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Next Door Nepal: The shadow of monarchs

Public sentiment may force radicals in office to engage with their feudal foes.

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire |
January 23, 2017 12:55:14 am

On January 11, different groups of people marched in a procession and assembled in front of the statue of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who led Nepal’s national integration process 248 years ago. After paying homage to the late king, who is often referred to as the architect of modern Nepal, the assembly demanded that January 11, his birthday, be observed as national unity day and declared a public holiday.

A day earlier, former king, Gyanendra Shah, had issued an appeal in his capacity as a “Nepali as well as a descendant of Prithvi Narayan Shah” that “as the country’s existence was in peril, all Nepalis must unite to save the nation that our forefathers founded”. Going a step further, he said that “even though we left the royal palace 10 years ago, never for a moment have I felt my responsibility towards the country and the people has diminished”.

Was he reclaiming the throne he vacated 10 years ago under hostile domestic and international circumstances?

A day later, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who led the insurgency for a “Republic of Nepal”, and later gave the call for a “New Nepal” after his Maoist party joined the peace process in 2006, announced that he will be forming an official committee to review the list of public holidays. Dahal was confronted within his own cabinet over “history being devalued and disrespected”. Nepali Congress leader and foreign affairs minister, Prakash Sharan Mahat, asked the prime minister: “You took a decision on a holiday (Saturday) to declare a public holiday on Christmas just because some foreign delegations put pressure. What stops you from honouring a national hero?”

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President Bidhya Devi Bhandari went a step further. “I owe it to Prithvi Narayan Shah that I am a Nepali and today, the president of the country. He must be given what is due to him,” she said.

Almost all the political parties in the government coalition and the opposition endorsed the demand. But the prime minister, a former revolutionary, was apparently unwilling to honour a “feudal”. Dahal fears that reviewing one of the earliest decisions the government took following the radical changes that swept Nepal after the events of April 2006, may force many more reviews and corrections.

The new political dispensation that made building an undefined “New Nepal” in place of the “old state” its goal, allowed their supporters to demolish most statutes of the kings including that of Prithvi Narayan Shah, and stripped the latter of his status of a national hero. It also cancelled the public holiday on January 11. While Dahal can easily gauge the public sentiment against the radicals who have failed to bring about political stability and economic prosperity, he fears that any review of previous decisions, including restoring the status of national hero to a “monarch”, may send across the message that the Republicans are on the retreat.

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A week after Gyanendra Shah’s appeal to the leaders to renounce the politics of hatred, revenge and negation, President Bhandari invited him to attend her daughter’s wedding at the president’s official residence. Shah was visibly the centre of attraction among the guests.

Although radical politicians maintained a distance, many defied security warnings and took photographs of him on their mobile phones.

The chief of army staff, Rajendra Chhetri, offered a salute to the former king, who was also the supreme commander of the army.

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The president’s invitation to Shah at a time when Prime Minister Dahal and his deputy, Bimalendra Nidhi, a leader of the Nepali Congress, was contemplating framing Shah in the “palace massacre” case, may have a political agenda. No politician can ignore Shah’s latest appeals, and the nationalist sentiments that he has been able to arouse in the country, especially when the major parties are thoroughly discredited in public perception. President Bhandari’s invitation to the former king and his presence at her daughter’s wedding, received an overwhelmingly positive response in the social media.

What is speculated is whether the invitation to the former king, a political outcast for a decade, was at the sole behest of the president, or suggested by K.P. Oli, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), the party that Bhandari belonged to before occupying the president’s office. Of late, the UML has been trying to don a “nationalist hat”, alleging that the ruling coalition is “aiding and abetting” secessionist forces in the country. During his visit to China, another UML leader and former prime minister, Jhalanath Khanal, was apparently warned by senior Chinese authorities that “external forces inimical to China” were funding and instigating Nepali actors to go for ethnicity-based politics and spread the resultant unrest right up to Tibet. According to a senior party leader, this was a clear indication that China is not comfortable with the state of politics in Nepal as well as the current ruling coalition.

“Nationalist agenda” is perceived in the South as “anti-India”, but it is likely to dominate the political discourse and to the disadvantage of the radicals.

One reason why Nepal’s constitution has not been owned by a large section of the people is because the radical actors have kept out the old and traditional forces, including the monarchy from the political and constitution-making process. The exclusion of these sections and the insults heaped on a nation-builder like Prithvi Narayan Shah, are now backfiring on the radicals. Dahal may have to restore Shah’s status of a national hero and declare his birthday a public holiday again and, like President Bhandari, initiate a dialogue with old and traditional forces for political stability in the country.

Yubaraj.ghimire@expressindia.com

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First published on: 23-01-2017 at 12:55:14 am
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