Nepal has always had a few elements of strangeness. But the recent political climate has provided far too many. From the powerfully weak Prime-minister to the royal-republic, the litany of strangeness has turned Nepal into a glamorous example of political paradoxes.
To begin with, the Transitional Governing Authority (TGA) is a prime example. Touted as the most omnipotent governing authority in the history of Nepal, the TGA is also perhaps the most impotent. It wields such authority that it hacked off the Royal title from everything without a hitch. It declared a country with an overwhelming Hindu majority as secular even without the consent of the governed. But ironically, it has been abysmally incapable of preventing even small bands from shutting entire highways. Also, the most recent protest organized by the cabbies of Katmandu demanding a fare hike, serves as a reminder as to how even a handful could challenge and erode the authority of the invincible TGA. While an entire city is brought to a stand-still repeatedly right under its nose, the TGA's writ appears feckless.
Perhaps more tellingly, the TGA honcho - Prime Minister Girija Koirala accentuates a paradox. Although he is widely acclaimed as the most powerful Prime Minster in Nepal's history, Koirala is also the most senile and hamstrung. With a stature of above six feet, Koirala is not only one of the tallest Nepali politicians ever, but this man wields a towering authority as well. His acquiescence translates into the decision of the TGA. He is supposedly the supreme commander of the single most powerful institution in the country - the national Army. But then again, he can barely operate without of a dose of oxygen. And he can barely stand up to make a speech. His authority has been doggedly hounded by innumerable agitations and the TGA which he leads has had to concede to most of the demands put forth by the agitators. The territory which he is supposed to reign over is being overtly encroached upon. And yet, he dare not make a comment on this issue because it would severely jeopardize his status-quo.
Another striking contradiction about Koirala that deserves mentioning has to do with religion. It was under Koirala's stewardship that Nepal was declared a secular country. Interestingly, however, his bellicose zeal to attend religious ceremonies is quite apparent. Even as the head of a secular state, he has hogged all the religious duties previously performed by a Hindu Monarch. To illustrate, Koirala was so incensed when he learnt that the King had visited the Kumari-House during Indra-Jatra to receive blessings of the living Goddess, that he immediately halved the number of guards at the Royal palace to penalize the monarch.
Another salient paradox is the concept of "New Nepal." From the sounds of it, new Nepal is supposed to imply change from the old status quo to a new one. It presupposes new ideas and new faces taking charge. Unfortunately, the ground realities beg to differ. Those waving the banner of New Nepal are the same old faces of the past. And the pundits that have self-designated themselves as the architects of new Nepal are those that are frequently accused of plundering and plunging the country into a violent conflict.
Most interestingly, there are occurring examples to indicate that Nepal is being pushed to oldness rather than newness. Possibly beleaguered by the increasing clamor of the various ethnic groups demanding regional autonomy, the TGA has made the decision to opt for a federal system of governance. But, many believe that such a decision is more likely to push Nepal back a few centuries to the pre- Prithvi Naryan Shah era. Instead of a new, united and powerful Nepal, many believe that the so called New-Nepal will become dismally weak, dictated by foreigners, ethnically fragmented and could soon start resembling the "Bais-say Chaubis-say Rajyas" (fragmented principalities of pre-unified Nepal).
There are even better examples. The recent decision made by the Nepal Electricity authority (NEA) to slap thirty six hours a week load-shedding schedule, is set to plunge the country into a similar darkness that once shrouded Nepal's hills and valleys of the pre-electricity era. And the scarcity of cooking gas, fuel and electricity could certainly compel the populace to opt for wood-burning or coal burning to meet their energy needs like in the past. Given the rampant deforestation and wood smuggling, perhaps even wood has become scarce.
Another paradox is the trumpeted rhetoric of "Nepal's return to democracy." After the King-led government capitulated to the uprising in April 2006, Nepal's return to democracy was jubilantly propagated by both the national and international cheerleaders. While supporters of the TGA fervently claim the establishment of a democratic system, Nepal's ranking in the democracy index published by "The Economist," says otherwise. The Economist has rated Nepal as an authoritarian state. Shockingly, even the notoriously authoritarian countries like Cuba, Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan fared better than Nepal in the rankings.
More than the rankings, however, it is the ground realities that blaringly dampen the democratic merit. Primarily, the TGA and the parliament are not elected bodies. Hence, this body does not have the inviolable mandate of the majority as required to qualify as a democratic system. Also, there is no mechanism to protect the individual liberty and freedom because the law and order has more or less collapsed. Accountability too is virtually inexistent.
The most unbeatable paradox, however, is the current status quo of the Nepali polity - a royal-republic. Recently, a bill passed by the interim parliament has presumably turned Nepal into a republic. The provisions are such that the decision will only be implemented after the Constituent Assembly elections. With the passage of the bill, it has been said that the King and the institution he represents are in the tumbrel. Yet, the King is not a finished article. He has certainly maintained a regal reticence. But, he is still addressed as the King and the title of “the King” is still mentioned in the interim constitution. Even more markedly, he still resides in the Royal Palace guarded by the most complex security arrangement in the country.
Also, despite being on the verge of demise, notable contradictions are emerging. Now, even the avowed roundheads of the past have come around to concede to the fact that the King is a power-centre none could ignore. Sujata Koirala, (the daughter of the Prime Minister), who is being groomed to lead the Nepali-Congress, has been quite openly emphasizing on the need of a constitutional Monarchy. Not only her, other leading figures in the Nepali Congress are openly speaking in favor of the Monarchy as well. Very strangely, even the Maoist boss-man - Prachanda, had recently emphasized on the need to forge an alliance with the Royalists. The significant foreigners too privately admit to the continued links with the Palace.
So, is Nepal really a federal Republic or is it still a Kingdom? Is the state authoritarian or is it democratic? Is a New Nepal in the offing or is it reverting to an old one? Are we witnessing the demise of an institution that is as old as the nation or are we seeing its resurgence after two years of reclusiveness?
What is a baffled layman to make out of these contradictions? It is certainly perplexing and there is a good cause to worry. But unmistakably, given the stagnation and rising public insecurity, public mood of disgruntlement and doubt is on the rise. Now even the international cheerleaders of the past have become increasingly skeptical of the political progress in Nepal. Both nationally and internationally, there is an increasing realization that the fragile alliance stitched together by an outside power is not the sustainable solution to Nepal’s mountainous afflictions. Now, the only hope remains in the vision, willingness and dedication of the emerging generation of leaders. But even that is another paradox. For, all the zeal of the young leaders has been arrested by the elderly resistance.