In the six months that Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has been Prime Minister, he has realised that running a state is more complex than waging a war.
Since mid-August when he took charge, the PM has had to deal with multiple challenges – an intense ideological debate within his party; a deadlock in the peace process; breakdown of consensus with the G P Koirala led Nepali Congress (NC); acrimony between the defence ministry and Nepal Army (NA); opposition from sections of civil society suspicious of Maoist commitment to democratic norms; rampant lawlessness in the eastern Tarai and ethnic assertion in eastern hills; the collapse of basic services with 16 hour power cuts; and the impact of the global meltdown with remittances dipping.
The volatile political situation is partly a result of Maoist actions itself. At a meeting of party workers in December, Prachanda presented a paper. While he underlined the need to institutionalise the achievements of the peace process and write the constitution, Prachanda made it clear that the next conflict is with the ‘status-quoist parliamentarians representing the interests of the brokers, bureaucrats, and feudal class in place of the monarchy’. He also alluded to the need to strengthen nationalism from the rising threat of ‘semi-colonial Indian expansionism’. The party document emphasises the need to bring all communist revolutionaries together by ‘polarising…and creating a balance of power in our favour.”
Maoists have subsequently made provocative statements, warning that they may resort to state capture. Sections of the party have resorted to lumpenism, with attacks on the media and cadre of others parties. The trust deficit with the Nepal Army has increased, with the defence minister and the NA chief publicly sparring over the interpretation of a clause of the peace agreement that restricts further recruitment in the army. The controversy is a result of the Maoists wanting to exert control over the army, and the army wanting to remain autonomous of civilian authority, especially if the orders come from the Maoists.
Most non-Maoist actors are thus developing serious doubts about the commitment of the former rebels to the democratic process. They feel the Maoists used them against the king, and now with the king gone, the Maoists want to establish hegemonic rule.
But there is another side to the story. The Maoists feel they are not being allowed to push even minimal progressive change and the crisis of confidence between the key actors is a result of the dwindling political fortunes of the non-Maoist parties.
The Nepali Congress has done little to revive the party machinery and learn lessons from the elections even as the Maoists are consolidating through use of the state apparatus, clever policy measures and a committed cadre. The other communist party, Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), is facing a deep existential crisis and is torn between a tendency to viscerally oppose the Maoists or toe the Maoist line almost completely. The party is having a major national convention this week, which is expected to determine its future course. The urban middle class, business and landed lobbies fear that Maoists will attack their class interests. Their ideal plot was that with their entry into the peace process, the Maoists would get co-opted into the system, ‘get tamed’ and become another UML instead of sticking to their radical goals.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that because of several reasons – the Maoists feel they have won politically even if there was a military stalemate and the election results was a justification of the war and their aims. Add to this the presence of a radical fighting force (PLA), militant fraternal organisations, and a dogmatic faction which thinks it can push the most extreme agenda without consideration of the balance of forces nationally and internationally.
There have been a few sporadic attempts to carve out an anti-Maoist coalition. In fact, Girija Koirala recently floated the name of former UML general secretary and head of the constitutional committee, Madhav Nepal, as a possible prime ministerial candidate. But these efforts have not succeeded for the simple reason that ousting the Maoists would mean chaos on the streets and, perhaps, the end of the constitution writing process. It will also be a subversion of the mandate of the CA elections. In any case, it will be difficult to cobble together the numbers to form an alternative government.
While Prachanda has been assertive at times, he has also made an effort to reach out. So, the PM has assured the NC that he would dismantle the paramilitary structure of the Young Communist League and return confiscated property. He has told Indian interlocutors that he is committed to the special relationship and they should not read too much into the (growing) Chinese involvement. He tells the business community that he is creating the right investment climate. And he has asked the media to trust his party’s commitment to basic democratic rights.
This could be interpreted either as a part of a deliberate dual strategy or a result of the Prime Minister’s compulsions, where he has to sound radical in front of the party while be conciliatory in private with non-Maoist actors. But the contradictory signals have dented the PM’s credibility and made him appear unreliable.
However, he has been consistent in emphasising his government’s three core objectives.
The first is writing the constitution. It took more than six months to elect a chairman of the constituent assembly and adopt the working procedure, and another two months to form different committees. But deliberations have now picked up. Forty teams comprising CA members will move out to the districts soliciting suggestions from the public. The schedule dictates that by the end of April, the committees should have a preliminary draft ready which will then be discussed in the full CA. The two key contentious issues will be the shape of the federal structure – a debate that will probably spill out on the streets – and whether to go for a parliamentary or presidential system.
The PM’s second stated aim has been to ‘bring the peace process to logical conclusion’. The key remaining element of the process is the integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants. The past ten months saw tense rhetoric from all sides on the issue with NC rejecting any integration, the Nepal Army worrying that its ‘professional and apolitical’ character may be diluted, and the Maoists demanding a new national army after merging the two existing armies.
But after months of wrangling and delay, an Army Integration Special Committee (AISC), which included representatives from major parties, has been formed. The peace agreement and interim constitution empower this committee to decide on the future of the PLA. Speaking at a People’s Liberation Army cantonment on 12 February, Prachanda told his audience, “From now on, the PLA is not under the Maoist party. You are under the AISC and must accept all its decisions unconditionally, honestly and responsibly.”
The contentious issues will be deciding the number of PLA soldiers to be integrated, which security forces they will be taken into, whether they get in on an individual or group basis, and whether PLA commanders get equivalent ranks in the Nepal Army. Arriving at a deal that can be sold to the NA, non-Maoist parties and PLA combatants alike in a political acrimonious context will be a challenge.
Movement on other issues in the peace process – truth and reconciliation, justice, disappearances – has been minimal. The government controversially introduced an ordinance on investigation of enforced disappearances, soon after the parliament session ended. Non-Maoist parties have opposed the move, and asked for a special session of the house.
The third stated objective is socio-economic transformation, and ties in with governance. The finance ministry, under Dr Baburam Bhattarai, has performed competently – revenue collection has shot up, grants have been increased for local bodies though whether it will be used transparently is yet to be seen, minimum wages have increased but labour unrest has meant a fall in investment.
In most other respects though, the government has performed dismally. There is insecurity all across. The Tarai is in a state of semi-anarchy. A recent attack on a police post in a western district was a sign of how newer groups are resorting to violence. The culture of bandhs that cripples life has not changed. Add to it the power cuts and rising prices. The rising disillusionment prompted a senior Maoist leader, C P Gajurel to remark that it will be better if the Maoists are out of government as ‘the longer we stay in government, the more people lose faith in us.”
At the root today, Nepali politics faces a contradiction between the peace and constitution writing process – which requires all parties to work together in harmony to draw a new social contract – and competitive democratic politics – which is inherently about expanding, protecting and clashing over political space and interests. This is happening in a transition phase when the state is weak, institutions are shaken, and the rules of the game are not clear. If one word defines the Nepali situation, it is fragility.