Monarchy vs 'democracy'

Print edition : June 23, 2001
Regicide, Mass Media and the Second Cold War.

"A 24-HOUR news channel," groaned a friend who knows such matters from the inside, "is like a beast that needs to be fed constantly, but with an illusion of novelty every half an hour." If blood be the favourite diet of beasts, not since the Kargil War has the Indian electronic media had its fill quite as insatiably as for a whole week or more after the recent slaughter in Kathmandu that came to be called a regicide only because a bunch of anachronistic royals were involved. Indeed, had Dipendra not provided the drama, the Indian Prime Minister's knee might have got more coverage.

A priest crosses the Bagmati riding an elephant, during a ritual meant to drive away the spirit of Dipendra.-GOPAL CHITRARKAR/ REUTERS

Which brings us to the bizarre fact that the bourgeois, as a class, never does grow up and retains an infantile infatuation with royalty well after monarchs have fallen across the world and only a few remain, as remnants. All classes of Americans, for example, are obsessed with the British royalty. Diana came to have such a hold on mass media across the world precisely because she was both a royal and an outcaste ("mass media" is an odd term; it is as a rule owned by the high bourgeois and takes the masses as its object; hence the more accurate term "bourgeois media"). Devyani Rana, the semi-aristocratic young woman who is said to have been the unwitting cause of the carnage in Kathmandu, has the potential of becoming that sort of negative heroine in an impoverished, third-worldish version of a royal soap opera.

Nepal is constitutionally a Hindu kingdom and part of the fascination of the Nepalese ruling family for the Indian media is that it is upper caste and socially integrated with Indian claimants of royal lineage through marriage alliances. Devyani's mother is a senior princess of Gwalior (sister of eminent figures in the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party alike) but, in a delicious twist, the mother-princess is considered inferior by birth, compared to the true Kshatriyas who rule Nepal, because the Kshatriyahood of the House of Gwalior is said to have been acquired rather late.

Precisely because the institution of monarchy is so wholly parasitic, it fascinates the most when it is at its most depraved and scandalous. This fascination with the private life of the royals is then superimposed in the dominant electronic media upon an image of Nepal as a peculiarly chequered place: full of intrigues by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), counterfeit Indian currency, smuggled Chinese goods; a source of servants for North India's urban upper class; a quaint vacationland for those segments of the class who are not affluent enough to vacation in Singapore or the Bahamas; a land of royal splendour and antique ritual but one, nevertheless, which India has nudged into becoming a constitutional monarchy and a multi-party liberal democracy; an ungrateful nation that maintains cordial relations with both China and Pakistan, creating a whole range of security problems for India which, nevertheless, allows Nepal to take advantage of the Indian market and Indian investments. All this is then seen through the prism of what is taken to be the Indian national interest, making it very difficult to concentrate on the comprehensive social crisis which Nepal currently faces and which the royal debacle illustrates and compounds.

The monarchy itself is central to that crisis, even though it is portrayed in our media punctually as being essential for stability and social cohesion. The argument is that as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society Nepal is so riven with tensions that only the 233-year old monarchy would be able to hold together such a segmented society. That is odd. India is also multi-lingual and multi-ethnic, on a rather massive scale, but no one makes the argument for a monarchy here (though the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its fellow-travellers do favour a quasi-monarchical presidential system). To counter this argument, it is often said that Nepal needs a monarchy because, unlike India, it has no sturdy structure of democratic and representative institutions. The answer, I should have thought, would be the making of such institutions and the abolition of a depraved monarchy which is itself the great impediment in the way of such institutions.

To counter that argument, the media, greatly supported by quite a few very sombre columns by "former ambassador to Nepal", perpetrate a certain myth of King Birendra, the recently slain King, as the epitome of democratic rectitude and the creator of constitutional monarchy. That is pure nonsense. Birendra became King in 1972, ruled as an absolute autocrat for some 18 years, tried to face down a virtual uprising of pro-democracy forces that included everyone from Communists to Congressites and lasted for well over a year before he allowed a new Constitution and multi-party elections, beating an orderly retreat into a constitutional monarchy in stead of losing the crown altogether. Pro-Palace parties were then floated to strengthen the King's hand in relation to the other political parties.

After the Communists came out of the underground and participated in the 1991 elections, emerging as the main Opposition party with a third of the parliamentary seats, despite their utter inexperience in electoral politics, the King retained the pro-Palace party but also threw his weight behind the Nepalese version of the Congress, to the extent that when the 1994 elections came around, with the prospect of the Communists winning a clear majority, rigging was allowed on such a scale that 30 to 35 seats in a House of 205 were said to have been won for the Congress through the rigging and other violations of the Rules of Conduct that were supposedly to be observed during the elections. That deprived the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) - CPN(UML) - of a clear majority even though the party still came out as the largest group in Parliament and went on to form a minority government at the head of an unstable alliance. The instability of the alliance was the direct result of the rigging organised by Girija Prasad Koirala, the then-and-now Prime Minister of Nepal, and condoned by the Palace. A year later, in 1995, that government fell.

One recalls that not-so-remote past to make two simple points. One, constitutional monarchy was not a gift of King Birendra but an imposition by the mass movement. If the main parliamentary parties continue to lose their credibility as they are currently losing, if the Maoist insurgency becomes uncontrollable despite a combination of parliamentary and police measures, and if enough backing can be obtained from patrons abroad, absolutist monarchy is just waiting in the wings to pounce and win back the perverse powers it has been forced to relinquish. This is an objective reality and an institutional imperative, having little to do with temperamental differences between Birendra and Gyanendra. The only real safeguard against monarchical autocracy is to abolish it.

Second, it is the intransigence of the palace and the ruling party that has prevented Nepal from becoming a stable democracy. The CPN(UML), which commanded an impressive following among the urban youth as well as the rural populations of the Kathmandu Valley and the western districts, had gone into the elections of 1994 and then formed a minority government with a minimum programme consisting essentially of two points: entrenching democratic norms right down to the local level (devolution of power on the West Bengal model but within a constitutional monarchy), and some minimum relief to the most impoverished sections of the rural population (such as the roughly two lakh landless agricultural workers who do not even have a straw hut to their name). Rigging of the elections and undermining of the subsequent minority government meant that even that minimum programme could not be implemented. Similarly, as late as 1996 and before they went underground to take up arms, the Maoists had submitted a simple petition asking that (a) the monarchy be abolished and (b) the Constitution be suitably amended to transform Nepal from a 'Hindu nation' to a secular republic. Armed struggle began when their petition in favour of secularism and republican democracy went unheeded.

WE are then dealing with a virtual terminal crisis of the two governing institutions: the 233-year old monarchy upheld by the Shahs and the Ranas, and a barely 10-year old 'democracy' which is organised by the likes of Koirala and is to be witnessed more in the breach than in the observance. But this superstructural crisis is an accurate reflection of the crisis in the economic base. The blunt fact is that if South Asia is the poorest region in the world, next only to Sub-Saharan Africa, Nepal is the poorest, economically the least developed country in South Asia, which fact is reflected in its political underdevelopment. According to the World Bank's Report on Global Poverty in 2000, Nepal's gross national product (GNP) measured at per capita parity is one-third that of Sri Lanka and about 10 percentage points less than that of Bangladesh. In a whole range of quality-of-life indicators, from provision of drinking water and basic sanitation to infant and maternal mortality rates, Nepal does considerably worse than Bangladesh even though the latter has a per square kilometre population ratio six times worse than Nepal. India and Pakistan, also among the poorest countries in the world, do somewhat better across the board except in the matter of distribution of income which is worse in India.

Even these figures are much too rosy. Much of the wealth is actually concentrated in the city and valley of Kathmandu. By contrast, most of the population ekes out a living in the hilly and mountainous regions which have witnessed no modern social reform or economic development and are therefore trapped in quasi-medieval feudal and tenureal systems upheld by the most acute kinds of caste rigidity and ethnically organised deprivation. Monarchy in Nepal is a beneficiary and guarantor of this whole system of exploitation and can hardly transform itself, overnight as it were, into one law-abiding institution among others. Constitutional monarchy as a state form comes into being when the monarchy submits itself to the bourgeoisie as a class either because there is no prior feudal ruling class (the Scandinavian countries) or because it helps the bourgeoisie in breaking up feudalism and the feudals to become bourgeois (as in Britain or in Japan). Constitutional monarchy takes root in the Third World only in exceptional cases, notably in Turkey where that kind of bourgeoisie grew over roughly a century. It is foolish to think that this form of rule can be simply transplanted into a country like Nepal, with the overwhelming majority trapped in antiquarian social relations, with no entrenched history of democratic institutions, and with a minuscule quasi-bourgeoisie comprised almost entirely of traders, rentiers and brokers of all kinds who are themselves dependent on patronage from that same unreformed monarchical state.

Monarchy in Nepal cannot function as a modern constitutional authority; nor can a parliament function if its leading lights are mere clients of the monarchy. Faced with its own historical impossibility, the royal household descends into myths of grandeur, alcoholism, carnal depravity, bravado made brave with the aid of amphetamines, extermination of kith and kin in a drunken haze of poeticised passions and fake uniforms, exorcising of demons through mysterious ritual and arbitrary edict, and, finally, the reliable Mr. Koirala calmly shifting his loyalties from one king to another; this is how soldiers of a useless institution begin to neutralise themselves. Forever loyal to that useless institution, Parliament makes itself merely irrelevant, too tired even for melodrama.

THE crisis leads then to challenges from two opposite ends. At the top, autocratic royalism reasserts itself as a credible option against the chaos of a discredited democracy; at the base, a Maoist insurgency that has arisen in opposition to the abnormalities of Nepalese parliamentary politics and offers the oppressed rural poor as well as the seething urban youth a millenarian vision of immediate salvation through a ritual of brine and fire. Many quite different things are routinely said about the dictatorial inclinations of Gyanendra, the newly crowned King, just as he is portrayed, alternately, as "pro-Chinese" autocrat or a "pro-India" businessman in royal clothing. Who knows! Personal inclinations may well be soon set aside, at any rate, by historical compulsions. The Maoist insurgency is, by comparison, even a greater mystery.

By all counts, the insurgency is not much more than six years old, having then grown out of disaffection with the parliamentary road as it was open in the concrete situation of Nepal. In this respect at least, the origins of the insurgency in Nepal are not very different from those of the insurgency in Kashmir: rigged elections leading disappointed youth to the jungles. The scale of success is hard to determine. Some reports speak of the "Maoist sway over five districts out of 75 in the country," concentrated largely in the eastern zone bordering on Bihar and Jharkhand, relying much on Indian Maoists such as the Maoist Coordination Centre (MCC) and the People's War Group (PWG). But other accounts, like the one published in The Indian Express (June 15, 2001), mention "conservative estimates" which claim that the Maoists "hold sway in 25 districts" - that is, roughly a third of the country. Yet other accounts claim that "Maoist violence" has been reported from over 50 districts (two out of three in the country). Perhaps as many as 2,000 people are said to have died in encounters, a fifth of them policemen.

The larger claims are probably exaggerated, designed to spread alarm and a sense that hard-hitting retribution is in order. Unlike India, which has elaborate structures of paramilitary forces, Nepal has only the Army and the police. So far only the police force has been deployed in counter-insurgency operations (Army personnel may have been sporadically deployed, but not routinely and not in large numbers), and there is sharp division of opinion regarding the desired role for the Army.

The CPN(UML), which continues to be the main parliamentary Opposition despite recent factional divisions, is very vocal in its opposition and warns that any direct involvement of the Army shall provoke a civil war, with unpredictable consequences. The Maoists themselves are now claiming that King Birendra had within the last few months opened a secret channel to them through his brother, so as to explore the possibility of a peaceful solution. (The claim may be false, though, and designed to suggest that the new king, Gyanendra, can be true to the legacy of his predecessor only if he opens a dialogue with the insurgents.)

By contrast, Prime Minister Koirala claims that he had persuaded King Birendra, some two months before the latter's murder, to deploy the Army against the Maoists. (This latter report may also be false, however. Since Birendra is no longer alive and able to refute the claim, it may have been planted, by Koirala himself or someone more shrewd, so as to pave the way for Gyanendra, the present King, to deploy the Army and claim that his predecessor was going to do so anyway.)

That the murder of the royals, which is being passed off as a crime of passion with no political relevance, may have consequences for the counter-insurgency operations came out obliquely in a rather unusual interview that Ralph Frank, the United States Ambassador to Nepal, gave The Washington Times soon after the multiple murders in Kathmandu. "The Maoists are on a roll," he said, and "King Birendra was very concerned about the Army being turned on its own people... He wanted to win the people back from the Maoists, not go out and eliminate the Maoists." Frank seemed somehow to know that "what has happened has not turned the people away from the monarchy" and that all will be well "once the period of mourning is over and King Gyanendra establishes himself and his relationship again with the people and with the government." One may well discount the oblique, low-key tone of the statement as mere 'diplomatese' and rightfully wonder if that was what was wrong with Birendra: too compromised by constitutionalism, not ruthless enough to "eliminate" the undesirables. Gyanendra may better know what his true priorities should be, or Frank might yet teach him.

MEXICANS have a proverb to lament their fate: so far from God are we, but so close to the United States! Nepal may well have a similar predicament: so far from the misty abodes of Parvathi and her consort, but so damned adjacent to Tibet - right there, sandwiched between China and India, the two great territorial states of Asia. The irony that the Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji was the last foreign dignitary he entertained may not have been lost on King Birendra as he took that volley of bullets into his chest and awoke to his own irrelevance to the history of his country. He may not have known, though, that while the whole of his own family was being eliminated, his brother Gyanendra was to survive intact. Succession was being rendered impossible - but also possible - simultaneously as it were.

Indian displeasure with the Nepalese establishment when it procured anti-aircraft guns from China in 1987-88 is well-known. People envious of Indo-Nepalese friendship even suggest that this displeasure accounts at least partially for the fact that the Indian government was then sympathetic to the pro-democracy movement that began in Nepal two years later. A land-locked and non-industrialised country which must rely on Indian generosity every time aspirin disappears from its markets, Nepal is foolishly hell-bent on an independent foreign policy anyway: it shares a long and porous border with India but only a shoddy little highway with Tibet, and yet it maintains cordial relations with both Pakistan and China while making all sorts of noises about the Indo-Nepalese Treaty of Peace and Friendship which has been in place since 1950 and is to come up for renewal soon. It would be best if we have a truly friendly government in Kathmandu as those negotiations approach and as, over the next some years, the Second Cold War - the one that will involve Asia itself, directly - unfolds.

On June 6, 2001, the Nepalese language daily Kantipur published an article by the key Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai which said that the spilling of royal blood was neither an accident nor a crime of passion but a conspiracy hatched jointly by India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Delhi office of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Well, maybe! But, then, maybe not! The idea seems far-fetched, and it is in any case hard to pronounce on questions of conspiracy: official explanations are implausible because they beg too many questions, while conspiracy theories are worthless because they involve too many conjectures and, just as often, prejudices.

The crucial point is rather different, however; namely, that there need be no conspiracy at all. The politics of the Second Cold War, which are fast overtaking our lands, shall produce even out of accidents and crimes of passion what conspiracies might have otherwise sought to achieve.

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