02 April 2008

INSIDE NEPAL: The past is over, only the future counts

For king and commoner, revolutionary and reformist, the tide of change in Nepal is irreversible. But if the Maoists know there’s no going back to the gun, the erstwhile establishment must also be prepared to live with the inclusive republic the people want.

2 April 2008
The Hindu

Transition time: the past is over, only the future counts

Siddharth Varadarajan

It is 7 a.m. in Kathmandu and I am sitting with a group of young Maoist party cadres at the office-cum-residence of Prachanda, waiting for the Maoist leader to arrive for a scheduled interview (he had hit the campaign trail at 6 a.m.). The cadres are in their early 20s, a few of them still sporting the green fatigues in which they waged “Peoples’ War” against Nepal’s king and his army. The television is tuned to the Kantipur channel, which is relay ing ‘Breaking News’ from Rupandehi district near the border with India with such an exaggerated sense of urgency that the comrades stop whatever they are doing and crowd around the TV set. Information is sketchy but the Kantipur reporter on the site is conveying details of a ‘jhadap’, or clash between the security forces and Maoist activists, over the latter’s detention of a truck allegedly carrying a clandestine load of weapons destined for the army.

While the former PLA combatants watched the news, I watched their faces. There was neither panic nor the ex-soldier’s pride at the ‘jhadap’ — which eventually turned out to be a relatively minor matter — but the look of concern and even worry was unmistakable. These were not the faces of people who are getting ready to go back to the hills or mount the barricades of some bloody urban insurrection, as some in the Kathmandu elite believe. The chapter of armed struggle is closed and the political and military reality today is such that even if they wanted to, the Maoists would not be able to take to the gun again.

“The Peoples’ War was needed to break the back of the old feudal structure of monarchy,” senior Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai said, “but we made an assessment that given the international reality and the position of Nepal vis-À-vis India we have to adopt a new path. And that is why we went in for the peace process and elections.”

In forging an agreement in 2005 with the Seven Party Alliance led by the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UML, the Maoist leadership was taking a huge gamble. They traded the relative security of a military stalemate for the insecure prospect of political victory in a free and fair election. And part of that gamble involved making themselves vulnerable to a catastrophic stab in the back, initiated either by a vengeful King Gyanendra, the top echelons of the Nepal Army, or an outside player like the United States. That is why, as the date for the Constituent Assembly election draws nearer, the Maoists are battening down the hatches and taking no chances. There is talk of palace-inspired targeted assassinations of its top leadership. Or of blasts or communal violence.

In private conversations, Maoist leaders say they expect to win between 30 and 35 per cent of the popular vote and not the 50 per cent they speak of publicly. But for the moment, what the party fears more than underperforming at the polls is the possibility of the elections being postponed or cancelled. “Any delay will be a disaster for Nepal,” says Prachanda.

The anxiety about Gyanendra is shared by other parties. “Why would the king want the CA when we have pledged to abolish the monarchy at the very first sitting?” Home Minister K.P. Sitaula asked. It was possible that the Palace would try and stir up trouble but all the parties would have to unite to deal with this danger, he said. “We want to show the world that it is possible to get rid of the monarchy through peaceful and democratic means.”

Mr. Sitaula may be clear, but across the country there are many ordinary Nepalis who doubt the sincerity of the NC’s conversion to the republican cause, or who regret that it came so late in the day. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala floated the ‘baby king’ idea. His daughter Sujata, who is contesting the elections from Sunsari district in the Tarai, says she is in favour of a constitutional monarchy. Mr. Sitaula parried a question about Sujata Koirala’s stand by recalling a speech Girijababu had made several years ago warning the palace about the consequences of autocratic rule: “One day, people will say, ‘There was a time when Nepal had a king’,” the Congress patriarch had predicted. “That day is coming,” said Mr. Sitaula. “It is useless and meaningless to try and save the monarchy.”

But the monarchy will try and save itself. The suspicion is that the palace has links with some of the Madhesi extremist groups as well as with some organisations of the janajatis like the Limbus. Many politicians with monarchist connections have left the NC or the UML and joined some of the Madhesi electoral parties. This week’s mysterious bomb blast in a mosque in Biratnagar bears the hallmarks of a provocation. And people in Nepal are bracing for more. “The only problem for the king is that if some terrible incident happens, everyone will know he is behind it. And it would be difficult to guarantee his physical safety after that,” said a senior UML leader.

For Nepal’s establishment parties, especially the NC and the UML, resolving the king’s future is the least of the problems. Once the CA is convened, a far more difficult challenge will be dealing with the rising expectations of Nepal’s diverse peoples for an inclusive and just political and economic system.

Thanks to a radical election system of a kind not seen anywhere else in the world, the composition of the CA will be fairly representative of Nepal’s diversity. For the 335 seats up for grabs under the proportional representation (PR) system, the law requires parties to nominate at least 50 per cent women, 13 per cent Dalits, 31.2 per cent Madhesis and 37.8 per cent from the “oppressed/indigenous communities,” that is, the janajatis. Parties had a free hand in distributing the ticket for the 240 first-past-the-post (FPTP) seats, but a large number of Madhesi and janajati candidates are bound to emerge victorious. Many of them will have party affiliations. But they will not be able to insulate themselves from the crush of popular expectations.

Even if the Madhesi and ethnic parties do not do well, the NC and the UML will have to transcend their reluctant federalism and come good on their promises for the restructuring of Nepal. The federalism of the Maoists is more instinctive since a major plank of the movement has been its promise to create ethno-linguistic provinces with not just autonomy but the right to self-determination. The Maoists committed a strategic blunder in 2006 by dropping their original demand for a full PR system of elections because of the intransigence of the NC and the UML. This allowed new political forces to emerge based on exclusive and even chauvinist ethnic politics.

Whatever the origins of the recent Madhesi movement, the Tarai is in ferment and will not settle for second-class status. Nor will the janajatis. If the CA is not prepared to design federal structures which guarantee autonomy and dignity to all regions of Nepal and economic justice for the poor and the landless, new fault lines and conflicts will emerge. The future, to paraphrase Anna Akhmatova, is already casting its shadow on the present. Rather than the bogeyman of a new Maoist insurrection, it is the willingness of the NC and the UML to embrace the aspirations of Nepal’s excluded peoples which should be the real cause for worry.

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