There are mixed signals on the possibility of a deal on peace and the constitution, with the government and the opposition singing different tunes.
As Nepal limps back to normality after the end of its biggest festival — when the country shuts down for five days, politicians take a break, and even newspapers stop publication — Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai faces a formidable challenge. The deadlock over the peace and constitutional process has persisted since his election in late August. He and his party chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda,' have had to confront both an assertive opposition, and a backlash from their own party comrades led by senior vice-chairman Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran.'
Besides insisting on a ‘package deal' in the peace process, the main opposition, the Nepali Congress (NC), has also blocked having any discussion on the Constitution, saying that the peace process came first.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) has demanded the scrapping of the four-point agreement between the Maoists and the Madhesi parties, calling it ‘anti-national.' Mr. Kiran's faction too has opposed the four-point deal and the handover of keys of weapon containers to the Special Committee for Supervision, Integration and Rehabilitation of combatants. His group launched street protests against their own party's decisions, and refused to join the cabinet.
Since his return from New York after taking part in the U.N. General Assembly in late September, the Prime Minister has stepped up consultations — this includes hosting a pre-Dasain festival dinner for top leaders — but without any visible outcome. Leaders then promised of a ‘breakthrough' after the holidays.
There are mixed signals about the possibility of a broad-based deal. Dr. Bhattarai's chief political adviser, Devendra Poudel ‘Sunil,' told The Hindu that a ‘package deal' was imminent and recent talks with the NC had been positive. “We are close to an agreement on details of the peace process. There is also a consensus on a mixed electoral system, and a mixed form of government, and we have agreed to be flexible about the number of federal provinces. We can complete regrouping of combatants and have a first draft of the Constitution by November 30.”
The Prime Minister's press adviser, Ram Rijhan Yadav, added that the real problem was that the NC feared that it would be wiped out in the next election if Dr. Bhattarai succeeded. “To share ownership, we have proposed that the NC president, Mr. Sushil Koirala, should lead the next government which will hold elections. But they are still not clear.”
Dr. Bhattarai hopes to achieve progress in the peace process before his visit to India on October 21.
The Opposition is not as hopeful.
NC leader and influential member of the Special Committee, Dr. Minendra Rijal, told The Hindu that he saw no chance of a deal if the Maoists continued to ‘shift goalposts,' pointing to three problems.
He said, “On modality, the Maoists want to create a separate unit of Maoist combatants within the army. We are open to integrating some of their combatants into security organs, but allowing one party to have its own army within the national army is unacceptable. The second issue is rank. The Maoists want to use their own hierarchy, but they should be awarded ranks based on the criteria of security forces. How can a Maoist fighter, with the same degree of experience as say an army officer, be given a more senior position in an established security organ?”
The third problem is that while the Maoists want their combatants to be given a handsome cash package as rehabilitation, the NC is keen on long-term training packages that would help them be economically productive.
Senior NC leader Bimalendra Nidhi added that trust levels were still low, as Maoists had not implemented their other promises like returning seized property and dissolving the ‘paramilitary structure' of the Young Communist League.
Given the impasse, the Constituent Assembly (CA) chairman Subash Chandra Nemwang met political leaders over the weekend and urged them to arrive at a deal as soon as possible. He urged the Maoists as the ‘biggest party, and one which leads both the dispute resolution subcommittee in the CA, and the Special Committee' to expedite dialogue with other forces.
Dr. Bhattarai recognises that time is running out for him, with the CA's term expiring in less than 50 days. Sources close to him say that he will make a concerted push over the next week to reach out to the Opposition. While there is an opening, given the deep mistrust, finding common ground will not be easy.