Revolution gone awry?

Prashant Jha Kathmandu

EXACTLY A YEAR after the historic constituent assembly elections in Nepal threw up a surprise result, six seats in the country - both in the hills and plains - witnessed a round of by-elections on April 10. The Maoists succeeded in retaining their old 'base district' of Rolpa (vacated by Prime Minister, Prachanda, who had won from two seats) and Kaski and wrested away the far western district of Kanchanpur from arch rival Nepali Congress (former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, had won the seat last time around). The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum retained a seat in the industrial hub of Biratnagar while NC leader, Shekhar Koirala, avenged his previous year's defeat to romp home this time. The Communist Party of Nepal (UML) won a seat in the Madhes heartland, next to the town of Janakpur.

The final tally - Maoists with three out of six seats with the rest shared by other parties - refl ects the decisive edge the former rebels continue to enjoy in Nepali politics. For all the speculation about the diminishing fortunes of the Maoists in Kathmandu's political circles, the results show that they have kept their core support base and the organisation intact. However, it would be a mistake to read too much into what were, at the end of the day, elections fought on local issues in scattered constituencies. The results will neither reshape the political confi gurations at the Centre nor will they solve the contentious issues of the day.

The Nepali political class is grappling with some of the most contentious issues it has had to deal with since the peace process began in November 2005 with the 12-point agreement between the parties and Maoists, with the Indian government acting as 'facilitator'. The present situation is characterised by acrimony and a breakdown of consensus among key actors, leading to a stagnant situation at the macro-political level, especially Constitution writing and settling the future of the Maoist army (which remains in UN supervised cantonments).

On the ground, the post-election euphoria and excitement has given way to disillusionment with people facing what can only be categorised as a collapse of governance - 16-hour power cuts, a dismal law and order situation, growing unemployment compounded by a dip in remittance and tourism because of the global recession, and a sense of semi-anarchy all around.

While most observers feel that despite obstacles, the peace and constitution writing process will move ahead (a favourite refrain is "we always come back from the brink"), a polarised polity and a dysfunctional administration are surely combining to fritter away the gains of a remarkable 'democratic revolution'. Stability remains elusive; the political structure has not yet changed enough to accommodate the aspirations of the marginalised; and livelihoods have not improved.

There are three key actors in the present peace process: Nepali Congress, Maoists and the Indian establishment. It was essentially a compact between these players that led to the April 2006 people's movement, a series of agreements, and the constituent assembly elections. UML and the other parties played a secondary role.

The understanding was based on a simple point: Maoists would accept multiparty democracy and other parties and India would dump the king and accept republicanism. The larger peace deal, faced with ethnic assertion, also committed itself to restructuring the State and moving towards federalism. The relationship between these three actors, especially NC and the Maoists, and India and the Maoists, has got bitter over the past year.

The NC dragged its feet in allowing the formation of the government after the CA elections when the Maoists did not back the then prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, to be the country's fi rst president. NC decided to sit out in the opposition but since then has been increasingly vocal about its suspicions that the Maoists have gone back on their promise of accepting multi-party democracy. NC alleges that the Maoists continue to use their coercive apparatus to silence dissent, and are attacking institutions of the State to capture power.

This is a view shared by a section of the UML and Madhesi parties. The Maoists rubbish the criticism. While conceding there may be 'mistakes' by the cadre, they claim that it is NC's insecurity at losing its support base that is pushing it to act as a spoiler. Maoist leaders assert that this opposition stems from an unwillingness to countenance any kind of progressive change.

India shares some of NC's concerns about Maoist consolidation and 'totalitarian tendencies'. Along with its stated aim of trying to bring stability, India would also like a degree of 'control' over Nepali affairs. It suspects that the Maoists may not play ball if they become too strong.

New Delhi is alarmed about the unprecedented rise in China's role in Nepal - high level visits are frequent. China has proposed a new treaty with Nepal at a time when Nepal wants to renegotiate the old treaty with India. Beijing has expressed its interest in integration of the Maoist army combatants in the Nepal Army. It has enhanced its political engagement across the board. While China's key aim is to defuse any kind of western and Indian backed 'Tibet protests' in Kathmandu (the Maoist-led government has been supportive), Delhi feels this kind of increased role is aimed at diluting Indian influence in Nepal, and is backed by the Maoists.

The Maoists are happy to play the 'China card' to keep India in check, but have also claimed that this is not aimed to hurt Indian interests. While Maoist opponents in Nepal would like to use this Indian concern to destabilise the government, New Delhi has made it clear that it is not interested in toppling the Maoists as it may lead to a collapse of the entire process. It is expected that the 'new' Indian government will review the Nepal policy.

TENSION BETWEEN THE Maoists and the Nepal Army has escalated. The army has played along so far despite having fought the Maoists for a decade. One, it did not really have a choice with the king defeated and two, India had assured the army that its interests - structure, chain of command, privileges - would be protected. It was expected that the acrimony between the Maoists and the army would surface as the issue of integration of former Maoist combatants in the army occupies centre stage. This is complicated by the fact that the army is under the ministry of defence which is headed by Ram Bahadur Thapa 'Badal', the top commander of the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) when it was underground. Hence, while the army leadership detests the Maoists, the Maoists are their civilian bosses.

This acrimony has sharpened. The Nepal Army went ahead with recruitment 'to fill in existing vacancies' late last year. The defence minister ordered the army to stop recruitment, claiming it violated the peace accord. The army chief defied the order and went ahead. This prompted the PLA to initiate recruitment in their ranks. The Supreme Court stepped in, asked the PLA to stop immediately, and told the army not to recruit in the future while giving the green signal to this round

The second instance was when the army chief recommended the extension of eight brigadier generals, the government did not give them an extension provoking a fierce reaction from the army leadership. The matter is now in court. And last week, when the prime minister intervened to ensure that the PLA would participate in the national games as a separate team, the army withdrew its participants from the events PLA was a part of.

On integration, Maoist leaders privately talk about a figure of 5,000-6,000 PLA combatants to be integrated into the Nepal Army. They have publicly demanded that

PLA commanders should find space in the command structure and there should be unit-level entry of their divisions into the army. The army says it will at best accept token integration at lower levels on an individual basis and will not allow any Maoist army commander. The army's stand is backed by most non-Maoist parties. In any case, in such a tense political context when non-Maoists feel the Maoist aim is to wrest control of the army and Maoists feel the others are backing out on their peace process commitments, it is difficult to see how there can be movement on a complex issue like integration.

The point in citing examples, and the divergent arguments of all sides, is to show the depth of the trust deficit between the key actors. Very little can move in terms of constitution writing - which requires a two-thirds majority for every clause - if the political parties do not reach an agreement. This would have to include other smaller outfits in the Constituent Assembly and outside, who have most vociferously demanded a federal structure. Neither can there be movement on army integration - there is an inherently unstable situation with two standing armies in the country - unless NC, Maoists, army and international actors with influence like India, UN, US and UK come to a meeting point.

Otherwise, Nepal will enter the downward spiral. The impasse at the macro level will leave the State unreformed and crippled, in turn leading to the failure to deliver services, security, and ensure rights and better livelihoods on the ground. The mandate of April 2006 'anti-king, pro-republic people's movement' and April 2008 elections would then be decisively lost.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2009