Nepal Politics in Choppy Waters
Nepal Politics in Choppy Waters
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 6 minutes

Nepal Politics in Choppy Waters

There are good grounds for mutual suspicion on both sides of the divide.

While India is preoccupied with elections, Nepal risks throwing away the chance of peace that its own successful polls delivered just a year ago.

The immediate crisis stems from the Maoists' attempt to oust army chief General Rookmangud Katwal for disobeying government orders, a controversial move opposed even by their own coalition partners.

President Ram Baran Yadav countermanded the sacking, arguing that he has the right to accept or reject government decisions - a step which prompted Prime Minister Prachanda to resign in protest at what he called the president's " unconstitutional and undemocratic" effort to establish himself as a parallel power centre.

Prachanda also pulled no punches in railing against foreign intervention in the dispute, a clear reference to Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood's energetic efforts to rally support for the army's " sanctity". This is more than just an unseemly spat: the fragile consensus on which Nepal's peace process was built is close to falling apart and the country now faces a constitutional crisis. The tussle over the army chief is symptomatic of a wider collapse in trust and a bitter struggle for the future of the country. The Maoists feel they were blocked at every turn in government while their opponents fear they are trying to subvert state institutions in preparation for a seizure of power. There are good reasons for mutual suspicions on both sides.

In such circumstances, military issues are inherently touchy. So were the Maoists right to try to give Katwal the boot? Legally, it is indeed the government's prerogative and the president ( who is from the opposition Nepali Congress) is constitutionally bound to act on the government's advice. Politically, however, it was a risky gamble - and one that further inflamed already dangerously heated disputes. The timing looked self- serving and led some to cry conspiracy. In picking such a deliberate fight the Maoists appeared to be thumbing their nose at the idea of rebuilding cross- party consensus. By going it alone they snubbed their own partners and suggested they have little patience for building agreement on sensitive issues.

More seriously, they have yet to dispel doubts over their commitment to competitive politics.

For the established elites - a broad category ranging from the palace- nurtured generals to their erstwhile foes in the democratic parties - the post- election period has been unsettling and alarming. With Maoist leaders regularly threatening a return to revolt and their cadres still using violence, can they be trusted with leadership of two armies? While their own PLA remains in cantonments, many see their move against Katwal as an attempt to neutralise the one remaining obstacle to total power.

Still, the Maoists have good reason to be upset with the military, and its behaviour should worry any democrat. The army has been assiduously briefing against the government. With a nonetoo- subtle nod to Indian concerns, a recent presentation to foreign defence attachés warned that "the stated aim of the Maoist Party still appears to be to establish a totalitarian regime, which could prove a firm base for revolutionaries with regional implications".

Citing the Maoists' preference for a presidential system of government as "an indication of their dictatorial intent", the army urged that "united democratic alliance led resistance from all sectors combined with international pressure is required to counter NCP(M)'s hegemonic advance." Yes, the army has been playing politics, and with a perhaps reckless brazenness. General Katwal is no newcomer to the game.

Under the thin veil of a penname, he softened up opinion for Gyanendra's successive power-grabs in the pages of the Kathmandu press. Shortly before the October 2002 dismissal of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, he argued that "enlightened despotism is preferable to chaotic democracy; the masses require protection from themselves".

Two weeks before the surprise February 2005 royal coup, his remarkably prescient piece was titled "Support for King's initiative". Under such leadership, the army's further encroachment onto political territory is not surprising. But it is a sad comment on the state of Nepal's politics that the generals have been far more diligent in opposing the Maoists than the parties entrusted with that task. In response to the Maoist draft constitution, the Nepali Congress only managed to present the constituent assembly with a short letter outlining basic principles.

The army, in contrast, submitted - unprompted and supposedly in top secrecy - two weighty volumes on national security policy and " fundamental national policy", covering everything from protecting the country's genepool to enhancing agricultural productivity. For good measure it threw in a detailed set of constitutional recommendations, including a demand that the current commitment to army " democratisation" be revoked, and that there be fresh referenda on issues long since decided and written into the interim constitution, from federalism to secularism.

The Nepali Congress has now seen its dream of forcing the Maoists out of government come true. This is an attractive short- term solution for those who feel the Maoists need to be taught a lesson. But does any alternative government have a plan for running the country and seeing the peace process to a lasting resolution? Ill- thoughtout strategies could invite chaos and exacerbate the conflict that threatens the whole peace process.

The Maoists have a blocking vote in the constituent assembly and retain a formidable mobilisational capacity. They won't go back to the jungle but they're more than ready to take to the streets and paralyse any new administration. Most importantly, they may be anathema to Kathmandu's chattering classes but they clearly command significant public support: in recent by- elections they added another seat to their tally even as the capital's media had written them off. Prachanda's strongly worded but dignified resignation address was a claim to the moral high ground - and a fierce rejection of foreign interference - that may resonate with ordinary citizens.

In contrast, the other major parties have done little to reengage with voters, rebuild their weakened local networks and offer convincing alternative platforms. Opposing the Maoists was easy but delivering in government will be much more challenging. Any coalition cobbled together to outnumber the party which holds 40 per cent of constituent assembly seats will be fractious at best, riven by divergent politics and personal interests. A coherent approach to rebuilding a working environment for consensual constitution- writing is hard to envisage in the short- term.

As positions have polarised, many have forgotten the essence of the deal that ended the conflict. Neither the state nor the Maoists surrendered: they signed a peace agreement which reflected the balance of forces at the end of a bloody, decade- long war. Maoist fighters would be rehabilitated and integrated - including into the Nepalese Army; the army itself would be brought under democratic control, made more inclusive and right- sized. There has been no meaningful progress on any of these core issues.

Frustration within the Maoist army now threatens to turn into rejectionism.

More gung- ho anti- Maoists seem to believe they could succeed with a " Sri Lanka- style" no- holds barred military campaign or at least rein them in with a " Bangladesh- style" militarybacked government. Neither option is attractive or likely to succeed. 
The remaining chance to achieve a stable peace depends on draining the high drama from political confrontations and getting to grips with some unglamorous basics. Managing the post- conflict transition was never going to be easy - and neither the Maoists nor their rivals were ready to digest their unexpected electoral victory.

Building mutual confidence required constant dialogue at national and local levels. But inter- party committees only functioned sporadically. Holding parties to their commitments ( and the Maoists have been egregious in their flouting of many) called for functional, neutral monitoring. But no monitoring bodies were ever established.

Salvaging the peace process will require cool heads and hard graft. Almost one hundred regular meetings of a PLA- Nepalese Army- UN joint committee have helped ensure the military ceasefire has held perfectly. A similar approach could draw some of the poison from contentious issues like the return of property seized during the conflict.

Whether General Katwal stays or goes, what Nepal desperately needs is public security, basic governance and effective policing.

Indian interests are clearly at stake in Nepal - and it is willingness to defend them doggedly and publicly. But if New Delhi's stalwart defence of General Katwal is meant to encourage stability, it is misconceived.

Propping up the army as a political tool has only added fuel to the fire. Ensuring it sticks to its mandate while helping to build structures for meaningful civilian control - such as a functional ministry of defence - would be the best guard against dangerous politicisation under governments of any colour.

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