Nepal on the Verge of Bastille

Nepal’s king Gyanendra is a very adamant man. He is also a very foolish man. The writing is on the wall. The king has to go. Monarchy has to go. Democracy has to be established. The whole world can see this. Except Gyanendra.

This of course was only to be expected. Gyanendra became king in 2001 after his nephew, crown prince Dipendra, massacred Gyanendra’s brother, king Birendra, and other members of the royal family. Gyanendra was, before the massacre, third in the line of succession. Having ascended the throne courtesy the gun, Gyanendra wants to hold on to it with help of the gun.

For the last 16 days, Nepal has been under siege. The capital, Kathmandu, has been under curfew. The people have defied curfew every day and congregated in larger and larger numbers. The police have responded with ferocity, killing and wounding many. The people have fought back.

As I write these lines on the morning of April 21, it is almost certain that in the next few days, or even hours, the people will succeed in encircling the king’s palace. Once that happens, Gyanendra will have nowhere to go. That will be the last nail in the monarchy’s coffin.

In his tiny, landlocked mountain kingdom, Gyanendra is a trapped rat.

He is now trying to bribe his way out of trouble. Last evening, he offered the prime ministership to senior Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, who refused to become a rubber stamp under the monarchy.

Yesterday too, a special envoy of the Indian Prime Minister met Gyanendra. What transpired in that meeting is not so far known. It is certain that India would have tried to persuade Gyanendra to hand over power to parliament.

What is not clear so far is how tough India has talked with Gyanendra. In other words, would India have said to him that it would accept nothing short of abdication and liquidation of the monarchy? I doubt it. India is more likely to have conveyed to Gyanendra that he must restore democracy, and reconvene parliament. Upon return to India, the special envoy made two points to the media: that he has counseled a ‘positive attitude’ on both sides (the king and the seven-party alliance), and that he expects the king to make an announcement shortly.

The crucial point in all this, of course, is the future of the monarchy itself. India has lived cosily with the monarchy for too long, even supplying it arms to quell the Maoist insurgency, for it to now demand its complete dissolution. The Americans don’t want that either. What both would like, frankly, is democracy restored so that the people vacate the streets and go back to their homes and work, and parliament to award the king a lifelong pension and ceremonial status.

As things stand currently though, this rosy future is unlikely to unfold.

Every time in the past, when the popular movement for democracy gathered strength, the monarchy was able to save itself by some means or the other. Sometimes by giving concessions, sometimes by using bribes, sometimes by sheer armed force. However, more than ever before, the current protests have reached a catalytic point.

So what has changed?

The big change is two fold: on the one hand, the seven-party alliance, which represents all the mainstream political parties of Nepal, from right-liberal Nepali Congress to the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), have come together on a realizable common minimum understanding and have shown the willingness to stick together in spite of their differences, and on the other, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which has led an armed insurgency against the state for a decade, has agreed to seek an electoral mandate when democracy is restored.

In other words, the worst fears of the Americans, the Indian state, and Gyanendra himself have come to pass – the Maoist threat can no longer be used to keep the other political parties in check. The Americans, realizing the gravity of the situation, started clearing its Kathmandu embassy on 12 April. An official eight-member American delegation, which was to reach Kathmandu the same day, cancelled its trip.

For years, the gulf between the political parties and the Maoists remained the stumbling block in the way of a push to the abolition of monarchy and the constitution of a republic. Now that the seven-party alliance has reached a 12-point agreement with the Maoists, this stumbling bloc no longer exists.

To be sure, the monarchy, in its last throes, tried whipping up the Maoist threat. On the eve of the current agitation (which began on 6 April), Home Minister Kamal Thapa said the Maoists planned to infiltrate the agitation with its cadres, and indulge in violence in Kathmandu. The Maoist leader Prachanda countered with a command to his cadres to suspend all military operations in the Kathmandu valley, to allow the seven-party alliance to conduct its campaign unhindered. This took the wind out of the monarchy’s sails.

Indeed, the most remarkable turnabout in the current phase of the popular movement has been the poise, calm and reasonableness with which the Maoists have projected themselves. In a long interview with the senior Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu in early February, Prachanda was at pains to emphasize that the people’s war was against the exploitative feudal autocracy, and not against multiparty democracy.

He made another point, a more theoretical one, that “democracy is the key question in the 21st century.” He said that we “we want to analyse the experience of revolution and counter-revolution in the 20th century on a new basis.” And in that light, last August, the Maoists decided to take concrete steps to forge an alliance with the mainstream parties so that multiparty democracy can be established and monarchy abolished.

Of course, Prachanda did not give up the idea of armed struggle altogether; the two must go hand in hand. On how this idea of what he called “an anti-imperialist, anti-feudal democracy” was different from “bourgeois democracy”, he was not too clear. However, he did show willingness to participate in elections, and seek the people’s mandate. This was itself a big step forward, and helped the Maoists win respectability and support from many of those who had opposed them earlier. But, it must be underlined, election to a constituent assembly, not to parliament under the monarchy.

Without doubt, the Maoist leadership has shown theoretical adaptability and tactical maturity. How much this will translate into votes when the elections come up finally is of course impossible to say. What is clear, however, is that for the moment, the Maoists have won the war of manoeuvre and, from a position where they were isolated from the political mainstream, have pushed the monarchy into isolation.

In the meanwhile, protests multiply and the people are making a surge towards the heavily guarded royal palace. The monarchy is responding the only way it knows how to: with curfew, terror and firings. Kathmandu’s hospitals are overflowing with the injured. Essential commodities have vanished from the markets. The people’s hardships are increasing by the hour. The government machinery is incapable of either quelling protests, or of getting food to the hungry and medicines to the sick and injured.

Something has to give, and the current balance of forces suggests it will have to be the monarchy.

Given the centrality of the Maoist factor, it may be fitting to conclude this commentary with a little story of Mao himself. When asked how he assessed the impact of the French Revolution, Mao said: “It is too early to tell.”

Two centuries after the fall of Bastille, Mao’s oppressed and poor neighbours are fulfilling the promise of 1789.

Sudhanva Deshpande is editor at LeftWord Books, www.leftword.com. He can be reached at deshsud@rediffmail.com.

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