Syed Nazakat in Kathmandu, Nepal
It is 12 pm in Kathmandu’s new age, the night as black as the statue of Ali Baba’s slave girl and the hundreds of people are flooded to the dark streets of this Himaliyan city to welcome the Nepali New Year.
The streets, which are too narrow to carry the traffic load, are abuzz with people, energy and bad driving. There is a new openness to life in this impoverished country wedged between India and China, as many of its 26 million people seem almost giddy with the newly found freedom.
“Happy New Year,” says a young man while walking across the street. “We have seen so much trouble and hardships in all these years. Now I wish this New Year will bring joy, peace and a good governance to us,” he said before joining his friends who are singing, shouting and dancing to welcome the New Year.
Few hundred yards away from this sprightly crowd of young Nepalese, the Narayanhiti palace of King Gyanendra looks deserted. It is guarded by the heavy armed troops and there is no sign of celebration inside the palace. A sign at one corner of road reads: No parking, no photograph.
A one year ago the King was the one figure in Nepal everyone turned to for a solution to political deadlock. Today the King exists only in name. His responsibilities as the head of the state have been transferred to the prime minister. His pictures are being removed from currencies and his title as the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Army has also been dropped. But his shadow is still hovering over the Nepal, where the government and Maoist rebels are struggling to decide the future role of the King.
There is a growing sense of fear among many people that the power struggle between the Maoists and Nepali Congress may provide an opportunity to the King Gyanendra to seek to impose his rule again in Nepal. The Election Commission of Nepal has already postponed the polls which were earlier expected to be held in June this year to elect a special assembly.
Many in Nepal believe that the election may not happen at all due to the politically sensitive issues involved. On top of such issues is the country’s 240-year-old institution of monarchy. The Maoists want to replace Nepal’s constitutional monarchy with a communist republic and the country’s second largest party, the Nepal Communist Party has also decided to fight the election on the republican platform.
But the largest party with the most significant political clout, the Nepali Congress, is still ambivalent on the issue of monarchy. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala wants to keep the door open for the monarchy to play a role in the new Nepal.
The King must be seeing all these developments closely with a hope of returning to power. Though he has completely stripped of all powers by the parliament after massive street protests in April last year but many believe he still wields considerable influence within the army, which they say, has remained loyal to the King.
All of which frequently provokes the question: will the King prevail in Nepal again?
“Some people are guessing that he might return,” says Prateek Pradhan, editor of The Kathmandu Post . “The King loyalists as like his opponents must be working day and night to make every effort to regain the power,” adds Pradhan.
There are also unconfirmed reports that the King who owns huge royal wealth may be trying to fuel unrest in the Southern area where the ‘madheshi’ (plains) people who constitute one-third of Nepal’s population of 27 million are demanding more power and representation in the government. According to the reports published in local newspapers some people paid by factions loyal to the king were involved in sparking communal riots in Southern area.
There are some external factors too that suggest that the King may find a space to stay in the Nepal. “America and even the India wouldn’t mind if the monarchy continues…monarchists and some in the army brass must be looking for an opportunity for the king to regain power,” says Kiran Chapagain, a local journalist.
While the seven party alliance and Maoists are still unclear how to sort out their differences on the future role of King in Nepal, the heaving mass of people who had been ground down for so long are clearly rising up and they are making their voices heard.
“What we are absolutely against is a return of lawlessness, drugs, prostitution and the King,” says a young Nepali boy after returning from the New Year celebration. He hurried down the steps to the street, looked up at the sky and then at me, and said, “You know, right now I can feel that I am living in new, free and different Nepal”.
( May 5, 2007)