Loktantra Divas which was a week ago to mark the historic moment in 2006 when public protests forced King Gyanendra to withdraw emergency and restore a Parliament that he had unceremoniously sacked a year earlier should have been one of joy unconfined. So why was there such an air of pessimism?
Nepali political leaders, opinion-makers and the aam aadmi are all worried that the victory of 2006 may turn out to be hollow as it is yet to be translated into the solid foundations of democracy and peace.
Foreign minister SM Krishna was in Nepal recently for a first hand assessment of the political situation. With over five million Nepali nationals working in India, 30,000 serving in the Indian Army, an open border through which more than Rs 20 crore in fake Indian currency is smuggled in every year and a visa-free regime which makes it an attractive route for terrorists to infiltrate into India, we can hardly remain unconcerned about deteriorating governance in Nepal.
On May 28, the extended term of the Constituent Assembly is set to expire. The integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist PLA which should have happened years ago has not even begun. Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal who was elected three months ago stands discredited within his party for the seven-point agreement which he signed with Maoist supremo Prachanda to obtain his support.
Apparently, Khanal pleaded with Krishna seeking an early visit to Delhi in the hope that this would provide him some breathing space. But when Krishna pointed out the growing deterioration in India-Nepal relations in recent months, Khanal was stumped. His feeble assurances carried little weight, leaving no doubt in anybody’s mind that he could only deliver as much as he was allowed to by Prachanda.
From all accounts, Krishna had a frank chat with Prachanda, pointing to the growing trend of anti-Indian activities and rhetoric that the Maoists have engaged in over the last 18 months — blackening of the Indian flag, targeting Indian commercial ventures in Nepal, delaying Indian projects, attacking the Indian ambassador etc.
Evidently, Prachanda maintained his ambiguous stand if his answers were anything like those provided in an interview to an Indian daily recently.
The first Loktantra Divas five years ago was a time of celebration because peace was returning to Nepal after a 10-year Maoist insurgency. A stalemate with the army made the Maoists realise that the path of militancy could no longer serve their purpose and, together with the political parties and with the blessings of Delhi, the palace was identified as a common adversary.
Prachanda committed to the peace process under which his PLA would be dismantled, rehabilitated and partly integrated into the army and the police. Prachanda also declared that his party would support a Constitution that would uphold multi-party democracy. But these commitments have remained empty promises over the last five years.
Meanwhile, the Maoists engaged in a clever campaign to achieve their objectives through propaganda, obfuscation and downright intimidation. New fraternal organisations were set up to keep pace with growing financial muscle. Maoist trade unions set up their own checkpoints on highways, took control of lucrative hotel and casino businesses, entered the media field and invested in real estate.
The real reason for today’s political impasse in Nepal is the breakdown of consensus after the 2008 election. The Maoists emerged as the single largest party but instead of forming a consensus government, set up a coalition with their Left partner Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist(UML), pushing the Nepali Congress (NC) into the opposition.
Of course, according to the Maoist version, the Communist Party of Nepal is to be blamed for a breakdown in the consensus. Maoist political victories came in quick succession — abolition of the monarchy and replacing a Hindu rashtra with a secular State.
Having weaned away the UML from the democratic fold and abolished the monarchy, PM Prachanda now set about ‘democratising’ the army, the last institution which could still be an obstacle in his design. In April 2009, he decided to dismiss army chief but this was a case of overstretch.
Sections of the UML protested forcing the leadership to quit Prachanda’s government bringing an end to his short-lived tenure as PM.
It is clear that the Maoists had no intention of giving up the PLA or committing to multi-party democracy. If Prachanda had returned as PM, he may have let the Constituent Assembly lapse so that the Maoists could bring about a ‘people’s Constitution’.
But for the moment, Prachanda needs an assembly extension and will once more resort to tactical pyrotechnics in the coming weeks as a display of his flexibility.
A framework Constitution might just be the catalyst needed to help push an extension through, following which Prachanda could ask Khanal to honour the rotation principle and yield the prime minister’s chair to him. Unfortunately for Prachanda, other political parties have seen through his game.
But they are weakened by factionalism within. Nepali intellectuals have also realised that the Maoists are not the agents of progressive social change but intent on fulfilling an ideological agenda. A Maoist-led one party State will only militarise Nepali society because violence remains their principal tool and more important, undermines the special relationship that India and Nepal have.
Political consensus needs to be restored but not on the Maoists’ terms, this time on democratic terms. The Constituent Assembly should be extended but it will only be credible if this happens under a national consensus government.
For five years, the Maoists have shifted the goalposts, prevaricated and fooled people with their doublespeak. For five years, New Delhi has given Prachanda the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, a much-needed course correction is underway now in India’s Nepal policy.