Nepali Times
Guest Column
At the helm


The king has sliced the Gordian knot and ended the triangular stalemate between the Maoists, the Nepali state and agitating political parties that had been snuffing the life out of the country.

At the very least the dramatic February First declaration will have the salutary effect of forcing both internal and external forces to show their hands. The festering political stalemate and moral ambiguity had been prolonging the crisis by inhibiting major actors from pursuing their position to their logical conclusions. The royal initiative will bring about a final polarisation in Nepali politics.

Denial of personal responsibility by invoking vacuous platitudes or retroactive abdication of agency has been a part and parcel of Nepali public culture. In order to stop the country from spinning further into chaos and mayhem, someone, somewhere had to take charge of the situation and say that the buck stops here. Only when there is clear acknowledgment of responsibility can there be accountability. The crown has now mandated for itself the specific task of ending the insurgency and creating an effective environment for the substantive exercise of multiparty system within three years.

Circumstances have forced the king to act. And he can only be vindicated by how well he delivers on these two specific objectives. The notion of karma in the Gita has a lesson here: it is the nature of crises on a Mahabarat scale that not all variables will be known beforehand but those at the helm must act to restore order using their best judgment, sincere intention and face history as honourable beings without excuses.

Everyone appreciates that this is a potentially risky course of action but the peril of not doing anything was graver. It is not only selfish but also irresponsible for people on the top floor to pretend that it is all normal when those living in the basement have already been incinerated. Somebody has to call for an evacuation and douse the blaze before it consumes the whole building. Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures and the lived experience tells most Nepalis that this is the most extreme phase in their nation's 236 year history.

A number of foreign governments, the EU, the UN and others have criticised the monarch's attempt at resolving the present crisis. While their concern are entirely welcome, there is also a need here to liberate the Occident of its heavy civilisational burden by disabusing it of the cosy misconception that only the west has the good of the Third World people at heart and if allowed to act alone, local governments will go berserk and ruin themselves and the planet.

While foreign players intervene because of their contingent ideological position and strategic interest, the local states must act for a longer term stake and also because it is a good thing to do. It is hard to believe in this age of global moral asymmetry that there can be goodness that is of entirely indigenous origin. Besides a general shared concern for citizens' welfare, progress and human rights, there is one consideration that distinguishes the local state from all other actors: while foreigners cannot be bothered with the territorial and ideological continuity of the Nepali nation-state (westerners generally tend to scoff at nationalism as an infantile infatuation, except when it concerns their own nation) the crown must be cognisant of this imperative as well.

The fate of Kashmir, Tibet and Sikkim are sobering reminders that notwithstanding their beauties, the Himalaya remains treacherous terrain for the survival of small independent nations. None of these countries have been allowed to exist beyond their monarchic lines, this should be pause for thought to all those who seek to mould Nepal into their own image.

When the Indian government issued a statement describing King Gyanendra's move as a 'setback' for democracy and the need to ensure the 'safety and welfare' of the political leaders and parties in Nepal, one suspects that the babu in South Block must have been doing so tongue-in-cheek. Was the decade-long anarchy and killings a blessing for our democracy? And why this protective instinct only for the political leaders...what about Nepal and Nepalis in general?

What a pity that New Delhi has not extended this enthusiasm for democracy and political parties elsewhere, say, to Bhutan. On the contrary, the Indian government has summarily imprisoned Bhutani leaders who were peacefully asking for a more equitable and democratic set-up in Bhutan and persecuted Bhutani political parties in exile.

Given this glaring doublespeak, the patronising gesture thrown towards the Nepali political class ought to be taken with caution. As BP Koirala discerned, the Indian establishment has always sought to exacerbate the differences between the political parties and the monarch and set them up in irreconcilable antagonism for its own designs. Rather than locking themselves into the alien embrace in a moment of crisis, the various political formations in Nepal will do well to let go of their egos, sort out their differences internally, forge a lasting national accord and collectively work to hasten the transition back to normalcy.

However seductive, the bad taste left behind by Gandaki, Mahakali, Laxmanpur and Kalapani grabs should remind all that neighbourly solace does not come free or even cheap. Internal compromises and consolidations have always been historically vindicated and and morally dignified than secret foreign concessions.

Saubhagya Shah received his PhD in social anthropology from Harvard University and currently teaches at Tribhuban University.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)