Political evolution in Kathmandu

The political stability for which the people of Nepal have long waited, for the sake of peace and progress – and, lately, for the writing of a new constitution – has again proved elusive. By the middle of May, one more experiment was being attempted, with a new government coalition made up of or backed by all the political parties other than the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

]The Constituent Assembly elections in April 2008 gave the Maoists 38 percent in the House, and placed them in leadership of the government. Yet this opportunity to take the lead in writing the constitution, as well as in providing the 'change' that the people expected from them, was squandered. The distance the Maoists had to travel from the jungle to Singha Durbar, the government Secretariat, was perhaps too vast, and the time just not enough. Running a government proved to be somewhat more complex than engaging in armed revolt.

The election showing seemed to energise the Maoists to revert to the rigid dogma in their internal conclaves, even while Prime Minister Dahal and the powerful finance minister, party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, made placatory noises to everyone else, especially the international community. Most importantly, the word that came out of a national convention held in November 2008 seemed to indicate that the Maoists were merely using the democratic institutions as a façade, with the fervour of satta kabja – the takeover of the state by force – undiminished. Any observer could have said that the Nepali people's own experience with democracy, as well as regional geopolitics, would not allow such a move towards a 'people's republic'. But the Maoist high command either did not understand or, more likely, it did not have the ability to convince its cadre.

Despite the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed between the Maoists and the other political parties in November 2006, stipulating the "integration and rehabilitation" of individual Maoist combatants, the Maoists began talking of en masse integration. More importantly, it seemed that their promises to this effect, made to the 20,000 combatants (verified by the United Nations) in the more than 25 cantonments throughout the country, was slowly converting into something from which they could not backtrack. This promise was there for all to see in a January 2008 'training video' made by Chairman Dahal to his commanders and combatants, leaked in early May, in which he speaks of "full integration" into the national army and subsequent plans for indoctrinating that force. He also refers to using exchequer money to buy arms, of breaking bones in order to win the then-upcoming elections, and how the Maoists had been successful in inflating their numbers during the verification exercise, from 7000-8000 to 20,000.

The visions of a battalion-wise entry into the national army seem to have caught the imagination of the combatants, and this became cause and corollary of all that happened thereafter. As detailed later in this issue of Himal, the stage was set for a constitutional standoff and political crisis when Prime Minister Dahal felt the need to get rid of the chief of the army staff, Rukmangud Katawal, who was perceived to be recalcitrant on the integration proposal. The prime minister was countered by President Ram Baran Yadav, the supreme commander of the Nepal Army under the Interim Constitution, and the prime minister stepped down on 4 May.

Nepal for Nepal
Into this vacuum was to move an unlikely coalition. All of the political parties, including those of the Madhes/Tarai plains, the former opposition Nepali Congress and the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) rallied around Madhav Kumar Nepal (see pic), of the latter party, for prime minister. They had mustered enough signatures to set the stage for a government without the Maoists. The former rebels, meanwhile, had been asked to join a government of national unity; but smarting as they were with the loss of government, they refused to sign on.

The question that looms now is how stable this coming-together of disparate forces will be within itself, as well as how the Maoists will comport themselves outside of government. The fact is that the past nine months under the Maoist-led government were not a peaceful interlude, and (presumptive) Prime Minister Nepal will already have enough on his plate.

The first order of business will be reviving the rehabilitation-and-reconstruction process that has been pending since the People's Movement and the signing of the CPA, which has meant deep suffering of the people and a loss of hope. Simultaneously, the new government must reach out to the marginalised communities, establish law and order amidst criminal militancies, and set the economy on track amidst electricity shortages, capital flight, zero foreign direct investment, and a return of overseas labour due to the global economic meltdown. More than anything else, Nepalis must be given a sense of hope and movement on the writing of the new constitution, which has hung fire for a year now – and only a year more remains.

By resigning from government, the UCPN (Maoist) acted according to the finest democratic principles. The party must now bring down the level of rejectionism against the president and the non-credible plank of 'civilian supremacy', and ensure that the new government is not destabilised. For no one doubts that the Maoists can bring the country to another standstill at the flick of a finger, and the constitution-writing process derailed due to their 38 percent presence in the House. All in all, one can hope that the reality of the Nepali people's desires for peace, coupled with a geopolitical situation that denies the possibility of excessive adventurism, will make the Maoists positive, enthusiastic partners in the Constituent Assembly. And, as the dust settles and bruised egos are assuaged, hopefully the ex-rebels and ex-ministers will indeed sign on to form a government of national unity, which is all-important for the consensus that the new constitution requires in its drafting.

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Himal Southasian