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Ever since October Fourth, Girija Prasad Koirala has been consistently critical of 'constructive' monarchy. But February First seems to have made the octogenarian leader of Nepali Congress even more vituperative. A life-long votary of constitutional monarchy, Koirala has begun to hit out at active monarchy with the ferocity of a jilted lover. Recently he went a step further and even questioned the very relevance of monarchy in Nepal.

Koirala describes the ongoing political agitation in Nepal as a struggle between "the forces of modernity and the forces of feudalism". But the characterisation of monarchy as an institution of feudalism appears to be a little far-fetched. If anything, the palace has been remarkably successful in reinventing the anachronistic legacy of feudal-lord (bhu-pati) as a modern and dynamic institution of post-modern monarchy.

King Gyanendra's pronouncements on contemporary politics have a ring of practiced felicity. He uses all the right words: good governance, fight against corruption, war on terror, globalisation, privatisation, liberalisation and even meaningful democracy. In comparison, the leaders of the seven-party alliance sound antiquated as they restrict themselves to talk of restoration of parliament. The contestation in the country isn't between modernity and feudalism but between different versions of modernity.

Maoist modernity is based on the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Viewed from Rolpa, from behind the rose-tinted glasses of Maoist commissars, the monarchy isn't a feudal institution but an instrument of American imperialism and Indian expansionism.

In the aftermath of the Narayanhiti Massacre, Baburam Bhattarai even claimed that the insurgents had developed a strategic alliance with the royal palace. The statement was quite plausible because both the left and right extremists were engaged in weakening the nation's democratic roots. Actually an understanding between the Maoists and mainstream parties may be what we need but is extremely unlikely.

For the monarchy, modernity means institutionalisation of newer ways to perpetuate its monopoly on state power. That's not a feudal concept at all. Our monarchy isn't bothered by noblesse oblige and other traces of feudalism any more. It draws its strength from the divine right theory which implies that whatever the monarch does is right. This belief is in tune with American exceptionalism in world politics.

Religion and race are twin pillars of autocratic modernity. This is the version of modernity that seems to have enchanted palace loyalists. Figures that seem to have stepped straight out of sepia-toned snapshots of 1960s argue that modernity is the will of the ruler. The king himself has defined a 21st century monarch as someone who doesn't only hear and see but also speaks. The ambition not only to reign but rule as well isn't regressive. In fact, it's quite forward-looking- a monarch as a saviour against marauding Maoists is an attractive proposition for inherently insecure middle-class Nepalis.

In their competing descriptions of modernity, the seven-party alliance is the haziest. Nobody can question the importance of establishing the people's sovereignty but very few are willing to believe its feasibility in the present context of competitive militarisation of government and insurgency.

Despite its drawbacks, the monarchy is an institution that the people of Nepal have lived with for over two centuries. There is no confusion about the alternative being offered by the Maoists either: in their scheme of things, power flows from the barrel of an SLR. But what do the seven-party alliance have to offer when they couldn't stick to their simple 18-point program of action in the past? This question vexes every bystander watching protest marches of party loyalists pass by city streets in Kathmandu. What is the main purpose of their agitation? If it's merely pressure tactic, as the king understands it to be, there is no reason for common people to risk themselves in a contest between competitive claimants to Singha Darbar.

In this confusion of contesting versions of modernity the fear that an obscurantist claimant to power may arise isn't as unreal as it may look. As experiences in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan have shown, when all else fails people tend to fall back into the embrace of religious extremism. When forces of modernity fight, obscurantists often emerge the winner by default.

Iran's President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is said to have been one of the captors of American hostages in 1979. The forces of theocracy are always waiting to sabotage social progress. It may seem hackneyed now but there indeed is no alternative to accommodation between the three contestants to political power.

If nothing, the fear of God and his militant acolytes should force the Maoists, monarchists and mainstreamers to rethink their strategy.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)