Power flows from the barrel of the BALLOT

Can Maoists form the government in Nepal? Will the army follow     protocol? Will the king go and the parties accept the Maoists? Will the mandate    overcome the feudals? Will India checkmate Washington?

Amit Sengupta Kathmandu

The tense soldiers of the 'Royal' Nepal Army with their hands on the trigger have vanished into the blue. Barbed wires and armed barricades have disappeared. So have the tangible terror of army and police presence and the body-searches with guns. The flowers are blooming in serene Kathmandu. The streets are calm and so seem the people who walk next to the lovely corridor on Durbar Road and the king's Narayanhiti Palace, a high security prohibited zone during the repressive Emergency and the non-violent democratic revolution of April-May 2006 - demanding the abolition of monarchy and a republic with a new Constitution.

But this is all very deceptive: Because this endless night of long knives might also push post-poll politics to a dangerous and deadly threshold in Nepal. During, before and much after May 28, 2008, when the newly elected Constituent Assembly meets for the first time.

Or will it all go by the impeccable script of consensus?

The Maoists won 50 per cent of the seats in the direct elections. They are the single largest party in the Constituent Assemby (CA) with 220 seats. Major political parties who have ruled the roost in poverty-stricken Nepal for years, (like the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (UML) - CPN-UML) are in virtual coma after their decisive drubbing. Most of their top leaders have bitten the dust. The royalists have been eliminated.

But uncanny questions stalk the streets. Despite its formidable victory, will the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) be allowed to form a stable government which can last the two years of its tenure? Will the new Constitution be drafted through political consensus by the rainbow coalition of a 'national unity' government? Will the non-Maoist parties, often mentored by hawkish outside forces, betray the people's mandate and create a 'constitutional crisis' to block the Maoists? Will the king finally leave, and when? Will the army stage a coup or follow the protocol with the Maoists at the helm? Will the Maoist guerrillas be integrated into the Nepal Army, as agreed in the peace accord? Will the hardliners in the American embassy in Kathmandu toe the democracy line or are they manipulating something sinister - as are the fears - like what they did with the democratically elected Hamas leadership in Palestine in recent times and with Salvador Allende's communist government in Chile in the early 1970s?

Every day, every week, every night, before the first session of the elected Constituent Assembly on May 28, tactical shifts are yet again pushing realpolitik into the twilight zone of bad faith and murky politics. This can spill-over to the month of June and later. Between the first week of May to mid-May, there have been sudden hardening of stances across the political spectrum. pushing Nepal into an invisible whirlpool of uncertainty.

Within Kathmandu's incestuous power elite - politicos, army top brass, the brazenly anti-Maoist big papers, the American, Indian and other international lobbies like the World Bank and the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) - the same stories are floating, to give way to new conspiracy theories. The post-poll euphoria is over. That Nepal is on the verge of a landmark political and epistemological rupture in history, with great optimism enshrined in the mandate, is rapidly getting lost. Instead, it's the same back-room manoeuvrings, back-stabbing, sleazy deals, broken promises, impossible demands and dirty dancing which haunts the Nepali power and elitist landscape.
This phenomenon is familiar within the discredited and dishonest power elite of Kathmandu. Parasitically bloated with power, privileges and pelf over the years, this power elite is compromised, playing footsie with the Americans, the king and army top brass, bereft of grassroots politics or social vision, alienated from the masses and their simmering wounds, clinging on to power by hook or crook, despite the transparent mandate for change. The mandate is a rejection of the clichéd brand of power politics, a vote for radical change.

That is why the Maoists are running a new obstacle race now, despite the flexibility and maturity they have shown, even when the peace process seem to be failing, even when they threatened to go back to the 'jungle': the jungle as a metaphor of protracted armed struggle of the 'People's War' since 1996. Even if they lead a coalition government, they won't really walk the red carpet of red roses and red flags. They might call it the infinite class struggle, with this first step as a 'bourgeois democratic revolution' through the ballot, but it's going to be a long haul and it's not going to be easy. Because, as several Maoist leaders told Hardnews: "Reactionary and royalist forces have ganged up to block us, despite our victory, but the people won't allow it."

Predictably, the people are yet again building the scaffoldings. At the time of writing, thousands of Maoist supporters and the Youth Communist League are arriving in Kathmandu before May 28. Will they lay siege on the palace? Will they celebrate the abolition of monarchy and the establishment of the Republic of Nepal with an elected government led by the Maoists? "This is going to be a celebration and a display of our strength and our victory. But we will stay away from prohibited areas," said Sagar, chief of the youth wing. This is also 'people's power' pressure tactics.
This is because of the reluctance of the NC and UML to come to a consensus. These parties (and the Americans) have yet not reconciled with their decisive defeats and the Maoist victory. They are now creating a state of hyper-phobia, condemning the Maoists as dictatorial and hegemonic. Said Ram Chandra Poudel, vice president of the NC: "Senior Maoist leaders' threat to forcefully kick Prime Minister GP Koirala out of office has sparked suspicions about their intentions. Such derogatory expressions have made us worried as to whether they are going to impose a dictatorship or neo-fascism." Counters Devendra Raj Pandey, moderate civil society leader and former finance minister: "They say who will balance the Maoists? I say, the people elected them. They will balance the Maoists."

Agreed young cultural activist Khagraj Bhatt of the CPN (M), who almost defeated former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in Daludhara: "The State is different from political power. The character of the State has not changed. The character of the State has to be changed radically. Their class interests are compelling them to block the people's mandate. The post election process is also an ideological and political struggle." Said his wife, Gita Bam, MP: "The class struggle will continue. If they go against the janmat, we will go back to the movement."

The week before mid-May, the top Maoist and NC leadership discussed the formation of a new government based on the peace accord of the seven-party alliance. It was logical that the Maoists will lead the government in a power-sharing arrangement based on the content and spirit of the consensual interim constitution so as to draft the new republican Constitution. In the week starting May 15, "something happened in the last four days," said a top student NC leader. He and other leaders met NC supremo Girija Prasad Koirala (GPK), who seemed to have really hardened his stance. GPK instructed the party to disband its district units and spread out in the interiors and launch political attacks against the Maoists. GPK might be asking too much because this 'ruling party' with close ties to the monarchy and army, and its network of privileges and patronage, has been virtually decimated in the countryside, especially in its earlier feudal stronghold: Madhes. GPK reportedly said Maoists will have to accept certain terms and conditions before a coalition can be structured.
Several leaders within the party are not so sure if this stance is correct. Gagan Thapa, popular and progressive NC youth leader who went to jail is of the view that the Maoists should be asked to lead the government, the NC and UML should join the government and the Maoists should follow the coalition dharma and rein in the aggressive and violent sections of its youth wing. If necessary the YCL should be dissolved. Thapa told this reporter: "There is room for scepticism but we are moving towards a positive dimension. Currently the trust factor is not there. Other parties are being cautious. There are differences but at the end of the day we will manage the differences. This is not just posturing. It is part of the political process. We have merged differences earlier also. There are people who are against the alliance and the peace process - they will influence both the Maoists and other parties. These are the royalist forces. But there are others also who are trying to bring the Maoists and NC together and resolve this crisis of confidence."

Apparently, army chief Rukmangad Katuwal told journalists that he has no problems if the Maoists come to power 'legitimately', though, in a subtle manner, he did not really want them to lead the government. He reportedly seemed rather belligerent, especially on the integration of the PLA in the Nepal Army. The republicans are cynical: "Who has given the army chief the right to decide what is democratically legitimate or not. Who is he to decide on civil society affairs," said a News Editor of a Kathmandu daily. A youth leader told Hardnews that Katuwal called him in mid-May soon after he realised that there is a 'big rift' between the NC and UML and the Maoist leadership. He reportedly invited him and other young leaders for 'tea or lunch' and was reasonably happy with the turn of events, backing this hard posturing by the NC and UML leadership.

Katuwal is not really trusted by the republicans. He has apparently been brought up in the king's palace and shares deep bonds of loyalty with the monarchy. Sections of the army top brass are also reluctant to 'admit' the top commanders of the PLA, because it will threaten the entrenched hierarchy. Besides, it should be remembered that GPK in the past has pushed the idea of a 'ceremonial monarchy' - even a baby king has been promoted. His daughter, Sujata Koirala, who lost badly to Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), also propagated the idea of a ceremonial monarchy during the election campaign. The joke doing the rounds here is that she actually was of the view that NC lost because the party did not back the monarchy: this, when the royalist parties have been decimated all over Nepal.

The fact is that the abolition of monarchy, the formation of a constituent assembly and the republic, the drafting of the new Constitution, the conception of federalism and fundamental rights to ethnic communities, janjatis, madhesis, Dalits, Muslims and women, among other marginal groups, were the key to the Maoist victory. This was their main constituency. This was their original plank during the underground 'People's War' and this was their campaign agenda during the elections. This is the most representative elected body in the history of Nepal with 33 per cent women in the CA (mostly Maoists), massive Dalit, Madhesi and indigenous people's representation.

The political manifesto of large scale social transformation was their 'roadmap' as Maoist leader Dr Baburam Bhattarai told this reporter, even when the other ruling parties "had neither social vision, an agenda or a roadmap". This was the Maoist push which propelled the mass uprising in April 2006 across the nooks and corners of Nepal, and in the heart and suburban intestines of Kathmandu. The other parties had no option but to follow this massive wave of unrest and hope. The dream of a 'Naya Nepal'.

That is why, the post-poll new obstacles in the formation of 'New Nepal' smirks of a vicious circle of sinister plots. However, this circle of unreason might or might not unfold into success in the heady days to come.

Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda', who was projected as the next president of Nepal by his party, met other leaders on May 24 in Kathmandu. GPK invited him to lead the formation of a new government. But the catch-22 remains. Why this deadlock? And who has the key to solve this artificially manufactured tangle? So what are the main issues behind this deadlock?
Maoists constitute the single-largest bloc in the new CA. It will require a two-third majority in a coalition with NC and UML. The NC and UML don't even have a simple majority if they get together. It was agreed in the Interim Constitution by all parties concerned that governments can be formed or removed with a two-third majority. This applies to major decisions and amendments also. Now the NC and UML are demanding that the two-third majority clause should be dropped and the 'simple majority' clause should be added. This has become a rigid precondition before the formation of the new government.

The Maoists have every reason to argue that this is a violation of the agreement. The first twist in the tale is that with the simple majority clause the Maoists can be removed, if all the parties gang up. The second twist is the widespread rumour being spread that the Maoists will usurp power by blocking general elections two years later on some pretext or other. The third twist is that either way the Maoists will gain: if they are unceremoniously removed, they will gain mass sympathy while a hate wave against the discredited NC and UML will spread across the nation. And the fact is that even in the course of an election, it will be the Maoists who will most likely gain - because of their massive rural network among the poorest of the poor majority. The NC and UML seem terribly confused.

Besides, in a coalition government the blame-game will have to be shared. There is a serious fuel crisis in Nepal, inflation is high, foreign debt is huge, agriculture is in stagnation - and most crucially - there are massive expectations from the Maoists. A coalition might succeed in diffusing these expectations.

The NC is demanding the creation of a titular Head of State, post-king, like the president of India. The current status is that the interim all-party government under GPK had abolished the monarchy and declared Nepal a republic in December, 2007. For instance, 'Royal' has been removed from the Royal Nepal Army and Royal Nepal Airlines, among other major changes. The king's powers have been taken away. This has to be ratified by the first session of the elected Constituent Assembly first thing on May 28, 2008.

The king is currently in a state of suspension. Article 159 of the Interim Constitution clearly states that the prime minister in these circumstances will operate as the Head of State also. The Head of State is also the commander-in- chief of the Nepal Army. The Article is silent on the future of this "incomplete" clause, but it obliquely signifies that the position of the Head of State should be created - this is the current high priority demand of the NC wish list. "There has to be a titular Head of State after the king. Or else there will be political vacuum," says NC leader Shekhar Koirala. The UML is also saying that the chief of the CA should also have a non-Maoist head. These are new terms and conditions being imposed on the Maoists in absolute violation of the peace agreement.

Prachanda was projected as the president of new Nepal by his party. So how can the party back-track on that? The catch is that GPK wants to become the new titular chieftain. The Maoists are wary of GPK. "Look how the old man is clinging to power," said a young Maoist woman leader. Despite being in his mid-80s, seriously ailing, aided by oxygen support for long hours, he is too wily a customer and too shrewd a politician, well-versed with the trappings of power. Even a NC leader pointed out: "Koirala is in his mid-80s. He is ailing. What if he dies? Who will fill the post then?" Plus, as president, he might become a buffer between the government and the army, with whom he has excellent relations. This could simultaneously be an advantage and disadvantage for the Maoist government.

Besides, as a political trump card, if the Maoists accept this clause, and declare their own candidate, say if not Prachanda, then a Dalit-Madhesi woman candidate - how can the NC and UML oppose it? And if they oppose it, and push for GPK, then it's yet again advantage Maoists, and further loss of face for the NC and UML among the masses.

The Maoists have been gracious with the king. Prachanda is on record that when royalist forces have got less than two per cent votes, what's the use of political revenge? While Bhattarai says that "the king will be kicked out if he does not go," Prachanda says that let him have a dignified exit. Between this hard and soft line, indeed, the entire country, and even the NC leadership, is unanimous that monarchy is now over once and for all. "The king will have to go. But how he goes will have to be worked out," says Shekhar Koirala. "There has to be a government inventory of the palace. His mother has to be settled. He should be allowed to take his time and choose a graceful exit."

Clearly, the king's days are numbered. There is apparently huge rift between him and his notorious son, Paras, who, presumably, thinks that the king goofed up badly post-palace massacre and that's why the monarchy has been abolished. Media gossip suggests that the king seems confident when he meets royalists in private functions. In early May, he yet again made ritualistic animal sacrifices to usher in good fortune. His current departure to the outskirts of Kathmandu is being touted as a weekend retreat - but his farewell from the throne is a foregone conclusion. Amidst all the haze and confusion, this seems a reality which cannot be refuted. And yet, the deadend questions remain.
The NC and UML have added another uncanny twist. They want the militant Youth Communist League (YCL) of the CPN(M) to be disbanded. They are also saying that the PLA can't be completely integrated into the army. "They are now being dishonest and undemocratic," Bhattarai told Hardnews. "There was no such thing in the peace agreement." NC leaders argue that the Maoists are running a parallel government; that they have been using intimidation before and after the elections, and this militant militia-like force cannot be allowed to function. "More than 60 per cent of our elected representatives are young," says Bhattarai. "How can we throw them out? Instead of doing an objective analysis of the causes of their defeat, the other parties are deliberately creating new obstacles," he says.

Several top PLA commanders are now with the YCL. "The Maoist leadership all over Nepal are mature and restrained. But there are aberrations at the local level," says a Maoist leader from Nepalgunj. There have been scattered cases reported of YCL terror tactics, beatings violence etc. There is a feeling among Maoist sympathisers that they should be controlled by the leadership because a section of them can become belligerent and violent, which tarnishes the image of the party. The recent murder of a businessman at the hands of PLA cadre has shocked the nation. Prachanda has called it a conspiracy and instituted a party probe.

The ideologically doctrinated youth wing of the YCL numbers in tens of thousands across Nepal and they were the fulcrum of the democratic revolution, with women at the forefront. Almost half of them are young girls and women. (Almost 50 per cent of Maoist candidates were women - mostly young.) And are loved and feared equally. "During the jan-andolan in April-May 2006, the YCL told the peasants and villagers - we will be in the front and the back during the mass demonstrations and you will be in the middle. We will face the bullets, tear gas and lathis from the front and the back. We will die but we will not allow a bullet to reach you. They were the catalysts of the seven party struggle across the country - all district level NC and UML leaders know this. They sacrificed their young lives. They were tortured and killed by the army. How can you suddenly ask them to be disbanded? They are the finest symbols of Nepal. They are the hope of the future," says veteran 'Sufi Maoist' Teknath Baral.

 The invisible stakeholder which is unhappy about the turn of events in Nepal is the one-dimensional global bully: the US. The foreign ambassador of a close ally of the US told a journalist in Kathmandu that American hawks find themselves speechless with shock and awe. Ex-ambassador James Moriarty's visceral hatred for the Maoists and his neo-con hawkish line seems to have worked like addictive inheritance for some staffers in the US embassy in Kathmandu. There are unconfirmed reports that the new ambassador, Nancy Powell is not really comfortable with the Moriarty-hardliners in the embassy.

Earlier, she had met Prachanda on May 2 to discuss the outcome of the elections. This was generally considered a 'diplomatic milestone'. A US embassy statement said that Powell encouraged the Maoist leader to ensure that the former rebels showed their commitment to the political process through their words and actions. There has been no overt animosity towards the Maoists in recent days, even while they met World Bank officials and industrialists and assured them of total cooperation, safety and stability. Besides, Jimmy Carter, former US president and a poll observer in Nepal, had earlier stated that the American position on the Maoists was deeply "embarrassing" and the 'terrorist tag' on them should be removed. Later, the Americans clarified that there is ambivalence on the 'terrorist tag' and it does not mean really 'terrorist' in that sense of the word.

There are reports from Nepal's political circles that the American establishment is pushing the NC for the titular presidential post. Most Maoist second rung leaders don't trust the Americans and believe that they can go to any extent. Said an activist: "They don't care. They don't want the Maoists. They just want a geo-political stake in the region to counter China. And they can even take a risk. If it leads to bloodbath, or if the gamble fails, they don't care either way. Look what they have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, even while the Taliban is regrouping."

That is, the American factor remains critical before and post May 28, 2008. But how the cowboy shoots in the dark, that's the big puzzle.

India: The Indian role, despite major goof-ups (sending Karan Singh as mediator, National Security Advisor MK Narayanan's statement) have been by and large positive. Narayanan had reportedly implied that India has a very low level of confidence in the Maoists. "We have put a great deal of faith in Nepal Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and the Nepali Congress. We're unsure as to where we stand with regard to the Maoists despite professions on both sides that we can work together," Nepalnews.com quoted Narayanan. He openly declared India's preference for NC, according to reports.

However, for the first time perhaps in Nepal's history, the people of Nepal are feeling the 'feel good' factor about India as a good neighbour. The Indian media backed the republican movement and the abolition of monarchy, even while India was equally shocked by the palace massacre - which basically started autocratic King Gyanendra's downfall. India facilitated the peace process and dialogue between the parliamentary parties and the Maoists, helped the CPN(M) to leave the armed struggle and join the political process, tacitly backed the 'jan andolan' for the formation of a democratic-republic, even while political parties, some journalists and bureaucrats made it smoother for the Maoists to negotiate their way through the power corridors of India and Nepal.
A public meeting was hosted in Delhi on May 8, which was moderated by former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, currently an advisor to the prime minister. The meeting on the political situation in Nepal was addressed by Siddharth Vardarajan, Associate Editor with The Hindu, who recently did a long interview with Prachanda in Nepal. Varadarajan gave a balanced analysis arguing that all the stakeholders, including the US, India, and the defeated political parties, should reconcile with the Maoist victory, derive a consensus and make a coalition government led by the Maoists. "This was the mandate." Political observers in Nepal were quick to point out: "Why should Saran preside over this pro-Maoist measured analysis if New Delhi is not equally and favourably inclined?"
Saran, who has been India's ambassador to Nepal, said that India must give Nepal as big a stake in its "prosperity and development." "I believe that if there has to be prosperity in Nepal, linkages with India can have major multiplier effects. That will be a successful policy," he said. He said India should not play favourites. "Nepal is at the crossroads. Earlier, each time there has been crisis, there has been resolution of the crisis. We must appreciate the statesmanship of the parties and give them credit. Finally, political wisdom will assert."

India's role will be decisive. Officially, India claims that it will help resolve any crisis but it will not be interventionist. However, clearly, there have been subtle and direct "interventions", from backing certain Madhesi parties to a nuanced nudge here and there towards a consensus. New Delhi is keenly watching and involved in the current political situation in Nepal. India, it seems, won't really mind a titular Head of State because that will effectively seal the king's fate. However, it would want the Maoists to control the YCL, even while handing the PLA's integration more intelligently with flexibility.

Indeed, between posturing, hardline and flexibility, there are multiple tactics being played simultaneously in this unfolding political chess game. Even India knows that things might seem to be in control, but still, anything can happen. It's keeping its fingers crossed. A stable neighbourhood is India's advantage - and that is where it might checkmate hawkish American moves.

In Nepali politics currently, flexibility might actually mean that a hardline is being formulated, and vice versa. No problem or solution seems permanent. The NC and others are bargaining hard, but the key two words in Nepal now is 'No Option'. There is 'No Option' because all political parties and their leaders agree that the mandate is for change and the mandate will have to be respected come what may. Or else the people will reduce the 'obstacle parties' into dust. Said Narayan Paudel from Kapilvastu: "If they stop the Maobadis, this will mark the beginning of the end of the NC and UML. They will be wiped off from the polity."

In this crisis scenario, Prachanda, suddenly, mysteriously disappeared to the hills of Rolpa, the original epicentre of the Maoist People's War: this was a deadly signal to the cadre. Said a Maoist activist from Western Nepal, who was tortured and arrested during the Emergency: "Rolpa. The message is clear. If the Americans and the NC-UML block the Maoists, there will be another mass struggle. There might even be a bloodbath. I am ready to die."

As GPK bans rallies in strategic locations in Kathmandu, near the PM's house, king's palace, Singh Durbar, thousands of young and old Maoists are landing up in the capital. In these nights of long knives, this could be more then a prophetic, celebratory or dark sign.

Power might be flowing from the 'barrel of the ballot' now, but the class struggle is still on. (See interview: Baburam Bhattarai) Because Nepal is going through the great churning: the ecstacy and pain of new birthpangs. With the Prophets Unarmed leading the People's War into the next stage of history. In the midst of a heady Revolution which is never really over.