king's man. The army is firmly in the control of the palace.
The king has on many occasions asserted that he is a constitutional monarch and that there are limits to what he can do. He has pledged to uphold multi-party democracy. There is no reason to doubt his intention and objectives.
But events are taking such a turn in Nepal that a constitutional impasse might be created by worsening law and order so that elections cannot be held. Or a rigged election could bring not just the Maoists but also democratic forces like the Communist Party of Nepal, United Marxist Leninist, and the Nepali Congress on to the streets leading to a collapse of the administration. Such a scenario may appear to be exaggerated, but in Nepali politics, anything is possible. The outcome from such a constitutional crisis would be a return to palace rule.
Already nearly 5,000 people have been killed in the 'people's war'. Many more will lose their lives if political stability is not restored and democracy rescued from further bashing. A responsible government is essential to deal with the Maoist menace. A more serious problem facing Nepal is, therefore, a reassertion of political executive authority.
The best case for Nepal and India would be for the Supreme Court to revive Parliament as it did in 1995 and put in place a government established from the same House. Meanwhile, India's help to Nepal in combating the Maoist threat should continue, as also immediate efforts to advise and assist Nepal in starting a dialogue with the Maoists. One hopes that Indian leaders can impress upon His Majesty King Gyanendra the need to strike the right balance between constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy and remove the existing grey areas.
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