Over the past month, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal kept his cards close to his chest, even as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and parts of the Nepali intelligentsia accused him of being power-hungry and wanting to remain in the prime minister's seat. On 30 June, he sprang a surprise on the Maoists, his own party members as well as his allies the coalition government, including the Nepali Congress which had supported him through thick and thin over the course of 13 months. That, it should be said at the outset, was a notably long period for a Nepali cabinet to remain in power, the predecessor Maoist government having lasted just nine months.
The fact is that during the Constituent Assembly elections of April 2008, the Prime Minister Nepal, now reduced to a caretaker, lost in both constituencies from which he ran. But it is also a fact that the Maoists themselves had lobbied for his nomination to membership in the Constituent Assembly, given his consensus-making abilities, which in turn made him eligible for the prime ministership.
The Maoists resigned from government in May 2009, the specific cause being the adventurist position that they had taken with regard to the chain of command in the national army, in attempting to sack Chief of the Army Staff Rookmangud Katwal. Over the following year, President Ram Baran Yadav, who vetoed the Maoist move on the Nepal Army, and Prime Minister Nepal, who became head of a coalition of 22 political parties headed by his CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist), became the prime targets of Maoist ire.
Having had all the prime positions in the government they headed, including minister of defence in a country just out of internal conflict, the Maoists quickly realised the blunder of their resignation. They had since sought every approach to dislodge Prime Minister Nepal to get back to power. The Maoist campaign of removing Mr. Nepal also seemed to be based on the calculation that it would be good to be running the government when the first elections were held after the new constitution was, eventually, promulgated.
Madhav Kumar was weak as prime minister from the start, mainly because the Nepali Congress supremo, the late Girija Prasad Koirala, decided to send his daughter Sujata (as both foreign minister and deputy prime minister) to head the party in the cabinet. This had a domino effect, leading the heavyweights in all parties to stay away from the government. Though Prime Minister Nepal himself was acknowledged for his probity, his governance was generally marked by lack of willpower and capability, added to the many ministers accused of corruption and excess.
But even a weak government should be brought down by constitutional and parliamentary process, and this proved impossible for the Maoists to manage. Such was the fear of the Maoists among the 22 parties, large and minuscule alike, that there no breakaway party to join the Maoist attempt to bring a no-confidence motion against the Nepal government, which would have required 301 votes in a House of 601 members.
The Maoists relied on street action and harsh speeches to try and force Prime Minister Nepal's hand. After leaving government, they boycotted and blocked Parliament for five months, and thereafter embarked on a two-month ultra-nationalist, anti-India campaign, blaming New Delhi for propping up the Kathmandu government. When that campaign faltered, the Maoists decided to raise the ante on street action, calling an indefinite nationwide general strike in early May saying that it would lead to a general revolt and fall of government. A peace rally called spontaneously in Kathmandu's Durbar Square rivalled the well-planned Maoist May Day rally in size.
The general strike failed to achieve its goal, with the government refusing to dissolve even as spontaneous anti-Maoist reaction began to set in across the country. Eventually the strike was called off by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, even as the opinion began to grow that he was holding his own party, as well as society at large, hostage to the personal agenda of getting back to the prime-ministerial chair which he had abandoned the previous year.
Deep divisions within the Maoist leadership began to come to the fore over the course of June 2010, while the party decided not to support the government in the presentation of the budget slated for July 5. Prime Minister Nepal was also looking at the possibility of elements of his own party leadership, supported by his party's chairman, Jhalanath Khanal, challenging the government's budget on the floor of the House.
This would have led to a humiliating ouster of the prime minister, and a resignation on his own volition seemed preferable. Chairman Khanal has always believed that he was cheated of his rightful claim to the prime-ministership, and he had spent much of the past year making statements against his own CPN (UML)-led government.
With President Yadav having called on the political parties to find a consensus candidate to lead the government by July 7, it is clear that there has to be a majority coalition — even though an all-party government of national unity would be preferable for the sake of constitution-writing. As things stand, it is unlikely that the other large parties will agree to the UCPN (Maoist) leading the new government, even though it is the largest party with 38 per cent presence in the House.
The reasons the others are loathe to support the Maoists is because they retain their military and paramilitary organisations, and have been foot-dragging on demobilising their cadre through a formula that would include some integration of ex-combatants into the security forces and rehabilitation of the rest. The Maoists are also additionally weakened at this point internally, making it more difficult to put up a joint front due to divisions between their top three leaders, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Vaidya.
Meanwhile, the Nepali Congress has laid claim to the next prime ministership, stating that the last two governments since the elections have been led by the Maoists and the CPN (UML). However, the recently unified Congress party is divided between the four-time prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and the elected leader of the party in Parliament, Ram Chandra Poudel.
By next week, hopefully, the people Nepal will know who the next prime minister will be. One way or another, that individual will have the task of providing political stability and a successful conclusion to the peace process, which would in turn provide the conditions required for the writing of a democratic constitution. That relief is required for a society that has remained in suspended animation for four long years after the People's Movement of April 2006, and after the end of the Maoist ‘people's war.'
The next prime minister could be from the ranks of the UCPN (Maoist) party, but that will require rapid action from the party on a credible timetable relating to the disbanding of the Maoist cantonments and the barrack structures of the Young Communist League. Also, Chairman Dahal would have to be willing to have someone else to lead the government from the party. With both scenarios unlikely in the immediate future, it is likely that the new prime minister of Nepal will be from the Nepali Congress or the CPN (UML). Thus, the possible claimants would be Ram Chandra Poudel, Jhalanath Khanal and — once again — Madhav Kumar Nepal.