The present political crisis in Nepal is exactly what the mountain country’s fledgling democracy didn’t need. The country is likely to come out the worse, no matter the final result. Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s resignation as Prime Minister over his inability to dismiss the Chief of army staff, General Rookmangud Katawal, has at the very least undermined the principle of civilian oversight of the military. His government is likely to be replaced by a multi-party coalition that will be unstable from birth. The most damaging consequence is that the Maoists, still a guerrilla band at heart and Nepal’s single-most powerful institution, have less incentive to moderate and mainstream their political behaviour.
Though the army’s status is among the thorniest of the unresolved issues that threaten Nepal’s republicanism, it should not have been the cause of the government’s collapse. The original plan had been for the Nepalese Army to absorb the Maoist guerrilla force, the People’s Liberation Army. But the integration process has been stalled and the suspicions between soldier and guerrilla are as deep as ever. That the inability to bridge this gap should have brought down Nepal’s first democratic government is a bad portent for the country’s future stability. Unfortunately, New Delhi cannot be said to have played a positive role in this drama. India’s short-term policy of keeping the army free of Maoist control and its long-term desire for Nepal to have stable polity are at odds. If anything, its policies can be seen to be undermining Nepal’s political evolution by encouraging opportunism among the democratic parties and aggravating military-civilian relations.
The allergy of Nepalis to ‘big brother’ manipulations from down south is well-known. This is why New Delhi should strive to keep its interventions low key. Instead, its lobbying on behalf of General Katawal these past several weeks has been so blatant that the next government in Kathmandu will have difficulty avoiding the label ‘made in India’. New Delhi’s long-term influence with Nepal is only sustainable if it is perceived as an honest broker by the country’s many rival groups. At present, New Delhi is seen as viceregal, partisan and bereft of any constructive view of Nepal’s future.