Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022

Tempered By Democracy

While Delhi bends over-backwards to keep Prime Minister Prachanda happy, the man himself is already sinking in the quagmire of a political system called democracy. His real test begins now as he returns from Beijing...


The Chief of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda’s takeover as Prime Minister has already created a minor tremor in the domestic political scenario and the world of diplomacy. In Nepal, the politics of consensus that was not only a political commitment, but a constitutional dictate, has come to an end. The Nepali Congress (NC), the second largest party in the 601-member Constituent Assembly (CA), has not only decided to sit in the opposition, it is fast transforming into a bitter political adversary. The United States (US), which still has the CPN-M on its terrorist list, is trying to mend fences without actually knowing how. India is suspicious of the Maoists’ perceived proximity to China. And the European Union (EU) is cautiously watching how the Maoist-led government will deal with the human rights issues and promote the politics of pluralism, with the right of dissent as its integral part. 

All this, of course, demands pragmatic balancing abilities on Prachanda’s part. It may be too early to come to any definitive conclusion within a week of his takeover as Prime Minister, but things do not appear smooth and rosy. On August 22, he failed to form the Cabinet at its desired size. The Communist Party of Nepal -- Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), part of the three-party alliance under Maoist leadership, chose not to join at the last minute. Prachanda was firmly reluctant to accept Bamdeb Gautam, a two-time Deputy Prime Minister in the past, as his number two, or to undermine the seniority of his long-term comrade and intellectual prop, Baburam Bhattarai, now his finance minister. The CPN-UML has threatened to walk out of the alliance, if Prachanda did not offer the number two position to Gautam. The appointment of Upendra Yadav of the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) may be seen Prachanda attempt at accommodation, but if the NC and UML, the two major national parties, stay away from the government, Nepal will most likely be headed towards political instability and economic ruin. Moreover, the process of drafting the new Constitution, which calls for at least a two-thirds majority for adoption of each clause, will not be possible at all.

Prachanda’s real test will begin this week, when he returns from Beijing after attending the concluding event of the Olympic games. He apparently ignored India’s direct request to first visit Nepal’s southern neighbour, in keeping with past practice. "It’s a sports-related visit and not directed against India at all", C.P. Gajurel, head of foreign affairs of the party, clarified. But India will, perhaps, need more concrete assurances from the Maoists. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not only sent a warm invitation to Dahal to visit Delhi at the ‘earliest convenient date’, he took all possible care not to annoy Prachanda. Dr. Singh said India and Nepal need to fight common enemies like hunger, scarcity and poverty, but omission of ‘terrorism’ was part of a deliberate effort of appeasement towards the Nepali Maoists, and demonstrates how important it is for Delhi to keep Prachanda happy.

Prachanda, of course, realizes that mere radical slogans are not going to keep the people mesmerized for long. The King and the monarchy are gone. The NC, which has ruled the country for nearly ten of the 15 years of democracy, is not part of the government. In other words, Prachanda’s government has no ‘cushion’ available, and the people’s wrath will fix directly on him. That is why his first address to the nation as a Prime Minister, just before his departure for China, was far more circumspect than earlier orations. For the first time, he made it clear that his government was totally committed to a multi-party democracy based on pluralism, that there would be regular elections, and that the rule of law would prevail. That was a veiled admission that, as Prime Minister, he would not be encouraging a parallel regime of the Young Communist League (YCL) and that of various other CPN-M organisations, including its Kangaroo courts. 

Prachanda also pledged that his party would hold no grudge against the Nepal Army, much vilified in the past by the Maoists, and solicited all help from the Army, the Armed Police force, the para-military forces that were set up to fight ‘terrorists’ some five years ago, the Nepal Police and the government’s intelligence wing, the National Investigation Department. Invoking the ‘nation is under threat’ slogan, he said his topmost priority was to save the country’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. "If that cannot be saved, democracy and republic will lose all relevance," adding, further, that "one party, one man or one institution alone can not save this." Touching on this most emotive issue, Prachanda solicited individual and institutional support, but, at no stage, did he reveal where the threat emanated from. Many read this statement as an indication that Prachanda is in no hurry to integrate the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the Nepal Army.

As Prime Minister, Prachanda is certainly trying to dispel the impression at home that the Maoists, once in power, will establish authoritarian one-party rule. There are still fears in the public that, with the monarchy voted out in a captive CA that did not even allow a debate on the issue, the Maoists would target the Nepal Army, the judiciary -- mainly the Supreme Court -- and the Media, institutions that could create organized resistance to authoritarianism. Prachanda’s appeal will, however, still be seen more as a tactic than a change of heart and mission, since other senior leaders of his party have said that their war for a ‘people’s republic’ will continue from the government, CA and the street. All Prachanda’s pledges, including the one that his government would respect press freedom and human rights are, consequently, met with visible degrees of public distrust.

The Maoists are yet to return the property they ‘confiscated’ from individuals during the years of conflict -- something Prachanda pledged to do long ago, when he signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement way back in 2006. The YCL is presently lying low, but its military structure has not yet been dismantled. Prachanda will now be judged more on delivery than on rhetoric. In other words, he may not have a reasonable spell of what is called a ‘honeymoon period’ which any new government would normally enjoy. The reason is simple: either as an insider or an outsider, the CPN-M has determined the course of politics and major political decisions in the country ever since they joined the peace process in April 2006.

Apart from the law and order situation being at its lowest ebb, the country has been suffering from acute shortages of fuel and cooking gas for the past two years, mainly due to the huge arrears of the Nepal Oil Corporation against the Indian Oil Corporation, the sole supplier for Nepal. The country’s far-western and some eastern areas have already been declared scarcity hit, with starvation looming large. The government’s ability to deliver, or lack thereof, will largely dictate how people will view the new government. Further, the UML and NC decision to stay away from the government not only makes the Constitution writing process difficult, it also endangers the peace process. That will have a direct bearing on the prospects of the government.

But Nepal’s politics has an equal, if not greater, external component as well. India mediated and brought the Maoist and pro-democracy forces together in the anti-monarchy platform, getting them to sign a 12-point Agreement way back in November 2005, but is now sore over the Maoists’ perceived pro-China tilt, seeing Prachanda’s recent visit to Beijing as evidence. 

Prachanda has, at times, shown scant respect for India’s security concerns, and is on record having supported a ‘plebiscite’ in Jammu and Kashmir and in India’s Northeast. As he moved closer to the power, however, he and his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, have tried to convince Delhi that they would respect India’s genuine security interests and not allow Nepal to be used against its southern neighbour. In the same breath, however, they have also said that all the major treaties that Nepal has signed with India need a review, if considered necessary, may be scrapped. The first such treaty they have in mind is the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, besides other agreements concerning hydro-projects. The day following his takeover, Prachanda said that the first ever hydro-power treaty that Nepal signed with India (the Kosi project) was a ‘historic blunder’ and that he would take the devastation caused by the Kosi flood on the Nepal side to the international community.

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, mainly L.K. Advani, the party’s projected prime ministerial candidate for the 2009 elections, has accused the Manmohan Singh government of ‘outsourcing’ its Nepal policy to the Communist Party of India -- Marxist (CPI-M). Advani was equally critical of the world’s only Hindu kingdom being turned into a ‘secular republic’ without involving the people in this decision. The BJP’s possible return to power may not be the undoing of what has already happened in Nepal, but Prachanda has other reasons to fear the BJP’s return to power. Prachanda is likely to undertake a visit to India sooner than many think, as he also needs to address Delhi’s suspicion over his China visit. 

There are other international players as well, who are cautiously watching developments in Nepal. The EU has raked up the issue of suppression of the ‘Free Tibet’ movement (the CPN-M and the UML are two parties that have ‘denounced’ the free Tibet movement as something that Nepal should not be encouraging). With Prachanda’s visit to China, and Beijing’s sensitivities on the subject, Kathmandu’s ruthlessness towards the movement is almost certain to increase. What is yet to be seen is how the EU will respond, and whether any future repression will have a bearing on the grants and assistance that Nepal receives from the EU. There is also the US, with the Maoists still stuck with the ‘terrorist’ tag, warning the new rulers to adhere to international standards of human rights and freedoms.

Balancing domestic and external compulsions will be a tough job indeed. It remains to be seen whether Prachanda’s party, which has not only survived and expanded on radical slogans and finally come to grab power, will allow the new government to be just a little more efficient, and forego their radical dream. But Prachanda’s chair will certainly start shaking the moment he gives more weight to his party’s programmes and policies. He will be equally vulnerable the moment he stops to listen to the EU and other liberal democratic constituencies. Prachanda is already sinking in the quagmire of a political system called democracy.

Yubaraj Ghimire is Editor, Samay and Newsfront, Kathmandu. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal