Despite the ceasefire, there is a sense that war clouds have been gathering over Nepal again. This is not a war where bullets will fly, but it does look like a fight to the finish. The battle lines have been drawn between the king and five political parties.
The state is now using unnecessary force to suppress peaceful demonstrations by the five political parties. In Kathmandu and in the Districts, political leaders and cadre have been beaten and bruised by the police. In some places the army is goading them on. Both are over-reacting against the burning of the effigy of regression, which they mistake for an effigy of someone else.
In places like Nepalganj the attack on peaceful demonstrators has been brutal, and it is clear that this will lead to more resentment and anger. The agitation will now go to the grassroots, as the dissolved local government units are re-occupied.
It is true, King Gyanendra appointed this government and he can change the prime minister and the cabinet with the snap of his fingers. Meanwhile, the Maoists are sitting on the fence and will likely throw in their lot with whichever side is likely to come out on top in this struggle.
At stake is real political power which the parliamentary parties lost since the October Fourth royal sacking of an elected prime minister. Since then, the country is being ruled by the palace through a puppet government consisting mainly of Panchayat-era throwbacks who will never do anything without the palace's express command.
It is indeed a great tragedy for the nation the constitutional forces that should be on the same side are at each others' throats. Both the parties and the palace say they support parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Logically, they should be pitted against the group that doesn't believe in either: the Maoists.
This wasteful bickering has further ruined an economy that is already in shambles. Narayanhiti and Baluwatar are hell-bent on demeaning and insulting the political parties, and they are trying to portray all the leaders as self-centered and corrupt, out to loot the nation. They threaten to use the property declaration files to throw more leaders into jail for the abuse of authority and amassing ill-gotten wealth in the last twelve years.
For their part, the political parties are accusing the palace of crossing the constitutional limits of monarchical powers. They think King Gyanendra has gone back on the understanding of the 1990 revolution by getting actively involved in day-to-day politics. They are threatening to find common cause with republican-minded forces and push for a constituent assembly if the king does not correct his "regressive" step.
Both sides have to share the blame for the present impasse: the political parties for mismanagement of the country and misconduct as elected leaders for the past 12 years. They made such a mess of it that the people started having doubts about democracy itself.
King Gyanendra, on the other hand, has made the parties' malgovernance an excuse to stage an undeclared coup, once again bringing the monarchy back into active politics thereby undermining the democratic process. The Indian media has been giving some unsolicited advice to the king, citing other countries where monarchs have abdicated. This is a bit far-fetched for Nepal, but the message is clear: a king in 21st century politics should remain above the fray. The field of politics should be left to democratically elected people's representatives, however incompetent. The process of democracy has an in-built capacity to sort out the mess.
If it was not for the ongoing peace process with the Maoists, the political parties would have gone on the offensive earlier. They just did not want to be blamed for derailing it. For their part, the Maoists now seem to have reconciled themselves to a constitutional monarchy, so it should not be too difficult for all three forces to come to an understanding. The Nepali people do not need this kind of a showdown. We need both the monarchy and the parliamentary parties, but in this current fight we will have only one victor.
Another point of disagreement is over command of the armed forces, which our constitution has left to the king. This has traditionally given the monarch leverage over the use of the military. In all other constitutional monarchies in the world, the army is under command of elected civilian leadership.
All is yet not lost, and it is not too late to change things. This crisis can be an opportunity for true reform in our political structures. The following step-by-step measures could be taken by all three political forces if we genuinely want to get out of the current quagmire:
1. The king should invite all the major political parties including the Maoists to form an all party national government and get them to sit around the much-alluded 'roundtable' for talks towards a peaceful solution to the Maoist insurgency, resulting in free and fair elections at the earliest possible time, so as to bring back the derailed democratic process on track.
2. The political parties and their leaders must act and speak in a responsible manner, adhering to the constitution and making amendments to it, so as to accommodate and mollify the sentiments of the minorities.
3. The Maoists must not miss this opportunity to convert the ceasefire into permanent peace, for which there is an overwhelming public desire. This will springboard them into mainstream politics, since the people are ready to reward any force that ends the conflict. We are forgiving people and may be willing to overlook-just for this once-all the bloodshed, misery and bereavement their revolution has caused. If the Maoists wait too long, it may be their turn to miss the bus.
The current movement launched by the five parties could be the impetus for the palace, parties and rebels to steer country back on track to progress, inclusion and social justice.
(Dhawal SJB Rana, PhD, is the former UML mayor of Nepalganj.)