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Kathmandu: As surging crowds enter downtown Kathmandu for the first time since the current wave of protests began, India has officially put itself out of step with the pro-democracy forces.
Gyanendra’s offer spurned
Protesters manage to break through the cordon sanitaire that is downtown Kathmandu
Kathmandu: Less than 24 hours after King Gyanendra offered to hand over power to the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), which has been spearheading the campaign for democracy in Nepal, the verdict here is clear: neither the people, who have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers, nor the political parties, intend to settle for a half-way house in which the sword of royal intervention hangs perpetually over the head of civilian government.
Indeed, the popular response to the King’s televised offer has been so ferocious that for the first time since the current agitation began on April 6, protesters managed to break through the cordon sanitaire that is downtown Kathmandu.
Gathering spontaneously at points along the ring road like Kalanki despite the shoot-at-sight curfew, which was re-imposed again, a crowd that was as large as two or even three lakh slowly converged towards the centre. Their demand: a Constituent Assembly and dialogue with the Maoists. At Tripureshwar, near the Singha Durbar, which is home to the Prime Minister’s office, and other points, sporadic clashes erupted between the police and protesters. Tear-gas and rubber bullets were fired and more than two dozen people were injured.
A providential afternoon downpour helped the police as the crowds slowly melted away, but the tension on the faces of soldiers guarding the square mile around the Narayahanhiti Palace was palpable.
By late afternoon, a nervous Gyanendra had ordered the kingdom’s cell phone providers to switch off all mobile services in an attempt to frustrate any attempts at organising fresh protests.
“Many more people will come tomorrow,” Madhav Kumar Nepal, leader of the Communist Party (UML) told The Hindu . “The number of protesters is swelling day by day but the King is not paying any attention to the peoples’ aspirations.”
Out of step
If indeed King Gyanendra’s offer was the product of his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy, Karan Singh, then it is evident that the ship of Indian influence in Nepal has run aground on the streets of Kathmandu. Indeed, by welcoming in a fulsome and even hasty manner a royal offer of democratic rule that most Nepalese consider `too little, too late,’ India has, for the first time since February 2005, placed itself out of step with the Nepalese parties.
On Saturday, the UML and all other constituents of the SPA issued individual as well as collective statements denouncing King Gyanendra’s offer. “The King’s proclamation does not address the parties’ roadmap and the aspirations of the people … [I]t does not make any sense to join the government,” the SPA said in a statement issued after the meeting.
After a meeting at the Maharajganj residence of Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala, the SPA came up with a four-point formula involving reinstatement of Parliament, formation of an all-party government, talks with the Maoist insurgents and elections to a constituent assembly with the involvement of the rebels.
Throughout Saturday, diplomatic pressure on the SPA to compromise with King Gyanendra mounted with European Union ambassadors calling on Mr. Koirala and others to select their nominee for Prime Minister. Indian diplomats, too, remained in touch with the party leaders through telephone for much of the day but conceded privately to this reporter that many of the SPA’s misgivings about the King’s offer were valid.
“At the end of the day, the King has simply not accepted the fact that state authority lies with the people,” says Mr. Nepal. Explaining the SPA’s roadmap, the UML leader said the starting point for restoration of democracy would be revival of Parliament. “After that, the process may be something like this. At its first meeting, Parliament would take the decision to go for a Constituent Assembly and also begin a roundtable dialogue with the Maoists.” Instead of respecting a roadmap for fundamental democratic change which has wide support amongst the people, says Mr. Nepal, King Gyanendra wanted to prove that the parties were really after the post of Prime Minister.
“What he wants the SPA to accept is the position Sher Bahadur Deuba was in just before he was dismissed as Prime Minister,” Mr. Nepal said. “How is it possible? Gyanendra is not even prepared to go back to October 2002 [when he first dismissed the elected Prime Minister] but merely to February 1, 2005 [when he seized power directly].”
In its individual statement, the NC said the King’s proclamation totally ignored the seven parties’ roadmap for a constituent assembly through reinstatement of the dissolved House of Representatives, and for the establishment of “loktantra.”
“The King’s “concessions” satisfy neither the people on the streets nor any of the parties,” Pradeep Giri of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) told The Hindu.