Events that take place in the springtime, particularly in April, have generally shaped contemporary Nepali politics. If the People’s Movement in 2006 ensured that King Gyanendra had to give way and the people reigned supreme, in April 2008 elections to the Constituent Assembly threw up an unexpected result, leaving the Maoists with the single largest vote share. This spring, Nepal faces a multitude of challenges, from pushing ahead with the writing of the constitution and the peace process in general, to ensuring a semblance of governance and strengthening of democratic institutions. Yet with little substantive movement on any one of these fronts, there is also increasing political uncertainty, a sense of disarray and a deep fear about whether the ambitious political experiment – that of engaging with a former rebel force in a democratic framework, and redrawing the social contract – can last.
Nepali politics has become complicated due to four sets of separate yet inter-linked relationships. This includes ties between the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, the two key drivers of this process; the Maoists and India, which was the external guarantor and behind-the-scenes mediator during the transitional period; the Maoists and the Nepal Army, the ties between which have moved from being that of erstwhile warring sides to that of legitimate domination and subordination; and the centre (Kathmandu) and outside, especially where ethnic movements are strong. With the Maoists as a common factor within all of these tracks, they are currently the most important, decisive and powerful political force in Nepal. But it also means that the onus of taking the process forward rests primarily, though by no means exclusively, on them. The fact that this has not happened must thus rank as a blot on the commitment and credibility of the Maoist party.
The best guide to understanding Maoist actions is the document prepared by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) at a countrywide meeting of workers in December. There, he sought to reconcile the different views within his party – with Finance Minister and chief party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai pushing for the need to institutionalise current achievements, and dogmatic senior leader Mohan Vaidya (Kiran) emphasising the need to move to the next stage of struggle now that the monarchy had been abolished.
The prime minister has made it clear that, for strategic purposes, the Maoist party had emphasised republicanism at some points and nationalism (read: anti-Indianism) at others. In a monarchy-less context, the struggle for ‘national independence’ could become a major conflict. He also said that the party’s next struggle was with the Nepali Congress, which was categorised as the representative of “brokers, bureaucrats and the feudal class”. His prescription stated, “There is a need to bring together all communist revolutionaries by polarising and working to create a larger front that includes all leftists, communists, progressives and patriots … and working to create a balance of power in our favour.” At the same time, he noted that there was a need to create a “pro-people but anti-feudal and anti-imperial” constitution, and complete the peace process by “taking into consideration the fundamental interests of the people”.
This policy approach came at a time when the consensus that had gotten the peace process this far had already broken down, with the Nepali Congress sitting in opposition. High-profile attacks had been carried out on the media by certain Maoist-affiliated organisations. The Maoists pulled back from long-held tradition at the Pashupatinath temple in appointing Nepali priests in lieu of those from South India, which many saw as an attack on religious affairs. And, of course, there have been grave disputes between the Maoists and the Nepal Army. All of this has steadily contributed to a climate of polarisation and trust deficit, with non-Maoists accusing the Maoists of authoritarian, if not totalitarian, ambitions and wanting to establish one-party rule. In the meanwhile, the prospects of meaningful progress on issues such as army integration or federalism have been pushed further away. And while the Maoist ‘People’s Liberation Army’ of 19,000 strong continues to mark time in cantonments, work on the definition of federation has only begun.
Insecurity and ambition
For their part, the Maoists have a ready defence. They urge interlocutors to understand that the prime minister’s paper and occasional radical rhetoric about how the ‘revolution is not yet over’ is necessary in order to please the party cadre, who have been told that the Maoists have achieved a major political victory but are yet to see changes on the ground. The Maoists also point out that they have, contrary to what the media projects, constantly tried to reach out and compromise. “After gauging the reaction to Pashupatinath, we pulled back, even though it hurt our credibility,” says a senior Maoist leader. “When there was trouble in the Tarai due to an administrative decision to shift services out of the district headquarters, we retracted. The prime minister has gone several times to meet Congress leader [Girija Prasad] Koirala, urging him to join the government and support the process.”
According to this line of thought, the root of the problem is the insecurity of the other parties and their inability to mount a political challenge, rather than the existence of a grand Maoist design to take over. “The Maoists are doing nothing new if they are using state resources to consolidate and cater to their constituency, and infiltrating key departments with their own people,” says a sympathetic diplomat. “Draw a comparison with past Congress governments and you will see the same.” As for the Congress, it is certainly true that the party is currently in an organisational mess, internally fractured and offering little by way of a positive agenda. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), meanwhile, continues to suffer from a serious existential crisis, with one faction pulling it away from the Maoists, and the other (including the faction of the newly elected chairman, Jhala Nath Khanal) seemingly willing to turn a blind eye to Maoist excesses. Its recent national convention, in February, did little to tackle this fundamental problem. Party delegates criticised the Maoist behaviour on the ground, and emphasised the need to retain a separate identity for the party while electing a leader known for his pro-Maoist leanings.
What this sympathetic perspective misses, however, is that the Maoists retain their coercive apparatus. Violent incidents have been recurrent, and a fear of the Maoists continues to run deep among the party’s opponents. A culture of silence has overtaken large parts, with journalists, activists and human-rights defenders themselves cowed down. But it would be inaccurate to say that democratic space does not exist. A recent example was the student-union elections across the country in mid-March, during which other parties were successful in not only campaigning but also winning in a majority of colleges, with the Maoists achieving third place.
Non-Maoist parties have flirted with the idea of trying to cobble together an alternative to the current ruling arrangement. But this has not worked, for two reasons: the numbers do not add up and, more importantly, ousting the Maoists from power would mean chaos on the streets, given the possibility that the ex-rebels would decide on an obstructionist strategy. This would also possibly usher an end to the constitution-writing process. Even India, which has had a role in the rise and fall of Nepali governments, would not support such an exercise. New Delhi, meanwhile, is perturbed by the rising Chinese role in the country (with an enthusiastic Maoist welcome), and has warned the latter of a backlash. New Delhi would prefer weakening the Maoists while they are within the system, rather than push them out. Moreover, for months Indian political players have been too busy with their own elections planning, and it is clear that no decision will be taken on Nepal till a new government is in place in mid-May. Till then, one could say that the Maoists have something of a ‘reprieve’.
It is clear that there is a contradiction between competitive democratic politics in a post-election context – one in which all sides are fighting each other, expanding and protecting their base, lobbying internationals against one another – and the peace and constitution-writing process, which requires all sides to work with each other. All the while, this is happening at a time when state institutions are crumbling, basic rules of the game are not clear, and one party – leading the government – continues to have an army and an incomplete democratic transformation.
On 21 March, the prime minister claimed that the Nepali Congress may soon join the government. There have been rumours to this effect since G P Koirala returned from a visit to Delhi in mid-March. However, the Congress has officially refuted these stories, and made it clear there was no way this would happen unless Maoists deliver on their promises – especially that of dismantling the paramilitary structure of the Young Communist League, and returning property confiscated during the war. Many observers feel that Congress participation in the government would be the best way to bridge the trust gap between the two parties. But it would also give the Congress enough leverage to block decisions from within that it has been opposing from outside, while ensuring continuous dialogue between all sides. The objection comes from Congress conservatives who feel the move would only give further legitimacy to the Maoists while weakening the Congress itself. Dogmatists in the Maoists, meanwhile, would rather go it alone than try to build up consensus.
The army impasse
The Maoists and the Nepal Army fought a bloody war for years. Thereafter, it has been a difficult transition for the army, which also became identified by the royalist adventure of 2005-06; but it has still played along with the peace process. This is due to multiple factors: the army had to accept the political consensus, and the Indians, who have a traditional relationship with the army, assured the generals that their interests would be protected. Through this interlude, the Maoists also tried to build up a relationship with the army. In fact, soon after the election results came in, Baburam Bhattarai told this writer, “We did not fight a war against the army. We fought a war against the then-regime.”
However, the gulf of politics and perception between the Maoists and army remains deep. This was particularly highlighted when a major controversy erupted recently between the Maoist-led Defence Ministry and the Nepal Army, with the former objecting to the army’s decision to recruit personnel to fill existing positions. The army claimed this was not in violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (signed in November 2006), as had been alleged by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), for they were not actually ‘adding’ positions. Chief of the Army Staff Rukmangud Katuwal, known for his viscerally anti-Maoist stance, lobbied and garnered the support of non-Maoist parties and key international actors, including India. Defying Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa’s orders, the army went ahead with the recruitment. In turn, this angered the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which announced fresh recruitment of its own in its seven divisions in UN-supervised cantonments, which have housed Maoist combatants since the end of the conflict. The Supreme Court intervened, asking the PLA to stop recruitment and the Nepal Army not to go ahead with any additional recruitment henceforth.
The defence minister was furious. But he bided his time, and struck back when he refused to extend the terms of eight senior army officers, despite the recommendation by the Nepal Army. The government is on firm legal ground here, and there is definitely a need to assert civilian control over what remains an autonomous army. But the decision smacks of vindictiveness for its failures to keep in mind either national security or the army’s institutional interests, by its willingness to create a void in the senior-most echelons of the national army. Many Maoist critics see this not so much a Maoist minister showing the army chief where the buck stops, as a Maoist attempt to weaken the military as part of its plan of ‘state capture’.
Both of these examples only go to show just how difficult the process of integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants, as stipulated by the peace accord, will be. This was anyway the most contentious of all clauses of the agreement, and increasing inter-party acrimony makes progress even more challenging. An all-party Army Integration Special Committee only just became operational in February, despite having been set up in 2007. The fact that the Committee includes the opposition Congress holds out the promise that Committee recommendations could break through this legacy.
It appears that the informal pre-election understanding between key players was that a few thousand PLA soldiers would be integrated into the Nepal Army at lower levels. In fact, the Maoists had constantly raised the issue of integration at that point, but the non-Maoist parties were resistant at that time. The Nepali Congress calculation seems to have been that, once the Maoists were defeated in the elections, it would be easier to move ahead with the process on their terms. Former UML General-Secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal is on record saying, “I remember talking to Prachanda, and we had discussed a tentative figure of 6000 soldiers. Our biggest mistake in the peace process was not to finish this task earlier, and to allow the Maoists to go in to elections with their own army.”
Now, the plot has changed. The non-Maoist parties are more fearful than ever that integration on Maoist terms would allow them to take control of the army. The Maoists themselves have shifted the goalpost, arguing that a new national army be created through the outright merger of both armies. They have demanded integration at all levels and the creation of a joint command. This type of hardened position seems to indicate that there is a faction within the Maoists that does not want integration at all, unless it gives them control of the army. At this point, having an independent force on the outside would be more of an asset for the Maoists than getting in a few thousand of their fighters into the national army at a lower level. The PLA itself, meanwhile, has used the last two years to become more professional, on state and donor resources. But it still faces a problem of attrition (with several thousand of the 19,000 UNMIN-verified soldiers having reportedly left the cantonments) and 4000 disqualified combatants who need to be discharged, which is turning out to be politically complicated.
The issue of army integration is the one issue that is needed to complete the peace process. At the moment, however, all of these issues – the PLA’s internal difficulties, its assertion as an autonomous political actor, the shifting stand of the Maoists, the Defence Ministry-Nepal Army standoff, the army’s belligerence and refusal to abide by orders of the defence minister, the support of non-Maoist parties to the army, the role of India, the US, UK and UN when it comes to military issues – together have meant that there is little sign of movement on this single burning matter.
Drawing the draft
By the end of April, the various committees of the Constituent Assembly are scheduled to submit an initial draft of the constitution. This will then be taken to the full house for debate and discussion. Even if this is able to happen, given that the process is severely behind schedule, there are essentially two issues on which major disagreements persist between the parties. In their model constitution, the Maoists have made it clear that they will push for an active presidential system, coupled with autonomous ethnicity-based provinces with the right to self-determination. Their logic is that a strong presidency will help to avoid the pitfalls and instability of the parliamentary system, as seen during the 1990s. In practice, however, it is difficult to understand how such an over-centralised system, coupled with massive devolution to the provinces, can work.
The Madhesi parties of the Tarai plains are divided on whether they want a presidential or parliamentary system. But have made common cause on ethno-regional federalism, where the plains would constitute a single state. This demand has faced opposition, however, not only from national parties in Kathmandu but also from the ethnic communities of the Tarai itself, who fear a swamping by Madhesi hegemony. Recent protests by the ethnic Tharu, which crippled the country for almost a fortnight over objections to their categorisation as a ‘Madhesi’ community in a government ordinance, is only proof of the diverse aspirations that exist within the Tarai.
The Nepali Congress is firmly committed to the parliamentary tradition of democracy with a titular presidency. It has not clearly enunciated its position on the formula for federalism, but it is averse to ethnic or regional federalism and would push for mixed provinces consisting of both the hills and plains. Finally, the UML has proposed an elected prime-ministerial model where the head of the government will be chosen directly by the people, with a mixed approach to federalism.
Clearly, it is impossible to reach a consensus among all actors on these issues. The numbers in the house are configured in a way in which it will be difficult to garner the required two-thirds majority to arrive at a decision. Many fear that these debates will once again spill into the streets. Meanwhile, weakening central authority has found it very difficult to deal with assertive ethnic militants who are outside the constitutional process at present, but might feed the radical impulses when the debate picks up.
The challenge, thus, is to write a constitution that is acceptable to the Maoists, yet one that ensures strong democratic institutions and checks and balances. It also needs to be able to be sold to ethnic leaderships, which have radical and often conflicting demands, while keeping the centre intact. It will need to strike a balance between the role and ambit of the state and private sphere, while giving institutional shape to new notions such as that of secularism. This task is critical for, as one political scientist recently noted, it is only through “constitutional patriotism” – allegiance to a common constitution – that a new national imagination of Nepal can be shaped.