Almost a month after Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal resigned, Nepal still does not have a new government. Two rounds of elections in parliament have failed to throw up a Prime Minister
Almost a month after Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal resigned, Nepal still does not have a new government. Two rounds of elections in parliament have failed to throw up a PM. Two months after the Constituent Assembly (CA) extended its term by a year, there has been no work on constitution writing. And the future of the former Maoist combatants in U.N.-monitored cantonments, the core of the peace process, remains in limbo.
The roots of the present crisis can be traced to the deep trust deficit between the Maoists and non-Maoists; issue-based and personality-driven differences within parties, a complex arithmetic in the parliament where no party has a majority, and a troubled India-Maoist relationship.
Large sections of the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist-Leninist), and Madhesi parties do not trust the Maoist commitment to democracy. They cite the Maoist reluctance to ‘give up the PLA'; the presence of a militant youth wing; the Maoist track record of ‘attacking' institutions while in government; and ‘undemocratic' constitutional proposals as proof of their totalitarian mindset. The fact that the Maoists are stronger than many of the older mainstream parties put together adds to their fear.
Maoists feel cheated out of power despite being the largest party in the house. They allege that older parties have allied with the Nepal Army and external powers. Maoists point to their participation in elections and the constitutional process, and willingness to keep their army in cantonments as visible proof of commitment to peace and democracy.
Even as other parties have made Maoist leadership of government conditional on immediate resolution of the PLA issue, the Maoists argue that movement on PLA and constitution writing should happen simultaneously, for they fear other parties may back out of writing a ‘progressive constitution' if they give up the army. Besides the timeline, there is also a difference in the way both sides envisage the nature and modalities of the integration and rehabilitation process, with the Maoists linking it with the ‘democratisation of the Nepal Army.'
This trust deficit is complicated by divisions within parties. The Maoists suffer from an ideological crisis, when a pragmatic faction believes that they should seek to ‘preserve existing achievements' while another hardline group continues to harbour goals of a ‘people's republic.' Party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' and his old comrade, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai now share a competitive relationship with both vying for leadership of the government.
The NC and the UML are as mired in ideological and personal feuds too.
Both have strong right wing factions, though officially the parties remain committed to the 2006 political framework. In the UML, Chairman Jhalanath Khanal is closer to the Maoists while influential leaders like K.P. Oli and Madhav Nepal are closer to the NC and India. Khanal was a candidate in the first round of elections for prime minister, but had to withdraw since his party's central committee, controlled by Oli and Nepal, had made his candidature contingent on obtaining a two-thirds majority. There are factional feuds between Sher Bahadur Deuba and acting president Sushil Koirala in the NC, though it has put up a coherent front for now by nominating Ram Chandra Poudel as the official candidate.
It is in this polarised context that the numbers game in parliament is being played out. Prachanda can form a majority government if the Madhesi parties with 82 seats in the house back him. The NC's Ram Chandra Poudel needs the support of both the UML and the Madhesi front to get to the majority figure of 301 seats, which will essentially be a continuation of the previous anti-Maoist coalition under a new leadership. Torn between Khanal's ‘pro left' and Oli's ‘pro democracy' factions, the UML is neutral for now and so are the Madhesis — the reason why there has been no result in the past two rounds.
Now add to this maze the unsaid, but major factor, for the political impasse — the troubled India-Maoist relationship.
For the past year, India's energy in Nepal has been directed at isolating the Maoists politically. The relationship had dipped when Prachanda was PM — rising Chinese engagement, the perception that the Maoists were going back on their commitment to democracy, and efforts to reshape the Nepal Army were seen as potentially harmful to Indian security interests. India played an active role in blocking the Maoist move to dismiss the then army chief and putting together the Madhav Nepal government.
The Constitution-writing and the larger peace process India helped initiate in 2005-06 became secondary to the task of ‘democratising' the Maoists. Indian strategists felt the former rebels had to undergo a ‘course correction' by moving on PLA largely on terms set by the Nepal Army and other parties, disbanding the Young Communist League, renouncing violence, and ending ‘anti-Indian' activities and rhetoric. Officials also let it be known informally that they would prefer Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, seen as a more pragmatic leader. A split in the Maoist party was, in the Indian scheme, a desirable objective.
To deal with the Indian stance, Prachanda adopted a dual strategy.
Privately, he tried to reassure India he was committed to democracy, would respect India's core interests, and gradually deliver on the conditions laid out. Besides using normal diplomatic channels, the Maoist chairman met senior RAW officials in London, Singapore and Kathmandu to convey the same message. But they did not buy it.
At the same time, Prachanda publicly blamed India for the fall of his government; said the Maoists would never follow Indian diktats; hinted darkly that India was involved in the death of UML leader Madan Bhandari in the early 90s in a car accident and the royal massacre in 2001; and said India had propped up the Madhav Nepal government.
Prachanda's public position obviously did not win him any friends in the Indian establishment. Bureaucrats circulated his speeches as proof of why Nepali Maoists had to be kept out.
A section of the Indian security establishment was not keen on the extension of the CA, for they calculated that the CA was a source of legitimacy for the Maoists. But the overwhelming domestic Nepali political mood, which was in favour of an extension, prevailed. In the past few weeks, Delhi has used its leverage with its supporters in the UML, and Madhesi parties to block either a Prachanda-led or Khanal-led left government, and will try to keep Maoists in general, and Prachanda in particular, out of state power.
Bridging the trust deficit between Maoists and Nepali Congress, and Maoists and India requires enormous political management but is critical to completing the peace process and writing the constitution. Forming a majority government, with either the Maoists or the NC remaining in opposition, will not solve any of the fundamental problems.
The onus is on the Maoists to resolve their ideological battles once and for all, fulfil peace process commitments, reassure the other side, and be flexible on issues of leadership in the government. At the same time, non-Maoist parties have to realize this is a process, not an event. Isolating the largest party in the country just creates a situation of dual power on the ground, and adds to the instability. If they are worried about the undemocratic tendencies of the Maoists, the only way to counter it is by building their steadily diminishing political strength on the ground. For its part, India should analyse whether there are other ways to exert leverage on the Maoists to be mindful of their core concerns, without destabilising the broader process, for the present stalemate is not helping India achieve any of its tangible interests in Nepal.
Otherwise, the logical outcome of the present approach of key actors is a prolonged impasse, another dysfunctional government, little movement on either integration or constitution writing and another political crisis in Nepal in six-eight months, as the date for the next constitutional deadline approaches.