Nepali democracy and assistance without interference

A hands-off international policy based on a realistic assessment of Nepal’s reality is recommended at this stage

Hari Roka Delhi

All that can be said of India’s diplomacy is that it has not sunk to the depths of European diplomacy in Nepal, which saw various envoys barging into a meeting of the leaders of the seven political parties and trying to thrust a compromise with Gyanendra down their throats: resoundingly defeated by the people of Kathmandu on the streets.

However there are few signs that India has learnt its lessons. The fact that the  parliamentary old-guard is at the helm in Kathmandu, may lead some in the Indian establishment to believe that the old approach, based on outdated assumptions, can be revived. However, these eminent people will do well to recognise that Parliament has already taken drastic measures to reduce the king to a ceremonial role.

The palace cannot be written off yet and the royalists will be biding their time. The most important of these are the army top brass. Though they are legally now answerable to Parliament, at heart their loyalties are with the king. As a result the army will in reality be functioning under dual command. Its ultimate loyalty is to the palace. What needs to be done at the earliest is to ease out the current high army to prevent the palace from making a bid for more power. The army top brass can find clandestine ways to disrupt the peace process, especially given that it has become accustomed to high level impunity since 2002. In 2003 peace talks were brought to an end when the army, without provocation, attacked a peaceful meeting of unarmed Maoist workers in Doramba.

Apart from this, the polity is set on a course of reconciliation with the Maoists. This has to be based on an acceptance of the Maoist demands that have popular support. However, it is likely that the parliamentary parties will accept political reform at present and try to prevent economic and cultural reform and for this they will get a lot of international support from US, EU and India.

Much as they would might not like to do it, so long as the principle of an elected constituent assembly is accepted by both sides, all parties will end up appropriating the basic indisputable aspects of the Maoist agenda, including the need for economic and cultural reform. The three defining and fundamental facts about Nepal are that it has more janjatis (indigenous persons) and dalits than caste Hindus, that almost 90 per cent of its people are dependent on agriculture and that more that 70 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. These three numerically significant factors are sufficient to reformulate the agendas of all parties.

But before this there are other requirements of a more or less technical nature involved in meeting the aspirations of the Nepali people. It is clear that these aspirations will have to be met through the constituent assembly. But establishing the constituent assembly will require a clear understanding how to best ensure deep and wide representation of the people in the assembly and the degree of control they have over the proceedings.

This is usually where outside technical assistance rushes in to help the “natives” go democratic. In the 1990 elections, USAID was actively involved in the process of bringing elections to the people of Nepal by subcontracting the process to the US International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES). Already, outside agencies such as International Crisis Group and International IDEA are jockeying for positions to help the mainstream parties. What this will eventually translate into is difficult to say at the moment, but the fact is that the Nepali political process is going to be cluttered with foreign players, each looking for a share of the post-transition pie, just as it happened in 1990-91. Years of international assistance has gone into exploiting the Nepali people. India directed all its assistance to developing the state which eventually collapsed. Therefore, if other countries, including India want to help, they can best remain on the sidelines and facilitate to the extent that is required of them.

This applies equally to economic assistance that comes with dictated conditionalities and will be futile in the present circumstances. Nepal’s parliamentary parties accepted IMF conditionalities in 1994 and paid the price for it by inaugurating an agrarian crisis of unprecedented proportions and which contributed to the success of the people’s war. If India wants to assist officially it must be more enlightened and direct its assistance to meeting the people’s aspirations.  

Most of all, what is required of India and the other international powers is that they should not interfere or intervene in the actual negotiation process. Nepali realities are a mystery to western countries, less so to India. But whatever the level of understanding, Nepalis understand their own realities and can arrive at an internal consensus on what modalities and institutions need to be devised to balance out the needs of the different categories of people living in Nepal. The principle of committed non-interference is the best policy to be followed in Nepal and if India as the most proximate big power can ensure that all international interference is reduced during this fragile period of negotiations that will serve cause of Nepal-India relations very well.

In this regard, there is one matter that will bring most international focus on Nepal’s transition. This is the question of what will happen to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Civil society leaders like Dr Devendra Raj Pandey have suggested that the top leadership of the national army be sacked and the Maoist army be merged with the national army. In principle this is a sound suggestion that can be achieved through negotiated settlement. However, too many outside forces will try and interfere in the matter. For one, the US will oppose this tooth and nail. Various international agencies will also try and find ways to interfere in the process by citing the need for Demobilisation, Disarmament and Rehabilitation (DDR). Various internal forces, primarily among the Kathmandu bourgeoisie will also object to it on the ground of costs.

This last objection does not seem very serious. It has been the contention of various experts that the core fighting strength of the PLA is not in excess of 8,000 people. Against this the national army has a fighting strength of about 80,000 people. Before Gyanendra’s rule was derailed, there were plans to expand the fighting strength of the then royal army to about 1,20,000 to help it win the war. A merger of the fighting forces of the two armies will be less than this figure. Moreover, since the two sides were waging war, the operational cost borne by society was much higher. When peace comes, the costs of maintaining an enlarged army will be much lower.

Merger of the two armies under a new leadership will also deal with the problem of disarmament and rehabilitation simultaneously. Under a policy of disarmament, rehabilitation of PLA fighting forces will be a problem. A merger will solve the problem since they will follow the normal army regimen and be confined to the barracks and have the normal relationship that military personnel have with the rest of society. Over a period of time the army can be reduced in size and re-skilling of fighting forces can take place within the national army.

If there is sufficient intelligence and patience in the negotiating process, the problem of modalities, schedules, and a new military leadership can be sorted out. However, in the face of external pressure, such as that from the US and the Indian armed forces can be a significant obstacle to the negotiations on this matter. If the Indian establishment were to follow an enlightened policy of assistance without interference, India can play a significant role in Nepal’s transition to a genuine democracy and earn the goodwill of the Nepali people.

Hari Roka is pursuing his doctorate on Nepal’s economy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University

 

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