July 20, 2020
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Like A Big Bushfire

A surprise victory has the Maoists in thrall. Will power temper their views?

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Like A Big Bushfire
Like A Big Bushfire
When the results to the Nepal constituent assembly elections began to trickle in, Kathmandu witnessed two contrasting responses that reflected its class divisions. The elite retreated behind closed doors, shocked at the verdict and nervous about its future. Meanwhile, the numbed activists of the two mainstream parties—the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML)—simply melted away from the counting centres. Replacing them were the thousands who poured in to glimpse Maoist supremo Prachanda. Elsewhere, the streets belonged to the underclasses who, ecstatic on hope, followed the flower-bedecked car of a victorious Hishila Yami, a Maoist minister from the Koirala coalition government. Like a true subaltern leader, she would occasionally alight from the vehicle and dance with the crowds. In the adjoining district of Lalitpur, followers of Maoist military strategist Barshama Pun held a victory parade demanding that King Gyanendra vacate the Narayanhity palace.

It was their strident opposition to the king, as also promises of a radical socioeconomic transformation of Nepal (and perhaps some voter intimidation), that enabled the Maoists to defy the pundits' prediction of a poor third place. They have now bagged 55 per cent of the 220 seats; counting in 20 seats has been stalled for repolling. These together constitute the 240 seats for which elections were held under the first-past-the-post system. Another 335 seats in the constituent assembly (CA) will be decided through proportional representation (PR), and it's expected to take another two weeks to complete the counting and allocate seats to each party. Even under the PR system, the Maoists are way ahead of nearest rivals though they are still expected to fall a bit short of a simple majority in the CA.

Sensing Nepal's radical mood, Maoist ideologue Dr Baburam Bhattarai declared, "We will enforce republicanism on the very first day the CA holds its session." Republicanism is a euphemism for the abolition of monarchy. But this is easier said than done. For one, a redrafted Constitution requires the support of two-third members of the CA. Not only will the CA have over a score of members from the pro-monarchy parties elected under the PR system, many legal experts feel the future Constitution can't be implemented in bits and pieces. "A flawed process and hasty moves could lead to more complications as the redrafting of the Constitution will need proper debate, understanding and consensus," cautions Kumar Regmi, president of the Constitutional Lawyers Forum.

The Maoist dream of a republic is consequently crucially dependent on the NC and CPN-UML playing ball. Smarting under defeat, the parties have indicated a reluctance to join the Maoist-led government. An unstable government is bound to have its echo in the CA, threatening to render the task of evolving a consensus difficult. Others, however, say a mainstream political party will only court marginalisation should it refuse to support the abolition of monarchy.

King Gyanendra hasn't yet responded to the result. His days are decidedly numbered, irrespective of his past ability to exploit the rift among political parties. "The king is clear about one thing. He will accept any consequence, but will not leave the country," a political analyst who met him recently told Outlook.

The most formidable challenge before the Maoist leaders now is to inculcate in its cadres a respect for the rule of law. Flush with the victory, they attacked finance minister Ram Sharan Mahat on April 14. "They continue to demonstrate hooliganism. What will the country be like once they take over power?" an agitated Mahat, with four stitches on his head, said to Outlook. Indeed, the Maoists penchant for violence to resolve political differences has rattled the business community, the army as also interested international players.

To be fair, Prachanda has tried to allay these fears. Post-result, his statements have been bereft of anti-India and anti-America rhetoric. He met Indian ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee and said he would "soon visit New Delhi to meet Pranab Mukherjee". The heads of most foreign missions have met Prachanda, the only exception being the Americans who still list the Maoists on their terror watchlist. The Americans welcomed the CA election results but with caveats. Sean McComack, spokesperson at the US state department, said, "Although there was considerable violence and intimidation during the pre-election period and some instances of voting irregularities, Nepali voters were able to cast their ballots peacefully in most districts." Ex-US president Jimmy Carter , here as an election observer, has, citing the recent mandate, called for Washington to remove the Maoists from the terror list.

Maoist supporters agog in Kathmandu

Former diplomat Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa told Outlook that "for the international community, it will still be a wait and watch phase". He said India's fears about the Maoists are understandable, considering their demand to revise the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, call for a review of hydroelectric projects and a stop to the recruitment of Gorkhas into the Indian and British armies. In addition, there are fears of Naxals in India receiving support, however unlikely, from the Maoists. Still, even Thapa feels the poll results hold out a message to the Naxals—join the mainstream to change the polity.

If anyone is in a grim mood, it's the business community. The election results sparked off a crash in the stockmarket. "The Maoists must change their earlier attitude—especially the Young Communist League (YCL)—towards us," Rajendra Khetan, a leading Kathmandu-based businessman, told Outlook. The YCL has in the past been guilty of extortion, the business class being their main target. Soon after meeting Prachanda, Kush Kuma Joshi, president of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industries, told Outlook that the "Maoists must take the business community into confidence". Joshi and others are wary of the new government adopting socialist policies. For instance, they haven't yet withdrawn their statements declaring that foreign investment would be restricted only to the infrastructure sector. Those in the health, education sectors—which have undergone massive expansion over the last decade—have reason to fear a government takeover.

Equally tricky will be a situation where the Maoists seeks to integrate their armed cadre—the 19,000-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA)—with the Nepalese Army. Not only were the two locked in a bloody war for over a decade, senior army officers are frequently described as arch-royalists. With the Maoists likely to retain the defence portfolio even in a coalition government—and expected to press ahead with the integration plan—the army and the PLA could find themselves pitched in yet another round of bloody confrontation. For sure, it's a tightrope walk for the Maoists—they will be wanting to implement their radical policies, but how to do it without tearing apart Nepali society.

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