Initial public apprehension has given way to keen anticipation in eastern Nepal to the massive civic reception planned for Friday in Biratnagar in honour of King Gyanendra and Queen Komal.
Fears that the Maoists may try to disrupt the rally during the bandh they have declared for Friday has been allayed by a massive security bandobast in and around this industrial town. News from Kathmandu that King Gyanendra will be making a royal address has raised expectations here of a dramatic new announcement for political rapprochement.
King Gyanendra was set to fly out of Kathmandu on Thursday itself, and spend the night at the army camp in Itahari before his address at the city stadium. Full details of the king's itinerary have not been made public perhaps for security reasons, but he is expected to also visit Myanglung Bazar in Terathum which was devastated in a fire last month, and a tea estate in Jhapa. The procession will start at 1PM and end by 3PM with the royal address scheduled to be broadcast live about 2:30 PM. The queen is expected to return to the capital on Friday afternoon.
Conspicuous by their absence here are the main political parties. They haven't announced a formal boycott, but leaders of the Nepali Congress and the UML have flayed the public felicitation for the king, saying it harks back to the days of absolute monarchy. Even the centre-right RPP and the tarai-based Sadbhavana party have formally stayed away, but left it up to their local cadre to go if they wanted to. By declaring the bandh, the Maoists are exploiting the rift between the king and the political parties.
The vacuum left by the political parties has been filled by erstwhile Panchayat stalwarts like Dil Bahadur Shrestha, Dirgha Raj Prasai, Tanka Dhakal and other ex-panchas from the eastern districts who have descended on Biratnagar in large numbers. CDOs from many eastern districts have been told to travel down to Biratnagar with civil servants in tow. But lack of transport is and security is said to be delaying their arrival. In addition to the king, prime minister and security brass, nearly the entire government machinery is here.
The prime mover behind the rally is deputy prime minister Badri Prasad Mandal. "This is a rally by Mandal of mandaleys," Kishore Chandra Biswas of Sadbhavana from Sunsari district told us, referring to the label given to Panchayat supporters.
Although most people are politically indifferent, they are generally happy to have the king here. Biratnagar has so far been spared the worst of the Maoist attacks that have plagued other parts of the country. "Thanks to the royal visit, Biratnagar is cleaner than it has ever been, we have never seen such denting-painting before," one enthusiastic shopkeeper said. Indeed, potholes have been filled overnight, electricity poles have been painted over, there are welcome arches, the city is festooned with Nepali flags and even the statue of King Mahendra is getting a face-lift (see pictures). The municipality has spent Rs 6 million, and local Marwari businessmen have contributed most of the money for the rally.
Several thousand extra security personnel have been deployed in the city and along the main highways for Friday's event. Plainsclothes police will be travelling in buses to thwart attempts by Maoists to stop people attending the rally.