Dear Deuba sahab:
Our people in Kathmandu tell me that any conversation on your upcoming general elections invariably brings up my surname. It's nice to know that I am on the way to becoming a household name in your country, although the context could have been a little more benevolent. There are certain clarifications I feel I ought to make on our recent referendum that granted me a five-year extension in the presidency. Before that, allow me to make some personal observations.
Your political stars probably have some connection with our country's. During your first stint as premier in 1996, I recall, you were on an official visit here when Benazir Bhutto's second government was sacked. Back home, you faced criticism for poor diplomatic planning, which we believed was patently unfair. How were you supposed to know that President Leghari had had enough of Benazir when we at General Headquarters were left speculating on when the Eighth Amendment to our constitution would be invoked next?
I understand that 17 years earlier, the execution of Benazir's father gave your Nepali Congress the opportunity to launch its first nationwide show of strength since the political change of December 1960. I have been told that many of your party colleagues still turn green with envy when they recall how BP Koirala tagged you along on the referendum campaign trail. That the Panchayat system had similarities to General Ayub Khan's "basic democracies" is still fondly recollected by many of us here. Since Indonesia's "national guidance" philosophy and the "class organisations" of Egypt and Yugoslavia also inspired your partyless polity, we considered it a true embodiment of the spirit of the Non-aligned Movement.
Those who have full faith in your democratic credentials cannot doubt your commitment to holding the 13 November elections on schedule. They seem to be worried, though, that a Musharraf-style poll might prove to be more damaging to the country than the constitutional deadlock everybody is worried about today. Please be assured that the analogy is misplaced. We held a yes/no referendum on whether I should continue as president for another five years to advance my agenda to build real democracy. (Last week, you chose to describe your elections as a referendum on whether Nepalis wanted peace or terror. But we realise that you were speaking metaphorically.) Our opposition leaders exercised their right not to participate and persuaded many others to stay home as well. Since there was no other contestant, a lot of the yes votes I got were from people who couldn't figure out the alternative.
But that's as far as I can allow the cynics to go. Many people still can't stop making fun of the poor turnout. My aides stand by the 35 percent figure. The opposition give us no more than five percent. Even if you take the average, for the sake of argument, it was every bit of 20 percent. That was half the 1997 turnout that gave Nawaz Sharif a two-thirds majority in parliament. You have to remember that in our country, turnouts are usually higher in general elections because of the competition. Moreover, you have to factor in the fact that Mian sahab's two-thirds majority represented 17 percent of the total number of voters. We both know that our political rivals can acknowledge such realities only at their own peril, don't we?
I am aware, though, that the stakes in Nepal's elections are too serious for us to be obsessed with arithmetic. From what I read here, many Nepalis seem to be unsure about whether an election can be held under a state of emergency. Since you have promised to lift the emergency well before voting starts, that might assuage some of your critics. What we sometimes discuss here, as I am sure many in your country do, is whether the candidates would feel safe enough to campaign without state-funded security cover.
Another concern seems to centre on the ability of a government that couldn't properly organise the School Leaving Certificate examinations to hold free and fair elections. That's not relevant to the debate unless your critics are also willing to revoke the SLC results out this week. After all, most students didn't know whether the exams would be held until the very last moment, when the Maoists withdrew their five-day strike. Moreover, the absence of public transport in Kathmandu on the first day of the exams and the concentration of centres in district headquarters must have taken too heavy a toll on students to permit a fair assessment of their abilities.
Barring the Supreme Court's reinstatement of the House of Representatives, or a political package that would allow the resurrection of the chamber on some technicality, your politicians have no choice but to accept elections. Even if the house were to be reinstated by the Supreme Court, that would only push back the elections two years. When political conditions haven't improved under seven months of emergency rule, it would be risky to bank on two normal years. In that case, your constitution allows you to extend parliament's term by a year. But what are you going to do if things remain the same? Even the Supreme Court can't grant a seventh year.
Here's my suggestion: look further north-west. You can always learn from another land-locked least developed country. By getting a transitional loya jirga-style mandate like the one our friend Hamid got last week, you can wait until conditions are ripe for a real election. That could be a long wait. But it's your best shot at preserving the constitution. I look forward to holding more extensive discussions with you during the SAARC summit here next year. Even if we aren't there personally when the chairman's gavel is handed over, our successors can be expected to act in the true spirit of regional cooperation, provided Atalji is under no inordinate domestic political pressure.
I am sure you won't consider the contents of this letter an interference in Nepal's internal affairs by yet another nuclear-armed state, because I see other countries doing and saying worse things.