Nepali Times
State Of The State
An uncertain centre


Pelting stones is much more than rowdy behaviour. It's a symbolic expression of disapproval and a ritualistic act of rejection. In traditional societies, excited crowds threw pebbles at carriers of evil spirits to chase them away from the village.

In post-modern symbolism, stone-throwing is dissent by deeds. The miscreants who threw stones at the royal motorcade last Friday may have acted impulsively but they cast the first few stones in what they perceive as a symbol of the barrier on the bumpy road to peace.

The 12-point pact raised hopes of peace. True, there are some super royalists, commie-haters and doubting Thomases who think it is fatally flawed. It may have some holes but it is the most positive step towards peace in a long time and that's not just me saying it. Just listen to professional organisations, human rights activists, the business community and ordinary Nepalis. Just about every sector of society has welcomed the move to mainstream the insurgents.

Even usually cautious outsiders like the Americans have lent support, Kofi Annan thinks it is a good idea, the Swiss have been most vociferous in welcoming the move and have even promised to facilitate a settlement. After a long time, an air of optimism pervades the country.

But, hope and despair are two sides of the same coin. Popular support for the pact is roughly proportional to the rejection of the royalists. Soon after the Baneswor episode, Kirti Nidhi Bista lamented that it has become unbearable for him to live in this country. Satchit Shamsher Rana, a vocal campaigner of active monarchy, complained yet again about the Foreign Hand. Another rabid royalist, Bharat Keshar Singh, lamented that he was ashamed to call himself a Nepali. Bista, Rana, and Singh are of course free to feel embarrassed, but they have no right to thrust their dejection upon self-respecting Nepalis.

Active monarchists are perturbed for good reason: Nepalis are not docile and submissive anymore. When the people did not rally behind the parties after 4 October 2002, they assumed that meant the populace favoured a tough kingship and proceeded to demolish democratic institutions. Other than the king himself, nothing was left of the constitutional order by the time King Gyanendra finished the job on February First.

Someday historians will study the February First coup for the meticulousness of its execution. However, they will probably also analyse how counter-productive it ultimately turned out to be because the operation had no political purpose. It was just another old-fashioned crude power-grab. It was a tactical success but a strategic blunder. Within a year, the royal rule has begun to unravel and hardcore monarchists are hard-pressed to find excuses to give it continuity in the face of mounting challenges.

Splitting hairs over the 12-point agreement is a sure sign of the existential crisis that the ultra right finds itself in: where would they go if the king's absolute rule came to an end? They have no popular base, very little business integrity to survive in a true free market, and no occupation to sustain the lifestyle that they have got accustomed to. Their fear is not for the country but for their own future. So, they want to scuttle the peace process before it even gets started.

For the seven-party alliance and the Maoists, the coming weeks are critical. The rebels have been playing their cards well, putting the palace on the defensive with its unilateral ceasefire and peace-mongering. But the alliance needs to be more explicit about its programs and tread carefully in dealing with the rebels and the palace. If they fail to adapt to the new situation the Maoists will win the next round without firing a single shot.

In uncertain times, it is the fate of the centre that is most uncertain. But centralist politics has its advantages because it has the capacity to bounce back. The leadership of mainstream parties are understandably cautious about balancing opportunity against risk and balancing both against uncertainty.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)