By Prashant Jha
Blurb: Despite hiccups, Nepal ended the year on a hopeful note. The challenge now is to wrap up the peace process and finalise the constitution in 2012.Gloom and despair marked the political mood in Nepal when 2011 began. The country had been under a caretaker government for over six months after Madhav Kumar Nepal resigned as Prime Minister in June 2010. Repeated rounds of contests between Maoist chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel, in parliament had failed to throw up a winner. This was partially due to a flawed election system which allowed indefinite rounds of voting, and allowed parties to remain ‘neutral’. But at its core, it was due to the trust deficit between Maoists and non-Maoist forces.
Non-Maoist parties did not trust the Maoists with reins of government as long as they had their ‘coercive
apparatus’, in the form of the fighters of the People’s Liberation Army housed in cantonments across the country. They wanted movement on peace process, prior to the formation of a Maoist-led government – otherwise, they warned, the Maoists would ‘capture the state’. The Indian establishment, which often plays an instrumental role in shaping Nepali political outcomes, was seen as backing this view. For their part, Maoists said that they had a legitimate claim to lead the government in their capacity as the single largest party in the house, and reiterated their commitment to multiparty system. The former rebels claimed that unless a there was a government led by them, the peace process would not move and darkly hinted at conspiracy by foreign ‘expansionists’ (read India) and ‘domestic reactionaries’ to ‘isolate and encircle’ them, and change the terms of the peace agreement.
The manner in which Nepal’s various political forces grappled with these twin issues – future of Maoist fighters and leadership of government – defined the year that went by.
In February, the impasse over government formation finally broke. Maoists decided to back the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), Jhalanath Khanal, as Prime Minister. Mr Khanal had backed the policy of engaging with the Maoists within his deeply divided party, and had been responsible for UML having stayed neutral through the voting process – thus depriving the NC of a victory.
The basis for the UML-Maoist understanding lay in a ‘secret’ seven point agreement, details of which emerged a few days after Mr Khanal’s elevation. This agreement, among other things, emphasised on the need to preserve ‘national independence’ and create a ‘pro-people’ political order. Older ‘democratic forces’, primarily the NC saw this as an effort to exclude them and as an attack on democracy itself; key external players like India saw it as an effort to undermine their role and interests as Delhi had made its preference of keeping the Maoists out of power clear; and Madhesi parties from the plains saw it as the resurgence of an older exclusivist form of nationalism that was both anti-Madhesi and anti-India. This was a formidable constellation of forces ranged against the government.
The only outcome – whether intended or unintended – of the Jhalanath Khanal government was that it allowed the Maoist leadership enough space to formally revise its line internally and reaffirm its commitment to the ‘peace and constitution’ In late 2010, after a prolonged internal debate, the Maoists had said they would launch a ‘people’s revolt’, and declared their struggle with India as the revolution’s ‘key contradiction’. But in April-May 2011, after getting back to power, Prachanda and vice chairman Dr Baburam Bhattarai, who had engaged in a bitter ideological and power struggle, came together and ratified the peace and constitution line, standing up to the opposition of their more dogmatic colleagues in the party.
But there was no progress in the peace or constitutional process. The May 28, 2010 deadline, when the extended term of the Constituent Assembly was set to expire, came by, and parties extended the CA for another three months. There had however been substantial behind the scenes negotiations on the modality of integration of Maoist combatants. The Nepal Army had made an informal proposal of creating a directorate under its leadership, which would include about one third Maoist combatants and two-thirds of the personnel would come from existing security organs. But when an agreement on the contentious issues of integration – the modality, number of Maoist combatants to be integrated, standard norms they would have to meet – could not be formalized, Mr Khanal resigned as PM in mid-August.
The real breakthrough came with the election of Maoist vice-chairman Dr Baburam Bhattarai as the Prime Minister at the end of August, with the support of an alliance of Madhesi parties. This alliance was seen as having India’s support. The CA’s term was extended for another three months. The political process was infused with new energy, and both Mr Prachanda and Dr Bhattarai made it clear that their first priority was the peace process. They went about building confidence with their main rivals, NC.
In November, major parties finally arrived at an agreement, the core component of which was the peace process. They decided to take up the NA’s proposal. A mixed directorate was created under the army which would include a maximum of 6500 former fighters, and NA soldiers and personnel of the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force. This directorate would look after forests, industrial security, disaster relief and development works. Before its formation, surveyor teams would go to each cantonment and ask individual combatant their preferences – whether they sought integration, rehabilitation or voluntary retirement with a cash package. Unlike many past deals, this pact was actually implemented partially – within a month, the process of categorizing combatants ended. This has paved way for speedy resolution of constitutional issues.
So, as the year ends, the gloom has given way to some hope. The peace process has progressed with Maoist combatants making choices about their future. Several contentious constitutional issues have been resolved. Trust deficit between parties have reduced, and all forces realize they have no choice but to conclude the process they initiated in 2005-06 with the peace framework.
Challenges however remain. There is a bitter internal feud within the Maoist party, where senior vice chairperson Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’ has strongly opposed ‘compromises’ with ‘expansionist and bourgeoisie’ forces and advocated a dogmatic line of ‘people’s revolt’. This has restricted Mr Prachanda and Dr Bhattarai’s negotiating space with other parties. Personality-driven disputes are rampant in other parties too. The stated goal of a national unity government is elusive, though sections of the NC are open to joining a government led by Dr Bhattarai if the peace process concludes. The Supreme Court has declared that the November extension was the last one for the CA, and if there is no statute declared by the end of May, the country would have to go for elections or a referendum – so there is a clear timeline. The peace process itself has stalled due to disputes between the Maoists and other parties and the army over issues like rank determination, and bridging courses for those to be integrated. Till these are resolved, the cantonments will not empty out. And resolving the most contentious constitutional issue – the nature and shape of federalism – will require all conflict management skills of the Nepali political elite as the society stares at deep polarization, largely on ethnic lines, about the boundaries and names of states.
Despite the difficult road lies that lies ahead, it can be said that 2011 opened up the door and gave one last chance to Nepali politicians to fulfill the dreams of those who sacrificed their lives during the insurgency, the People’s Movement of 2006, and the Madhes movement of 2007 – of having a federal democratic republic which can deliver socio-economic justice.
(Prashant Jha is the Nepal correspondent for The Hindu newspaper, and a political writer for The Kathmandu Post. He has covered Nepal's political transition - especially the Maoist party, Madhesi movement, peace process, and Nepal-India relations - extensively. He can be contacted email@example.com. )