Nepal’s Political Rites of Passage
Asia Report N°194
29 Sep 2010
Nepal’s transition from war to peace appears chaotic. Many commentators warn of coming anarchy; the establishment fears a collapse of the social order and the fragmentation of the nation. But such fears are misguided. Nepal is not in chaos; its transitions may be messy and confusing but they are not anarchic. There is an order within the political change, albeit one that can be mysterious and unappealing to outsiders; the resilience of Nepal’s political processes acts against fundamental transformations.
This report attempts to understand the country’s political processes and cultures and reassess the state of the peace process by examining three major questions.
Has Nepal put its civil war with the Maoists behind it? The shift from war to peace was rapid and remains incomplete. But the peace process is much stronger than it often seems. There have been significant structural transformations of the Maoist movement since the 2006 ceasefire. For example, the shift to “quantity rather than quality” for electoral politics broadened the movement but diluted its revolutionary core. Still, the Maoists remain highly organised and disciplined – and the most effective political force in Nepal.
The political atmosphere is more polarised than ever. Factions within the major parties as well as fringe groups openly call for a revision of the peace process. Neither side is likely to go back to war easily but there are also limits to how hard they can be pushed. The Maoists are by now better prepared for open politics than for war. But they will not accept sidelining indefinitely. The army has some elite support for renewed conflict. But it is unlikely to act without Delhi’s nod, which is itself improbable unless there is unexpected Maoist domination of the state.
Do the multiple, complex new forms of political violence and contestation add up to serious new conflict risks? There has been a mushrooming of political parties and groups pressing ethnic and regional agendas. There has also been a perceived increase in organised crime and political violence. Many see this as a direct consequence of the Maoist insurgency and fear the prospect of anarchy or national disintegration.
The picture, however, is not so simple. None of the new groups challenges the state in the way the Maoists did. They offer no existential threat to the political system but largely work within it; their cadres have often joined under low risk conditions for immediate benefits and lack the dedication of hard-core Maoists. Opportunism is the name of the game, and groups are making the most of the weak law and order situation during the transition.
The ways violence is used are ordered and bounded by political and economic structures. The involvement of mainstream parties, police and administration officials in profiting from violence and offering protection is becoming institutionalised. Political culture as a whole has not been transformed but has become more tolerant of overt use of force; the patterns that are being consolidated will be hard to uproot.
The only real risk of serious unrest stems from the gathering backlash against federalism and programs for political inclusion, such as quotas and reservations. Powerful elites are not keen on dismantling the unitary state and are even less happy to relinquish their privileged access to jobs, money and political power. The transition to federalism will present the most serious challenge, and conflict risk, of the near future.
What is the new role and nature of the state, as embodied by the security forces, political institutions and the civil service? How the state behaves is of critical importance in reducing conflict risks. In the most immediate terms, the state’s response to instability can be seen in policing and public security efforts. These have been undermined by a lack of strategic clarity, the politicisation of policing and internal rivalries within the security sector. In any case, security challenges cannot be dealt with solely by this sector. The roots of instability lie in entrenched political cultures that good policing alone cannot address – and that the army is particularly incapable of tackling. Defusing conflict risks in the long term will require constructive reform.
Development experts assume that the state is there to provide services and that if it fails to do so it will face a crisis of legitimacy. Nepal features high on the lists of fragile or failing states. But the state is more flexible than fragile. It endures – and has survived the conflict surprisingly unscathed, and unreformed. This is partly because its own raison d’être is not serving citizens so much as servicing the needs of patronage networks and keeping budgets flowing and corruption going. The state is dysfunctional by demand. It is slow to reform because elite incentives are invested in the status quo and public pressure is rarely acute.
Nepal’s revolution is proceeding in accordance with longstanding political rites. Party behaviour – even revolutionary behaviour – is highly constrained by a set of sophisticated unwritten rules. The Maoists are not the outsiders they sometimes appear: they share a surprising amount of political values with the other parties. But their reincorporation into the political world is still incomplete, as is their revolution.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 29 September 2010