(Three years back, Nepal was in the middle of a miserable war. 7 people were killed every day, mostly by the army but also by a ruthless Maoist military. An autocratic monarch ruled from his palace in Kathmandu. The street agitation led by established parties was not going anywhere. The Maoists were waging an armed struggle with control over most of the hill hinterland, as well as the strength to block supplies to the capital. There was a political deadlock among the three power centers and a military stalemate between the Royal Nepal Army and the People’s Liberation Army.
In retrospect Gyanendra’s takeover in 2005 was the best thing to have happened, for it united the parties and the Maoists and gave them a common enemy. The parties realised they needed the rebels to oust the king. The Maoists realised that they could neither capture Kathmandu militarily nor retain power given the international situation. Egged on by the Indian establishment, the two struck a deal in Delhi. The parties turned republican, the Maoists accepted bourgeoisie democracy, and both agreed to hold elections for a constituent assembly.
Since a historic People’s Movement in April 2006 forced the king to accept that sovereignty was vested in the people, not the crown, we have seen a fascinating peace process where all sides have broadly stuck to the contours of a deal. The war ended with a peace agreement. A new interim constitution was written, a new interim legislature was formed with Maoist participation, and the former rebels became ministers in a new government.
There have been moments when the process seemed close to collapsing. Elections were postponed twice. The country’s southern plains were in ferment with protests by ethnic groups. International and national players tried to weaken the Maoists. The Maoists did not help by shifting goalposts and not controlling in their violence-prone cadre. The army was deeply skeptical of Maoist intent. And the king was still in the durbar hatching conspiracies.
But elections were finally held on April 10. Defying all calculations and predictions, the Maoists pulled a huge upset to emerge as the single largest party. The country was declared a republic at the first sitting of the constituent assembly late last month. The assembly itself is the most representative house in Nepal’s history, accommodating diverse ethnic groups, as well as having more than 33 percent women. Challenges remain – the government is yet to be formed with the other parties reluctant to hand over power, civil-military relations will be critical, giving shape to a new federal structure will be daunting.
This piece was written in Himal Southasian soon after the election results started trickling in around the middle of April. Though a report, it was written when there was introspection about why we all got it so wrong, and how the results should wake us up into re-examining some of our basic assumptions about Nepali politics. There was little doubt Kathmandu was disconnected, and knew little about the political consciousness that the Maoist movement brought in through the country. In a shallow, journalistic way, this is an effort to understand why one of the most important elections in Southasia in recent years turned out the way it did. – PJ)
Understanding the Nepali mandate
Nepal’s election results may have been surprising, but the polls themselves were also overwhelmingly successful in presenting the people’s voice. Now, on to the constitution…
By : Prashant Jha
Endlessly pestered with requests to arrange an ‘exclusive’ interview with his boss on the campaign trail, Pratap came up with several ways to evade the media: stop picking up the phone, say the day’s schedule was not yet ready, say that there was just no time, or offer ambiguous responses to keep stubborn journalists waiting. The personal secretary of the Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal may have hoped to have an easier time after the polls; but, if anything, his workload doubled. As early results made it clear that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) would emerge with the single largest electoral result, a harassed Pratap told restless reporters that the chairman would make a statement once he won the Kathmandu-10 constituency.
The party machinery had turned its attention towards relishing the moment of victory. On 11-12 April, Kathmandu turned red. The Maoist party flag seemed to be everywhere. The cadre was swirling, screaming with joy and aggression, taking out jubilant bijay julus and telling anyone who cared to listen that they had won. For its part, the leaders in their victory rallies were celebrating in the same style as politicians would anywhere else in Southasia.
Sitting on a makeshift platform at the counting centre in the Baneshwor part of the capital, the Maoist leaders greeted Dahal, long known as ‘Prachanda’, with garlands. They also smeared him liberally with – what else? – red powder. His face barely visible, the chairman, who wants to be Nepal’s first president, made a speech. It was a mix of offering hope (“This is a new chapter; Maoists will lead the path to change”), reaching out (“We recognise new global and regional realities. We want to be friends with our neighbours. Let’s all work together to build a naya Nepal”), and definitive vindication (“We told you we would win”).
The Maoists can rightfully feel vindicated. During the run-up to the polls, conversations inside Kathmandu’s Ring Road revolved around how the CPN (Maoist) would probably come in a distant third. At that point, the worry was what the party would do in such a scenario. As it turned out, the Maoists won a staggering 120 out of 240 direct constituency seats, and are expected to win another 100 or so seats out of 335 under the proportional-representation system (see box). In the direct elections, meanwhile, the Nepali Congress was a distant second with 37 seats; the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) won just 33 seats. However, the big national parties made up some lost ground in the proportional system; the Congress might win about 72 seats, while the UML will come in close with 69 seats or so. The Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (MJF), in the Tarai, won 30 seats, while smaller Madhesi parties won around 13 seats, but did less well under the proportional system than either the Congress or UML. The Madhesi parties can expect to have more than 65 seats in the house, indicating a massive shift in political representation that has been unnoticed due to the focus on the Maoist win countrywide.
The past few months have been characterised by hectic campaigning across the hills, mountains and plains. Polling day was largely peaceful, with a high turnout of 61 percent. But thereafter, the ‘unexpected’ results have meant that the entire political class is struggling to grapple with the new balance of power. The Maoists themselves seemed unprepared, and have been “spending sleepless nights”, as the Maoist chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai put it in a recent interview. Clearly, everyone is thinking about the responsibilities that lie ahead.
Chairman Dahal may have been elated giving his victory speech. But it was only a few days earlier that nervousness could be seen writ large across his face. Campaigning at Pharping, in the southern outskirts of Kathmandu valley, he was hurrying from one village to another to address modest gatherings. With whispers among locals that the local UML candidate would put up a tough contest, Prachanda was sparing no effort to woo voters. Shaking hands, asking for blessings, picking up children, nodding vigorously as people poured out grievances, smiling, making promises – he was desperate to please everyone around. In his speeches, the chairman talked about how it pained him to see that even the people within the capital’s vicinity had not progressed, and promised a naya Nepal if voted to power.
At the Gaunle Restaurant in Pharping, the chairman suddenly disappeared into a room upstairs to eat a quiet meal with his family and key aides. Later, speaking to the media, his confidence was back, countering speculation about his party’s potential underperformance. “Mark my words,” he said. “We will get 140 out of 240 seats.” Asked about the move from war to election politics, he told this reporter, “It is fantastic, really fantastic. I had never thought we would come so far so soon.”
The same afternoon, the Maoist minister Hisila Yami was busy with internal meetings at her election office in Naya Bazaar, in the heart of Kathmandu. Sitting on a mattress in a closed room, even as her workers outside on the terrace planned the next round of house-to-house canvassing, she said, “I am an ethnic Newar from Asan, a hardcore local. And this is a Newar constituency. I have a good chance, but the UML candidate is strong as well.” Referring to the electoral prospects of her husband, party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, who was standing from Gorkha, Yami said with a grin, “He is better-off than me right now.”
Beneath the self-deprecatory visage and the acknowledgement of the effort to cash in on the ethnic Newari vote, was clearly a leader who believed that her party was engaged in something historic. She said intensely, “It has been a difficult struggle. But we know there is a lahar, a wave, in our favour. Remember, we have run a parallel state for ten years, built a pan-Nepal organisation, and we have a committed cadre. There is an invisible network that will help us win the polls, and the poor of this country are with us.”
The calculations of Kathmandu analysts did not take into account this invisible network, which was constantly engaging with people on the ground. Neither did it sense the desperate yearning for change, or the ‘fear’ of the status quo among the country’s marginalised, poor and angry population, who proved to be the silent support base of the Maoists. The fact that elections had not taken place for nine years did not make for easy predictions. The past decade had seen an armed insurgency, a royal takeover, rising ethnic consciousness, a generational change, and both massive outward migration and internal displacement.
Anthropologist Judith Pettigrew spent election day in a village in west-central Kaski District, which has been her area of fieldwork for the last two decades. Pettigrew spoke at a Kathmandu seminar about the way party representatives gathered early in the morning at a polling booth in Kaski, and also about the enthusiasm with which people voted. Strikingly, among the Maoist poll representatives was a man who, during the war, had told Pettigrew how much he disliked the Maoists. “The People’s Liberation Army came and spent two months in the village after the ceasefire,” she said. “They did not trouble the locals, and instead talked to them constantly about what the Maoists stood for. Fear was slowly forgotten, and people veered towards the former rebels as a ray of hope.”
The relationship between Maoists and former victims sprung up as an issue in other places, as well. At a Maoist rally in the northeastern Khotang District, for example, a woman reportedly asked candidate Pasang Rai why she should vote for him after his cadre had always forced her family to feed them and donate money to their cause. Rai folded his hands and instantly pleaded guilty. “We made mistakes,” he admitted. “But please remember that it was because of that struggle and pain that we are seeing a republic, Constituent Assembly and federalism in Nepal. You will now have rights.”
The Maoists used their well-oiled organisational machinery and articulate, well-trained activists to sell themselves as the principal agents of change. They broke the stranglehold of a few local notables over chunks of votes, and reached out directly at the ground. They gave candidate tickets to representatives from marginalised sections, instantly winning them the support of entire communities at the local level, besides sending out a message that the former rebels would walk the talk on inclusion.
At Panchkhal in Kavre District, 40 km from Kathmandu, Tej Bahadur Mijar, a Maoist Dalit candidate beat his nearest UML rival by more than 6000 votes, also bagging the upper-caste votes in the constituency. Mijhar, who traversed through several fringe-left outfits before joining the Maoists eight years back, says it is only the CPN (Maoist) that is committed to real social change. “I faced discrimination when I was a child, and was not allowed to drink water in the community tap,” he said. “In my job as a teacher in Rasuwa, I was harassed. I spent many years selling cheap goods on the Kathmandu streets.” He continued: “The Maoists have changed caste relations. In the party, we remained connected to the ground. We have promised people that we will write the law of the poor into the Constituent Assembly.”
The former rebels were also able to capitalise on the support of large numbers of youth. More than half of the Maoist candidates were below 40. In comparison, the average age of Nepali Congress candidates was 52. This made it easier for the young electorate to relate to the Maoist candidates, besides influencing others in the community to shift allegiance. Bidur Sapkota, a UML leader in Kavre, pointed to age being a significant factor towards the end of the campaign. “It was in the last three days when the tables turned,” he said. “Young people, many of them workers from Kathmandu, returned home to vote and supported Maoists.”
This reading has been corroborated by Mukta Tamang, an anthropologist who returned to his own village in Kavre for the elections. Tamang says that he was sure that traditional voting patterns in favour of the Congress and UML would continue; but then, a day before the polls, hundreds of workers came back to his village. “There was a village meeting in the evening to decide who to support,” he said. “While the older lot wanted to maintain old loyalties, the younger ones said that the Maoists must be given a chance.”
The Maoists also coined the right campaign pitch. Using a mix of allure and intimidation, they took all of the credit for the peace of the past two years, and cleverly turned the anger and misery of the people against the Congress and UML. The two big parties were portrayed as incumbents, which were solely responsible for the mess in which the country had found itself. It did not take a lot of convincing for this to strike a chord among people, who remembered the irresponsible and constant bickering among these parties during the 1990s – their corrupt ways and the absence of their leaders from the villages right at the time when the people needed them the most. People were sick of the established faces of local elites; and so the opinion-formers, largely with the Congress and UML, no longer controlled the votes.
But that is not the whole story, for the Maoist victory had multiple shades of grey. The party’s almost total hegemony over local areas by sheer force, at least until 2006, gave them a dramatic head start to the recent polls. In the run-up to elections, there were constant excesses by the Maoist youth wing, the Young Communist League, with other candidates either beaten up or disallowed from campaigning in many parts – a fact noted by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) and other observer groups. Several Nepali Congress district committees have blamed their poor showing on Maoist violence. At the same time, it is useful to remember that Maoist activists too were killed during election violence in Rolpa, Kapilbastu and Dang districts.
The former insurgent leadership had repeatedly stated publicly that they would launch a ‘struggle’ if the poll results were not in their favour – and a return to the jungle was the one thing that the people did not want. Some believe that the Maoists were able to garner the support of the lower middle class because of this fear. Kavre’s UML leader Sapkota says, “This is the people’s way of compromising for the sake of peace. The Maoists did not capture booths; they captured the mindset of the people, by playing on their fears that war might be resumed. The state did not provide security; we in other parties did not stand up. The keys were handed over to the thief.”
In addition, on polling day there was a degree of electoral malpractice. A Kathmandu taxi driver told this reporter, as the results were trickling in, “See the Maoists are sure to win.” Asked about the basis for his confidence, he smiled, “Everyone I know has voted for them. I voted five times! The party had already given us a list of people who were outside the country, and said that we could use their names. There was a spray to remove the ink from your fingers, so no one knew you had already voted.”
Discounting the factors related to fear and intimidation would give a flawed picture of the electoral verdict, and limit the overall understanding of what has taken place in Nepal’s recent electoral exercise. At the same time, overemphasising this element would be a mistake, as well. Electoral malpractice is an integral part of Southasian politics, and certainly an art mastered by both the Nepali Congress and UML in the past. In addition, in places such as Kathmandu and other urban centres, where intimidation and malpractice seem to have been limited, the Maoists have likewise scored impressive victories. The nature, scale and margin of the Maoist victory, coupled with its diverse voter base – the Tharu community in the western Tarai, the Rajbanshi in eastern Tarai, Dalits and landless across the country, petty bourgeoisie in smaller centres, ethnic groups of all hues in the hills – probably means that the thirst for new faces and change was the single most decisive factor in voter motivation.
The other wave
Equally impressive as the Maoist victory has been the turn in the Tarai, with the MJF winning almost as many seats as the big national parties. To sense the anger against the mainstream politicians, visit Bokraha village, off Lauki on the east-west highway in Sunsari District. A bumpy road, small huts housing large families, and a dilapidated school structure may not mark it as being particularly different from anywhere else in Nepal’s rural areas. But this has been Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s constituency for years now. His daughter, Sujata, fought elections from the area this time around. Banking on her family name, the support of the sizeable Muslim community and a formidable patronage network, she was confident of her eventual success – until, that is, Madhesi leader Upendra Yadav threw his hat into the ring during the last day of the nomination period.
Addressing village-level meetings in a mix of Hindi and Nepali, Sujata Koirala said during campaigning, “My family has sacrificed everything for democracy. I will do everything for the women in this area.” But locals were none too impressed. Launching into an angry tirade, a group listed out its grievances: Look at the road, look at my torn clothes, look at my children who have nothing to do. Why should we vote for her? Sujata’s supporters made a feeble effort to suggest that this was not an election for development but to make up the new law of the land. But the riposte was quick to come: What will I do with the law when I don’t have enough to eat? The Congress must be taught a lesson this time.
If the lack of any improvement in livelihoods over the past decade was one factor across the country, the rising Madhesi consciousness was another, more potent, ingredient in defeating candidates such as Koirala. Over the past year, Madhesis – plains people who speak Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Hindi and share extensive crossborder ties – have been agitating for identity rights and equal representation. This has been particularly intense in the eastern and central plains, which is often referred to as Madhes. In this belt, people such as Sujata and her father were increasingly seen as pahadi (hillfolk) outsiders. The Madhes Movement of January 2007, as well as the recent agitations; increasing radicalisation over the past year, buttressed by ethnic militancy of armed groups; a deep anger against the Kathmandu establishment and pahadi politicians – all of these contributed to the creation of a wave in favour of Madhesi candidates. It is now clear that Madhesi identity politics, with its emphasis on respect and representation, is here to stay.
Campaigning in neighbouring Morang District, Upendra Yadav said, “Slavery to the Koiralas, Acharyas and Aryals must end. That is the only path to Madhesi liberation and self-rule.” Yadav was seen as having led the Madhes movement of the past year and reaped the reward. Brand recognition for the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), better organisation, the presence of experienced election ‘manipulators’ and the widespread support of the Yadavs and Tharu in select eastern Tarai districts all gave the MJF an advantage over other Madhesi parties. Meanwhile, the Mahant Thakur-led Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party has suffered a major setback with the defeat of Thakur. But, given its nascent organisational set-up, it did as well as it could have hoped, and is set to receive about 18 seats in total in the Constituent Assembly. The results from the Tarai can be interpreted as correcting a historical injustice in Nepal’s democratic framework, for it ensures representation and inclusion of Madhesis on an unprecedented scale in the upcoming Assembly.
The poll results in the Tarai also threw up another interesting facet. Contrary to the prognosis in Kathmandu, the Maoists continue to have a base in the plains. The former rebels have suffered an organisational setback over the past year, with the Madhes movement assuming a strong anti-Maoist tilt. But they have won in pahadi pockets of the Tarai that were formerly UML bases, but now see the Maoists as more reliable protectors in case Madhesi politics turns chauvinistic and starts targeting pahadis. The Maoists have also won the support of the Tarai’s own landless and Dalits, which brings them into straight contest with Madhesi parties, largely representing ‘intermediate’ castes, for power at the local level and on issues such as land reform. The support of the western Tharu and eastern Rajbanshi can be read as support to the proposed Maoist federal model of having several states within the plains, which is in stark contrast to the MJF’s demand for one Madhes as a single autonomous province. The Maoist-MJF relationship will be tense at many levels, though a tactical alliance could still be possible.
On election day itself, it was feared that Madhesi extremists could drastically escalate violence, leading to a low turnout. They had stepped up intimidation activities in the run-up to the polls, kidnapping a few candidates and killing one. But once the armed outfits realised that elections would go ahead regardless, and that they did not have the capacity to disrupt the process, they seem to have decided to wait out the polls. Some militants even joined in the electoral process, actively campaigning for the candidates of Madhesi parties. Others used the opportunity to make money, by threatening candidates of attacks in case they did not shell out cash. For now, the high turnout in Madhes has marginalised the armed outfits, and exposed their limited mass support. Madhesi people have made it clear that they are not willing to obey orders on mobile phones issued from shady hotels in Bihari towns.
Incumbents no longer
The immediate general reaction in Kathmandu – among politicians, journalists, diplomatic missions – was one of shock and awe at the nature and scale of the Maoist victory and the rout of the established parties. But this surprise inevitably gave way to introspection, in particular a reassessment within the power centres on how to deal with Nepal’s new political reality.
The Nepali Congress top brass had been confident that it would emerge as the single largest force in the Constituent Assembly. It had been banking on traditional loyalties, the ‘brand’ that is Girija Prasad Koirala, a party organisation that usually springs back to life at election time, the support of local elites and established faces, besides the enormous international goodwill it enjoys. The rout upset the Congress’s dream of continuing to head the government, but it also exposed internal fault-lines within the party. For the moment, it has also left the party somewhat directionless. Indeed, one Congress leader points out that, more than the electoral defeat, it is the party’s complete organisational disarray that is more disconcerting in the long term. “I could not even get the names and numbers of our 240 constituency committee heads from the party office,” he said. “The Congress has always relied on informal links and instinctive support because of its history. That faith of the people has collapsed this time. We need to rebuild from scratch.”
But more than serious introspection, the Congress currently seems to be in the midst of a detrimental blame game. Half of the party is pointing fingers at Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula’s leniency towards Maoist violence as the reason for defeat. Others believe that nepotistic politics and Sujata Koirala’s corrupt image and pro-monarchy statements damaged the party’s chances. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Koirala’s inability to campaign left the party without a face, even while the Maoists were able to project a notably strong lead, presenting Prachanda as the ‘first president of the republic’. The Congress also lost its erstwhile support base in the Tarai due to its arrogant and insensitive handling of the Madhes issue over the past year. The ticket distribution is also being seen as responsible for the disastrous result, with flawed selection of candidates.
With the Congress’s acting president, Sushil Koirala, defeated in Banke and his subsequent resignation, there is now a vacuum at the party’s topmost level. The Koirala clan has suffered what could perhaps be an irreversible setback, with both daughter Sujata and nephew Shekhar also losing their seats. The former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, is now expected to become stronger in the party after having won from two constituencies, even though he failed to deliver more wins for the party in his stronghold of the far west.
The UML has been hit with an even greater shock. Party General-Secretary Madhav Nepal had claimed before an international delegation a day before polls that he would soon become the country’s prime minister. Instead, defeated in both of his constituencies, Nepal was only one among the pantheon of the party – Pradeep Nepal, K P Oli, Raghuji Pant, Ishwor Pokharel, Bidya Bhandari – who lost their seats in the hills and plains. The party was banking on its moderate centre-left image, a hard-working cadre and dominance over civil-society organisations to bring them a prominent showing. But it is now clear that the UML voters shifted en masse to the Maoists, seeing it as the real left. As for the broader masses, the fact that the Maoists were given the hammer-and-sickle symbol for the ballot (as opposed to the UML’s sun symbol) may have been a significant though as yet an un-analysed factor.
Madhav Nepal has resigned from his post. The UML has also withdrawn from the government, saying that it has no moral right to continue in power. There is now a real danger that if the top is adrift, even more UML activists will jump ship and move to the CPN (Maoist). The UML believes it has played a responsible and balancing role between the conservative Congress and the radical Maoists, but the public failed to reward it for doing so. There is bitterness at the moment, even as the party thinks hard about what policy course to adopt.
The Naxalite path
It was not only Nepal’s political class that was taken by surprise. India was also caught unawares, with all of its intelligence reports pointing to the Nepali Congress being in the lead, with the UML a close second and the Maoists ranking third. National Security Advisor M K Narayanan even went to the extent of publicly stating that his government had invested a significant amount of faith and hope in the Congress and Girija Koirala, a statement that was interpreted as backing the party during the polls. On election day, the Nepal handlers in New Delhi were ecstatic, for they saw the event as a policy victory after having consistently pushed for elections over the apprehensions by many, and an unwillingness on the part of key Nepali political actors. But a day later, as results came pouring in, New Delhi’s mood changed dramatically, and Indian officials were forced to engage with the emerging new reality.
India has, sensibly, decided to stay the course in supporting the peace process and democracy it has so carefully helped conceive. In private briefings to journalists in New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs officials made it clear that they were willing to work with a Maoist government, and that reports of their panic were inaccurate. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee called up Chairman Dahal to congratulate him, and termed the win a ‘positive development’. Sitaram Yechury, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader who played a central role in the 2005 and 2006 negotiations between the Maobaadi and India, said the vote was anti-monarchy, and urged the Indian Naxalites to emulate the example of the Maoists.
Despite Yechury’s exhortations, it is clear that the Naxalites are not planning to do any such thing. Ideologue Varavara Rao said in a recent interview that the Maobaadi and the Naxalites have to chart their own paths, and that it was yet to be seen whether a Maoist government in Kathmandu would maintain its anti-feudal and anti-imperialist character. This rhetoric was notably similar to what Baburam Bhattarai told this reporter, rejecting the idea that there are links between the two ultra-left movements. “We do not have any comments about what they should or should not do,” he said simply. “The Naxalites have their own path.”
Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in a significant policy shift, welcomed Nepal’s move from monarchy to democracy, but hoped that a ‘secular’ Nepal would neither be anti-monarchy nor anti-Hindu. In parsing these two, however, restoring Nepal’s Hindu rashtra status is more important for the Hindu right than is saving the monarchy. Rightwing pundits in India are now warning of a full-scale Maoist takeover in Nepal, suggesting that the former rebels are merely using this period as a tactical interlude before establishing a dictatorship – and that there would be inevitable spill-over effects for India.
The Maoist victory poses real policy challenges for the American administration, which continues to categorise the CPN (Maoist) as a ‘terrorist’ outfit. Former US President Jimmy Carter, in Nepal to observe elections, said it was “embarrassing and frustrating” to see the refusal of his government to talk to the Maoists. But the new US Ambassador Nancy Powell, who joined last year in place of the vituperative James Moriarty, is said to be open to the idea of engaging with the Maoists, and is understood to have met some Maoist leaders secretly last year. In late April, Powell met the interim legislature speaker, Subas Nembang, to convey to him that the US would continue to support the Nepali government, irrespective of who was in government. There have also been some suggestions in Washington, DC that the Maoists will soon be taken off the US ‘terrorist’ list, and that work has already begun on the technicalities required to clear the organisation. But there has been no official government statement to this effect.
Politics has now returned to Kathmandu. After sweating it out in their constituencies, facing difficult questions from the people, organising activists and resources, and visiting houses and families for votes, the politicians are now slowly getting back to the capital. As such, the power games – the manipulation, deal making, exchange of favours – have begun. In addition, there are some extremely significant challenges, from the formation of a Maoist-led government and the dismantling of the monarchy in the short term, to navigating the relationship between the Maoist fighters and the Nepal Army, dealing with issues of governance, and kick-starting a process of constitution-writing.
Few had prepared for the drastic change in the balance of power that this mandate demands. The Maoists will stake a claim to lead the new government in what is essentially a hung parliament. There was speculation that Baburam Bhattarai would take over as prime minister, while Chairman Dahal would look after the organisation for now, taking care of intra- and inter-party coordination, and assume, as his party had projected, the role of an executive president at a later time. But now there are signs that Dahal himself could head the government as prime minister, given that a position of executive presidency still depends on the model that the Constituent Assembly eventually adopts at least two years from now.
What is more important for now is whether the other parties will join the government. The interim constitution stipulates that the post-poll government would be formed through consultation between all parties. At this point, the Maoists are very keen to have all forces on board, not only because they need their support to form the government and push through any law but also because it would afford their government greater international credibility and allow the other parties to share the criticism for whatever goes wrong. While the UML has already withdrawn from the current government, there are strong voices within the Nepali Congress as well not to join the new government.
These factions within the two parties claim that under parliamentary practice the mandate is clearly in favour of the Maoists, and that their parties must focus on building up their organisational strength after the rout. But a deeper underlying motive also exists. “Well, we want to expose the Maoists by giving them sole power,” says one Congress leader. “Even if we join, they will have control, and we will be used as a shield. It is better to stay out.” But others believe that the Congress and UML are acting like bad losers. A Maoist leader says, “If we had come in third, they would have tried their best to lock us into the government. But they are refusing to do so now.” Political analysts such as Nilamber Acharya, who espouse a national unity government, point out that the polls did not deliver a mandate for Maoist rule – they have received only 240 or so seats in a house of 601. “The people’s mandate is for a government based on consensus of all the major forces,” Acharya says.
It is possible that the current mood is a mere prelude to hard bargaining. The UML’s outgoing general-secretary is reported to have asked the Maoists to publicly renounce violence before his party considers joining the government. What is more likely is that the Congress and UML will try to win some of the more important portfolios before deciding to formally join. The interim constitution requires a two-thirds majority for anyone to be elected or removed as prime minister, leading to some concern within the other parties that the Maoist prime minister, once elected with their support, may never give way. A critical bargaining point may be for the Constituent Assembly to amend the two-thirds requirement to a simple majority, at which point the Congress and UML could relent and join. Others believe that the excessive focus on the government is unnecessary. UML leader Shankar Pokharel told a Kathmandu audience recently, “Even if we are not a part of the government, we will be an active part of the constitution writing, and push our agenda forcefully.”
What must be noted is that the interim constitution’s strictures on consensual government and the two-thirds majority requirement for ousting a prime minister were drafted at a time when the ‘democratic’ parties thought that the transforming Maoists needed encouragement and guarding. Now that the tables have been turned, there is the argument that the interim constitution must be adhered to in spirit as well. Given that the Maoists do not command a majority, it is likely that a compromise formula will be reached for the formation of a government.
Of kings and armies
The formation of the new government will happen only after the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly, which has a mountain of responsibilities to look toward. As per the interim constitution, the Assembly first has to abolish the monarchy. The electoral verdict has indeed clearly been in favour of a republic, with the royalist parties swept aside. But it is still to be seen whether the Assembly’s first sitting – which will also have to look at issues such as oath-taking of members, election of a chair, and adoption of a code of procedures – can even feasibly take a vote on the monarchy.
The Maoists have said it is time for the king to leave the Narayanhiti Palace. However, Kathmandu is abuzz about the back-channel communications rumoured to be taking place between the palace and the Maoists. This has been given further fuel by Chairman Dahal’s assertion that he wants a ‘graceful’ exit for King Gyanendra, that he does not wish to humiliate him, and that he is even willing to meet with the monarch to discuss a dignified way out. Baburam Bhattarai has likewise said that certain ‘cultural rights’ could be given to the king, who could live on in Nepal as a common citizen. Immediately thereafter, however, the Maoist commander Ram Bahadur Thapa (‘Badal’) spoke publicly about the unacceptability of any compromise in doing away with the kingship.
It is difficult to discern what kind of space the Maoists could be thinking of giving to the king. But either way, Maoist insiders say that it is too late for any deal. At best, Gyanendra’s private property and business interests will not be touched, and he will receive some privileges. At the height of the deadlock between the Maoists and the seven parties last September, India is understood to have sent a feeler to the king. But as an observer who recently met Gyanendra put it, “He is very clear he will not leave the country.”
Then there is the issue of Nepal’s two armies. The Maoists and the Nepal Army have fought a war, and have since differed bitterly on the issue of the potential integration of the former into the latter. UNMIN has been supervising Maoist arms and 20,000 combatants in seven cantonments across the country. The army, especially its politically ambitious chief Rukmangat Katuwal, has been publicly defiant of civilian authority when it comes to the matter of integration. The manner in which the army-Maoist relationship develops, and how a decision is eventually taken on integration of the former fighters, is critical to the future of Nepal’s peace process.
On this, however, the Maoists are clearly trying to reach out. Baburam Bhattarai told this reporter, “We do not see any problem with the army. Our war was not against the army, but against the monarchy. The monarchy misused the army. The army must listen to the political authority.” For its part, the army is also making the right noises, expressing its commitment to obey the orders of a legitimately elected government. The situation of the two armies will be critical to tackle, as the Maoists are not only a party running the government but continue to have their combatants, in addition to the violence-oriented members of the Young Communist League.
While the issue of the army and monarchy are critical for the idea of Nepal, none is of greater bedrock concern than the economy. As the rebel victory was announced, panic set in among the business community. The stock exchange dropped, and there was speculation of heavy capital flight. The Maoist top leaders immediately went into damage-control mode, and in an extensive meeting with the business community sought to allay fears and apprehensions. Again, they made the right noises. We are fighting feudalism, not capitalism, they noted. We are for public-private partnership and investment in hydropower and tourism. Our economic revolution is the bourgeoisie democratic revolution. Socialism and communism are a century away right now.
But it is not only keeping the business elite in a good mood that is important. The Maoists take over the helm of government when the country is reeling under soaring inflation, a huge fuel bill (even as it remains subsidised massively by the government), poor law and order, 42 hours of power cuts every week, and an extremely weak administrative apparatus in large parts, particularly in the Tarai. To top it all off, they have made populist promises during their campaign. A UML leader, barely able to hold back, smirks, “They have promised to control price rise, generate employment, give land to the tiller, make all workers permanent, provide loan waivers, stop load-shedding and instead give free electricity. With the country already in a difficult situation, let us see how the Maoists deliver on these issues.” The challenge of governance, however, must not be seen solely as a Maoist difficulty: it is a national issue, which is made complicated because it is unclear how the Maoist-bureaucracy relationship will build up.
Writing a new Nepal
Against the backdrop of all of these issues, of course, is the all-important process of constitution writing, for which the Constituent Assembly has been elected. Some elements will be able to be borrowed from the 1990 and interim constitutions, such as fundamental rights and multi-party democracy. But there are other issues on which there could well be deadlock. Some would like to read the mandate as a vote for those parties that have advocated ethnic federalism: the Maoists have proposed 11 provinces based on the ‘nationality’ that is present in the largest numbers within those territories; the MJF has asked for a single Madhes province, east to west along the Tarai plains. But the Congress and UML have strongly opposed these models of federalism, worried that an ethnic Pandora’s Box would be opened, and that different communities – many of which would be minorities in such units – have their own views on how to shape the federal structure. Between the national and Madhesi parties, there are bound to be serious differences not only on the shape, but also the powers to be granted to the federal units.
Another issue where differences will crop up is on the nature of government. On this point, the Maoists are pushing for a division of powers between the president and prime minister; the MJF has emphasised a completely presidential system of government; and the Congress and UML are happy with an executive prime minister and ceremonial head of state. Meanwhile, no party – including the CPN (Maoist) – has the requisite two-thirds majority to unilaterally push its agenda through the Constituent Assembly on such critical issues. The constitution is to be written consensually, in the absence of which a two-thirds majority is required. For all the momentum the Maoists have gained from their formidable showing in the polls, and for all the bluster evident in their government-forming zeal, the fact remains that they are forced to work with the other major forces, particularly the Congress, UML and MJF.
April 2008 has sent out multiple messages to Nepal’s political actors. The electorate has endorsed the Maoist transformation, supported the end to insurgency and given the former rebels the responsibility – the opportunity – to run the country with others. It has also forced the traditionally larger parties to introspect, re-organise and keep in tune with changing aspirations on the ground. The centuries-old establishment of the Shah dynasty has been bid adieu. But the common thread of the Nepali mandate for the Constituent Assembly is now to write a democratic, plural, inclusive, social-justice-oriented progressive constitution.