The then Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh's visit was well-received in Kathmandu, at least at the government level. The all-powerful King himself welcomed Foreign Minister Singh at the palace gate - a gesture which was generally reserved only for the heads of state. King Gyanendra, during the conference with Singh, besides dwelling on the Maoist insurgency and security situation, also praised Sonia Gandhi for sacrificing Prime Ministerial seat despite her party enjoying a majority in parliament.
Perhaps, it is specious to say that history has repeated itself; but, given present Nepal's unfurling political situation, one would hardly resist such thoughts, as there is some similarity in the events during the royal rule and under the republic dispensation. During the King's rule, from 2002-2005, while the country was beset by the Maoist armed insurgency, the Five Party Alliance (initial) blamed the palace for its steps in violation of the 1990 Constitution and wanted the dissolved parliament recalled. Now, even as the country is marred by the COVID pandemic, we not only witness the concern of reinstatement of parliament but also the challenge of un-constitutionalism amid an intense verve of external players. In such a gloomy situation, this article intends to take the readers in retrospect, specifically the period from 2002 to 2005, when each of the King-blessed PM failed.
India's Cautious Optimism
After King Gyanendra Shah terminated the elected government of Sher Bahadur Deuba on 4th of October 2002; a prelude to his direct royal rule in February 2005, by asserting that state-sovereignty was bestowed in the crown; India reacted cautiously. Despite knowing that the King's claim of state sovereignty was in violation of Nepal's 1990 Constitution, New Delhi pursued a non-contesting posture with the palace, and said in guarded words, "India hopes that the present crisis will be resolved soon within the framework of the constitutional process, paving the way for early elections at the earliest and installation of a democratically-elected government in the interest of peace, stability, and development in Nepal." In spite of dark clouds already simmering on the political horizon, other members of the international community, who were in a loosely collaborative framework with India, too were mysteriously silent on the issue. Nonetheless, they all had ostensibly one voice of dissent with the King and that was on: "dismissal of the elected government of Deuba."
When Prime Minister Deuba was relieved, the Indian Ambassador to Nepal was Indu Prakash Singh, but he was in a London's hospital struggling for life afflicted by cancer. Even after Singh's demise, New Delhi's South Block took a little longer time to depute Shyam Saran to Kathmandu. Saran, who was serving in Indonesia, succeeded Singh in the month of late October 2002, after about two and a half months of the death of his predecessor. However, ever since his arrival in the Kingdom's capital, Saran ardently lobbied for restoring the Deuba government. In the process, as the King was obdurately inflexible since he had sacked Deuba in assumption of the latter's veiled desire to prolong his government instead of holding due elections of parliament; ambassador Saran motivated the palace nobles including Prabhakar Shamsher Rana, to strike a tacit understanding. If achieved, Saran would be accomplishing a major task which he was assigned for by his government. In Delhi, prior to his departure for Kathmandu, Saran was asked to bring the monarchy and the political parties together in order to “neutralize" the Maoists. The nervousness in New Delhi, given the mounting network between the radical Maoists of the two countries, was of a possible “Red Corridor” into India. It may be recalled here that India's initial instance, coincidently, was similar to the policy stance of the US and also of China as both of them also were working in favor of constitutional forces joining hands against the Maoist insurgents.
After Deuba was reinstated as the PM, within three days, India's Foreign Minister Natwar Singh paid an official visit to Nepal! This trip by Singh not only was a gesture of welcoming the King's step of reinstatement of the sacked PM on the rue of 'incompetence,' but also was circuitously approving of the King's claim of the state-sovereignty on the 4th of October 2002!
The then Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh's visit was well-received in Kathmandu, at least at the government level. The all-powerful King himself welcomed Foreign Minister Singh at the palace gate, which was generally reserved only for the heads of states. King Gyanendra, during the conference with Singh, besides dwelling on the issues of Maoist insurgency and security situation, also praised Sonia Gandhi for sacrificing Prime Ministerial seat despite her party enjoying a majority in parliament. He, additionally, accredited her also for upholding the democratic values in Indian politics! It was a gesture of affability on the part of the King, perhaps with a view to refurbish the palace's relationship with Gandhi which was strained following the Pashupati Nath temple controversy in December 1988. On the occasion, the King also extended invitations to President Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and obviously also to Gandhi to visit Nepal at their convenience. The interesting part of the invitations, however, was, as per protocol norms, the head of state generally invites his opposite number and so do the others. But, this time, the King was unusually generous on the matter! Another oblique intent in the King's generosity to Indian high level dignitaries, without consulting Deuba, the executive head of country, perhaps could also be that he wanted to deliver a message to the foreign Minister Singh that he was the sole power to be dealt with from now onward. Singh's visit had undoubtedly lent some ease in certain circles as it had legitimized the King's contentious step but that could hardly address the burning issues that the country had been confronting. Hence, in the absence of the House of Representatives, as it had a direct bearing on many things, most of the constitutional organs were already in doldrums.
Fissures in SPA
The reinstatement of Deuba as the PM had its pitfalls too. Initially, the main Five Party Alliance (FPA), led by late Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress, which had firmly recognized the assertion of state-sovereignty by the palace as the height of royal regression, was resolutely in favor of the restoration of parliament. It was FPA's firm conviction that the only left option to extricate the country from crisis was to bring back the liquidated House of Representatives, which would help reactivate the constitution in despondency. At the bottom, the alliance was least interested in a change in government. Later, the movement was joined also by the NC (D) and CP Mainali led ULF thereby giving birth to the Seven Party Alliance (SPA).
But, with the return of Deuba as the PM, fissures were induced in the alliance. The UML, the second largest force in the dissolved parliament, which had been part of THE agitation since the formation of FPA, ditched its coalition on the pretext of "Re-appointment of Deuba is a half-correction of the royal regression," and gleefully joined the government with lucrative portfolios! Another reason that impelled the UML, this time too, in joining the government was that the party, ever since the advent of democracy in 1990, always pursued a policy of, if possible, either lead or become part of the government. Such a policy of the UML was tactically helpful for it in expanding its base, not only within the bureaucracy, but also to improve its international image as a democratic force. On the other hand, in spite of its reduced initial status now, the FPA was imperviously undeterred to advance its struggle for the restoration of parliament.
Governments sans Mandate!
But, the political paradox was also that neither the past nor the incumbent government had any magic-wand to resolve the Maoist insurgency in the absence of a royal mandate. The palace, which desired the continuation of a political stalemate for its final takeover, did not consent any government to agree to the rebels’ core demands such as the promulgation of a new constitution through a constituent assembly. Yet, each of the PMs was dryly asked to resolve the Maoist insurgency, restore peace and conduct elections of parliament! As an obvious consequence, all of the royal appointees, since October 4, 2002, were unsuccessful in accomplishing their tricky tasks confronted with severe head-winds, which ultimately led to the royal takeover of 2005!
(Mr Chalise served as the foreign affairs advisor to the then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)