There is only one country in Southasia today where mainstream national-level politicians who believe in constitutional government and rule of law-a former prime minister, parliamentarians, politicians and activists-are in jail. The 1990 constitution is in tatters and every whim and fancy is being implemented by decree.
The ongoing mockery of constitutional principles would have the jurists and constitutional lawyers in Colombo, Karachi or Dhaka aghast. While each country will have its own challenges, in Nepal there is breathtaking disregard for norms and decorum, and the willingness to run roughshod over values in the belief that no one is watching or that it does not matter if they are.
Amidst this massive unravelling, Kathmandu's educated classes are busy (and happy) running down the political parties even while the democratic rug is being pulled from underneath the public. This is a process of urban elitism that will be understood well by the students of political science and sociology from Lahore to Patna to Guwahati.
Generals are being appointed ambassadors with abandon, traffic is blocked and sidewalks emptied to allow royal motorcades to pass, a kangaroo commission has been set up for corruption control but more to cow down politicians who protest too loudly. A municipal election has been announced at some future date, as a sop to those who ask for just that morsel to prove democratic leaning. The National Human Rights Commission has just been filled with individuals of unproven commitment. Meanwhile, the one real human rights activist who openly rejects Maoists violence as well as the state's snowballing excesses, languishes in custody. Krishna Pahadi is a Southasian prisoner of conscience.
Other Southasian societies have had their days of reckoning, against raging and brutal militancies, and against a rapacious state bent demolishing democracy under the umbrella of chauvinist nationalism. Today, Nepalis are asked to stand up and be counted but their fight is probably harder than for most because there are two adversaries in the fight to save the democratic middle. There are the violence-prone Maoists and there is the royal palace which has used the excuse of the Maoist threat for takeover, stoking a smoking heap of xenophobia along the way.
The clearest writing against the 1 February takeover, smuggled out from jail in Tanahu, has been printed in Monday's Kantipur. Ram Chandra Poudel, former speaker of the house and deputy prime minister, is not an extremist who should be behind bars. In poor health and kept incommunicado for four months now, he has plumbed the depths of his political experience and written a defence of Nepal's democratic exercise that should be read in translation by all without access to the Nepali language.
This classic testimonial by prisoner Ram Chandra is bracing in its defiance of autocratic methods, reassuring in its faith in the self-correcting democracy, illuminating in its defence of 12 years of democracy before the royal half-takeover of October 2002. In sum, the former speaker does not want the people pushed back to an era where they will need to rediscover democracy all over again.
There was a time when everyone, including King Gyanendra and the all-powerful donors and diplomats of Kathmandu challenged the political parties to get over their petty differences and to unite for the greater good of the country. A month ago, they did just that, presenting one common, principled, non-violent agenda to bring back the 1990 Constitution and move thereafter, under the constitution, towards the creation of a more inclusive state. For this, they have identified restoration of parliament a necessary, logical, people-friendly requirement, under whose aegis all problems can be addressed, starting with the resolution of the Maoist problem. Nothing that anyone can propose, including the completely palace-centric American ambassador, can be a better alternative to the revival of the parliament. It is incongruous even to have to defend the political parties of Nepal and demand an immediate return to parliamentary process and civilised state but such is the case. And the defence and agenda is all there in the article by Ram Chandra Poudel in Kantipur (for translation see www.kantipuronline.com).
Nepal may yet evolve as the pride of Southasian democracy. We were well on our way and we may yet get there.