The republican rhetoric is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Maoists. Student leaders are loudly proclaiming what their party leaders had already expressed in hints, veiled threats and innuendoes as the political mood against the monarchy hardens. As elsewhere, historical circumstances will ultimately determine the longterm fate of monarchy in Nepal.
The mainstream parties have expropriated the Maoists' republican slogan, and it is time we seriously take up and publicly debate this issue, taking the history of strong and weak monarchs in Nepal into account. The mainstream political forces are flirting with republicanism because of their present frustration with King Gyanendra's dealings with them, but they need to take a responsible longterm view of what the absence of the crown will mean to Nepal's national stability.
The Nepali monarchy may not be as important a unifying force as it is made out to be, but are Nepal's political forces, from the Maoists to the mainstream parties, ready or mature enough to run the country by themselves, solely based on a mutually accepted code of conduct, or a constitution without a fatherly monarch's regal gaze or danda keeping them well-behaved?
Why are the Maoists displaying such inhuman brutality against ordinary Nepalis? What heinous crime did an 80-year-old man commit to have his throat slit in broad daylight in the presence of his family? Is there a precedence in Nepal that would suggest that those who call themselves leaders would act with judgment, discretion and self-control when in possession (or lack) of political power? Will Nepal's political parties be satisfied remaining in the opposition for decades and yet adhere to democratic means of voicing their opposition?
Nepal's history of feudalism tells a different story. It shows that whenever the king is weak, chaos has reigned, and intermediaries profited at the expense of the people. A weak King Rajendra saddled Nepal with Jang Bahadur's 104-year hereditary prime ministership. Not that people had much say in governance, but a weakened monarchy made matters worse for the people because the Ranas did not have even the religious sanction and responsibility that Hindu kings traditionally had to govern.
After 1950, political leaders showed a similar fractiousness that we see today under a soft King Tribhuban. Certainly, various forces in the palace played games of intrigue, but can the leaders of various parties be given a clean chit for their conduct? Weren't they ready to compromise their principles in order to taste power by hook or by crook? The horse trading, petty rivalries, party break-ups and the unscrupulous scramble for power since 1990 are still fresh in our minds. How can we guarantee that these leaders will exhibit accountability and responsibility within a republican framework? They haven't even shown the gumption to apologise to the people for their mismanagement and lapses since 1990.
During a decade of multi-party rule all we saw were political leaders who behaved as if the country was their fiefdom and the people their peons. No one I have met in Nepal recently, including many with party affiliations, has a single positive word about these mandarins of multiparty and their conduct since 1990. In buses, streets, taxis or villages, there is nothing but contempt among the common people for the leaders they elected. Those of us who care deeply about democracy and believe that it is the only way forward must come to terms with this-regression or no regression.
But none of that justifies the present suspension of democratic rights and the lack of representation. To do so would be to commit democratic hara-kiri. King Mahendra's Panchayat autocracy protected a feudal, repressive and ethnically biased polity which was basically a modernised extension of the Rana regime and sowed the seeds of the violence of recent years.
Yet, to hastily give in to the republican rhetoric without public debate about the pros and cons would lead to another kind of blunder. Before the Maoists and the parties start competing with each other for who can be a more radical republican, Nepali society will do well to deliberate the consequences of a republican Nepal with cool logic and sharp historical analysis.
Pramod K Mishra, PhD, teaches at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, USA.