Democracy worked as a safety valve to release the public's grief and anger.
Never before in the 250-year history of Nepal's royal palace has there been a catastrophe of this magnitude. In the aftermath, there are three streams of opinion about what happened and why:
A streak of irrationality in the family
A conspiracy within the royal family
A combination of internal and external conspiracies
The high-level probe panel is due to present its finding shortly. If the first theory comes out to be true, the country may not have to live through similar traumas in future. But if the second or third scenarios are right, then this massacre will have marked just the beginning of a series of future upheavals. Either way, the killings of 1 June have already pushed Nepal towards a new political transition. Twelve years after the restoration of democracy, we are now moving into uncharted territory-there will be new alliances and new polarisations. We will be getting hints about the nature of these shifts from the political realignments in the coming days.
The stability of our political system, our economic and social development will be strongly affected by this new balance of power between the palace, Nepali Congress and the left. This triangular play of forces began 12 years ago after the people's movement ushered in democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Post 1990, new ideas gained voice: gender equity, the language movement, social and economic justice. Because of new freedoms, political parties allowed these new demands to come up, but did precious little to fulfil them.
The three-way tussle between the palace, the NC and the left has been complicated in the past five years by the entry of a fourth force: the phenomenal rise of the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist) and its "peoples' war". The uneasy equilibrium between the three post-democratic forces was already going off balance. The role of the royal palace was gaining importance in inverse proportion to the disarray and disunity within the NC leadership, the inability of the mainstream left to articulate the needs of the masses, and the indecisiveness of the smaller parties. The tug-o-war between Singha Durbar and Naryanhiti in the past year over the deployment of the army to fight the Maoists was one indication of this greater royal assertiveness. The people, for their part, were getting increasingly disillusioned with the decay of democracy and there was an unexpressed and growing desire that the palace step in within the framework of the constitutional role of the monarch. And then this happened.
Nepal's traditional political forces have been caught completely unawares by this unexpected and unimaginable tragedy. The decimation of King Birendra's lineage within the royal family has weakened the palace, and shaken its triangular relationship with the other two political forces. It is going to take some time for the palace to regain its previous stature and power. It may therefore be forced to interfere less in day-to-day politics and play more of a coordinating role in keeping democracy on track.
King Gyanendra would know that even if the political parties are disunited, weak and in disarray their very presence spared the country from total anarchy during this crisis. They have worked as a safety valve to release the public's grief and anger. The result has been that despite an information clampdown and two days of street violence the Nepali people in general showed remarkable composure, tolerance and maturity in dealing with this unprecedented calamity.
If there is one clear lesson from this, it is that in times of crisis there is a serious threat of instability if even one of the three power centres is weakened considerably. Worse, if two of these power centres are weakened then it is quite possible that there will be a fatal imbalance in the political equilibrium. It is therefore imperative for the royal palace in its weakend state to do everything to support Nepal's democratic pluralism. By supporting the constitution in word and deed, the palace will be strengthening itself and restoring Nepal's tripod of political stability. Otherwise, opportunists and conspirators will thrive in the uncertainty that will follow.
Even before the present crisis, the ruling party was already torn to shreds by factionalism and infighting. The party had lost its direction, there was an ideological vacuum, and a rigidity that had made this once-monolithic party a fragile shell. The Nepali Congress has been trying to manipulate the triangular political power balance by allying with one of other forces to demolish the third, and was brittle because of its own autocratic leadership. That is why it has not been able to project its image to the public as a party that can deliver on its election promises, and it has floundered seriously during the present royal crisis. If the party does not resolve its internal strife, work to restore the equilibrium with the palace and the left opposition, and bringing other political forces into the fold under a minimum programme then the Nepali Congress may find its very existence in peril. It will be doomed to repeat its past mistakes and and it will become weaker and weaker.
CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist)
The main opposition left had been showing its most ineffective and indecisive character even before this crisis. It was not fulfilling its role as a creative and strong opposition party. So, when the royal massacre took place, its response has been haphazard and contradictory-as shown by its backing out of the high-level probe panel after initially agreeing to it. For its own sake, the party needs to formulate a policy consensus and bring like-minded parties into its fold. If it doesn't do that, and the UML tries to camouflage its internal weaknesses, and keeps on unnecessarily disturbing the power balance then it will be doing itself and the country serious damage.
After appearing as the fourth political force in the past five years, the Maoists exposed themselves badly with statements they issued after the royal massacre. On the one hand, the Maoists proved that earlier accusations that they had pro-palace leanings may not have been completely unfounded, and also that their avowed republicanism is a sham. They have shown classic immaturity characteristic of the ultra-left by disregarding the prevailing power equation and unilaterally calling for a leftist interim government. As the country teeters on the brink, it is now becoming more obvious that a resolution must be found within the present multi-party polity. If the Maoists' fail to recognise this and push the country towards more instability, then it may be fatal for them and there will nothing left for them, but to repent.
Try as we might, we cannot hide the fact that Nepal is one of the poorest and least equitable countries in the world. There are serious challenges to surmount in the social, political, cultural and economic spheres. Neither the ruling party, nor the opposition seem to be serious about addressing these long-term problems. These are such serious problems and solutions are required so urgently that a government, any government, cannot even start to solve them alone. And that is not just because of the present climate of bickering and partisanship. The lack of institutional development of the political parties, the personality cults within them, and their extreme short-sightedness and fecklessness make them even less capable of resolving the country's development crisis.
Nepal's monarchy therefore has a role to play in bringing political parties into line. It is imperative that the constitutional monarch take a more unabashed role to protect national sovereignty, to safeguard our borders, to keep the kingdom united, and to be a symbol of the common aspirations of all the Nepali people.
The aftermath of the royal massacre and the political uncertainty of the present demands that the two big parties (the Nepali Congress and the UML) show more maturity, accountability and greater internal democracy. The smaller parties also need to be less opportunistic and play a positive role. The last 12 years were a time of economic and social transition, and it was a wasted decade. Now, there is a time of political transition as well. This moment in the country's history needs to be tackled with responsibility, patience, faith and vision otherwise there will be nothing left to save. Divisiveness, disunity and distrust will only bring underdevelopment and loss of our independence.
Internal strife will foster external interference. Our territorial integrity, our existence as an independent nation state demands that political parties be resolute, patient and tolerant. Otherwise, the next time history takes a leap, the nation may cease to exist and none of us may be able to call ourselves Nepalis anymore.
Hari Roka is an independent leftist analyst.