May 16, 2010
Peter Lee, an American journalist -- who writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy -- has written a well-documented piece in yesterday’s Asia Times. Personal disclosure: Impartiality cannot be claimed since Mr. Lee interviewed me and quoted me for the article.
The abrupt curtailment on May 7 of the bandh or general strike in Kathmandu called by the United Communist Party Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) seemed to demonstrate the limits of the Maoists' popular support. However, this apparent setback reflects a deal to smooth the Maoists' re-entry into Nepal's government as China and Western powers try to bring an end to months of unproductive and potentially violent deadlock. Beijing looks forward to the formation of a consensus government incorporating the Maoists and responsive to China's concerns.
India, on the other hand, must ponder if it is ready to resign itself to the loss of a compliant if ineffectual client regime in Kathmandu.
New Delhi orchestrated the entry of the Maoist insurgents into mainstream politics. Then, alarmed by the Maoists' victories in the 2008 parliamentary elections, it propped up a rump government of democratic parties that has been able to exclude the Maoists from civilian power, but unable to win widespread respect and support. Concurrently, India ramped up its ties with the reliably anti-Maoist Nepalese army, raising the specter of military intervention and a return to civil war if the process of political reconciliation collapsed.
Faced with Indian stonewalling, the Maoists found a willing ally in Beijing - even though, on ideological grounds, the UCPN-M excoriates the current regime of the Chinese Communist Party as "revisionist".
During the brief period in 2008 after the election when the Maoists held power, in a conscious and high-profile break with precedent, the prime minister made his first official visit to Beijing instead of New Delhi. During the mortifying anti-Chinese demonstrations in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games, the Maoist government ingratiated itself to China by coming down hard on restive Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu.
Soon after, the Maoists pulled out of the government in a dispute over successful (and somewhat unconstitutional) efforts by Nepal's (pro-Indian) president to block the Maoists' attempts to remove the (pro-Indian) chief of army staff.
Since then, in an atmosphere of increasing acrimony and anti-Indian resentment, the Maoists have struggled to push aside the tottering bourgeois edifice of coalition government nominally led by Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Nepali Congress. Together with their People's Liberation Army (PLA) personnel rusticating in United Nations-supervised cantonements and thuggish Youth Communist League (YCL) street forces, the Maoists are increasingly seen and resented as a part of the problem.
Although the Maoists dominate large areas of the countryside, the urban insurrectionary nut has proved hard to crack.
At the beginning of May, the Maoists mustered over 100,000 supporters to Kathmandu to demand that a Maoist-led administration replace the current order. The government, reportedly with backbone inserted by the Indian government, declined to fold. Western powers met with the Maoists' leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (nom de guerre "Prachanda", meaning "awesome") to urge restraint.
The Maoists' claim to iron-handed control of the streets was challenged by an embarrassing counter-demonstration of some 20,000 white-shirt clad opponents. Prachanda decided not to escalate matters and called off the bandh.
There was a certain amount of exultant backslapping among the democratic parties that somebody had finally faced down the Maoists. However, the euphoria was short-lived.
If the India-backed government had its way, it would have weathered the bandh simply to kick the political can another year down the road by extending the term of the current Constituent Assembly - which, by virtue of the Maoists' boycott, has been able to accomplish nothing for a long, long time.
However, this prospect was apparently not pleasing to the European Union, the United States or China.
The deadlock has a cost. Financially and economically, Nepal is a basket case. According to government statistics, 66% of Nepalese households are short of food and half of the children in the country are malnourished - and no doubt providing a ready reservoir of future cadres for the Maoists. 
More importantly, the Maoists apparently have no intention of allowing the current government to extend its rule.
May 28, 2010, is the witching hour - this is the date, after over two futile and unproductive years, when the mandate of the Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution and make way for normalized, democratic business, expires.
The Maoists have declared that no extension of the assembly is acceptable and the current government will have its legality evaporate on May 28.
The Maoists have circulated reports that they are preparing a "final jolt" - another round of mass demonstrations and strikes designed to plunge the nation into a constitutional crisis and pave the way for the Maoists' triumphant return to government on their own terms.
Observing the Maoist display of muscle in Kathmandu and the continued helplessness of the coalition government as it stumbled into the waning days of its existence, the US and EU have apparently decided to remove the Nepal brief from New Delhi's hands and try to orchestrate a more peaceful transition.
China finds itself in the highly satisfactory position of lining up with the United States and against India on the matter of Nepal, which has been recognized - both by the West and by China - as well within India's sphere of influence for decades.
Already prior to the bandh, on April 26, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake visited Kathmandu to encourage the Maoists to renounce violence both in the upcoming demonstration and in their political platform.
In return, various inducements were offered: removal of the Maoists from the US terrorist list and the promise that, if PLA combatants couldn't find a happy home in the army, the West would throw some money at the problem ("vocational training or other kinds of training," as Blake put it). 
On April 29, Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Command, visited Kathmandu to talk things over with the Nepalese army and, presumably, discourage them from the idea of pouring from their barracks to violently suppress the bandh.
Or, as the US Embassy put it:
[Willard] reiterated the United States' position that all parties should exercise restraint during the planned upcoming demonstrations and work to fashion a permanent peace through dialogue and constructive consultations. 
On May 4, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu departed from China's stated policy of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs and obliquely stated Beijing's support for a government that included the Maoists:
As a friendly neighbor, China sincerely hopes that all political parties in Nepal ... seek political common ground and properly handle internal differences through dialogue and consultation so as to jointly press ahead with the hard-won peace process ... 
After Prachanda obligingly pulled the plug on the irritating but non-violent bandh (featuring the usual heavy-handed intimidation and extortion of money, goods and services by the YCL, but little overt bashing with clubs, bricks and bars), the US, the EU and China stepped in to encourage the formation of a consensus government, that is, a government that included the Maoists and, on the basis of the Maoists' plurality in the 2008 elections, a Maoist prime minister.
The Telegraph Nepal, which often displays a resentment of New Delhi's interference in Nepalese affairs, reported on the state of play - and the perceived discomfiture of India's ambassador - with some relish on May 7:
[US ambassador Scott] DeLisi told [UCPN-Maoist number 2] Dr Bhattarai that the US was ready to play a positive role to bring a logical end to the stalled peace process of Nepal.
"We expect Nepal's two immediate neighbors, India and China, to play constructive roles to end the current political impasse”, the US envoy in his meeting with the Maoists' leader said, adding, "But, Nepalis themselves should find a solution to their internal dispute."
The US for the first time has seen the need of the Chinese regime to ""play" a role in ending the current Nepal dispute. A grand departure from the old practices indeed. [India's] ambassador Rakesh Sood has reasons to panic. 
On May 11, the Telegraph Nepal reported on rumblings in the local-language press concerning a meeting between the Western ambassadors and the Nepalese foreign minister:
Ambassador DeLisi preferred not to make any comments but yet when he came out of the meeting room he told journalists that the US had no objection to the formation of the Maoist-party-led government, but the strings remain attached, writes the Kantipur Daily, May 11, 2010.
The Nagarik Daily, May 11, 2010 on the other hand reveals quoting an unnamed source as saying that the ambassadors clearly hinted during the meeting that Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal should tender his resignation to pave way for formation of a National Unity Government. 
The "strings attached" relate to the reconstitution of the UCPN-Maoists as a conventional political party through the dissolution of its military and paramilitary wings - the PLA and YCL.
A fortuitous announcement of American largesse seems to confirm that the US is encouraging the move to a deal with the usual financial inducements, as the Himalayan Times relayed an announcement from the US Embassy:
Nepal has been selected as one of 20 focus countries for US President [Barack] Obama's $3.5 billion Feed the Future initiative, a comprehensive approach that aims at reducing poverty in the developing world. 
China also joined the club with the announcement that it would provide 30 million Nepalese rupees (US$416,490) worth of food-related aid to 10 districts along the Chinese-Nepali border. 
The Times of India grimly confirmed the buzz out of Kathmandu and the unwelcome perception that, for the moment at least, New Delhi must share the coveted Nepal brief with the West:
Usurping the Indian role of playing big brother in Nepal's political affairs, Western governments, including the European Union, have begun mounting pressure on Nepal's beleaguered Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to quit. 
Premier Nepal, for his part, tried to disrupt the proceedings and sow discord within the UCPN-M by declaring he would not step down in favor of Prachanda - the brusque, determined "Mao Zedong" of the movement, as it were - and implying that his Chou Enlai (and rival for power), the silky, superior Dr Baburam Bhattarai, would be the preferred choice.
However, the West's apparent designation of Prime Minister Nepal as a lame duck seems to have tipped the post-bandh political balance back to the Maoists.
Bhattarai exploited the perception of Western dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Nepal (and attempted to dodge the awkward question of dissolving the YCL) to assert that the premier was reneging on a deal to step down after the Maoists called off the bandh.
China's state media helped keep the ball rolling by picking up a report from the website nepalnews.com with the UCPN-M-friendly title "Entrepreneurs urge PM to resign for consensus". 
However, Xinhua found it expedient to excise one paragraph from the original that was not particularly flattering to the Maoists:
PM Nepal also urged the entrepreneurs not to give donations to the Maoists, saying giving donations to Maoists would be like feeding milk to a snake. 
The People's Daily pulled the article altogether, leaving only the title. 
If reports in the Nepalese press are accurate, Western powers are expressing dissatisfaction with the government's foot-dragging on reconciliation and it appears the call to dissolve the YCL might become lost in the shuffle.
On May 12, the two main coalition parties, the Nepali Congress and the UML, resigned themselves to Prime Minister Nepal's departure but tried to throw a different wrench in the works by calling for the Maoists to announce a plan for eliminating PLA cantonements and committing to a "timetable" for writing the constitution as conditions for setting up a consensus government. 
For a party that has the word "Maoist" right there in its name, the surrender of military assets - particularly when squaring off again against the Nepalese army is a real possibility - is a difficult pill to swallow.
Nevertheless, Prachanda declared his willingness to resolve the PLA issue within four months and returned the focus to forcing out the unpopular prime minister. In the words of nepalnews:
Stating that Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal will not resign at any cost even if UML asks him, [Prachanda] finally said it was a tussle between progressive and regressive forces, which will determine whether republican Nepal will grow as an independent or dependent nation. 
If the coalition parties continue to throw up roadblocks instead of capitulating, the Maoists may decide to let the struggle play out on their terms after May 28 and turn to mediation from Western powers and China to put Prachanda in the prime minister's chair and keep the Nepalese army off the streets.
That would not be a particularly welcome outcome for New Delhi.
However, India may finally decide that reconciliation, at least on the surface, between the hostile parties is preferable to the resumption of a bloody, grinding civil war on its northern border near the "Red Corridor" where New Delhi is wrestling with its own nettlesome Naxalite Maoist insurgency.
India's problems are, to a large extent, of its own making.
As author and Nepal expert Mikel Dunham told Asia Times Online, "India is reaping what it sowed ... It always had the upper hand in its dealings with Nepal and treated them like poor country cousins. Now India can't make overt moves in Nepalese politics. They are damned if they do and damned if they don't."
China finds itself in a strong position in Kathmandu, no matter what happens. It has managed to keep its distance from the Maoists and position itself as a generous and relatively apolitical provider of aid and promoter of stability and development.
Dunham commented, "It doesn't make any difference who's in power. Anyone in power will subscribe to a one-China policy. And that is all Beijing expects of the Nepali government, at least at this juncture."
1. Nepal selected for Obama's $3.5 b programme, The Himalayan Times, May 12, 2010.
2. Press Conference by Assistant Secretary Blake in Kathmandu, Nepal, America.gov, Apr 26, 2010
3. ADMIRAL ROBERT F. WILLARD CONCLUDES VISIT TO NEPAL, Nepal.usembassy.gov, Apr 29, 2010
4. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu's Regular Press Conference on May 4, 2010 , Foreign Ministry of PRC.
5. US prefers China & India playing practical role in ending Nepal quarrel, Telegraph Nepal, May 7, 2010
6. Manage win-win situation for all in Nepal: Western envoys, Telegraph Nepal, May 11, 2010
7. Nepal selected for Obama's $3.5 b programme, The Himalayan Times, May 12, 2010
8. Chinese aid for 10 food crunch-hit hill districts, The Himalayan Times, May 11, 2010
9. West pressures Nepal PM to quit, The Times of India, May 10, 2010
10. Entrepreneurs urge Nepali PM to resign for consensus. Xinhua, May 9, 2010
11. Entrepreneurs urge PM to resign for consensus, Nepal News, May 9, 2010
12. Entrepreneurs urge Nepali PM to resign for consensus, People's Daily, May 9, 2010
13. NC, UML flexible on demand for national govt, Republica, May 12, 2010
14. Maoists ready to keep combatants under special committee, Nepal News, May 12, 2010