Nepal Must Escape the Shadows that Chased BP Koirala
Nepal Must Escape the Shadows that Chased BP Koirala
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Nepal Must Escape the Shadows that Chased BP Koirala

Fifty years ago today B. P. Koirala was sworn into office at the head of Nepals first democratically elected government. It is a bittersweet anniversary for a country where the swearing- in of new prime ministers has become an almost annual occurrence.

The latest in the now long line of successors is UML leader Madhav Nepal, an unflagging contender for the top post who finally took his oath on Monday, three weeks after the fall of the Maoistled government.

A year after assuming office, B. P. had spoken to an Indian academic of his relief that the days " when the only concern was which government would replace another" were over.

"Now," he said, " at least a sense of stability has come to Nepal which is, compared to our past history, a unique thing." Six months later he was under arrest as King Mahendra dismantled the democratic experiment and substituted his own model of stability.

Both Nepals - the country and the current prime minister - face the challenge of escaping from these long shadows and marking a more happy anniversary for democracy.

But with politics more militarised than at any point since the April 2006 peoples movement, Kathmandus ministerial musical chairs is not a risk- free parlour game.

An assertive army has demonstrated its political clout while Maoist forces, smaller in number but still formidable, are ever more worried about their future and doubtful that they were right to lay down their arms. Defusing this delicate situation means seeing through a conflict resolution process that has come dangerously close to collapse.

Prime Minister Nepal was quick to emphasise that his administration would offer continuity in keeping constitution- writing and completing the peace process at the top of the agenda.

Prachanda has likewise committed his party to playing a constructive role even as it fights to " correct" the presidential intervention that prompted the Maoist resignation from government.

But rhetorical promises, however reassuring, do not add up to a workable plan. Madhav Nepal may well mean what he says but his room for manoeuvre is extremely limited.

The appointment of his first two cabinet ministers led to immediate criticism within his own party, whose rifts are ever more visible.

Within the governing coalition, the Nepali Congress will wield the most power, while remaining carefully out of the line of fire should the experiment end in tears.

Before the government was formed, a senior Congress leader had already announced that it would reverse the Maoist decision to sack the army chief - a clear nod to the most powerful force behind the change in regime, the military.

Seeing the peace process through will have to mean bringing the Maoists back on board. They are not likely to accept the role of chastened junior partner but the longer they stay in Opposition the more theyll be tempted to revert to their tried and tested tactics of rebellion.

Prachanda has told his cadres to be ready for revolution - and they still see themselves as pursuing another phase in their strategy of protracted peoples war.

It is not impossible for the new constitution to be written on time. There are major differences of opinion in only a few sensitive areas such as the nature of federalism and the shape of political institutions, in particular whether to stick with a Westminster- style parliamentary system or opt for a presidential set- up. These are important issues which will not be settled just by a quick backroom deal but the differences remain bridgeable.

The real question, however, is whether any of the parties are ready to face another election.

A new constitution will automatically mean fresh polls.

After travelling through two dozen districts in the last three months, I have seen little sign that any party would relish seeking a fresh popular mandate.

The change of government was constitutionally legitimate and went smoothly.

But it will likely only encourage the new incumbents to pay more attention to their powerful backers than to voters.

The much- touted line that the Maoist administration was utterly discredited will satisfy Kathmandu critics but encourage a dangerous complacency.

"During the nine months in power, the Maoists could not do one thing the people could remember positively," writes one commentator.

I ironically, the programmes they had embarked on were not that dissimilar to those that served Indias UPA well: they wrote off small farmers debts, dramatically increased social security payments to vulnerable people, and introduced an youth selfemployment loan scheme - each of these efforts directly affecting lakhs of voters.

India played an important role in bringing together the new coalition but keeping a 22- party administration in Nepal together will soon look like herding cats. This is not how it was meant to be.

The priority remains to demilitarise politics and avert a return to conflict. This has to involve the rehabilitation and integration of Maoist combatants and an end to political encroachment by the army. It is a situation B. P. would have understood. He would surely have been dismayed to know it held his countrys democratic future to ransom a full half- century after his own election.

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