Hope and contradiction

Artwork: Bilash Rai

The political process in Nepal is in shambles, even as the peace process holds. There is currently only a semblance of governance in place, while the activities of violent groups are on the rise. Rule of law has been all but abandoned: the police are unmotivated, and all political parties have set up violence-prone youth forces, to emulate the Young Communist League of the Maoists. The utility of the Maoist-led coalition government has been to give the former rebels a taste of the responsibility of holding power, no doubt. And though they are making a brave attempt at it, the challenges  are enormous.

Internally, despite some sobriety in the presentation of the annual government budget, they are buffeted by the need to placate cadres (and relatives and henchmen) with jobs. Most importantly, the Maoists are being forced to be everything to everyone. While Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ('Prachanda') reassures the international community about his commitment to multiparty pluralism and 'capitalism', he and his colleagues reassure the party rank and file that the 'people's republic' remains the definitive goal. Of course, everyone has been giving the Maoists the benefit of the doubt, because they have a need to defend the 'people's war', even while abandoning it on the way to open politics. But the question is, how many misrepresentations can Prime Minister Dahal make without beginning to look ridiculous? The apt metaphor has the prime minister with his feet not in two boats, but on several.

The Maoists are stymied by the fact that they are not in total command. The present coalition government is an opportunistic coming-together of incongruous partners who do not see eye-to-eye on most important matters. The CPN (Maoist) and the CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist) are vying for the same cadre base, while the Maoists and the Tarai-based Madhesi Janadhikar Forum have a history of unresolved clashes, as well as different visions of the proposed federal state and of the 'integration' of Maoist ex-combatants. The proposed all-party coalition, which would have been important for the minimal camaraderie required for constitution-writing, was stillborn when the Nepali Congress opted to sit in opposition.

Of the two-year time limit set for the writing of the new constitution, it has now taken six months just to finalise the rules of procedure for the Constituent Assembly. Moreover, the House will have to fight the tide of ethnic, communitarian and regional populism in every sphere if a fine constitution is ever to be written. And there is actually a nomenclatural flaw in what we call the Constituent Assembly, for its jobs are supposed to be divided between that of the 'Legislature-Parliament' and the 'Constituent Assembly'. This late, the legislators have hardly met in the latter capacity. Given the existing party rivalries, the populist posturing of the new parties, and the disgruntlement among the representatives of the marginalised communities, it will be a challenge to have the discussions needed to resolve the constitutional issues – the future federal state, affirmative action, the political economy, and even the nature of the state structure (presidential, as preferred by the Maoists, or Westminster-style, as preferred by most of the rest).

Old wounds, new grudges
While the Maoists hold the reins of power in Kathmandu, old wounds have not healed, even while new grudges are building up. Countrywide, ground-level Maoists are making up for lost time by hijacking government tenders, and continuing to show the fist to get things done. There are worries that Maoists are becoming tempted by the volume of money coursing through their fingers, and it seems a given that opportunists of every stripe have begun to use the Maoist guise to get what they want.

At the very top, the Maoist leadership has set alarm bells ringing, by taking on the royalists of yesteryear as advisors. Those who expect the worst are saying that the Maoist proposal of a 'people's republic' would be nothing more than a one-party state, and somewhat worse than the autocratic Panchayat system of yore. A large segment of the professional classes, capable of contributing to nation-building, remain sceptical of the Maoists and remain disengaged. Meanwhile, the CPN (Maoist) has been intent on handling the internal divisions that have erupted within its ranks – between the so-called pragmatists led by Prime Minister Dahal and the 'radicals' of Mohan Vaidya ('Kiran') – and in response the leaders have reverted to using the language of hoary revolution. One can but hope that this is a temporary phase.

An important source of potential instability is the matter of the integration of the 19,000-odd former Maoist combatants, who are currently housed in seven cantonments around the country. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the rebels and the parliamentary parties included the understanding that, in the interests of peace and practicality, some of the Maoist combatants would be integrated into the national army, according to the recruitment criteria of the latter; a caveat was that the national force would be able to handle such an ingestion as long as recruitment was on an individual basis rather than en masse. But with the Maoists in government there has been an attempt to shift the goalpost – with demands for group entry, the formation of a national army by joining the Maoist combatants and the Nepal Army, and also the suggestion that the cantonments be kept as is until the writing of the constitution, to maintain leverage.

If one sees the glass as half full, what Nepal is going through today is a catharsis. In this view, the current situation is part and parcel to bringing a brutal internal war to an end, and nothing could be better than to have the former rebels in the seat of power, grappling with the contradictions of transformation. To see the glass as half empty, however, the coalition government is an unnatural cohabitation, and is already fraying at the edges. The result of a failed government would be delay or cancellation of constitution-writing, which no one wants. Thus, the Nepali people currently prefer to read the tumbler as half full, in the hope that the Maoists will be able to manage theirs contradictions, and that the democratic forces will be able to work with the Maoists in the process of constitution-writing – a process, after all, on which the whole country's future depends.

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Himal Southasian