Despite King Gyanendra's strong-arm tactics, it is Nepal's monarchy rather than its Maoists that is under threat, writes Randeep Ramesh
The King of Nepal's takeover of his country has seen the monarch become the mayor of Kathmandu.
Within the perimeters of the capital there is little doubt about the rule of King Gyanendra. Dissent is smothered, human rights activists are arrested by police offering neither a warrant nor an explanation, and politicians are placed under house arrest to protect democracy.
But beyond city limits there is little evidence that the writ of government runs. Schools, offices and shops shut at the whim of Maoist guerrillas. The leftwing rebels use strikes to demonstrate that it is they, not the government, who call the shots outside Kathmandu.
So while the chain-smoking royal sits rearranging his new cabinet and packing the administration with supporters of absolute monarchy, there is little sign that his promise to wipe out "terrorists" can be kept.
The Maoists, who have rejected talks with the king, launched a nationwide blockade over the weekend to mark the ninth anniversary of their armed struggle, in which more than 11,000 have died.
The result is much the same as last summer's blockade of the capital. Vegetable prices shoot up and essential supplies to the hill-ringed city such as petrol are disrupted. And all this from just the threat of violence.
Ranged against the 72,000 soldiers of the Royal Nepalese Army is an ill-equipped peasant force, numbering not more than 20,000. But the Maoists have the advantage of geography. Rugged mountains and dense forests can conceal bombers and snipers. Spectacular hit and run strikes on seemingly impregnable army camps have flatttened the morale of government troops.
The idea is not to take possession of any territory, but to encircle it. The Maoist strategy of surrounding cities has seen a number of alternative governments proclaimed in western Nepal and in the Tamang belt surrounding Kathmandu. The rebels roam much of the Himalayan state freely, often carrying weapons.
Diplomats from Britain, India and the US, who have coordinated responses to the crisis in Nepal, calculate that the king cannot win with his present strategy. Militarily he is not strong enough to claim an outright victory, but then neither are the Maoists.
The Bush administration, along with the British and the Indian governments, have been providing the Nepalese army with training and weapons to take on the rebels, but the three foreign powers say that this security aid was to make sure the leftwing insurgency was contained rather than defeated.
To justify the coup, the king's supporters use the argument that he had to move against political parties because they had been staging protests that were distracting the army and police from their fight against the rebels.
But, says one high-ranking Indian official, "at least 40% of the army's troops are now censoring newspapers and patrolling the streets. How can the rest of the soldiers hope to defeat the Maoists?"
The trio of London, Washington and New Delhi made up their mind long ago that the only solution would be to bring the Maoists back to the negotiating table. To do this, Communist party of Nepal, their democratic incarnation, needed to be given enough political space for it to win the internal debate raging over the merits of the bullet and the ballot box.
At the same time, an effort to alleviate the poverty and address some of the ethnic and caste discriminations that fuel the conflict was needed. Nepal has a per capita income of $240 (£127), making it the twelfth poorest state in the world.
The real failure of Nepalese democracy was to tackle some of these problems. But politicians had a dozen years, whereas the monarchy has sat doing very little for two hundred years.
Political parties had begun to take small steps in the right direction, but they were overwhelmed by the scale of the task and prefered to fight over democracy's spoils. It is only now that the county's politicians, exiled in Delhi, have coalesced to form a united front.
Michael Malinowski, former US ambassador to Nepal, was honest enough about the problems faced by the kingdom. In 2003 he told reporters that Nepal was "a troubled country we're concerned about it".
"One may ask why does the United States care? It's 8,000 miles away. I would say there's a number of reasons. On the ideological plane we want democracy to succeed. We don't want to see democracy fail ... by a group, a small group that is unwilling to contest its ideas in the electoral process or the parliamentary process but instead have decided to go the way of the gun, use terrorism, terrorist acts to get their will.
"There's real reasons why people have picked up the gun here. They're impoverished. There's a lack of access to higher levers of education. There's corruption. There's mismanagement. There's bad government. All of that. But again I would argue that Maoism is not the way to solve that."
Mr Malinowski was no dove during his tenure in Kathmandu. He frequently used undiplomatic language to defend US actions. Washington also placed the Maoists on the state department's "watch list", along with al-Qaida and Abu Sayyaf. In part, that driven by the fear of a "prairie fire" being ignited from the Himalayas if the Maoists took power and linked up with leftwing rebels on the plains of India.
Thanks to the king's actions, there is little chance that the rebels will be removed from that list anytime soon. In fact, it is the Nepalese monarchy, not Maoism, that is under threat. The Maoist's leader, Prachanda, has cleverly reduced his position to the simple question of whether the country wants to be a republic or a kingdom.
The result is that the extreme left and extreme right appear ready to face each other down in an increasingly bloody battle, with moderates left as bystanders or picking sides.
This is bad for a country where democracy has only existed for two short-lived periods in 1950 and the 1990s. Strategically situated between India and China, Nepal has been either under the Shah Kings or dynastic maharajahs since the late eighteenth century.
In 1990, following huge public demonstrations, the country became a constitutional monarchy under the leadership of King Gyanendra's older brother, Birendra. The palace ceded power to a parliament and prime minister, but retained Nepal's status as a Hindu kingdom.
The beginning of the end for the last phase of democracy came when the king and his family were assassinated in the palace by Birendra's drunk son. Gyanendra took over and made no secret of his disdain for elected officials, sacking the government in 2002.
With the politicians out of the way, the question is who else will take the blame when things fall apart? The answer, some say, may be found in a recent book on Nepal entitled Forget Katmandu: An Elegy for Democracy by novelist Manjushree Thapa.
In it she recalls a legend about King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of the modern Nepalese state. He once met a god disguised as a sage who, to test his loyalty, offered him some yoghurt which had been vomited.
If the king consumed it, the Shah line would have lasted forever. Instead he threw it away, and some fell on his feet. So the dynasty would only last ten generations, one monarch for every toe. Birendra was the tenth Shah king.
Tuesday February 15, 2005.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005