June 28, 2012
The following analysis, "A Long Stalemate", was written by Prashant Jha on June 27, 2012
On his return from Brazil on Monday, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai said he would hand over power to the next PM elected once a new parliament was constituted. Till then, this government would stay on. This was the clearest indication of the PM’s determination to stay on, and it sparked a predictable outrage among the opposition parties demanding his immediate resignation.
The Maoist-Madhesi Morcha decision to continue and the NC-UML-Upendra Yadav-Kiran insistence of getting rid of the government is thus the defining hallmark of the political alignment. In this, two other figures stand out.
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is getting restive about the possibility of Bhattarai entrenching himself, and his own personal ambitions getting delayed indefinitely. But if he tries to topple the government, he runs the risk of antagonising Bhattarai, breaking the alliance with Madhesi Morcha and not getting anything substantive in return from NC-UML. Prachanda may be able to wean back a faction of the new Kiran party if he turns against Bhattarai, but it will come at the cost of the latter’s support. Large sections within the Maoists, as well as the Madhesi Morcha, feel that their agenda for change has received a setback with the CA dissolution; the government is the only thing they have now. And if they give it up, then the opponents will have a decisive upper hand both on power sharing as well as substantive political agenda. Prachanda has to take into account this impulse. The Maoist chairman is also unsure of how India would react. He may thus prefer to wait for some more time.
President Ram Baran Yadav has never hidden his dislike for the Maoists, and he would be happy to see the NC back in power. But he lacks the constitutional basis to take any drastic measure. If he attempts to do so, he will enter the political game directly instead of being the behind-the-scenes player that he has been. This, in turn, entails certain risks—his carefully cultivated image of being a guardian-like figure above politics would be eroded; he may be portrayed as a ‘second Gyanendra’ and the institution of presidency itself may come under cloud. The political effectiveness of ‘dismissing’ the PM or the arbitrary appointment of a new PM is also doubtful; it could divide loyalties of permanent state institutions if the government chooses to resist. And instead of leading to a solution, it may create a new form of polarisation. The President, too, is unsure of how India would react, and he may prefer to wait and watch.
This means that the political stalemate is set to continue, or even deepen. The absence of a parliament, the limited street strength of his detractors, the support of his key Madhesi allies and the fact that there is no legitimate and constitutional way anyone can replace him could be the reasons for PM Bhattarai’s confidence.
In statecraft, asserting authority and adopting a confrontational stance is essential at times. Otherwise, it can be construed as weakness. At the same time, retaining a degree of humility and being seen as one who seeks reconciliation is as important. Otherwise, it can be perceived as arrogance of power. PM Bhattarai needs to tread this line carefully. Being aware of one’s limits at a time when the government is a de facto caretaker arrangement, and the legitimacy of authority is contested, could help avert errors in judgment. This is especially true since some key decisions will have to be taken in the next few months—each of which will severely test the PM’s political skills.
The first is the budget. For the PM and Finance Minister, convincing NC-UML to agree to a full or even partial budget, or bypassing them and convincing the President to let it go even without political consensus, are the only two options. Both will be enormously challenging. The opposition will obviously seek to use the moment to weaken and oust the government itself.
The second is some key appointments, which have political and strategic implications. The race for chief secretary has started in full swing. There is intense lobbying underway and all political leaders, across the spectrum, are being approached by the various contenders. How the PM balances various constituencies in the process of making a decision will be important. The army, too, is on the verge of a succession. In Nepal’s recent history, the selection of a new chief has not been a smooth exercise. At a time when its own position is fragile, the government will have to be careful, adopt a transparent procedure and seek to arrive at the widest possible consensus, while making these decisions. If handled badly, these appointments could add to the trust deficit and make a broad political agreement even more difficult.
Third is the election. It is already obvious that no polls will be held on November 22. When the constitutional and legal amendments are not done by the deadline given by the Election Commission, the pressure on the government will only increase. And at the point when the government itself seeks to postpone the election date, the President may be tempted to act. Whether he does so or not—and on what basis—is uncertain. But one cannot help but compare the situation to 2002; when the house was dissolved, elections were called, and on October 4, 2002, Gyanendra threw out the then PM Sher Bahadur Deuba on grounds of ‘incompetence’. This is what the opposition would like the President to repeat, but they would be well advised to think through the implications and the differences in context before egging on the head of the state.
In principle, the only way out seems to be a package solution which has three elements: protecting the work done by the CA so far, agreement on the way forward and power sharing. But this is unlikely to take shape. The opposition’s insistence only on the last point by demanding resignation without addressing the other issues will only prolong the stalemate. It may make things difficult for the government, but the ruling combine can stay put even if it is ineffective. The emergence of newer political actors on the political space makes the possibility of the consensus even more elusive. A month after the CA ended, Nepal’s politics has gotten even more complicated. Be prepared for a long stalemate.