Is History Repeating Itself in Nepal?
Is History Repeating Itself in Nepal?
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Is History Repeating Itself in Nepal?

When Nepal’s King Gyanendra seized power in February 2005 he breathed new life into Marx’s dictum about history repeating itself. Thirty years of royal rule from 1960 to 1990 had been tragic enough for most Nepalis. Economic stagnation and stunted political evolution compounded ethnic, regional, caste and economic inequality, creating the perfect conditions for a Maoist insurgency. The idea that Nepal could be returned to the 1960s — resurrecting King Mahendra’s model of a palace-guided Panchayat democracy “suited to Nepal’s soil” — smacked more of farce. Attacking graft while his own cabinet was tainted by corruption set the tone. But the king’s coterie of Panchayat-era advisors blinded themselves to the transformation of Nepali society over the last decades and pressed on with their plan to turn the clock back.

The palace now seems to have acquired a taste for replaying history. With only days to go before the anniversary of the last royal coup, on Thursday Kathmandu once again awoke to cut phone lines, curfew orders and news that most democratic politicians had been detained.

Whatever his critics say, King Gyanendra’s steadfastness has pleased his supporters. He promised unwavering leadership and has stuck to his vow that “[outsiders] will say what they have to say but I will do what I have to do”. His refusal to bow to external pressure has played well among Nepali nationalists and he has successfully called the global community’s bluff. Those who never welcomed multiparty democracy have applauded the iron fist he has shown to the parties. But has he done what he had to do?

Addressing November’s SAARC summit, he explained he would be able to hold municipal elections in February thanks to the “improved security situation”. His ministers have been boasting of having “broken the Maoists’ back” and insisting that the polls will, as promised, reinvigorate democracy. But the Maoists have now struck at Kathmandu militarily and all major parties, including royalists, are boycotting the elections.

Elsewhere too, authoritarian governance has been strikingly ineffective. You won’t hear ministers referring to the ambitious 21-point plan announced by the first post-coup cabinet, for almost none of the plans have been implemented. In March 2004, the king had ordered the immediate shift of mid-western regional government offices from Nepalgunj in the plains to Surkhet in the hills. Finding on a return visit in August ’05 that his orders had been ignored, he threatened action if the shift was not completed within three months. But to no avail. Dictators are at least meant to make the trains run on time.

We should not be surprised that the putative roadmap for democracy is also going astray. Holding elections amidst armed violence is always risky. Misjudged polls often serve to inflame conflicts rather than resolve them. The fact that the royal government chose not to consult its own peace secretariat on the potential dangers of the exercise is telling. For the palace, the polls seem to be part of a strategy of confrontation, not reconciliation. The king’s honorary aide-de-camp Bharat Keshar Simha, a retired general and president of the World Hindu Federation in Nepal, told Tehelka that elections will go ahead “irrespective of how many people die.” Some royalists would rather have a bloody showdown than risk losing face.

Nepal’s democrats are also hoping history will be replayed. As winter draws to a close the season of political agitation begins. It was in the spring of 1990 that the democracy movement gathered momentum. But the parties should not expect a simple repeat performance. Their own credibility has been tarnished by their poor record in office. And the king has made it clear he will not compromise in the face of popular protest as his brother did.

Meanwhile the disciples of Marx and Mao have a different script for Nepal’s future. So far the palace and parties have played their role to perfection, their bitter division emboldening the rebels. Although the Maoists still believe in a linear history of inexorable progress towards a communist republic they have shown signs of flexibility. During a four-month unilateral ceasefire they signed a deal with the parties that offered major concessions. No one need accept these at face value. But their truce had presented the state with a good opportunity to judge them by their actions.

Announcing his first coup a year ago King Gyanendra warned that “those who cannot stand in favour of peace will stand condemned by the motherland.” The time has come to test all political players against this standard. Nepal’s conflict is still soluble. The party-Maoist agreement did not insist on republicanism; it deliberately left space for accommodation with the king. At the moment, as thinking royalists have long realised, palace hardliners are the greatest threat to the future of the monarchy. Gyanendra has proved himself an adept gambler. If he is willing to take a risk for peace he can recover respect for the monarchy by cancelling the flawed and misconceived elections and working towards the settlement Nepalis long for. Of course this will not be easy. But the easy options will lead only to continued bloodshed and political collapse.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.