The revival of Nepali politics

The political agreement reached by the Seven-Party Alliance on 9 November and a peace agreement signed between the two sides on 21 November, besides committing the Maoists to abandoning their 'people's war' and paving the way for a constituent assembly, is most importantly a means for the revival of politics in Nepal. Under the agreements, the political parties have decided to make space for the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in an interim Cabinet and interim legislature in the same proportion as the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) and the Nepali Congress. The Maoist fighters are committed to entering cantonments, where their guns would be kept in boxes which they will guard themselves; the entire exercise will be monitored by the United Nations, however. The carriage of arms in public will now be deemed an offence, all abductions and extortions will have undersigned commitment to cease, and the Maoists will begin their conversion into a political party. All systems are now 'go' for a constituent assembly, for which a 'mixed' electoral system has been envisaged, with 205 seats to be elected according to the old 'first-past-the-post' system, and 204 members to be elected as per the proportional representation system on the basis of votes won by the political parties. The pace at which myriad issues have been addressed and decisions taken in Kathmandu over the past month has been nothing less than dizzying. These include: the decision giving many disfranchised of the tarai region the right to citizenship, a right to information bill placed before the House, a new law put in place to control the Nepal Army, and an agreement to nationalise all royal properties. Doubtless, many other issues remain pending, and some mistakes will have been made in the rush, but there is no denying that the political process is on the up and up. Challenges and hope While uncertainties still abound, there are now important demands to be made of the Maoists, the state and the political parties. As far as the rebels are concerned, in a matter of days, as they join the government and the interim legislature, they will have to shed their radical demands, insistence on which would needlessly bring gridlock to the government and rekindle hopes in the royal palace and army of making some kind of comeback. With the regulars of the 'People's Liberation Army' in the cantonments, there are hopes of psychological relief across the countryside. Even though the Maoist militia is not addressed in the agreements of November, it is hoped that extortions, abductions and use of threat of physical violence – with or without arms – will cease over the course of December. The state's responsibility is to energetically re-establish its presence across the country, right down to the Village Development Committee level, and in particular to fill the vacuum in law and order. Besides motivating the Nepal Police and reinstating the hundreds of posts abandoned in the course of the war, there is the challenge of state administration, governance and development. The danger of a rightist royalist revival will come not only if there is political collapse, but also from the public's disenchantment with the long interregnum between now and the end of the constituent assembly process in a year. There must be a massive effort for reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure, revival of the economy, and delivery of services to the people. As far as the political parties are concerned, they must hasten to re-establish themselves in the villages of Nepal, which will also goad the local Maoist leadership to convert from high-handed commissars to politicians relying on argumentation rather than on the rifle in the closet. Indications are that, because of the maturity of the countrywide political class and the ground-level wisdom of the populace, there will not be violent attacks on Maoist cadre all over the country as the guns come down. In many parts, district-level Maoists have maintained a level of goodwill by allowing development activities to continue, and for standing up against nasty local feudals – in such areas the Maoists will find it relatively easy to transform into a political force. It is in areas where the rebels have taken on local bullies and bandits as part of their fast-paced expansion of the early 2000s that there will be villager reaction. The government has to guard against vigilante action, and ensure that the legal process is observed. As far as the constituent assembly process is concerned, the dangers are manifold, and not least the need to explain the intricacies of the mixed electoral system to the populace. Additionally, one of the grievances with the recent agreements is that the demands of various ethnic, regional and other marginalised communities have not been adequately addressed. To do so, the political players must prove their commitment to an inclusive Nepal, and ensure that there is full representation of the country's diverse population groups among the candidates, as well as in the broader political process. Elections mean polarisation, as the various political parties compete for votes. The process has already begun in Nepal, and it can be expected that the two parties most at loggerheads would be the CPN (Maoist) and the CPN (UML), who would presumably be battling for the same ideological space. Given that the elections are not even for a Parliament but a constitution-making body, there is an urgent need for a code of conduct that binds the political parties to minimum standards of good behaviour. This is absolutely crucial. A highly charged and potentially violent campaigning period over the spring of 2007 would be one more cause for the reactionaries of Nepal to try to flex their muscle. This must be avoided at all costs, and the answer lies in a campaign low on adrenalin and high on reasoning. The most significant demand for moderation, then, would have to be made with the CPN (Maoist), which is traveling the greatest ideological distance and does not even have the experience of pluralistic and parliamentary practice the other parties do. The Nepali ship of state has already shown an ability to astound Southasia and the world with the relentless pace in its political advance over the past half-year, all of which was triggered by the uniquely participatory – and glorious – People's Movement of April 2006. The political parties and the Maobaadi of Nepal are now asked to live up to the people's expectations, by reviving politics of the kind that is representative and inclusive in the run-up to the constituent assembly.

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Himal Southasian