Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’s resignation on Monday afternoon once again reveals how the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is different from any other ‘mainstream’ party that inhabits the Nepali political landscape. Most observers, including this writer, fail in assessing the Maoists correctly because we end up using the same categories, attribute the same motivations, and expect similar tactics from them as from other political actors.
The PM’s resignation came after a two week long political thriller leading up to the executive’s decision to dismiss Army chief General Katawal and appoint General Kul Bahadur Khadka in his place.
The last fortnight saw hectic political activity – the government seeking clarification from Katawal; the UML initially agreeing with the Maoist move and then backtracking because of internal rift; a section of the NC playing along in the hope of getting space in the cabinet but getting overwhelmed by the larger party view which feared a Maoist takeover of the army; an unprecedented divide at the top echelons of the military; intense media speculation on options ranging from a ‘soft coup’ to a mutiny within the Maoists; the emergence of an active presidency; and direct Indian engagement with the ambassador meeting the PM at least half a dozen times.
But all the negotiations bore little fruit, apart from giving each side a chance to test each other and exposing the stark polarisation in Nepali politics.
On Sunday morning, the Maoists went ahead with their decision to sack General Katawal. Other parties, as expected, opposed it. The UML walked out of government. There was a crisis within the military chain of command when General Katawal decided not to accept the PM’s orders and wait for the President’s instructions, even as General Khadka claimed he was legitimately entitled to head the army. The president stepped in with a letter late Sunday night asking Katawal to stay on – a move that has provoked criticism against Dr Yadav for having overstepped his authority. On Monday afternoon, after a meeting of the Maoist secretariat, the PM decided to resign criticising the president for creating a dual power centre; and foreign powers (read India) for blatantly interfering in Nepali affairs.
So what does all this mean? Where does Nepali politics, the peace process, and the Maoist party head from here?
For one, it has been proved once again that the Maoists are excellent are making the best out of a bad situation. The PM was under enormous pressure from all factions of the party leadership and the party rank and file to assert his authority – after a series of incidents when they have had to back down. He knew that with the UML walking out, it would have been a struggle to keep up a majority. (The only way would have been to somehow bribe MJF into staying on, while luring other smaller parties). The PM also realised that the political situation and constitutional crisis could go totally out of control and even if he succeeded in staying on, this would not be a sustainable regime. Also remember that the last eight months have been extremely difficult for the Maoist party. The party organisation may have become stronger but their credibility had dipped drastically. Failure to deliver on basic promises and bring about any perceptible change has diminished the party’s standing among its supporters, and Prachanda’s own standing within the party. The Katawal row provided Prachanda a pretext to resign.
This may not have been as well thought out and strategic as it seems retrospectively. After all, which party wants to leave control of the state apparatus? However, the PM’s resignation gives the Maoists the moral high ground, and a chance to monopolise the opposition space. It relieves them of any responsibility and expectation that came with running the state; enhances Prachanda’s popularity; energises the cadre; and gives them a much -needed set of enemies they can target. Ram Baran Yadav-Katawal-K P Oli-Rakesh Sood now constitutes the new pantheon of enemies in the Maoist propaganda machine.
Even if the Maoists come back and become a part of a national government, after a renegotiation of terms with other parties and some movement on the Katawal issue, the Maoists have managed to differentiate themselves from other actors on the stage. What they are putting out is this – at a time when the President wants more power than the constitution gives him, the UML and NC want to form a new government subverting the mandate of the CA elections, and India wanted us to relent, we stood up and gave up power. The Maoists are back to doing what they know best, which is play the victim.
This episode clearly brings forth what was quite evident in the last six months. The rapidly deteriorating relationship between India and the Maoists; NC and the Maoists; and the army and the Maoists led to the crisis. Till these three interlinked relationships get back on track, there can be no movement on the peace process or any prospect of political stability.
The Maoists are right when they point out that the Indian role played a decisive part in this crisis. India did play an active role – first in telling the Maoists not to go ahead, then in encouraging the other parties to walk out of the alliance; and in thinking of ways to prevent the implementation of the decision to sack General Katawal. But this should not have come as a surprise to Maoists, who know the reality of Indian involvement in Nepal better than most others given the route they have traversed. Delhi had made it clear innumerable times not only to the Maoists, but also to journalists and others, that they will not tolerate any messing around with the army structure. India had become increasingly suspicious of Maoist intentions, its efforts to cosy up with China, and this incident proved to be the breaking point. As a diplomat put it, “There is no point in pretending anymore. We hate each other’s guts and the gloves are off.”
India may have achieved its objective of preserving status quo in the army chain of command, and keeping the Maoists away from exerting control over it. Other forces may even be grateful to Delhi for paving the way for a renegotiation of terms with Maoists, or an alternative government. But Prachanda’s resignation has pre-empted the Indian move to actively oust the government. The absence of low key subtle diplomacy today makes India look foolish and reinforces the image of as bully, and gives Maoists enough ammunition to generate and capitalise on the ‘nationalist’, read anti-India, plank on the Kathmandu street.
The NC-Maoist relationship is characterised by deep fear and insecurity on part of the NC and excessive ambition on part of the Maoists. The NA-Maoist ties are characterised by the antipathy stemming from the war days; a clash of class interests; and the deep suspicion of NA top brass that Maoists want to take control and suspicion of Maoists that NA will block any move to initiate ‘progressive’ policies.
Till India and Maoists re-establish some trust; till NC and Maoists do not rework terms and a power sharing arrangement; and till NA, Maoists and other parties come to an acceptable political compromise on integration, we are stuck. With the events of the last two weeks, prospects of progress on all three fronts have receded.
At present, hectic political negotiations are underway. There is a real possibility of a Madhav Nepal led coalition government, though as mentioned earlier, some actors are keen on getting the Maoists back on board in a national government with all party participation.
If you are an optimist, you can look at it this way. A serious constitutional crisis has been averted. The Maoists have committed themselves to the peace and constitution writing process and will not return to the jungle. Normal competitive politics is taking its own course with parties slugging it out for influence, power and privileges. And this shock treatment will allow all parties to sit together and prepare a new deal to take the process forward. If you are a pessimist, you can focus on the fact that this will actually cripple the process. No government can function effectively if the Maoists are out and seek to be obstructionist. Any alternative will be short-lived and unsustainable, and the Maoists could come back even stronger with a more dogmatic agenda. Constitution writing cannot move forward without the former rebels. There may now be a temptation in some sections of the army to think of themselves as beyond civilian control, which in turn could lead to them intervening in partisan politics. And this polarisation at the centre will leave the state even weaker and unreformed, thus allowing the anarchy outside to fester.
Either ways, Nepal has relapsed into a sharp political conflict, fortunately without the war and violence this time around.
(First published at http://www.nepalitimes.com)