An amazing aspect of Nepali politics is its seasonality. As the political scientist Hari Sharma pointed out nearly a decade ago, spring is the “season of discontent”, with the rest of the year spent in preparation or, alternatively, consolidation. Both the people’s movements of 1990 and 2006 peaked in April, and protests against the Panchayat regime were invariably organized after the winter and before the rains. Had King Gyanendra lasted out till the summer of 2006, he would have created a geopolitical fait accompli. Had Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal succeeded in breaking the army’s chain of command in May 2009, he may well have taken the country into one-party rule.
Against this backdrop, the upcoming winter is make-or-break time for the polity, as it will define the turbulence of the 2011 spring. If the peace process lingers beyond the next three months, the citizens will lose hope that a constitution will be written and the stage will be set for upheaval. The Constituent Assembly (CA) will collapse under the pressure of public opinion, and we will see uncharted departures that could include presidential rule, a technocratic government, or new elections. The royalists, energized by the overtures of Maoist Chairman Dahal, might feel emboldened to start an agitation. Given the many unresolved socio-political issues which the CA did not even get started on, spontaneous revolts could erupt in various parts even as a weakened state is asked to confront escalating violence, criminality and impunity. The desperate economy would be doomed to a few more years of zero-growth.
The more politically unstable Nepal becomes in the months ahead, the more we will be squeezed between two boulders, as the neighbors become openly interventionist. Till now, one needed to only worry about New Delhi, given how India covers the Nepali horizon. However, the delay in the peace process seems to have pushed Beijing to break out of its decades-old hands-off policy south of the Central Himalaya. A geopolitical status quo is being turned on its head as the peace process decelerates and unending political instability grips Nepal.
A credible advance in the peace process, triggered by the transfer of the Maoists’ cantonments to the supervision of the Special Committee, would lead away from the entire dire scenario. The onus on this lies firmly with the UCPN (Maoist), as the party which has prevaricated and reneged on commitments made more than three years ago to the people. The parliamentary parties have been shouting themselves hoarse trying to keep the Maoists to their word on the peace agreements, but that has not proved enough.
Fortunately, the UCPN (Maoist) is not yet past the point of no return, and would submit to the dictates of peace if the influential donors and diplomats were to add their voice to that of the democrat-politicians. But the courtesy calls made on Chairman Dahal at his Naya Bazaar residence have turned farcical, for everyone knows whispered persuasion cannot work with the masters of doublespeak. Generic statements that urge “all parties to be more committed to the peace process” represent nothing more than futile even-handedness. It is time to have a point of view, and to use the microphone as if you want to make a difference.
The ambassadors and agency representatives who have read the peace agreements and followed the negotiations must resist the ongoing UCPN (Maoist) attempt to link the peace process to power-sharing and constitution-writing. In doing so, they would be saving the Maoists from their own lethal obduracy. The fears that the Maoists would go back to the jungle if pushed too far, or that their party will be isolated and run to the ground by the others, are both unfounded.
Three simultaneous agenda stare us on the face viz the formation of government, constitution-writing and peace process. The formation of government is held hostage by the competing ambitions of Dahal and Jhala Nath Khanal, and the constitution-writing by the Maoist refusal to let their cantonments come under the Special Committee. It does not need a political philosopher to observe that the new constitution cannot, will not, and should not be written as long as the Maoists refuse to demobilize.
The constitution-writing has been a pretence thus far, carried out in the absence of basic agreement on the fundamental principles to guide the drafting, including the separation of powers, supremacy of the judiciary, the shape of federalism, the kind of electoral system, freedom of political organization, and so on. But before we even get to the fundamental principles, it is necessary to ensure that one party in the CA no longer gets to keep its own private army. The demobilization of the 19,000-plus UNMIN-certified ex-combatants would provide a psychological release to the polity, and trigger a series of positive fallout leading straight toward a new and democratic constitution.
There is no doubt that international positioning makes a difference, the proof to be found in how the principled stand taken by the Special Rapporteur Radhika Coomarswamy forced the Maoists to hurriedly release the 4000-plus child soldiers from the cantonments in January. It is not too late for the donors and diplomats to emulate the Special Rapporteur’s purposefulness to bring about the closure of the 28 cantonments.
The Security Council did the peace process a favor by declaring that the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) would pack up and leave by Jan 15, and this certainly gave the Maoists momentary pause. But one must resist the temptation of thinking that the peace and the peace process will collapse when the Mission departs. By its performance, UMMIN has relegated itself to a peripheral role in the grand narrative of the times.
There are few countries, even in the developing world, where First World ambassadors and donor representatives can be so engaged on matters of substance as in Nepal, but with that privilege comes accountability and a responsibility to speak up for universal values. Violent politics is violent politics, whether in Brussels or in London, and the Maoist leaders had promised to give up their private army by October 2008.
THE SPECIAL COMMITTEE
Is it because they are so actively involved in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre that the Western powers seem to have so little faith in the Nepali-led peace process here? One would have expected Nepal’s democrat-politicians to be given more credit for settling a brutal war within a couple of years, when you compare the decades of fighting in Northern Ireland and the ‘war process’ in Sri Lanka. The heart-stopping revelations made by WikiLeaks about thousands upon thousands of unreported extrajudicial killings during the Iraq fighting should give all of us some pause.
The 12-point agreement of 2005 which kicked off the peace process was designed and defined by the very individuals at the helm of politics today, plus the departed Girija Prasad Koirala. These democrat-politicians reached out to the rebels, not because they agreed with the Maoist philosophy or agenda, but because the conflict was extracting too high a price from society. Madhav Kumar Nepal was one of the leaders who negotiated with the underground Maoists in Lucknow, Siliguri and New Delhi between 2003 and 2005.
As caretaker prime minister, Mr Nepal has been working methodically on a time bound work-plan to activate the Special Committee, and has invited the international community “to speak with one voice” on the peace process. However, one detects a distinct scepticism among the internationals toward the prime minister’s exertions, even though this is probably the last genuine effort anyone will make to keep the peace process afloat. There was no public refrain from the embassies when Barsha Man Pun, Maoist member in the Special Committee, suddenly stonewalled in the third week of September. And no reaction was heard when Mr Pun announced two weeks ago that the ‘PLA’ would not be demobilized until the constitution was promulgated.
The clock ticks on the peace process, and a lot hinges on its proper closure. The true collapse of the process will come as and when the public decides that the Maoists cannot be held to their promise on demobilization, to include integration and rehabilitation of the ex-combatants.
The Maoist leadership is fractured, but national effort combined with international pressure can still goad them toward a successful denouement. There is still some time left before the domino effect of socio-political and geopolitical regression will start. Now that the Western summer and Dasahin slumber are over, it would not be too much to ask the internationals to try and seek a common voice on cantonment closure with the CPN-UML, the Nepali Congress, and the Madhesi parties.
The process of peace must end successfully in order to keep the CA alive, and to consolidate a democratic, inclusive, secular, federal, republican Nepal through the promulgation of a new constitution. If we do not jump-start and conclude the peace process by mid-winter, spring will be upon us before we know it.