When the word of the killings within Narayanhiti Royal Palace began to seep out into the cloudy Kathmandu night last Friday, it was a bizarrely-felt relief, after the first shock and disbelief, to receive word that this may have been a family quarrel gone horribly wrong rather than the result of a political conspiracy. But that moment passed all too quickly.
The slaying of King Birendra and practically every other close relation shrouded this kingdom in the darkest gloom. The affable, retiring monarch has by now been reduced to ashes, together with the rest of his kin. For the Nepali people, whose lifeblood has been steadily sapped by the selfish play of the inept and corrupt commoner politicians over the past decade, this seemed like the end of the world.
Fortunately, Nepal and its young democracy remained standing. The institutions have held through this most extreme of tests, with the PM and cabinet still in place, a horrendous succession smoothly handled and the army firmly in the barracks. It is now up to those left behind to pick up the pieces—and use this tragedy to begin to try and make proper use of parliamentary democracy. The constitutional monarchy backing this democracy was the late king's bequest to his people.
King Gyanendra, brusque, decisive and unsmiling in the mould of his (and Birendra's) father Mahendra, has slipped into the shoes of constitutional monarch. The precedents have already been set in stone over the last decade by his brother, who was correct to a fault even as political parties came to and went from power. But every other institution of the state has been found wanting, which is why the task of building a stable and pluralistic political system remains unfinished 11 years after Birendra relinquished absolute power in 1990. The new king, the sovereign parliament and the perennially beleaguered executive must work together with transparency and commitment if the overwhelmingly poor of Nepal are to find any use for democracy.
In the very short term, the legitimacy of Gyanendra's succession needs to be addressed, for the public has to believe that the kingship was thrust upon him and not sought. This is likely to happen once the investigation commission delivers its report.
Thereafter, two challenges loom—first, making peace with the Maoist insurgents who have spread like a spring wildfire through the midhills and are by now a potent force that Kathmandu's political classes and insular intelligentsia can no longer ignore; and, second, making one more try to get the mainstream parties—particularly the lethargic Nepali Congress and the incessantly belligerent United Marxist Leninist—to understand that only when the principles of parliamentary democracy are applied can economic opportunities become available to the people.
The Maoists entered the bush six years ago after they were unable to make inroads into the parliamentary system. They strengthened their initial base in the western hills when the populace reacted to police terror but then the insurgents exploded into the rest of the Nepali hinterland with unnerving speed. Meanwhile, the factional disarray among the main parties and constant efforts to bring down the government helped the Maoists reach further than what they themselves might have imagined.
In order to try to put the genie back into the bottle, and with a dispirited police force incapable of fighting the "people's war", PM G.P. Koirala had only a couple of months ago managed to convince King Birendra that a reluctant Royal Nepal Army be deployed.But when the firing begins between the soldiers and the insurgents, that will be civil war. Given that the soldiers are already out and about, the danger is real.
Fortunately, despite resorting to extreme violence, the Maoists seem close enough to the surface that they may yet be brought to the table, thereafter to participate in the political process with some give-and-take. Given that the command and control lines of the Maoists seem stretched because of their rapid expansion, it is not unimaginable that the insurgent leadership may want to parlay their underground strength into parliamentary power.
But even if the Maoists were to be brought into the mainstream, there would be no use saving this democracy if the political culture is not turned on its head. Infighting, short-term strategy, a near-total disregard for social processes and corruption are the defining features of Nepal's political groupings. While of course these are traits of parties everywhere, here they have been taken to extreme depths in the minimum time possible. No wonder the people feel lost and abandoned, and this is why the death of King Birendra has been that much more heart-rending.
As a diverse and traditional country going through the stress of change and modernisation, Nepal is presently unguided. There is no question, however, that the leadership should come from the political parties and not the royal palace. And the process of resolving the societal ills of Nepal, so starkly exemplified by the grisly killing of the royal family, should begin with the injection of some sense of principle into the political class.
The roadmap for the new man at Narayanhiti is therefore clear. King Gyanendra's style may differ from that of his late brother but his task it is, too, to remain constitutional head of state while trying to make politicians live up to principles and deliver to the people. Nepal is too precious a country to let its promise go to waste, even if the lives of King Birendra and his dearest ones have been wasted. (The author is Editor of Himal, the South Asian monthly from Kathmandu)