Desist, Chairman Gyanendra!

The king of Nepal apparently does not like his takeover of exactly 11 months ago being termed a military coup, but there can be no other term to describe the use of the army by its 'supreme commander-in-chief' to grab state power. Simultaneously, he designated himself chairman of the Council of Ministers, a post that does not exist in the 1990 Constitution. In every way that was possible in this past year of Rule by Black Ordinance, Chairman Gyanendra has torn that document to shreds. He has also amply displayed his willingness to preside over a shriveling state where administration is a farce, the government's development programmes are at standstill, and diplomacy is in tatters. All of this hurts a citizenry long in search for peace and democracy. As head of both the state and government, the chairman seems to want to have it both ways – remain the aloof monarch even though the new self-applied job description requires him to be functioning as a prime minister.  Meanwhile, the arrogance that emanates from the Narayanhiti royal palace provides a textbook case of how monarchies end – one man's faulty understanding of the dictates of the times and the aspirations of the population.

Today, the chairman is isolated nationally and internationally but remains sullenly defiant. He refuses to listen to advice of statesmen near and far – including a sitting US president, the UN Secretary General, or his own nervous royal advisors. He disregards the views of the wise framers of the 1990 Constitution, and feigns indifference to the massive crowds gathered by the political parties around the country in a continuous show of strength these last two months. By not reciprocating the four-month old unilateral ceasefire of the Maoist (allowed to lapse by the rebels as Himal goes to press), and dismissing their publicly announced willingness to join multi-party politics, he seems itching to take the country back to war.

Meanwhile, under the active monarchy of the incumbent, this is a time of loot in Nepal, when terrible men have emerged out of the Kathmandu quagmire to take advantage of the current unaccountability of state. The money being amassed by those close to Narayanhiti royal palace will destabilise democracy for a long time even after it is rescued. The deconstruction of state mechanisms will take years if not a decade to repair. The royal regime seeks to defend itself by trying to generate an ultra-nationalistic, xenophobic fervour, but it is not catching. There is also the attempt to try an extremely shaky 'China card' and a deliberate  strategy  to wreck the relationship with India.

The royal appointments to high office are of the kind that have to be picked up and discarded one by one when democracy returns. The willingness to run the economy to ground for personal gain is something that investigative journalists will be digging into long into the future. But the unkindest cut of all has been the chairman's and supreme commander-in-chief's willingness to convert the Royal Nepal Army from a professional force serving the people and international community (as valued UN peacekeepers) to a politically ambitious entity that functions to the feudal dictate of the royal palace.  Unfortunately, many generals have now had the taste of untrammeled power and a handful have experienced the lure of really big money. The politicisation and de-professionalisation of the army is a hopeless exercise fraught with danger for society at large, and the self-worth of the military rank and file. Any chieftain with even a remote understanding of statecraft would understand the need for an immediate course reversal.

Critical moment
Succumbing to geopolitical and national reality, the Maoist rebels have arrived at an understanding with the agitating political parties, promising to "institutionalise values of competitive multiparty system" and "not repeat past mistakes". This is a critically sensitive time in Nepal, when above-ground forces must assist the rebel leadership in joining the mainstream, and facilitate a 'safe landing' for the  rebel fighters and cadre. Although the Maoist leaders have a lot to atone for, the responsible political parties of Nepal find their change of heart credible and are willing to engage for the sake of peace. But the royal regime, with the backing of the topmost army brass, seems bent on acting a spoilsport. It is seen unwilling to provide the space required for a peaceful resolution.

Things are coming to a head with the municipal elections announced by the royal regime for 8 February, which is a farcical exercise meant to waylay Western ambassadors into believing the regime's democratic credentials. Besides the fact that the chairman of the cabinet has no constitutional authority to announce polls, the fairness of any such exercise is suspect with an Election Commission of proven subservience to the palace and the military out of the barracks. The democratic leaders have wisely refused to participate in an election planned by the very man who shoved all of them into jail on 1 February while mouthing the word 'democracy'. If anything, the call for municipal elections reflects a lack of respect for the people of Nepal who do recognise the contours of a democratic exercise when they see one. This same lack of respect for the citizenry's sensitivities and wellbeing has been evident innumerable times in the last year of Nepal's discontent.

The prospect of violence looms large as the Maoist leadership tries to restrain its fighters, whose young minds it had filled with romantic propaganda for so many years. The royal regime will try to tar the political parties with any violence that the rebels resort to, especially now that the ceasefire has not been extended, but this will not wash. The conclusion, yet again, is inescapable that the regime wants a return to violence. While there will come a time when the people will pass their judgement on the Maoists through the ballot box in a democratic setup, the blame for a return to violence in early 2006 will rest primarily with Chairman Gyanendra and his nominees running the state without constitutional authority or restraint.

The political dust will settle in Nepal, and when that happens, the country will not be a Burma nor a police state. The public's desire for peace and democracy (not one without the other) is clear, and the Maoists have no choice but to succumb to that desire. But what of a man who became king at 56, and decided right off that he had all the answers, and that they lay in vainglorious royal assertion? A man who has succeeded in weakening the image of monarchy among the masses in one year, more than have the Maobaadi in a decade?

The best that can be said for Chairman Gyanendra is that he is intent upon bringing things to a head. But the time this magazine comes out with its next issue in March, much will have changed in Nepal, hopefully for the better, but perhaps for the worse. All because of the actions of a man who would be chairman.

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Himal Southasian