The knock-on effect of the Maoist 'blockade' of the western region is now being felt in Kathmandu Valley. Kerosene and cooking gas have disappeared from the shops, shortages of essential items are spreading. Oblivious to the escalating anarchy, or maybe to distract attention, the government of royal nominees is now talking of elections. What exactly is brewing?
To conduct a free and fair election, there has to be a perceptible improvement on four fronts: better security, competent administration, competitive politics, and vibrant civil society. Both governments since October Fourth have failed to perform on all these counts.
Security is largely a matter of perception: the country is only as secure as you and I believe it to be. The people have so little confidence in the ability of the government to protect its citizens that nobody dares defy something as irrational as a blockade of an entire region.
The people's lack of faith in an administration dominated by the Joint Security Force is no less marked. Politics in the country has come to be defined by the ever-increasing mistrust between the monarch and the mainstream parties. A nascent civil society is in such disarray that it is unable to speak up.
Nobody in his right mind would want an election in these uncertain times. Political parties are united in settling scores with an activist monarch first. The Maoists will not settle for anything less than a constituent assembly. The administration isn't in a position to hold even free, let alone fair, elections. A capital-centric civil society is in no particular hurry to handover the governance to politicians. It is only the international community-the Europeans in particular-who want the king to hold an election and get out of the post-October Fourth mess as respectably as possible.
King Gyanendra has his own reasons to invoke polls. He had dismissed Sher Bahadur Deuba as an incompetent prime minister, ostensibly because the renegade kangresi had failed to conduct polls on the promised date. An election is a convenient tool that the 'constructive' monarch can use to appoint and dismiss premiers at will. But the strategists at Narayanhiti know this ruse won't work forever. Ultimately, only an elected government can provide legitimate cover. Herein lies the dilemma for the king: he wants an election, but only one which will give him the desired result.
The tenure of the dissolved Pratinidhi Sabha ends this month. So if the myth of the constitution is to be kept alive, an announcement on polls needs to be made at the earliest. The five-phased Indian elections begin from 20 April, hence our own string-pullers must be hoping that the Maoists will be hard-pressed to reach an agreement with the Nepali government before that date to avoid the pre-poll squeeze of militant groups across the border. The Maoist blockade may actually be a harbinger of an impending ceasefire.
There are rumours that a list of ministers for the soon-to-be-formed cabinet has already been finalised by the palace. The man who acted as bridge between the Maoists and the military to make King Gyanendra's mid-western visit a grand success could be Surya Bahadur Thapa's successor at Baluwatar.
Dhanendra Bahadur Singh is an old court-faithful. He headed the civic reception committee that felicitated the king at Nepalganj. Earlier, he had chaired the Rajparishad Standing Committee before Parshu Narayan Chaudhary and Keshar Jung Raymajhi. He has been the Chief Justice, and all in all, he would be a harmless face to give continuity to the active monarchy. Whether he will actually conduct polls is almost moot.
The big question is what the mainstream political parties will do. Without them, talk of polls will just be talk. The Nepali acolytes of Brother Number One in the jungle, as well as the cooks at the poll pot in the palace, will do well to accept the centrality of mainstream parties in any future elections.