May 18, 2021
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Dangerous Brinkmanship

The Maoists are not blame-free. They lacked caution and patience. They had the option of avoiding this debacle. But now, the big powers in the neighbourhood need to resist the temptation to meddle into the internal affairs of Nepal and let the variou

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Dangerous Brinkmanship

Nepal is an important crucible for the idea of democracy. Can democracy as a system accommodate, moderate and discipline political forces that owe their existence to revolutionary violence and populism directed against an authoritarian establishment? Or will democracy unravel itself due to irreconcilable differences? The stability of western democracies is ascribed to a certain level of socio-economic development and broad agreement over the fundamentals of the political system. In the absence of such conditions, are postcolonial democracies like Nepal doomed to forever be fragile?

The ongoing political crisis in Nepal -- the sacking of the army chief by the Maoist government, followed by the President’s declaration of the act as unconstitutional, and then the resignation of the powerful Prime minister Dahal (more commonly known as Prachanda) -- comes as a jolt to the international community. The absence of Nepal from international news circuit in recent months gave a false sense of satisfaction that democracy and peace had won there.

The largely orderly elections, Maoists moving into the government and working along with other political parties, the abolishing of monarchy, and the Constituent Assembly’s declaration that there will be a new Constitution by May 2010 meant that a democratic system was finding its feet in the shifting sands of Nepalese politics. But beneath the surface lay the unresolved tension over the basic principle of statehood -- monopoly over legal violence. Who controls the armed forces? The tricky situation for the new government led by the Maoist led alliance government was to integrate the former rebels into the army.

Stable representative systems require the civilian government’s control over armed forces. In Nepal the peace process had left the two fighting sides -- the army as well as the Maoist rebels -- fully armed and more crucially, in distrust of each other.

The army chief in question, an establishment man to the boot, acted in defiance of the orders of the government in continuing the recruitment drive while keeping the former rebels out. His actions should be seen in the context of the old establishment’s contempt of the leftist rebels’ victory in democratic elections, divisions within the governing coalition over the pace of change, and the tacit disquiet India had with the Maoists’s warmer relations with China. The crisis was in the making for weeks and blew up because the Maoists in power were being made to look weak against the defiant army chief. By resigning, the Prime Minister has clearly decided to play the game of brinkmanship rather than compromise for he was losing credibility within the Maoist rank and file.

While Maoists would like to project themselves as the injured party facing insurmountable hurdles from the conservative establishment, they are not blame-free. They lacked caution and patience. They had the option of avoiding this debacle. They could have waited for three more months for the general to retire or tried harder to carry along the coalition allies opposed to the immediate sacking. It is more important to win the argument than score a point. Democratic process is about compromises and deliberations and the Maoists clearly haven’t made a full transition from their mindset of being in revolutionary opposition where all other political parties are branded as stooges of the establishment.

The big powers in the neighbourhood should resist the temptation to meddle into the internal affairs and let the various parties sort out the mess. By taking the matter to the streets, different sides may be vying to win the battle but they clearly risk losing the war to win peace and stable democracy in Nepal.

Dr Dibyesh Anand is an Associate Professor at London’s Westminster University, an expert on majority-minority relations in China and India, and the author of Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination and Hindu Nationalism and Politics of Fear in India. This piece also appears in the Guardian

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