Nepal at the crossroads, again
In support of demand for the restoration of monarchy in Nepal, people in Kathmandu organised a huge rally a few weeks ago, but given the present state of affairs in the country, the demonstration left behind a big question on the Himalayan nation’s political leaders’ ability to sustain democracy and its spirit in consonance with aspirations of people in the country
One step forward, two steps back! In 2005, Nepal achieved peace after its Maoist revolutionaries and mainstream parties signed an agreement at India’s mediation in New Delhi. By then, about 16,000 people had died in the Maoists’ decade-long “people’s war”. Three years later, Nepal’s constituent assembly abolished kingship and turned the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular, democratic and republican nation.
Rumblings in the street
After 15 winters, the Himalayan nation late last month witnessed multiple street demonstrations by motley groups in support of its return as a Hindu kingdom. Barring one, all these shows of strength took place in capital Kathmandu and its sister cities, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur.
The ones in the three cities were organised by former Communist Durga Kumar Prasai, a “philanthropist medical entrepreneur” to admirers and a “bank loan defaulter” to adversaries.
In faraway Birtamod, another big crowd of royal supporters chanted pro-monarchy slogans as they followed former King Gyanendra on his way to unveil a statue of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, founder of modern Nepal, at a college.
Rajendra Lingden, head of the pro-royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), was also present at the ceremony. The RPP is a part of Nepal’s current Maoist-led ruling alliance.
Most believe that the Birtamod programme had no links with Prasai, who was away in Kathmandu leading his own marches when it took place. This, despite the fact that the booming eastern Nepal town close to India’s Darjeeling district is Prasai’s native place.
Earlier this year, the former King had attended a programme organised by Prasai in the easternmost border town of Kakarbhitta, a few kilometers from Naxalbari in Darjeeling district, where the Naxalite movement started in India in the late 1960s.
For some time, incidentally, Prasai was a central committee member of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), many of whose founders, including former Prime Minister Kharga Prasad Sharma Oli, were inspired by Indian Naxalites in their formative days in the 1970s.
Besides, Prasai often publicly refers to his relationship with the Maoists during the latter’s “people’s war.” Five years ago, a picture of Prasai, Pushakamal Dahal (present Maoist Prime Minister) and Oli (CPN-UML) at his (Prasai’s) home created quite a sensation in the country.
Price of dilemma
At first glance, the rallies in the Kathmandu Valley and Birtamod seem to have fallen flat as far as the campaign for the restoration of the monarchical system is concerned. Pro-monarchy forces such as the RPP were cold towards Prasai and his supporters. The mainstream media, too, did not seem much enthusiastic about them.
What gave instant publicity to Prasai’s rallies was the CPN-UML’s violent opposition to them. Prasai also engaged Oli, whom he derisively calls “Hajur-ba” (grandfather), in a bitter verbal war. This apart, extremely tough police action added more to his advantage. The campaign, in no time, drew huge support on social media that turned street anger into a mirror to show the failures of secular, democratic and republican forces.
All this propelled independent thinkers and intellectuals to come on television and social media to dissect the issues that re-strengthened pro-monarchy, pro-Hindu forces. All this while, the former monarch, as usual, maintained a dignified silence.
What may embarrass the current dispensation immediately is the readiness of its biggest partner, the Nepali Congress (NC), for a Hindu-versus-secular Nepal debate.
Founded in Kolkata in 1946, the NC is regarded as a close ally of India. Many NC veterans are of the view that their party went against its founder, Bisheswar Prasad Koirala’s belief that constitutional monarchy and parties are like conjoined twins at the instance of the Maoists. The CPN-UML, currently Nepal’s largest Communist party, had backed the system of constitutional monarchy in the now-abolished 1990 constitution.
Likewise, the RPP, set up by politicians who supported King Mahendra and King Birendra’s autocratic panchayat rule for 30 years since 1960, has traditionally been in favour of constitutional monarchy.
Gods that failed
Most in Kathmandu cite the politicians’ greed for power, corruption, unemployment, migration, and poverty intensified by Covid-propelled debts as the chief reasons why their country is once again moving toward chaos.
Nepal has seen change of prime ministers 13 times since the 2005 New Delhi truce. Most of the participants in Prasai’s rallies were the poor, especially Madhesis, who took bank loans against their land and property during the pandemic. One of his demands is removal of their debt burden by the government and financial institutions.
Another factor that seems to have disappointed various ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups is Kathmandu’s failure to properly implement the federal system envisaged in the new 2018 constitution.
Nepal’s current financial status is unlikely to support seven provincial administrations along with the federal government that cover more than 30 million people.
Many fear that ever-rising poverty may lead to a rise in the number of religious conversions, a trend that was first noticed immediately after the end of the party-less panchayat regime in 1990.
They do not rule out Nepal-based organisations such as the Vishva Hindu Mahasangh, Vishva Hindu Parishad-Nepal, the Hindu Swayam Sevak, the Hindu Jagaran Manch and the Shiv Sena gaining prominence in Nepali politics in the coming days.
*** The author is an ex-editor of The Times of India, who writes on diplomatic/SAARC affairs, Nepal, Bhutan, and China-Tibet issues; views expressed here are his own