Nepali Times
PRASHANT JHA
Plain Speaking
May the 28th


PRASHANT JHA


With their knack for making the simple complicated, Baluwatar politicians should turn into Bollywood script-writers. Nothing but a nail-biting climax with the audience gripped by fearful anticipation, will do for our netas.

The South Asian knack for leaving critical issues for the last minute is ingrained in all of us, but Nepal's political class gambled with history on Wednesday night. A constitutional impasse seemed a possibility. Fortunately, contentious issues were pushed for later and the country was declared a republic 12 hours behind schedule.

There was a jarring note in the otherwise sober session: the unnecessary rendition of Indian speaker Somnath Chatterjee's letter. Yes India is a special neighbour, yes they supported our peace process. But why was there any need to read out a note from an Indian functionary on a historic Nepali occasion? Who took that decision, and why?

Wednesday's brinkmanship may have appeared dangerous, but the gradualist abolition of the monarchy over the past two years has been wise. In our "lazy revolution" the monarchy continued its twilight existence two years after the People's Movement, and this step-by-step clipping of the king's wings gave the Nepali people time to cope with the demise of an institution that was integral to the country. The official republic is stronger because we have been trained to live under an ad-hoc republic since 2006.

Whether we liked it or not, the monarchy was in a weak, narrow, hill-centric way, a marker of national unity for many. The institution manufactured an association with Hinduism. And the Hindu king, in some ways, provided a fragile bond between the Pahad and the Tarai. This explains the ambivalent and relatively sympathetic relationship of the Madhes with the monarchy.

Of course, the monarchy had become a symbol of divisiveness rather than unity in recent years. As political consciousness grew, people realised Narayanhiti was the fountain of several levels of discrimination and oppression. And Gyanendra turned out to be the biggest republican. Nepal obviously did not need the king for national unity.

But Wednesday's move has made the nation-building process more urgent. The constituent assembly has to create a common sense of citizenship, based on inclusive political principles, rights and civic duties. It was not only the monarchy that ended on 28 May, the idea of subjecthood and ethnicity-centred citizenship collapsed as well. Over the next two years, a more territorial, political and inclusive idea of who a Nepali is has to be consolidated.

The representatives of the Madhes voted along with the rest of the political class against the monarchy. Hridayesh Tripathi's intervention on the absence of federalism in one of the points of the resolution had the danger of veering the debate in another direction. But he made his point and sat down

The MJF went with the republic. Upendra Yadav has active royalist ties, which he has tapped for political support and funding. But the election results, MJF's publicly republican stance, and the CA vote show that Upendra used the king and dumped him instead of allowing the king to use him.

The possibility of a conservative backlash by active royalists is remote. What is more likely is that Hindutva forces will stoke religious emotions, particularly in the Tarai. There is a fear in the plains that a secular republic, with no Hindu king to take care of Hindu interests, will mean rampant cow slaughter. Nepal's politicians have not reached out to allay misconceptions and clarify that a republic will not be anti-Hindu. Hindu groups will play on this fear.

Fortunately, these groups have barely any organisational strength, no strong leaders, and negligible mass support. But if there is rising discontent against the Maoist-led government, and if the tension in Madhes continues with added inter-religious and inter-caste conflicts, the Hindu right will capitalise on it. They held a meeting in Balrampur in UP last month and are trying to reorganise and re-strategise.

Given the political consensus across parties and across regions, the republic is here to stay. Wednesday was the easy part. The real challenge of constitution writing begins now.



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