Monarchy re-enters Nepal's political mix By Peter Lee
One of the most effective weapons the Nepalese Maoists wielded during their
struggle to seize state power was the unpopularity of the last Nepalese king,
Gyanendra's heavy-handed wielding of dictatorial powers in his campaign against
the Maoists drove democratic parties to unite with the Maoists in a peace
process under Indian encouragement. The alliance yielded popular elections and
a Constituent Assembly with a sizable Maoist plurality, whose first act, in
2008, was the abolition of the monarchy.
Now, in a development that will perhaps bring more joy than terror to the
hearts of the Maoists, Gyanendra is achieving a certain
visibility in the constellation of anti-Maoist forces, and is perhaps even
seeking a political resurrection.
The former king is journeying to India on a passport issued by the now
increasingly anti-Maoist Nepalese government, to attend a family wedding.
Rumors are rife in Kathmandu political circles that Gyanendra will meet the
leader of India's ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh, and senior Indian government officials who are concerned that a Maoist
return to power would lead to a pro-Chinese tilt in Nepal's foreign policy.
There are even reports that Gyanendra, who is now merely a private citizen of
Nepal, will meet Nepal's new chief of army staff, General Chhatra Man Singh
Gurung, who is visiting India at the same time.
For the Maoists, linking Gyanendra to an anti-Maoist campaign orchestrated by
India would be a propaganda windfall. The Maoists, who left the government in
January, are now trying to return by means of mass action. Their intricate
campaign of provocation and fingerpointing is designed to ensure they are not
saddled with the blame for having terminated the peace process, should it fall
The Maoists are engaged in non-stop (and, to militants inside the party and the
public at large, unseemly) haggling with the coalition government, led by the
Nepali Congress and Communist Party Nepal (United Marxist Leninist - CPN-UML),
in an attempt to re-enter the government on their terms.
They thought they had a deal with the Nepali Congress, only to see its working
central committee repudiate the agreement that the Maoist leader, former prime
minister Prachanda, had worked out with Girija Prasad Koirala, the elderly
president of the Nepali Congress. The Maoists are now struggling to edge away a
key faction of the CPN-UML - against the vociferous objections of its
pro-Indian grouping, headed by senior CPN-UML leader K P Oli - in order to
regain the upper hand in the Constituent Assembly.
However, as the Maoists try to capitalize on their commanding political
position - they hold 40% of seats in the Constituent Assembly, a success
unlikely to be repeated in subsequent votes - and negotiate with the democratic
parties from a position of strength, they have suffered several setbacks.
As part of the agreement they believed they had with the Nepali Congress, the
Maoists ended their boycott of the Constituent Assembly and allow a
desperately-needed national budget to be passed - only to see the deal fall
apart and lose a key piece of their political leverage.
The Maoists recently orchestrated a move by squatters onto prime land in the
impoverished western Nepal district of Kailaali. The government moved in and
evicted the squatters, killing four. When the Maoists sought to capitalize on
the outrage by organizing a nationwide general strike, or bandha, they
were greeted by a chorus of protests that the disruptive bandha (which
involves shutting down transport by hurling rocks at the cars of any drivers
foolish enough to take to the streets) would conflict with an especially
auspicious day for weddings.
In an interesting exercise in militant reasonableness, the Maoists canceled the bhanda,
thereby shifting focus to their announced plan to declare autonomous local
governments on December 11. If they follow through, the peace process may well
collapse and the Maoists can abandon the frustrations of negotiations with the
bourgeois democratic parties for a return to insurgency.
The Maoists have immense advantages in manpower, organization and militancy.
While the Maoists participate in the Nepalese political process, they rely on
their cadres and the muscle of the Young Communist League to exert their
influence in street protests and general strikes. They tax and terrorize in the
regions under their control to substitute their rule for the writ of the
central government. If the insurgency re-ignites, their People's Liberation
Army, though sidelined under United Nations supervision under the peace
agreement, could be resurrected quickly.
The key struggle, however, will probably be political rather than military. For
the Maoists to return to power in Kathmandu with the acquiescence of democratic
parties and a reasonable amount of popular support, they have to present
themselves as the protectors of the peace process, not its destroyers.
Allegations of a dalliance between Gyanendra and New Delhi provide an
opportunity for the Maoists to present themselves as patriots opposing two
unpopular factors in Nepalese politics: the monarchy and India, while calling
into question the sincerity of the democratic parties' commitment to popular
Baburam Bhattarai, the chief ideologue of the Maoists, provided his preferred
framing of the visit in a speech on December 7: "The government is in a mood to
foil the prospect of the timely constitution writing and bringing logical end
to the peace process, it rather wants war and bloodshed. The government has the
support of local and foreign reactionaries.
"If we are pushed to war, the puppet prime minister and his home minister will
be completely uprooted along with their feudal masters."
It seems that the only forces disliked inside Nepal as much as the Maoists are
the monarchy and India.
For more than 200 years, Nepal endured government by a narrow clique of
families centered on the monarchy and the office of the prime minister. The
government preserved its prestige and influence by supplying Ghurka troops to
the British and Indian armies and ignored social and economic development for
much of its history; slavery was finally abolished only in 1924. When the
British departed India in 1947, they gifted Nepal with a constitution that gave
the monarchy a formal (and dominant) legal role in a parliamentary talking shop
populated by narrowly-based and mutually antagonistic political parties.
For the next five decades, the Nepalese monarchy delivered little more than
Nepal was a Himalayan Ruritania, its court obsessed with precedence, protocol,
consumption and prestige, perhaps in direct proportion to the relative youth (a
mere 240 years) of the supposedly divine Hindu monarchy. By the turn of the
21st century, despite the personal popularity of the then king, Birendra, the
monarchy as an institution was the focus of considerable dissatisfaction.
The death knell for the monarchy was sounded by the murder of almost the entire
royal family by crown prince Dipendra in 2001. The prince was reportedly
unhappy because the queen, out of some combination of spite, snobbery and
jealousy, refused to allow him to marry the woman he loved.
This disappointment was exacerbated, according to some accounts, by the
consumption of 10 to 15 marijuana and hashish cigarettes per day chased with
copious amounts of cognac, and reinforced by frustration at his retreating
hairline and a waistline that advanced amid long days of pampered futility. It
was all too much for heir apparent Dipendra, and he eventually snapped.
Instead of retreating to some mount Mayerling to extinguish his noble despair
with suicide or consoling himself with a prolonged illicit liaison expedited by
cell phones and a complaisantly cuckolded husband, Dipendra took the
21st-century way out, embarking on a murder spree with his beloved arsenal of
He confronted his extended family during the royal cocktail hour, slaughtering
his father and several others before pausing to reload. When his mother
followed him in the garden to berate him, he shot her too. Only then did
Dipendra's rather rudimentary sense of noblesse oblige kick in, and he shot
himself in the head.
Even then, he displayed a casual approach to the business, and failed to die
immediately. The shattered royal household, in an excess of punctilio, anointed
his unconscious hulk as the new king of Nepal. Dipendra died two days later,
bringing the death toll of his outburst to 10. Any hope that the monarchy could
serve as an effective focus for national loyalty evaporated.
Birendra's brother, the deeply unpopular Gyanendra, became king, only to suffer
a malicious campaign of slander by the Maoists, who sought to further
delegitimize the tottering monarchy by accusing Gyanendra of orchestrating his
Maoist propaganda added insult to injury by presenting the leaders of the
Maoists, instead of Gyanendra, as the natural successors to Nepal's line of
Gyanendra responded to this provocation as the Maoists presumably hoped he
would, ordering a crackdown that reinforced his image as a callous, out of
touch autocrat. He proved incapable of suppressing or co-opting the Maoist
The Maoists gleefully spurned Gyanendra's proposal to remain in power as a
national figurehead in the style of Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk.
Instead they packaged their insurgency as an anti-feudal revolt, and, at least
for the time being, dodged the messy and decidedly less popular program of
socialist revolution against the allegedly corrupt and inept, but relatively
formidable bourgeois democratic parties that is central to their agenda.
If Gyanendra can be persuasively represented as a tool of Indian interests, so
much the better for the Maoists.
India is a serial interferer in Nepalese affairs, having presided over
virtually every significant development in Nepalese politics in the past half
In 1951, Birendra took refuge in the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu and then in
India, before returning triumphantly with New Delhi's backing to reassert the
royal prerogative over the century-long control of the Nepalese government by
the Rana family.
In 1989, Birendra sought to assert genuine Nepalese sovereignty by restricting
the flow of Indian workers into Nepal, and by purchasing arms from China. The
government of Rajiv Gandhi responded with a crippling, year-long economic
blockade of Nepal. In the ensuing political unrest, the king surrendered his
right to dissolve parliament at his sole, unquestioned discretion, and became a
In 2005, India responded to then-king Gyanendra's decision to purchase arms
from China to suppress the Maoist insurgency by brokering the alliance of the
democratic parties and the Maoists that culminated in the abolition of the
monarchy and the declaration of the Nepalese republic.
Now, ironically, the Maoists look to China for political backing, and Gyanendra
journeys to India, possibly in search of a political future.
Gyanendra's re-emergence is probably more a sign of the burgeoning anti-Maoist
agitation convulsing Nepal's democratic parties rather than an indication of
the revived fortunes of the Nepalese monarchy.
India is working all the levers at its disposal, including cooperative factions
in the democratic parties, the military and residual monarchical sentiment in
order to keep the Maoists from power.
India recently announced it would resume non-lethal military aid to the
Nepalese army - which it has traditionally trained and supplied - for the first
time since 2005. It will also train Nepalese security personnel and construct
an airfield in the Maoist-dominated district of Sukhret near the Chinese
border, a move perhaps intended equally to discomfit the Maoists and their
allies in Beijing.
The timing of the visit by the new Nepalese chief of army staff, for a quaint
neo-colonial ritual, is striking enough to be considered significant. As Nepal
is perhaps plunged into constitutional crisis by the Maoists' declaration of
local autonomy, army chief Gurung will be in New Delhi being elevated to the
honorary rank of general in the Indian army.
If reports in Kathmandu are accurate, New Delhi will take advantage of the
presence of these two potential anti-Maoist assets in India to arrange a
meeting between Gurung and Gyanendra.
The Telegraph Nepal reported puckishly: "High-placed sources claim that Nepal
army chief Gurung will have some time to hold a secret meet with the former
King of Nepal who is also in Delhi. The meet, say sources, will be arranged by
the Indian government. The date of the meet of Gurung and former Nepal monarch,
however, remain undecided as of now. Naughty Indian establishment!"
A restoration of the Nepalese monarchy is unlikely. But the emergence of
Gyanendra gives the Nepalese Maoists another factor to think about ... and plot
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection
with US foreign policy.