People power has forced Gyanendra to cede executive power. But only a democratically elected Constituent Assembly can bring the people true power. Revolutions done in half-measure inevitably fail. The parties must learn well the lessons of Nepal's recent history and not rest till the Nepalese people have wrested full sovereignty for themselves.
22 April 2006
In Nepal, the beginning of the end
IN THE fullness of time, King Gyanendra — like other monarchs and ex-monarchs who litter the pages of history — will also realise that revolutions have a horology of their own and do not respect the neat rhythms that kings and generals try to impose on them.
For more than a year, the people of Nepal have been demanding that King Gyanendra end his illegal seizure of power and return executive authority to an elected government. After first subverting the Nepalese Parliament in 2002, Gyanendra staged a putsch-within-a-coup on February 1, 2005, arrogating all powers to himself and declaring an end to even the `three-fifths democracy' that the 1990 Constitution embodied. But today, when the moment finally arrived for the monarch grumpily to announce his surrender on national television, the relentless clock of popular expectation and revolt could well end up robbing this kingly concession of its power to send the masses back into their homes.
Today, the genie of constitutional change is out of the bottle, liberated from its confines by a monumental act of folly on the part of the King. From here, it will not be easy for either Gyanendra or the parties or the people who have come on the streets to merely return to the status quo ante as it prevailed on February 1, 2005.
The Ancient Greeks had a term to describe Gyanendra's sickness — akrasia, or the state of acting against one's better interests. Socrates saw akrasia as the manifestation of ignorance, Aristotle of weakness. In both cases, full-fledged reason is overwhelmed by impetuosity and bathos, qualities the Nepalese monarch surely possesses in abundance.
Four years ago, when he embarked on his misadventure, the demand for a Constituent Assembly was largely confined to the Maoists and to the student wings of the Nepali Congress and UML parties. If at all the subject came up for discussion in "polite company," advocates for constitutional change were quick to add apologetically that any elected assembly need not necessarily be empowered to do away with the system of monarchy itself. What Gyanendra has done is turn the slogan for a Constituent Assembly into a democratic totem for the majority of his people. Most Nepalese today correctly consider constitutional change as essential to strengthen popular sovereignty, institute democratic control over the armed forces, and achieve a fairer deal for the country's diverse and unequal ethnic groups, for the janajatis and the Dalits. Above all, a new and genuinely democratic and inconclusive Constitution will allow Nepal to transcend the violence and bloodshed that has marred the better part of the past decade. It will offer the prospects for a new and more just social compact in which there will be no room for insurgency and counter-insurgency.
It took one maharaja who no longer has a kingdom — Karan Singh — to rekindle the fading instincts for self-preservation in Gyanendra that hubris had all but extinguished. Each hour of every passing day was pushing the kingdom closer and closer to that crucial point at which kings and ex-kings, politicians and army chiefs suddenly discover they no longer have the capacity to control or even influence the flow of events. General Pyar Jung Thapa could always be counted upon to order his men to open fire on the gathering thousands but his soldiers' fingers may have baulked at traversing those crucial few inches that stand between mutiny and genocide. India and the United States knew that time had already run out. And that a delay of even one more day would have meant there would be nobody out there to accept an offer of compromise from Gyanendra.
In the event, the King has stepped back from the edge but it is not clear his opponents are ready to accept the wares he is holding out. Gyanendra will not admit it but the whole of Nepal and the world already knows that he has lost his kingdom. Is his offer of returning executive power to the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) on behalf of the people under Article 35 of the Constitution, then, an admission on his part that the old order is over? The old order with all its constitutional ambiguities that allowed not just his palace putsch but also his unquestioned (and very disastrous) leadership over the army? Clearly not, since the text of the King's televised speech makes explicit reference to the need for the country to be governed in accordance with "the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, 1990." All Gyanendra is offering, really, is a quick turn of the clock back to February 2005.
As the seven-party alliance ponders over its next move, its leaders should resist the temptation to give up the popular leverage that has made this remarkable turn of events possible.
Any acceptance of the King's latest offer must be prefaced by a clear and transparent statement of purpose that respects the sentiments of the Nepalese people for fundamental constitutional change and a negotiated end to the Maoist insurgency in the country. It must also respect the basic principles of the two understandings reached between the SPA and the Maoists in November 2005 and March 2006.
The modalities of a transitional government, including the revival of parliament, the nature of the negotiations with the Maoists, and the manner in which a Constituent Assembly is to be elected, can all be worked out once the SPA takes charge, but this goal can and must be explicitly spelt out by the alliance leadership if the unprecedented popular uprising of the past few weeks is to have any meaning at all. In addition, the SPA must announce that their first act in power will be the release of all political prisoners, the scrapping of the draconian Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO), and the laws restricting media freedom. The SPA must also stress its understanding that the assumption of executive power includes taking charge of the Royal Nepal Army and that if at all there is any ambiguity, all the more reason to push for constitutional changes at the earliest possible opportunity.
At stake is not just popular sentiment but the parties' own need for some guarantee against King Gyanendra making another grab for power once he feels the heat is off. Revolutions done in half-measure inevitably fail. The parties must learn well the lessons of Nepal's recent history and not rest till the Nepalese people have wrested true sovereignty for themselves.