After arriving in Nepal on Wednesday evening, the Indian Prime Minister's special envoy Shyam Saran told reporters that he would hold ‘extensive consultations' with Nepali political parties about ways to resolve the deadlock in order to complete the peace process and finish the task of Constitution writing. “As a close neighbour, India wishes to see political stability and economic prosperity in Nepal,” he said.
In his capacity as Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Nepal, Mr. Saran has worked closely with all top Nepali political leaders. He helped ‘facilitate' the 12-point agreement between parliamentary parties and the Maoists, remained closely involved in the initial stages of the peace process, and later dealt with the rise of Madhesi parties as a potent political force.
But even for him, reviving the political consensus will be a tough call, for the spirit of the 12-point agreement is all but broken. And he has very limited time. Nepal's Parliament is to vote for a fourth time on Friday in an effort to elect a new Prime Minister.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' needs the support of the United Democratic Madhesi Front, constituting four Tarai-based parties, to get to 301 — the required simple majority mark. India had used its influence to convince the front to remain neutral in the last round of voting, in line with Delhi's preference to keep the Maoists out of power. However, 11 MPs of the Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum crossed the floor to support Prachanda. The Maoists are banking on either the front supporting them, or more Madhesi MPs defying the party whip in the next round.
Nepali Congress candidate Ram Chandra Poudel needs the support of both the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist-Leninist) and the Madhesi front, and fringe parties, to become Prime Minister. With the UML deciding to remain neutral, his prospects are fairly slim.
The decision to send Mr. Saran as special envoy has triggered multiple, and conflicting rumours, in Kathmandu political circles. Some suggested he would try to stop the Madhesi front from going over to the Maoists; others argued that India could well do a deal with Prachanda and encourage the Madhesi parties to vote for him.
But if, as Mr. Saran said, his mandate is to restore political consensus in Nepal, there is little sense in micromanaging the vote, for none of the fundamental issues related to army integration or Constitution writing will be resolved. An outcome through the present process of voting, or prolonged stalemate, will only lead to more bitterness among key actors, and political polarisation will increase.
Instead, it would be far more productive for Mr. Saran to use the authority of the Indian Prime Minister, and his personal stature, to encourage actors to think beyond the numbers game and move towards a new agreement.
The Maoists could be told that if they take tangible steps in the peace process, India would not put up obstacles in the way of them leading the government again. The NC and the UML could be reminded that they fared second and third in the Constituent Assembly elections, and deserve a corresponding position in any power-sharing arrangement. The Madhesi parties could be warned that there is little chance of their agenda of federalism and inclusion being addressed if the broad national consensus is missing.
The success of Mr. Saran's mission would also depend on his ability to rein in a section of the Indian establishment that is intent on isolating the Maoists. Otherwise it is difficult to see how he will fulfil his mandate of helping Nepal write a Constitution and complete the peace process.