August 14, 2010
“Politics is the art of postponing decisions until they are no longer relevant.”
Henri Queuille, 20th century French politician
Today, there are plenty of Nepalis who would agree, even though, by nature, Nepalis are not a cynical people. Quite the opposite: Nepalis are remarkably resilient to the more discouraging vagaries of politics. One of their favorite sayings is, “Miracles happen.” Even during the Maoist insurgency, which erupted in 1996 and proliferated for 10 years in the hinterlands – even after 13,000-plus Nepalis perished from the Maoist/governmental forces struggle and multiple thousands were displaced – the people of Nepal held on.
Likewise, in the Kathmandu Valley, when the king assumed absolute power and dissolved the cabinet and parliament, a large contingent kept their fingers crossed and, at least at the beginning, gave the king the benefit of the doubt. Historically, Nepalis have hoped for the best.
How did Nepal go from “Anything is possible” to widespread pessimism? Remembering the Rapid and Dramatic Changes
In April 2006, mass protests erupted, virtually shutting down the country. 24 protestors died in the streets. After two weeks of what would be called the “Rhododendron Revolution”, the king was forced to cede his autocratic rule. Peace negotiations between the Maoists and government officials ensued. This culminated in a November 2006 peace accord and the promulgation of an interim constitution. The Maoist insurgency was over. The people breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The next step in transitioning the nation was to hold national elections for a Constituent Assembly. Critics said fair elections would be impossible. But the people of Nepal proved the pundits wrong. After several false starts, a nation-wide election was held in April 2008. You could taste the hope; it hung in the air like a long-forgotten fragrance.
I was one of the international observers for the elections, and I saw my share of situations that could be termed “irregular”.
But given the contentious atmosphere of the districts I covered – Morang, Sunsari, Dhankuta – I came away believing that the anticipated violence and corruption at the polls had been kept to a unexpected minimum – particularly in light of the recent 10-year insurgency. The voters came out early and in great numbers. Since vehicles were banned, they walked miles to reach their polling stations – something I could not imagine my fellow Americans doing in order to exercise their rights as free citizens. I was inspired by the voters’ expressions, radiating fierce determination to be part of a genuine democratic process.
The newly formed Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a federal democratic republic and abolished the monarchy at its first meeting the following month. Some were ecstatic others disenfranchised. But the nation had reason to congratulate itself for discarding its war paint and marching toward a more democratic future.
The Constituent Assembly elected the country's first president in July. The Maoists, who received a plurality of votes in the Constituent Assembly election, formed a coalition government in August 2008. Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, the Maoist Supremo – who, until recently, had had a dead-or-alive bounty on his head -- became the first prime minister of the new republic.
But down to business: The primary task of the 601 members of the Constituent Assembly was to pen a new constitution within the next two years. Without the timely promulgation of a new constitution, law and order, judiciary concerns, infrastructure, economic stability, social programs, and other areas of neglect created by the ten-year insurgency, could not be properly addressed.
Prime Minister Prachanda assured the nation that he would put the people’s needs first and foremost; that he understood that Nepalis yearned for peace, stability and prosperity; that moving the nation forward would require a synergy between the various political parties; that everyone would have to work hand in hand. And really, Prachanda was in great position to achieve these goals. He came into office empowered by the good will of a large part of the Nepali population. He clearly saw himself as the savior and – love him or hate him – he strode into office with the most precious of all political attributes: the glamour of momentum.
Chinks in Prachanda’s armor
Prachanda’s forte was not diplomacy. His one proven talent was his ability to rouse the voiceless hinterlands into a well-organized insurgency. Transforming his outsider’s revolutionary attributes into the role of a peacemaker who could unify a Constituent Assembly crowded with non-Maoist ideologies – interacting with the norms and vagaries of any body of lawmakers – was either beyond his capabilities or was antithetical to his personal disposition. The unraveling of his brief tenure started from there.
The Maoists intended to muscle their way into getting what they wanted in parliament. So keen was their focus that they failed to ease people’s concern about the state of public security and law. Districts across the Tarai, from the eastern and central heartland of the Madhesi movement to the far west, continued to be plagued by insecurity and, in many areas, a near collapse of governance and policing became all too evident.
Another thing that stuck in the craw of Nepalis was the violence of the Maoist youth wing, the Youth Communist League (YCL), and – even more disturbing – Prachanda’s unwillingness to hold the YCL accountable. The cadres were involved with a variety of thug activities: intimidating the weak, capturing local government contracts, closing down private schools, extorting money from businessmen, illegally occupying properties, vandalizing the offices of the media who dared to write negative articles about the Maoists, killing journalists, and a slew of other unsavory undertakings that were conducted with shocking impunity.
In addition, anger and frustration began to build over power shortages of 16 hours per day, which became the mind-numbing norm. Fuel shortages were equally vexing. Industrial output flat-lined. Prices for food and other necessities continued to rise in spite of Maoist claims that the economic situation was being properly handled.
Internally, the Maoist party was struggling with its own demons. The ultra-left faction grumbled that Prachanda was not moving quickly enough to force the Nepal Army to integrate into their fold the 19,000 ex-rebels sequestered in faraway cantonments. What was Prachanda’s timetable for turning Nepal into a Marxist regime? The less radical faction of the party began to realize that they had painted themselves into a corner by making promises to their rural voting base that they could never keep. It was only when they were confronted with this that the party became completely united and went on the offensive, blaming India, the United States, the other parties, Madhesis, royalists – anyone, in fact, who didn’t belong to the Maoist party.
When it came to Prachanda’s dealings with the international community, he was proving to be a veritable weather vane, presenting one persona to foreign diplomats and an entirely different “Prachanda” in domestic speeches. To give one example: On February 11, 2009, Prachanda met with US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher in an effort to assure him that the Maoists were dedicated to a democratic process and to advocate that the Maoists should be stricken from the U.S. terrorist blacklist. And yet the next day Prachanda appeared at the People’s Liberation Army’s anniversary ceremony, bragging to his rank and file that their militancy remained legitimate within in the context of the new regime and that the capture of the State was still the Maoist goal.
Ditto for Prachanda’s relationship with India: Privately, he professed to his Indian counterparts that he was committed to upholding Indian interests in Nepal but, publicly, he blamed Delhi for just about every thing that wasn’t working in Nepal.
What about China? Prachanda’s courtship with China had merits, but some of his Beijing wooing began to look like unnecessary sucker-punches directed toward India. When Prachanda chose to make his first international visit to China, (rather than the traditional courtesy call to India), it induced glee among the anti-Indian factions, but what did it really achieve? At the time, China was far more interested in the success of the Beijing Olympics than making a fuss over an unproven leader from a tiny nation – a man, moreover, whose passive-aggressive motives were hardly subtle. China wanted but two things from Nepal: to prohibit its Tibetan refugee population from garnering anti-Chinese headlines and to get domestic stability up and running. Prachanda could handle the Tibetans but was he really interested in stabilizing and unifying his country?
Back in parliament, political pluralism – that great theme of the 2008 elections – fell by the wayside. Chest thumping became the name of the Prachanda’s game. He behaved as if his party had garnered a mandate from the people when, in fact, it had won 38% of the votes: a simple majority.
But of all Prachanda’s blunders, none were so great as his misguided belief that he was powerful enough to oust Nepal’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Rookmangud Katawal. Intimidation simply did not faze the general. Instinctively, non-Maoist parties began to rally behind Katawal’s stalwartness, as did the Supreme Court. Finally, President Ram Baran Yadav did too. It was the last nail in the coffin of Prachanda’s eight-month regime. On May 4, 2009, Prachanda resigned. The Maoist members of the Constituent Assembly walked out of parliament and instantly became the opposition to the endeavors of parliament.
Taking stock of Prachanda’s track record and the sinking of morale
People began wondering: What was the reason for the 2006 “Rhododendron Revolution” in the first place? People had revolted against (not so much the monarchy but) the inflexible leadership embodied by the king. Was inflexibility not a fairly accurate description of Prachanda – the very man they had put into government to replace of the king?
What had Prachanda achieved during his leadership? The military ceasefire was still in tact, but the peace process was in tatters. Infrastructure had not been improved. Law and order had not only not made headway but, many argued, had worsened, particularly in the south. The economic situation had not improved thanks, in part, to the YCL’s extortion of businesses. Freedom of the press had been seriously compromised. Maoist leadership had challenged the sanctity of the judiciary on more than one issue. The human rights record was no better. And what about Prachanda’s primary duty to the Nepali people: to ensure that the penning of a new constitution moved forward. Miracles may happen in Nepal, but the reality was that, when Prachanda stepped down as prime minister, there was very little evidence that the constitution was coming into focus. Nearly a year had been squandered with only one year left before the deadline.
The Hapless Leadership of Madhav Kumar Nepal
After the Maoists quit parliament, it was left to the remaining parties to come up with a new prime minister. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), better known as UML, and the National Congress party (NA) – off-and-on allies – vied, through internal arrangements, for the position. Less powerful parties aligned themselves according to their own personal agendas. Whoever was chosen, it seemed likely that the new prime minister would be, at best, a stop-gap measure until the Constituent Assembly could regain some semblance of a body dedicated to plurality.
In the end, the UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal was selected and sworn in on May 25, 2009. It seemed like an odd choice. He wasn’t even a member of the Constituent Assembly, having been badly defeated during the national elections. But perhaps that was the point. The profound lack of trust between the various parties had propelled them to avoid appointing a clear-cut leader in favor of someone whose political career was the least threatening. Prime Minister Nepal inherited a Constituent Assembly in pathological deadlock and there was little he could do to break the logjam.
A full year passed with no breakthroughs. The deadline for the completion of the new constitution – May 28, 2010 – came and went with no constitution in sight. The Constituent Assembly voted for a one-year extension to complete their primary task. Prime Minister Nepal announced his resignation on June 30, 2010
Immediately after, Prachanda announced his intention to take back the prime ministry. Just as immediately, the other parties blocked his move with their own candidates. The policital cement hardened.
As Prashant Jha recently wrote:
The roots of the present crisis can be traced to the deep trust deficit between the Maoists and non-Maoists; issue-based and personality-driven differences within parties, a complex arithmetic in the parliament where no party has a majority, and a troubled India-Maoist relationship.
Large sections of the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist-Leninist), and Madhesi parties do not trust the Maoist commitment to democracy. They cite the Maoist reluctance to ‘give up the PLA'; the presence of a militant youth wing; the Maoist track record of ‘attacking' institutions while in government; and ‘undemocratic' constitutional proposals as proof of their totalitarian mindset. The fact that the Maoists are stronger than many of the older mainstream parties put together adds to their fear.
Maoists feel cheated out of power despite being the largest party in the house. They allege that older parties have allied with the Nepal Army and external powers. Maoists point to their participation in elections and the constitutional process, and willingness to keep their army in cantonments as visible proof of commitment to peace and democracy.
Even as other parties have made Maoist leadership of government conditional on immediate resolution of the PLA issue, the Maoists argue that movement on PLA and constitution writing should happen simultaneously, for they fear other parties may back out of writing a ‘progressive constitution' if they give up the army. Besides the timeline, there is also a difference in the way both sides envisage the nature and modalities of the integration and rehabilitation process, with the Maoists linking it with the ‘democratisation of the Nepal Army.'
This trust deficit is complicated by divisions within parties. The Maoists suffer from an ideological crisis, when a pragmatic faction believes that they should seek to ‘preserve existing achievements' while another hardline group continues to harbour goals of a ‘people's republic.' Party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' and his old comrade, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai now share a competitive relationship with both vying for leadership of the government.
The NC and the UML are as mired in ideological and personal feuds too.
Both have strong right wing factions, though officially the parties remain committed to the 2006 political framework. In the UML, Chairman Jhalanath Khanal is closer to the Maoists while influential leaders like K.P. Oli and Madhav Nepal are closer to the NC and India. Khanal was a candidate in the first round of elections for prime minister, but had to withdraw since his party's central committee, controlled by Oli and Nepal, had made his candidature contingent on obtaining a two-thirds majority. There are factional feuds between Sher Bahadur Deuba and acting president Sushil Koirala in the NC, though it has put up a coherent front for now by nominating Ram Chandra Poudel as the official candidate.
Despondency and a Bowl of Rice
In the last month, four rounds of voting to elect a new PM have failed to elicit a new leader. The next face-off between Prachanda and Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel is slated for next week, on August 18.
Miracles happen? At this juncture, most analysts predict a fifth indecisive outcome on August 18.
But even if one or the other candidate succeeds in winning next week, what will really change in Nepal? The logjam remains in place. The constitution is not getting written. The very legitimacy of the continued existence of the Constituent Assembly is in question.
And the average Nepali family is left scratching their heads. What were we voting for in 2008? Did our votes have any relevance? What were we hoping would happen in this king-free country? What was that business about writing a new constitution? Can anyone remember? Are our kids going to be able to go to school this year? Are we going to have enough to eat? What happens to my family if I get sick? Does anyone hear us in the Kathmandu Valley?