An unavoidable force

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IN a recent statement on the Maoist movement in Nepal, US senator Donald Camp observed that, ‘In recent years, the Maoist presence has spread dramatically throughout Nepal. The Maoists have made clear their intention to impose a one party “people's republic”, collectivize agriculture, “reeducate” class enemies, and export their revolution to neighbouring states. The humanitarian ramifications of such a regime would be immense, reminiscent of the nightmare brought upon Cambodia by Pol Pot. Such a regime would almost certainly threaten stability in the region.' 1 

Observations of this kind are not restricted to ill-informed senators alone. This is the pervasive view among diplomats, journalists and security analysts. Too ideological an understanding of the Nepali situation has come in the way of developing categories for comprehending Maoism as a mass political phenomenon. It is, therefore, not surprising to encounter so many livid realists drawing outlandish comparisons between the Nepali Maoists and the Khmer Rouge.

Yet the same people who denounce Nepali Maoism as a primitive ideology have no enlightened comments to offer on the primitive institution of Nepali monarchy. And the same people betray no irony when they talk of the Shah royalty as the indispensable foundation of Nepali democracy. The ideological antipathy towards Maoism in particular and the left in general, forces these international architects of Nepali democracy to conceal the monarchy's record of tyranny and bloodshed that far exceeds anything that the Maoists have unleashed so far.

In the context of this deliberately partisan view that suppresses a great many facts towards the sole end of sustaining the equation between Nepali Maoism and Pol Pot, it is useful to look at some crucial institutional conditions of its growth, including the role of parliamentary political parties and the monarchy.

When Gyanendra took over all state power on 1 February 2005, he was merely effecting the final coup of a series of coups that he has engineered for the last two years in the name of fighting Maoism. What is curious is that each time he claimed to be solving the Maoist ‘problem', the only visible outcome was the further crippling of democracy and a great many heinous attacks on the ordinary people of Nepal. Nothing of any consequence was done in dealing with the Maoists politically. And the policy of military containment is in monumental shambles. Nevertheless, the closest parallel to Pol Pot that Nepal has produced is still considered the doyen of democracy by India, the US and the UK.

The progressive conquest of the state by Gyanendra began on 4 October 2002, when he suspended the constitution and erased the remnants of the parliamentary legacy by dismissing the government that had emerged out of the then defunct parliament. For the next two years he ruled through three puppet administrations headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand, Surya Bhadur Thapa and Sher Bahadur Deuba. In political terms, the only change from the system put in place in October 2002 is that the king has got rid of his puppets and abrogated all rights inscribed in the 1990 constitution.

T he complete takeover has surprised most observers of Nepal, including the political class, diplomats and journalists. Even after eight weeks, the king's motivations have not been grasped in their entirety. The reason why the coup has surprised so many is that they were too busy watching developments in the underground and the theatre of military conflict to take note of creeping developments in the overground polity that furnished the immediate catalyst for the takeover.

It is doubtless true that the coup is linked to the Maoist movement in Nepal. Justifying the coup, Gyanendra argued that, ‘Nepal is destined to go ahead with the single agenda of fighting terrorism to establish peace in the country. Once we have chosen the path of not accepting terrorism, we expect our friends to help us by word of mouth and deed. We want them to give a message to the Nepali people. We are fighting for democracy against terrorism. The Nepali people want to know what our friends are thinking.' 2 

But that is only the broad context of the takeover. There were no recent stunning Maoist military victories on the battlefields of rural Nepal to provoke any immediate concern in the palace-military bloc. If anything, the two sides had long since ceased to engage each other in any major military encounter. Since there was no imminent military threat from the underground, what induced the king to take such dire measures that attracted global censure and punitive measures from some of the donor agencies on whom the king is dependent?

It is clear the king's measure was driven in large part by the steady acceptance of two crucial Maoist demands within the political over-ground. Despite the military standstill, the advance of these two Maoist agendas at the political-ideological level in Kathmandu was quite rapid and threatened to undermine the future of monarchy in Nepal.

A belief in constitutional monarchy by the constitutionally legitimate political forces is the minimum condition for the survival of monarchy as an institution in Nepal. From the end of monarchic absolutism in 1990 and the introduction of multiparty electoral democracy, this minimum condition for the palace was secured by the faith in constitutional monarchy professed by the main parliamentary parties. This faith, however, rested on the somewhat flimsy grounds of expediency, rather than on any unwavering commitment to principle.

I n the early stages of the parliamentary experiment, the king was seen by the Nepali Congress (henceforth NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (henceforth CPN-UML) as the countervailing force with whose help each could neutralize the other. This was a costly mistake, and the CPN-UML was guilty of this to a greater degree than the NC. As parliamentary politics fell into disarray with the rise, first of the Maoists and then of unconstitutional monarchy, these two parties clung tenaciously to the principle of constitutional monarchy as the defining criterion that distinguished them from the former and protected them from the latter.

The delicate balance between these three forces was disturbed by the palace massacre (which was itself an expression of the changing balance of power within the royalty and its military-political retinue) and the subsequent consolidation of royal power to the detriment of parliamentary sovereignty and the representative principle. This latter development was facilitated because of mechanical thinking on the part of the two major political parties. Till then they had held fast to the belief that the main danger to their existence came from the Maoists. Simultaneously, each also believed that the danger the Maoists represented could be to respective advantage.

T he Nepali Congress had launched two ferocious and unrestrained police attacks on the underground that invited inevitable retribution. The CPN-UML believed that the retaliatory elimination of NC cadres would strengthen them at the expense of the latter. On the other hand, since for practical ground level reasons proximate ideological tendencies tend towards mutual antipathy, the NC believed that the CPN-UML base would eventually be weakened the most. Obsessed by such formulations, the leadership of both formations paid scarce attention not only to the loss of cadre who had crossed over to the Maoists but also the growing danger posed by the royalty to their own existence.

Both the NC and the CPN-UML chose to deal with the Maoist threat by partaking of the premises of the globally orchestrated ‘war on terror' and pleading with the king to unleash the army on the underground. This came at a heavy price because the deployment of the army was made contingent on the surrender by parliament of its sovereignty through the imposition of emergency, the abrogation of civil rights and the dissolution of civic institutions. These objectives and the eventual dissolution of parliament itself were achieved by the palace and the military through the parliamentary bloc headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba that was most oriented to a military solution because it had the least presence among the masses.

I n response to the rapid growth of palace-military power facilitated by the Deuba-led parliamentary fifth column, both the NC and the CPN-UML chose to defend their ground by asserting the principle of constitutional monarchy. In their perception, this political line would secure the pre-eminence of parliament by keeping the king within the bounds of the constitution and at the same time keep their identity distinct from the Maoists, who had all along demanded the abolition of monarchy. However, the palace and the military were in no mood to be restrained by the limiting provision of the constitution. Instead, the king chose to invoke the overriding provision in the constitution by which he could constitutionally make constitutionality defunct. 3

Since the Maoists were critical of precisely such anomalies in the constitution, they had repeatedly called for the formation of a constituent assembly to prepare a more relevant constitution for Nepal. The two main parliamentary parties had vehemently opposed this demand. Coincidentally, their views matched those of the Kathmandu intelligentsia who denounced the idea of the constituent assembly merely because the Maoists had raised it. By 2003, however, because the king had destroyed the last vestiges of the constitution, the idea of a constituent assembly found general acceptance among large sections of public opinion. Sections of the parliamentary leadership too reluctantly began to accept the need for one.

This was the first of the Maoists triumphs in the political overground which provoked anxiety among the more conservative forces in the country. The second-rung leaderships of both the NC and the CPN-UML had openly come round to accepting the inevitability of a new constitution, despite the timidity of their top-rung leaderships.

T his timidity of the main political leadership of the overground continued despite the abrogation of the constitution and imposition of monarchic rule through appointed governments and ordinances. By early 2004 this led to a crisis as the student wings of five parties, including the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), took to the streets demanding the restitution of democratic government. This movement, which had the tacit support of the NC and the CPN-UML, soon overtook the agendas of the leadership of the moderate mainstream. To their alarm, leaders of the student wings of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML raised the banner of the republic for the first time in the political overground. At this point the Maoists had won their second ideological victory in the mainstream of the Nepali polity.

This produced two immediate reactions, one from the palace and the other from the NC. The former dismissed the incumbent prime minister, Surya Bahadur Thapa and the latter dissolved the central committee of its now radicalized student wing. The lure of ‘appointed power' destroyed the unity of the moderate opposition. An unlikely coalition was forged between Sher Bahadur Deuba, the CPN-UML and the royalist RPP to form what would pass as a national government under the guidance of the king and backed by the military.

But this was only a token solution in response to an immediate crisis. It was clear to the palace and the military that the views of the NC and CPN-UML cadres were no longer in sync with that of their leaderships. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before the last political line of defence against the republic would crumble in the face of opposition from the radicalized young cadre of the parliamentary parties. At this point, for the king, the political difference between the overground and the underground would stand erased. Lacking any instrument for mass mobilization, he seized power in order to rule through the instruments of coercion.

T hroughout the period from late 2000 to February 2002, Nepal's parliamentary leadership has consistently failed to lead, its understanding of the evolving political dynamic was out of tune with the realities on the ground. As the king gained ascendancy, the parties retreated into ever more mechanical formulations about constitutional monarchy, failing to realize that the king would tolerate them only as long as they were able to deliver that belief to the political overground. The moment the overground was contaminated with the one Maoist demand that threatened the monarchy with extinction, the parties became irrelevant to the palace and were promptly discarded.

Whatever the mass of the Nepali people currently believe about monarchy and parliamentary political parties, it is clear that the cadres of the parties have come to accept the possibility of a republic. That is the real danger to monarchy since they are the main force that can mobilize mass opinion against the institution of kingship. The potential convergence of the radical underground and moderate overground opinion on the issue of kingship will put paid to the future of the Shah dynasty. Gyanendra can draw little comfort from AC Nielsen's categorical assurance, based on a sample of some 3000 odd respondents (from a total population of 24 million) drawn from 35 districts of Nepal (out of 75), financed by the Asia Foundation and publicized by the conservative tabloid Nepali Times , that the national mood is currently in favour of constitutional monarchy. 4 

T he political future does not lie in the hands of AC Nielsen, the Asia Foundation, or the Nepali Times. It lies in the hands of the cadre of the Maoists and the mainstream political forces. The evidence for this is the fact that the convergence of views on the constituent assembly and the republic between the Maoists and the mainstream cadres was sufficient to provoke the most extreme reaction from the palace. There is little doubt that the political forces can no longer coexist with the palace. Old political assumptions have been rendered irrelevant by new realities.

Those sections of the polity that have historically compromised with the palace will have to reconsider their political strategy or face the possibility of complete elimination, to be left dangling as so many leaders without cadres. In a complementary process, cadres without leaders will in all likelihood either retire into political passivity or move over to forces whose political understanding is more relevant to the objective circumstances. The king has provided the political forces the impetus for aligning against the palace. The moderate leadership has far too often in the past failed to grasp the political chances created as a result of monarchic arbitrariness.

The Nepali polity awaits its historic moment of distilled polarization. Only then can its politics move towards institutions and mechanisms more suited to its social and economic circumstances and needs. Unless a strategic alliance is forged between the Maoists and the mainstream political formations, neither side will achieve the minimum conditions for success.

T he Maoists have indicated their willingness for such an alliance but the top level leaderships of the parliamentary parties are yet to respond. It is not clear whether they will seize the opportunity or squander it. Indications are that they have not learned much from their own tragic history. The CPN-UML has said nothing at all except to call for a struggle against autocracy, not monarchy. And Girija Prasad Koirala has said nothing more than what he has been repeating tirelessly and pointlessly for the last three years – that the defunct parliament in which he commanded the largest single bloc should be revived.

The inexorable logic of the current situation will eventually produce the necessary political polarization. What remains to be seen is whether this process will be hastened by decisive action on the part of the parliamentary parties or whether it will materialize on the remains of the indecisive middle ground they currently occupy and defend.


1. See the abridged version of the statement made by Senator Donald Camp before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Washington DC, 2 March 2005.

2. Kathmandu Post , 25 February 2005.

3. Article 127 of the 1990 Constitution of Nepal has provided for the king to resolve a major crisis, but that decision should be ratified by the parliament within six months. The king of Nepal has consistently ignored that proviso and kept the article in force through unconstitutional means.

4. ‘What People Say', Nepali Times , issue 239, 18-25 March 2005. The nationwide Contemporary Political Situation in Nepal opinion poll was conducted by Interdisciplinary Analysts and AC Nielsen and funded by The Asia Foundation. A closed-ended questionnaire was administered on 3,059 respondents in 35 sample districts in November and December 2004. Eleven field supervisors and 48 enumerators took part. (The full report will be available after 30 March,