Challenges of the Kathmandu Spring

Nepal stands at a crossroad between the Maoist momentum and a democratic constitution.

By Kanak Mani Dixit

Spring, the season of political upheaval in Nepal, began with the elevation of the left-liberal CPN (UML) party’s Jhalanath Khanal to prime minister. While ending a seven month deadlock in government formation, however, Khanal’s election was built on a platform of deception against Nepal’s peace process. Now that he has got the position he so tenaciously sought, will Khanal be able to deliver the political stability necessary for writing the new constitution by the deadline of 28 May?

Khanal felt cheated when the existing power balance back in May 2009 propelled his colleague Madhav Kumar Nepal to prime ministership, and since then he worked clandestinely with Maoist leaders to bring down the government. Nepal resigned last June 2010, fearing a humiliating defeat in passage of the budget through a campaign led by his own party chairman. Thereafter, the parliament entered a seven month period of farcical elections designed to malign the parliamentary process.

To maintain himself at his party’s helm, it was important for Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal to be prime minister once again. However, he could not gain trust because he had reneged on the promise to disband the 19,000-plus Maoist ex-combatant force according to agreed formulae. Street brinkmanship, threats of revolt and an attempt to buy 50 members of parliament at one crore rupees per head all backfired on Dahal. But under no circumstance did he want to concede the chair to deputy Baburam Bhattarai, and so on 3 February he dramatically forced the party to back Khanal of the rival UML.

The Khanal-Dahal coalition came together on the basis of a secret seven-point deal that was soon exposed, in which the UML chairman promised to establish a separate force of Maoist ex-combatants, and acquiesced letter-and-spirit to the Maoist position on constitutionalism. The unwritten part of the deal was for the UCPN (Maoist) to get Home Affairs, and Dahal to become prime minister when the term of the Constituent Assembly ended, and it came time to prepare for elections.

Cantonment disbandment

Under the peace agreement that ended the ‘people’s war’ in 2006, the Maoist had assured the citizenry and international community that the cantonments would be disbanded under supervision of a Special Committee in which the party is also a member. This should have been done by September 2008, with some ex-combatants integrated into the security forces and the rest rehabilitated. An elaborate show of handover to the Special Committee was even enacted as late as 22 January this year, but the secret deal brought the peace process crashing.

Even with other matters pending, disbandment of the Maoist fighting force would provide psychological relief to the populace and generate confidence for the constitution-drafting. Creating a new Maoist force, whether for frontier defence or industrial security as suggested, would merely camouflage the continuity of the ‘PLA’. Besides this fighting force, the UCPN (Maoist) is a party with its own paramilitary, and the party plenum last November formally announced plans for ‘revolt’ and ‘state capture’. This is what the cadre have been primed for. If the Maoists get the Home Ministry – de jure as they want or de facto as Prime Minister Khanal is inclined to – the state’s police and armed constabulary would both come under UCPN (Maoist) command. This would push society into a critical stand-off.

The pact between the two chairmen heightened political polarisation just when the parties should have been coming together for the drafting. Such a point was almost reached in 26 January, when the principal political players including the Nepali Congress had agreed to the Maoist chairman leading the government once there was agreement on the numbers for ex-combatants integration. Chairman Dahal returned to the negotiations from his lunch break to reject everything he had earlier conceded — the obstacle to the peace process lay squarely in the schisms within his party.

Contentious Interpretation

The left-democratic alliance between the UML, the Nepali Congress, the Madhesi and other parties, which were united for a democratic constitution, stands shattered following Khanal’s Maoist embrace. The deal, worked out by a cabal of ambitious young supporters of Khanal, shook the UML down to its foundations with the possibility of outright takeover by the Maoist party.

Confronted by the secret deal made by their own chairman, the UML Central Committee went into paroxysms of interpretation. With the Maoists publicly insisting on implementation of the written and unwritten commitments in the ‘secret’ deal, the UML leadership announced baldly that the seven points allowed the peace process to continue under the Special Committee, and that the Home Ministry would be kept by the prime minister himself ‘for the moment’. Such interpretation was bound to have diminishing returns as Khanal consolidated himself as prime minister — even though it has been a slow start for someone who claimed that a new government would be formed within hours of the fall of the Nepal Government in the middle of 2010.

Over at the UCPN (Maoist), as Dahal foisted successive self-serving decisions on his party, there was a feeling of humiliation in the ranks for having supported the hated rival, albeit with a partial chairman. To silence growing dissidence, Dahal went around claiming that formation of the Khanal government represented “a victory over expansionist India”.

The extreme polarisation born of the secret pact has killed the possibility of Nepal’s new constitution being written on time, even as civil society stalwarts go through the motions of demanding fealty to the extended deadline. The stalwarts fail to consider that a constitution cannot be written when one party has its personal fighting force and has completely disregarded the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord, which is part of the Interim Consitution as annex. As we speak, the Maoist plans are for complete integration, one way or another, as laid out in the Khanal-Dahal pact.

The stalwarts must also understand that it is better not to have a new constitution than to have an un-democratic one. The values of open society, reflected in the 1990 Constitution chaperoned by the just-departed Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, must be protected if we are to proceed towards an era of social justice where no community is left behind. The Maoist stand on key constitutional principles are the kind that would give us a People’s Republic of Nepal, and the little concessions recently seen to be made by Chairman Dahal are merely to buy time and create a false sense of momentum among the gullible/partisan analysts.

Last week, the Maoists announced plans to augment their Young Communist League with another paramilitary force. The cadre have been corrupted by country-wide extortion and contracting, and are primed for ‘revolt’ as a means to maintain their income stream. The leadership obviously wants to destroy the citizens’ self-esteem, weakening the national will so that no ethical barrier or set of values can block their attempt to redefine Nepal into a closed society.

Over the spring, with Prime Minister Khanal as handmaiden, the Maoists will try to conduct a political blitzkrieg using physical force, psychological intimidation and ultra-nationalism. Pushpa Kamal Dahal believes that chaos of any kind can be converted to his personal advantage. If he decides to go for it, to try and foist a Maoist constitution amidst a controlled state, it is up to Nepal’s people to resist. The rest of the world can only watch and wish us well.

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