With concluding thoughts by Dibyesh Anand
May 4, 2009
Today, when the Maoist government collapsed, it tumbled with all the hushed rapidity of a riffling house of cards.
It took Prachanda a mere thirteen minutes, in his televised address to the nation, to announce his dénouement, precipitated by his failed attempt to fire Chief of Army General Katawal. In the previous 48 hours, two major allies of his coalition government had pulled out, the President of Nepal had ordered General Katawal to remain in office despite his dismissal by the Prime Minister and, in what would be Prachanda’s final cabinet meeting, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum and the Communist Party of Nepal (United) – the last remaining allies of the Maoists -- boycotted the proceedings, leaving it clear that Prachanda had come full circle in successfully, unilaterally, isolating himself from Nepal’s political multi-party power base.
Anger and frustration in Nepal had been building for months. Power shortages of 16 hours per day had become the norm. Fuel shortages were equally vexing. Industrial output had flat-lined. And prices for food and other necessities had continued to rise in spite of Maoist claims that the economic situation was being properly handled.
Many people in Kathmandu were forced to huddle in hushed groups around the facades of TV shops in order to hear their Prime Minister resign; they had no electricity in their homes.
Prachanda’s brief speech claimed moral high ground. He told his audience that he had struggled to serve the public but that the Maoist party had been “barred from leading the government for four months. …I announce, through this address, my resignation from the cabinet I have chaired so as to put an end to this difficult situation and create a positive environment for salvaging democracy, nationalism and the peace process that are currently at risk.”
Then he pointed the finger. He blamed the CPN-UML party for creating a series of obstacles: First the UML had consented to the Maoists’ wish to sack the army chief but then later retracted their support. He blamed the president for breaching his constitutional limitations by ordering General Katawal to stay in office, in direct contradiction of Prachanda’s order. He blamed foreign powers for sticking their noses into Nepalese domestic affairs.
What Prachanda did not address was the possibility that he and the Maoist party had painted themselves into a corner by making promises to their rural voting base that were never realistic; that the Maoists had behaved as if they had garnered a mandate during the elections, instead of a simple majority that would require cooperation and consensus with the other parties; and finally, that he had grievously misread the tealeaves when he determined that he was powerful enough to oust Nepal’s Army Chief.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN NEPAL?
Some of the more high-spirited bloggers are already sounding the death knell for democracy in Nepal by either predicting that the Indian government is going to reassert itself within a new “old” power coalition of Nepali sycophants, or that the Maoists will join forces with their Indian counterparts, the Naxalites, thereby creating hell on earth in southern Nepal and the Indian states of Bihar and Bengal.
The latter scenario seems particularly unlikely to this writer, at least at this juncture, because there has been no persuasive argument put forward to suggest that Maoist leadership has procured an appetite for abandoning constitutional politics.
It seems more likely, then, that the Nepali Congress and the Communist UML party, with the help of other smaller groups, will form a new coalition. The Maoists may or may not choose to lead an opposition party.
Street protests of varying degrees of severity can be expected. If they reach a certain level of volatility and violence, any coalition party would find it nearly impossible to proceed with the drafting of a new constitution and the other hurdles set down as key parts to the 2006 peace deal.
Economic stability, already under fire from external conditions, will continue to fight for its life.
Fresh elections could be ordered. But what party in Nepal is currently ready to risk the outcome of free elections?
One thing is certain: Nepal now finds itself in an unprecedented political mess and the peace process has never been more unlikely. Prachanda may have exited quietly, but the rumblings can already be heard in the distance.
Dibyesh Anand, a young British-Indian writer based in London, has written an impressive piece in today’s London Guardian on what the Prime Minister’s resignation may mean to Nepal’s fledging democratic process. Its thought-provoking content is worth republishing here:
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 amid irreconcilable differences? Western democracies' stability 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 be forever 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 provided a false sense of satisfaction that democracy and peace had won there.
The sequence of largely orderly elections, Maoists moving into the government and working along with other political parties, the abolition of the monarchy and the constituent assembly's declaration that there will be a new constitution by May 2010, had indicated 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. The key question was and is, who controls the armed forces?
The tricky task for the new government headed by the Maoist-led alliance 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 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 his boots, acted in defiance of the orders of the government by continuing a recruitment drive while keeping former rebels out. His behavior must be seen in the context of the old establishment's contempt for the Maoists' victory in democratic elections, divisions within the governing coalition over the pace of change and the tacit disquiet India had with the Maoists' warmer relations with China.
The crisis was in the making for weeks, but finally 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 the Maoists would like to project themselves as the injured party facing insurmountable obstruction from the conservative establishment, they are not blame-free. They had the option of avoiding this debacle, yet lacked caution and patience. They could have waited for three more months for the general to retire or persevered with coalition allies opposed to the immediate sacking. 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 neighborhood should resist the temptation to meddle in Nepal's internal affairs and let the various parties sort out the mess. By taking the dispute to the streets, the different sides are attempting to flex their populist political muscles, but by doing so, they are playing for very high stakes indeed – the very future of peace and stable democracy in Nepal.