Regal self-defeat

The autocrat regime in Nepal is paving the way for its own destruction

Arun Deo Joshi Delhi

Despite its pretensions to absolute power, monarchy in Nepal now sports a distinctly shabby and shop-soiled look, largely due to the ill-advised antics of the king, Gyanendra, since he came to the throne in June 2001 in circumstances that a significant section of the Kathmandu public found disagreeable. At a time when the foundations of monarchic legitimacy  were substantially eroded by the unverified suspicions of a hostile public about the complicity of the king in the massacre that preceded his investiture, which he did little to allay, he preferred aggression to circumspection, opting for autocratic consolidation, presumably misled by the belief that Vishnu's incarnation is entitled to the affections of his subjects as a divine right. The subjects presumably have a different view of the matter, as seems increasingly and vocally to be the case, but he is not willing to let the issue be settled by a popular vote. Instead, he has, since he began his career as king, displayed an enthusiasm for atavistic politics, whose sole objective is to restore the Shah dynasty's throne to the glory it had attained under his despotic father, Mahendra.

Unfortunately for Gyanendra, his enthusiasm is not matched by commensurate skill. But, what he lacks in political finesse he compensates for with a corresponding excess of military force. That is only to be expected from a clumsy pretender without the acumen to recognise that the fundamentals of absolutism cannot be reconciled with the political and social changes that have overtaken his kingdom. To compound matters, the indisputably loyal army that he commands is also equally indisputably less than mediocre in military capacity, notwithstanding large Indian, US, British, Belgian, Chinese, and unconfirmed Israeli infusions of technology. Reportedly 80,000 strong, and armed to the teeth with imported weapons, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) has to its credit a string of defeats at the hands of the Maoist army, which is only one-tenth its size. RNA's most spectacular successes have been against unarmed civilians, particularly young unarmed girls in villages.

His non-military associates are not significantly more intelligent. Royal pawns who had been swept away by political democracy in 1990 have been brought back from the wilderness to give Gyanendra's retrograde government a fittingly primitive face. Relics of another time, their political machinations are laughably obsolete. Cloistered in a feudal world and insulated from mass realities, like the king, they persist with the uncouth belief, prevalent among unreconstructed feudal class, that the polity can still be controlled by a handful of cultured families.

It is with this limited stock of feudal resources, both military and political, that Gyanendra aims to implement his medieval vision and impart a democratic veneer to it. There is no indication that he and his advisers, both domestic and foreign, have any comprehension of the changes that his coup of February 1, 2005 has precipitated. This seems clear enough from the response of the regime to the various developments that have taken place since then.

On the political front, the king and his courtiers have managed to unite all the significant political forces of Nepal against the palace and the army. This is their most lasting contribution to their own undoing. Between 1999 and early 2005, the palace had managed, through skilful manipulation, to keep the parliamentary parties divided and the Maoists beyond the pale of mainstream legitimacy. Not satisfied with the power they had, the royalists, in February 2005, exceeded their competence and effected a coup to take complete control of the polity. At that point they lost control of the situation and found themselves out of their depth.

There seem to have been two factors that gave the king and his cronies the confidence to dispense with the parliamentary parties completely. One was the assumption that the leaders of the main political parties, accustomed to both the pelf and friction of parliamentary politics, could be purchased easily enough and kept divided, through selective patronage and calibrated repression. The other was the conviction that the parliamentary parties would not muster up the courage to forge an alliance with the Maoists, who had been declared terrorists by the government and by the US and India.

On both counts the architects of the coup erred, and that error is symptomatic of a larger problem with the regime's understanding of Nepali realities. The war on terror is a parochial obsession of the western world and has little relevance for the political calculations of Nepal's parliamentarians fighting for their survival. Nepal's feudal aristocracy, looking to align the justification for their coup with the calculus of western geopolitics, failed to grasp this basic point. Hence they did not foresee that the instinct for survival would not only bring about a unity in the face of a common threat, but would also lead to an alliance with the Maoists, who were quick to seize the elemental contradiction of the new political moment and offer terms that were not anticipated by a bemused palace.

What the king and his advisers did not also foresee was that the Maoist threat was not enough to overcome the objections of some key international players. Having alienated the Indian establishment, they went shopping for support in places that have no interest in Nepal. The China card is a lemon that does not deserve closer scrutiny. The Pakistan card is a non-event that has been promoted by the Indian security establishment for various reasons. It is not surprising that the king eventually went to Africa in search of endorsement. War on terror or otherwise, the coup has not secured the open and unequivocal support of even the US, whose capacity for propping up unpopular regimes is unrivalled.

Having overplayed its cards on all fronts the regime in Kathmandu continues to behave as if the world has not changed in the last 50 years. The alliance between the parliamentary parties and the Maoists passed without much constructive comment from the palace. The gathering momentum of republican protests has not elicited any response other than the imprudence of more repression. A ceasefire came and went without the apparent knowledge of the king and his army. They continue with blithe promises of introducing a uniquely Nepali version of democracy, which for the present seems restricted to local body elections that cannot be held in the face of insurmountable opposition from the parliamentary parties, the Maoists and the overwhelming indifference of the urban public, whose everyday problems cannot be solved by municipal dispensations instituted by a regime which disconnects phone lines at the drop of a hat.

The latest round of developments across Nepal, and Gyanendra's uninspired response, confirm the general perception that this is a king who is unequal to the task of governing even the residual kingdom that he can claim as his patrimony. His government declined to reciprocate a lengthy unilateral ceasefire by the Maoists on the ground that it was announced for the benefit of the political parties. It may well have been, but the point to have been noted by the palace was that this made it all the more incumbent on the government to offer terms to the political parties to prevent an alliance with the Maoists. Since his army cannot deliver, solutions have to be found politically, for which the palace must be willing to accept the principle of a negotiated compromise. But this seems entirely alien to the culture of the palace.
The size and persistence of anti-palace street demonstrations, after a gap of close to two years, seems finally to have driven home the point to a complacent palace that many people in Nepal are no longer subjects. Alarmed by the rejuvenation of the parliamentary parties as a consequence of the alliance with the Maoists, the Kathmandu government has responded in the only way it knows. It has let the army loose on the streets of the capital, complete with armoured personal vehicles, and soldiers brandishing guns in the face of passers-by. Some political leaders were arrested and released after which those who were not arrested were then locked up while those who were released were invited for talks.

Presumably the government believed that the Nepali political class is too naïve to see through such gauche conspiracies. Clearly the latest invitation to Girija Koirala, of the Nepali Congress, for talks with the government was designed to create an ideological divide between the left on one side and the liberal and feudal forces on the other. What the king's advisers failed to see is that over the last few years the ideological distinctions between the leaders of parliamentary parties had ceased to have any meaning. That was their cardinal failure but it was also their strength in a crisis. It enabled them to regroup without too much difficulty through an alliance that spans the entire ideological spectrum from the left to the centre. This was a compulsion forced on them by the base that they lead, whose primary opposition is to the palace. There is no indication that the palace has grasped the basic fact—that the leaders are being led by their party cadres. And so long as they do not register this they will continue to follow a politics that will leave no room for kingship in Nepal.

Arun D. Joshi is a Nepali journalist based in Delhi. All photos courtesy United We Blog (www.blog.com.np)

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