30 March 2006

The countdown in Kathmandu has begun

The anti-monarchy protests planned for April 6-9 will be the first test of strength for the new partnership between Nepal's Maoists and parliamentary parties.

The King says the joint action will be treated as an act of terror and the U.S. is also opposed to the protests. India is still reluctant to take a public position but unless it comes out in favour of popular sovereignty, the situation in Nepal will continue to deteriorate.

30 March 2006
The Hindu

The countdown in Kathmandu has begun

India's Nepal dilemma must be resolved soon, in favour of popular sovereignty

Siddharth Varadarajan

AS THE date for the launch of a new nationwide agitation against the autocratic rule of King Gyanendra approaches, all the players on the Nepalese political stage are being forced to confront the imminence of their own particular moment of reckoning. All except India, that is.

Faced with the prospect of mass protests to be launched in unison by the Maoists and the seven-party alliance (SPA) of parliamentary parties on April 6, the monarchy has turned once again to the familiar weapons of intimidation and deception. The parties are being warned of dire consequences if they operationalise their latest political understanding with the Maoists. And the people of Kathmandu are being fed stories about armed Maoists infiltrating into the Capital to wreak terror on its inhabitants.

But if King Gyanendra's armoury is the same, there is a new urgency in the manner in which it is being deployed.

The monarch knows that the second understanding reached between the SPA and the Maoists last week is a decisive twist in the noose that is slowly tightening around the neck of autocracy. For the first time since the two principal players in the struggle for democracy agreed last November that a Constituent Assembly holds the key to ending Nepal's political crisis, an agenda for united political action has emerged. The identical statement released separately but simultaneously by the Maoists and the SPA on March 19 unequivocally declares that "the People's Movement is the only means to achieve [the] goal" of ending the conflict, "establish loktantra and restore people's sovereignty" in Nepal. To be sure, the Maoists have not renounced violence as the parties and India would like. But for them to concede the primacy of a people's movement is a major step in the direction of reducing the salience of `people's war."

The first test of this new alliance will be on April 6 when the two partners launch a three-day “mass mobilisation programme” in Kathmandu. The March 19 agreement was struck in the teeth of opposition from both the Palace and the United States, which had publicly denounced the 12-point agreement reached with the Maoists last November and warned the parties against taking their understanding any further. Having failed to prevent the `Second Memorandum of Understanding’ from being reached, the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, has joined hands with King Gyanendra to ensure next week’s agitation does not get off ground.

For India, which indirectly facilitated the conclusion of the latest agreement between the parties and the Maoists, the political and diplomatic challenge has now become critical.

When King Gyanendra usurped power on February 1, 2005, India was quick to signal a tough line against him. Despite being aware of the monarchy's historical role in continuously interrupting the development of democracy in the kingdom, the Indian Government raised its demand for the restoration of democracy within the framework of the `twin pillar' theory, which saw constitutional monarchy as central to Nepal's political stability. At the same time, senior officials have been saying privately that India's commitment is to Nepal and its people and not to any institution. And that if forced to choose between the monarchy and the Nepalese people, India would have to back the latter. New Delhi has been reluctant to articulate this sentiment publicly though senior officials point out that the Ministry of External Affairs' latest pronouncements on Nepal have undergone a subtle change in this direction. Recent statements, for example, make no reference to twin pillars. Indeed, the February 8 statement issued by the MEA after the farcical municipal elections says: "We are of the view that the grave challenges facing Nepal demand the initiation of a genuine process of national reconciliation, dialogue and participation which can facilitate a peaceful political settlement." The implication, say officials, is that dialogue and reconciliation with the Maoists is one of the keys to a peaceful political settlement of the crisis in Nepal.

Though the officials may be right in arguing that India's public position has begun to change, the transformation is far too subtle and slow to have any serious political impact.

The irony is that having backed the latest understanding between the Maoists and the SPA, India will have to bear all of the associated political costs without being in a position to ensure that any benefits accrue to it. The King and the U.S. know the Second Understanding between the Maoists and the parties would not have been possible without India, as do the two parties to the understanding. But in the absence of some public signalling by India, the SPA will always be plagued by doubts about the extent of India's commitment to their new course of action. This, in turn, makes the parties susceptible to the King's threats.

Even as it remains wary of getting directly involved, India needs to send a clear and unambiguous message that it backs Nepal's parliamentary parties in the course of action they have chosen to follow. In the run-up to April 6, an Indian announcement of support to the pro-democracy forces would be a major morale booster for the leadership and cadres of the SPA. Such an announcement would also send an unambiguous message to King Gyanendra and Washington that the only pillar democracy in Nepal really needs is people's sovereignty.

On their part, the Maoists should consider the announcement of another ceasefire as a means of encouraging the widest possible public participation in the planned demonstrations. Their attack on Thankot on the eve of an earlier mass demonstration by the parties in Kathmandu gave the King an excuse to impose curfew. This time too, King Gyanendra is likely to impose curfew on the eve of April 6. But the announcement of a ceasefire by the Maoists would take the political initiative away from the Palace and help cement their new partnership with the parliamentary parties.

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