With the departure of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) on January 15, Nepali politics will enter a new, uncharted and dangerous territory. UNMIN's exit comes at a time when there is a growing recognition that Nepal may fail to meet its extended deadline of writing the Constitution by May 28. The country has had a caretaker government for seven months, and while a new process to elect a Prime Minister will begin soon, its outcome remains uncertain. All formal structures of the 2006 political framework suddenly appear fragile.

UNMIN has been an integral component of Nepal's peace agreements. For the past four years, it has monitored 19,000-plus combatants and 3,000-plus weapons of the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) and a limited number of personnel and arms of the Nepal Army (NA); chaired the Joint Monitoring Coordination Committee (JMCC) that acts as a mechanism to resolve disputes between the NA and the PLA; and has been a symbolic deterrent against the resumption of violence.

Despite Maoist pressure, the Madhav Nepal-led caretaker government refused to request the U.N. Security Council to extend UNMIN's term once again. But its exit will leave a vacuum, for there are no mutually acceptable, alternative arrangements on a range of issues.

Who will do the monitoring? The government says the statutory all-party special committee will take over UNMIN's responsibilities as per a past agreement. The Maoists, however, are pushing alternative ideas — a joint political mechanism, joint teams of the NA and the PLA, or a civil society mechanism.

Who will be monitored? The government insists that there is no need to monitor the NA anymore as the context has changed, while the Maoists argue that the same arrangement applies to both armies in accordance with the Agreement on the Monitoring of the Management of Arms and Armies.

What happens to the arms? The government has asked UNMIN to hand over the Maoist weapons, Maoists have said ‘no', and UNMIN has taken the position that the arms will be handed over to the party which owns them — in this case, the Maoists.

Who will resolve the disputes on the code of conduct and its violations? UNMIN did so in JMCC quietly and efficiently out of media glare but no alternative neutral mechanism is in place yet.

The impact goes well beyond the technical aspects, about which the parties may well find an agreement at the last minute. UNMIN's absence will increase the possibility of even a small incident spiralling out of control. The Maoists have already said this takes the country back to a ‘ceasefire' situation. UNMIN leaves at a time when the most complex task of this process — integration and rehabilitation of the former combatants — has not even started. Its expertise and good offices could have played an important role in guiding the process. Peace has held in Nepal because Nepali actors, including the Nepal Army and the Maoists, have behaved with restraint and responsibility, but UNMIN's exit will make this task more difficult.

‘Pressuring' the Maoists

So why was it pushed out?

When it was invited in 2006, UNMIN was an insurance policy for the Maoists. The former rebels saw it as giving the peace process international legitimacy; the leadership also had a sense of personal security with UNMIN around at a time when entering open politics was a big gamble. The other parties saw UNMIN's presence as useful too — it kept a check on the Maoist military apparatus as well as the NA, whose loyalties were suspect given its backing for the royal coup. The U.N.'s credibility was high and its human rights mission played an enabling role in the 2006 people's movement. India was reluctant to allow U.N. presence in the neighbourhood but then gave into the wishes of the Nepali parties after realising that there was no other way to take the peace process forward.

What has changed since then is the balance of power. From working with the Maoists and being wary of the NA, the older parties, especially the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), now see the NA as an ally and are deeply suspicious of the Maoists' intentions and their commitment to democracy. UNMIN began to be viewed as providing a “safety blanket” to the former rebels for, it treated them as a 50 per cent stakeholder in the peace process and recognised their army. The NA has always been furious with UNMIN for “equating the NA and the PLA,” and was lobbying hard to be removed from UNMIN's monitoring. India's old suspicion about other international actors in its ‘backyard' persisted.

In the beginning, New Delhi worked hard to ensure that UNMIN had a limited and weak mandate but more recently it has been lobbying with other international capitals, and now with fellow members in the Security Council, to wrap up the mission. Washington and London were happy to follow the Indian lead on Nepal, even though the Secretary-General in his report stated conditions for UNMIN's departure were not optimal.

This formidable coalition — of India, the U.S. and the U.K. internationally and the non-Maoist parties and the Nepal Army domestically — argues that UNMIN's presence allows the Maoists to drag on the peace process; its exit will remove a safety valve and bring pressure on them, in turn, forcing them to “reform” and “disarm.” But this appears more like wishful thinking which ignores the roots of the present crisis. UNMIN's exit and the larger Indian policy may well end up making the Maoists even more insecure and reluctant to let go of their coercive apparatus.

Counterproductive policy

Pushing UNMIN out is in line with India's broader Nepal policy, the key tenet of which is to isolate the Maoists and exclude them from the formal power structure as the only way of democratising them. Indian officials believe that the Maoists have used the peace process only “tactically;” harbour authoritarian ambitions and cannot be allowed back to power until they undergo a “course correction,” which would include giving up the PLA. Otherwise, it is argued, they would consolidate power and subvert all democratic institutions, and it would be impossible to dislodge them.

To this end, India has invested enormous political capital in galvanising the anti-Maoist forces together, and ensuring that Prachanda did not get to the majority mark in the prime ministerial elections. There is a section in both New Delhi and Kathmandu which believes that like UNMIN, the Constituent Assembly, where the Maoists command 40 per cent of the seats, is another “safety blanket” for the former rebels. This school tried hard to ensure that the CA did not get an extension last May. They are now hoping for its dissolution by the May 28 constitutional deadline, in order to “isolate” the Maoists from the only formal state structure in which they have space — the legislature.

The problem with this approach is that it only strengthens the dogmatic branch within the Maoist party, and underestimates the intensity of the conflict Nepal will be engulfed in if the constitutional process fails.

It is true that the Maoists have dragged their feet on the integration and rehabilitation of the former combatants, which makes the other parties insecure about their democratic commitment. At the same time, the Maoists are insecure too for, they are being asked to surrender a major source of power, largely on the Nepal Army's terms, while in the Opposition. The hardliners within the party are quick to point out how “bourgeoisie democracy” is a sham as the largest party cannot form a government, how “Indian expansionists and Nepali reactionaries” have ganged up on them and are conspiring to dissolve the CA, and how the party should not give up the PLA at such a time reminding the cadres of the Mao dictum, “without the army, people have nothing.”

The reluctance of the non-Maoist parties to share power, the Maoist dogma, and India's hardline approach — all feed on one another and have contributed to mutual insecurities and belligerence on all sides, limiting the space for compromise. The Nepali Congress' withdrawal from the prime ministerial race, and the imminent initiation of a new process to elect a Prime Minister, have opened up one final opportunity to reengineer the consensus needed to push the peace and constitutional process forward.

Instead of aiding the polarisation, India needs to play a constructive role in enabling a deal on power-sharing and the peace process, in which the Maoists will be accommodated while locking them into handing over their coercive apparatus. This is essential for Constitution-writing. Otherwise, this May could well mark the collapse of Nepal's ambitious experiment in political transformation.

The exit of the United Nations Mission in Nepal tomorrow will create a vacuum for, there are no mutually acceptable alternative arrangements among the various actors on a range of issues.