February 8, 2011
Jhalanath Khanal, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), whose own party had unceremoniously pulled him out of the earlier elections for Prime Minister, captured a clear majority to clinch a decisive victory on February 3. This became possible only after Maoist Supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda withdrew his own nomination for the post. Khanal was sworn into office on Sunday, February 6.
The international community was quick to support and, in some cases, hail the election of Khanal as a major step to complete the faltering peace process. The UN, for instance, issued a statement saying that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, commends Nepal’s parliament for this significant achievement and all Nepali Parties and leaders for their efforts to form a new government….this development will give a significant boost to efforts to fully implement their outstanding commitments under the Comprehensive Peace Accord and the interim constitution, notably the integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants, democratization of the army and adoption of a new constitution.
Other commendations came from the British ambassador to Nepal (on behalf of the EU missions), Japan, China and the US.
But is Khanal’s election a “significant boost” to the peace process, or – as many Nepalis are now insisting – is it a ruse offered up to an already dysfunctional government?
And why did Prachanda – whose deep ambition to reassert himself as head of state is a given – withdraw his own candidacy for the Prime Ministry at the eleventh hour?
According to Bhimarjun Acharya, a columnist and constitutional lawyer interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor, Prachanda’s last-minute withdrawal and sudden support of Khanal “was just an expression of anger and frustration of the Maoists. After being unable to gather support for getting elected himself, Maoist chairman Prachanda wanted to teach India a lesson by elevating someone not favored by India to power.”
Indeed, Prachanda admitted as much while addressing the parliament last Thursday. When he announced his withdrawl, he said his decision was based on his desire to prove to India that Nepal could make its own decisions without New Delhi’s blessing.
Now, however, it seems that the Prachanda-Khanal union was founded on a secret agreement that even Khanal’s fellow UML party leaders were not privy to.
This so-called “Seven-Point Agreement” reportedly says that the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – which remains the major stumbling block of the peace process – will be either repackaged as a new security force on its own or form a new unit along with the same number of state security force personnel. The accord also says the government will be led on a rotational basis.
Khanal’s former ally, the Nepali Congress (and Nepal’s second largest political party), is furious, pointing out that the secret agreement violates the 2006 Peace Accord that ended a decade of Maoist rebellion. That accord states that PLA fighters will be inducted into the state security forces individually and not in a group, and only if they meet the physical and mental requirements.
It goes without saying that the Nepal army will never stand for such a secret agreement. Army CoAS General Chhatraman Singh Gurung, has emphasized (as General Katawal did before him) that PLA guerrillas can be inducted in the army only individually, if they meet the eligibility criteria, but under no circumstances en masse.
And it’s not just the army that will balk at the secret agreement. The new prime ministry has given a variety of groups a very bad case of jitters. The Nepali Congress, once the UML’s staunchest ally in the ruling coalition, is now its bitterest enemy. Within the Maoist party, some 50 leaders, including Dr. Bhattarai and party spokesman Dinanath Sharma are likely to stay away from the new government. The major regional parties from Madhes are in upheaval and there is nothing in Khanal’s history that suggests he will be a unifying factor for southern Nepal.
In short, instead of stabilizing Nepal's turbulent political situation after a seven-month-long vacuum, the election of a Khanal has stirred up further turmoil, not the least of which is the presumption that Khanal is Prachanda’s puppet.
Arthik Abhiyan of Nepal’s Financial Times reported today that, "Both Khanal and Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda realize that they will not be able to promulgate a new constitution by May 28. Since they can't implement the new constitution, Khanal will resign as prime minister on May 24.” Quoting unnamed political sources, he further wrote that the two men had “agreed that after Khanal quits, [Prachanda] will become the new PM with the support of the [UML] communists. That is why they signed a secret pact agreeing that the government will be led by turns."
And how is Khanal’s own party reacting to the revelation that Khanal had signed an agreement with the Maoists without their knowledge or blessing?
Yesterday, the UML standing committee held a crucial meeting to discuss Khanal’s secret deal with Prachanda. The UML is on shaky ground. On Sunday, at the presidential palace, which served as the backdrop for the swearing-in ceremony, the three UML leaders chosen by Khanal to be his ministers turned up in formal attire to take their oath, only to find that their positions were in question. Why? Because – again at the last moment -- Prachanda objected to Khanal’s cabinet choices. Apparently, Khanal had reneged on his promise to Prachanda that key cabinet posts – including Home, Defence and Finance – would go to the Maoists.
In the event, Khanal took the oath by himself after power-sharing talks with Prachanda, his “new ally”, broke down. The absence of his new cabinet spoke volumes about the new prime minister’s inability to take a strong stand and unify Nepal’s government.
MORE ABOUT JHALANATH KHANAL
Khanal was born in 1950 in the far-eastern district of Ilam.
He became actively involved in the Movement for Democracy from 1965 onwards.
In the early 70s, he was a science teacher in rural secondary schools.
In 1975, he became a founding member of the National Co-ordination Committee of all Communist Revolutionaries of Nepal.
In 1978, he became a founding member of the Communist Party of Nepal (ML) and served as General Secretary from 1982-90.
Between 1969 and 1979, Khanal served over four years in jail time for organizing students and rural masses against the monarchy’s Panchayat System.
From 1979 to 1990, he became a significant figure in the underground movement of leftist politics.
Until Janaandolan II (2006), Khanal remained sidelined by the UML party establishment – first because of the late Madan Bhandari’s disapproval of his affiliations and, after Bhandari’s death in 1993, because of Madhav Nepal’s long-standing distrust of him. Madhav Nepal held sway in the UML for the next 14 years.
When Madhav Nepal and the other most influential UML leader, KP Oli, were arrested in 2006, Khanal had his first opportunity to coordinate party activities.
In the 2008 elections, Khanal was only one of two standing committee members of the UML to be elected as a member of the newly created Constituent Assembly. Subsequently, Khanal became acting general secretary, consolidated his power within the party and, finally, in 2009, became the party’s chairman.
In May 2009, UML leader Madhav Nepal was named the new prime minister, but Khanal became antagonistic toward him even though they were from the same party. When Prachanda mounted his attack against PM Nepal – making his resignation a precondition for Maoist cooperation – Nepal insinuated that Khanal’s lack of support for him compounded his problems in leading the government. Subsequently, Madhav Nepal has lobbied against Khanal.
Since May 2010, when Madhav Nepal was forced to resign, 16 attempts to elect a new prime minister were unsuccessful. Khanal, who exerted pressure on his party to abstain from voting, contributed to the long impasse.
On Jan 21, 2011, at a political rally in southern Nepal, Devi Prasad Regmee, a former CPN-UML cadre, suddenly took to the stage and slapped Khanal in front of the crowd. Speaking to the media after being in police custody, Regmee said, “I decided to slap Khanal as …political party leaders have ruined the country, not forming the government, writing the constitution or taking the peace process to a positive conclusion.”
Khanal took the assault in stride.
Many Nepalis were outraged by the dissident’s lack of respect. Other’s hailed Regmee as a national hero.