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ON A PALACE COUP

Nepal is on a dangerous drift that is reminiscent of the events of the Eighties which eventually led to the collapse of absolute monarchy and the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1990. The palace and the political parties are once again caught in a web of mutual distrust that sparked a similar political crisis twenty years ago.

There is even an uncanny resemblance to those troubled times in the resignation of the prime minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, the appointment of Surya Bahadur Thapa as his successor and the role of the palace in both events. In 1983, however, Chand succeeded Thapa, who had to quit despite enjoying the support of the majority of members of the Rashtriya Panchayat, thanks to the machinations of the palace.

The royal massacre of June 1, 2001 gave the throne at Kathmandu’s Narayanhiti Palace to King Gyanendra, who was at the centre of a controversy following the serial bomb explosions around the palace in June, 1985 and subsequently in other parts of the country. The violence, it was later suspected, had been engineered by palace loyalists to scuttle the satyagraha launched by the Nepali Congress about a month earlier.

King Gyanendra finds himself at odds again with not only the Nepali Congress but also the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and most other political parties in the country. He ignored the major parties’ choice of Madhav Kumar Nepal of the CPN(UML), as the next prime minister after Chand, and unilaterally appointed Thapa to the post.

Five major parties, including the Nepali Congress and CPN(UML), have been on a collision course with the palace ever since the king manipulated another former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, to split the Nepali Congress and then dissolve parliament in October last year. The king’s decision betrays his distrust of parliamentary democracy because Thapa, like Chand, belongs to the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party, which had only 11 members in a parliament of 205. Impatient with an “overactive” king, the parties have threatened to demand the abolition of constitutional monarchy and the setting up of a people’s republic.

The similarities with the situation in the Eighties notwithstanding, the present crisis seems to be far more ominous for Nepal in particular and the region in general. With parliament dissolved and the king’s government lacking any legitimacy, Nepal faces a political vacuum that is worse than the one in the Eighties. Although the parties want the dissolved parliament restored, this looks unlikely to happen in view of the supreme court’s verdict against it.

Some analysts in Nepal argue that the king has the powers under Article 127 of the constitution to restore the dissolved parliament. It is true that the article gives the king powers to intervene “to remove difficulties” in the formation or the running of a government. It is true that the constitution debars anyone from challenging any action of the king in a court of law. But the same article says that the king has to place before parliament any orders he may issue to fulfil his obligations under it.

It is unlikely that the king will revive a parliament whose dissolution was largely his doing. If he has to do this, he may have to recall the government of Deuba who, as the prime minister, dissolved parliament. That he may not do either of these is also borne out by the fact that he appointed Chand and now Thapa as prime ministers on the premise that they would form an all-party government and hold fresh elections within six months of their appointments. Chand failed to do so, and Thapa too may not succeed if the major parties continue to dissociate themselves from his government.

The constitutional problem is actually more complicated than it appears to be. On the one hand, the constitution gives the king the powers to intervene; on the other, it says that there cannot be a gap of more than six months between one parliament and the next. The present situation, in which the country has been without a parliament since last October, is clearly one which the makers of the 1990 constitution had not envisaged.

The palace is exploiting the constitutional confusion, which it has insidiously created in the first place, in order to subvert parliamentary democracy. But it is impossible that King Gyanendra can put the clock of history backwards and rule by proxy. His slain brother, King Birendra, tried that with the elections to the Rashtriya Panchayat in 1981, which the major parties had boycotted but which threw up Thapa as the prime minister. But that palace intrigue unleashed political forces which King Birendra could not control.

King Gyanendra could be caught in a worse situation. Some observers argue that he may actually do better in his battle against the parties because, unlike during the popular agitation of 1989-90, the parties now are deeply divided. They also point out that 12 years of multi-party democracy have disillusioned the people with the parties and their corrupt, unstable and incompetent governments.

Also, King Gyanendra now has to deal with a challenge that his brother did not face — that of the Maoists. If the people are angry with the parties, they are more likely to turn to the Maoists than to the monarch. In 1983, the palace could make use of agent provocateurs to set off bomb blasts to spread confusion in the public mind about the satyagraha of the Nepali Congress. Any strategy today to use the Maoists to undercut the agitation by mainstream parties now can only be suicidal because the Maoists have their own agenda of knocking down the monarchy and setting up of a people’s republic. That is why any peace talks with the Maoists are bound to fail unless the king involves the major parties in the process.

With the Maoists running their own governments in nearly half the country, any secret understanding with them is bound to be a dangerous gamble. Any attempt by the king to enlist international support to tackle the Maoists, on the other hand, may turn the tiny kingdom into a regional theatre of a new Great Game. Nepal’s two big neighbours — India and China — would certainly see such an eventuality as a threat to their own security and to the regional balance of power.

To avert a Himalayan blunder King Gyanendra, therefore, has only one choice — to regain the confidence of the political parties by restoring multi-party democracy. Even the current constitutional confusion may not be a big hurdle in his way if he shows the will.

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