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Engaging Nepal: some difficult questions

September 15, 2009

India can continue to let its suspicion of the Maoists be the over-riding objective of its Nepal policy or seek to play a pro-active role in engineering the kind of consensus it has done since 2005.

First published in The Hindu yesterday.

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao arrives in Kathmandu on her maiden visit today, at a time when Nepal is grappling with its most serious and prolonged political crisis since the peace process began. India has to make certain difficult policy choices, reconcile the contradictions between its stated aims and actions, determine whether it remains committed to the process it helped facilitate, and use its leverage accordingly.

The fragile Madhav Nepal-led ruling coalition faces a severe crisis of legitimacy and a belligerent Maoist opposition. The Maoists have boycotted the legislature-parliament, paralysing government business to the extent that the budget has not yet been passed. They have demanded a house discussion on President Ram Baran Yadav’s “unconstitutional action” over-riding the Maoist government’s decision to sack the then Army Chief General Rukmangad Katawal in early May — a demand rejected by the other parties in government who see no wrong in what the President did. The Maoists have also launched a street movement, with the slogan of instituting “civilian supremacy” and a “Maoist-led national government.”

The Constitution-writing process is in limbo, with the Constituent Assembly changing its timeline for the sixth time, raising serious doubts whether the statute can be prepared by May 2010. The peace process lies dormant, with little progress on the integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army, presently in United Nations-supervised cantonments. The political polarisation in Kathmandu has left the state weak and unreformed, further fuelling semi-militant ethnic movements of Tharus in western Tarai, Madhesis in eastern Tarai, and Limbus in eastern hills.

Domestic roots

The present crisis, result of the ouster of the Maoists from the government in May, has domestic roots.

There is a deep trust deficit between Nepal’s older political parties and the Maoists. The former feel that the Maoists have not changed the ultimate aim of “state capture” and are not committed to multiparty democracy. The inability of these parties, both the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), to challenge the Maoists politically has added to their insecurity. The Maoists see the others as “stooges of feudals and reactionaries,” unable to reconcile themselves with the popular aspirations of change, and to accept that Maoists are legitimately the strongest political force in Nepal.

Add to this the trust deficit between the Maoists and the Nepal Army, especially under the previous chief, General Katawal, who the Maoists had sought to dismiss. The top brass of the army sees the Maoist intentions to integrate the PLA as an attempt to “politicise” and “take over” the army. Maoist dogmatists see the army as the final pillar of the old state that has to be reoriented drastically. The more moderate politicians, across the spectrum, recognise the need to “democratise the army” as stated by the peace accord, and “integrate” a part of the PLA — but then develop cold feet, fearing this would mean one less balancing force against the Maoists. The elevation of the more sober and restrained Chhatraman Singh Gurung as the first Janajati Chief of the Army this week has had a positive effect though, reducing tension levels.

It was this alliance of the parties and the army that led to the ouster of the Maoist government and the resulting stalemate. But India was at the centre of the crisis in May — actively opposing the Maoist move to dismiss the chief, backing the army, and then helping Madhav Nepal cobble together a majority in the house. The Indians had warned the Maoists not to “touch the army” and felt this was a Maoist move to take over all state institutions. New Delhi was increasingly uncomfortable with the Maoists’ increased engagement with China, the anti-India rhetoric of top Maoist leaders, and developed doubts about their commitment to democracy.

Since then, New Delhi has actively backed the present Madhav Nepal government — hosting him during a five-day India visit, telling interlocutors not to destabilise the present arrangement, and helping to smoothen intra-coalition differences.

New Delhi’s role

India has a choice. It can continue to let its suspicion of the Maoists be the over-riding objective of its Nepal policy, and see the country slide into confrontational politics and greater anarchy. Or it can seek to build bridges, and play a pro-active role in engineering the kind of consensus it has done since 2005 to veer Nepal back towards a stable trajectory. But for that, policymakers have to ask themselves difficult questions.

Is India still committed to Nepal’s Constitution-writing and peace process? If yes, how does it reconcile that with the opposition of powerful sections in the Indian establishment to the integration of even a part of the PLA in the Nepal Army, as stated in peace accords? Would they prefer the present drift where the country has two armies? Or are they banking on the PLA splintering off into lower level extremist groups, which looks unlikely given the strong chain of command and party discipline?

How does sustaining the present government aid the process? Does India recognise that as long as this government is in place, Maoists may not cooperate in drafting the Constitution, and without their numbers, no statute can be passed? What are the implications, for Nepal and for India, if the Constitution does not get written on time? In fact, how does encouraging a Kathmandu power structure that excludes the Maoists square up with the political reality on the ground where they are immensely strong?

How does fragmentation of the Madhesi mainstream political parties — recent moves by Delhi have added to their divisions — help the cause of stability in the Tarai? Does India still believe in using the Tarai and the Madhes movement as a counter to the Maoists and a strategic lever? Is there a recognition that continued semi-anarchy in the Tarai and a weak state right across the border could imperil India’s own security interests?

The point is not to place the onus on all that is happening in Nepal on India. Of course, domestic actors have been irresponsible. There is a deep disconnect between Maoist intentions, actions and rhetoric, and dogmatists within still dream of a communist republic. There is lack of clarity within the Nepali Congress and the UML. Factionalism is rampant. Short-term interest based politics has trumped the larger commitment to the process. And no solution can be imposed from outside.

Nirupama Rao will get acquainted with political actors, make the right noises, and back the present government during her Nepal stay. But her visit would be truly successful if she uses the trip to publicly reiterate New Delhi’s commitment and support to past political and peace agreements; tell all actors that no form of authoritarianism, right or left, is acceptable to India; build bridges with the Maoists; privately reassess India’s approach to the present power alignment; and encourage a creative roadmap to get the Nepali process back on track.

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