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The imperative of a national government in Nepal

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 24, 2009

    Nepal Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who heads a twenty-two party coalition government, chose India for his first official foreign visit after assuming office two months back. This ‘goodwill’ visit was undertaken against the background of Nepal’s increasingly fragile peace process. The bilateral agenda was just a pretext. What brought him to New Delhi were several domestic factors. While this is not to say that there are no urgent bilateral issues between the two countries, the most crucial factor today is India’s support for Nepal’s coalition government.

    Nepal’s political parties have been engaged in bitter rivalry since April 10, 2008 elections to the Constituent Assembly, which has frustrated the attempt to write a constitution and the ultimate culmination of the peace process. The Maoist-led government, which assumed power four months after intense negotiations between the various political parties, could not last long. Prachanda resigned from the prime ministership after his failed attempt to push through his party hardliners’ agenda of dismissing former Army Chief Kotwal who was opposed to the integration of the Maoist cadre into the Nepalese Army. Both UML and NC did not support Prachanda’s decision, especially at a time when the Army Chief had only a few months left to retire. Moreover, the mass integration of the Maoist cadre into the Army was not supported by other political parties. And the Nepalese Army too feared that inclusion of ideologically indoctrinated cadre would not make for a professional army. To add to existing apprehensions, a video of the Prachanda surfaced in which he openly admitted that the number of cadres who surrendered to the UN was inflated.

    The Maoists did not anticipate that a political alternative could emerge given the lack of numbers of its main rivals – the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Nepali Congress (NC). This is nothing but a reflection of political immaturity of the Maoists. Moreover, they were also driven by the conviction that they are central to the peace process, without realizing that strong arm tactics do not work in a democracy when no party has a two-thirds majority. The Maoists did not realize that their centrality cannot be automatically converted to power. The successful division of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) gave a political breather to the other political parties who were smarting from their poll debacle. The Nepali Congress extended its support to the UML out of political compulsion. Many in the UML do not trust Koirala who has not hidden his desire to see his daughter become Prime Minister.

    Banking on this desire of Mr. Koirala, the Maoists are sending feelers to the NC for an alternative coalition that would restore the Maoists to power. They are willing to give up the prime ministership to the Nepali Congress in return for a substantive position that would help them expand their power base and see through the integration of the Maoist cadre in the Nepal Army. The Maoists’ argument of ‘civilian supremacy’ is only a tactic to camouflage their larger agenda. Their demand for the ‘restoration of national sovereignty’ is another ploy to exert pressure on the government. If it works out, this alternative arrangement would not produce a stable government, since the NC has been opposed to the integration process.

    The UML is engaged in talks to include the Maoists in the government. But there are several disagreements between them. Prachanda also realizes that the Maoists would not have their way if they join a UML government. The Maoist demand for a debate in Parliament on the President’s action and civilian supremacy over the armed forces has already been rejected by the government. The Maoists have remained adamant and have asserted that there would soon be a national government under their leadership. It appears that Nepal is entering into another phase of uncertainty. The Maoists’ uncompromising attitude has grown out of their electoral performance and the fact that they are central to the success of the peace process. They are playing on the fear of derailment of the peace process and renewed violence.

    Nepal’s visit was to seek India’s support to persuade the Maoists to join the coalition government. At the same time, Nepal also wanted to persuade India to use its influence with the Nepali Congress not to rock the boat at this crucial period when the most pressing issue for the country is to produce an inclusive constitution. However, Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala’s absence from the delegation indicates the dynamics of relations within the coalition government and underscored the importance of Indian involvement. The Nepalese Prime Minister also spoke to Mr. Sitaram Yeachury who played an important role in bringing the Maoists and the political parties together in 2005. India remains crucial to the success of the peace process.

    One of India’s stated policies has been stability and prosperity in the neighbourhood. India thus has a stake in the longevity of any elected government that assumes power in Nepal. In this context, the inclusion of the Maoists in the government would be an important step to ensure that the interim government fulfills its mandate of writing a new constitution. India too shares the concern of Nepal’s political parties on the issue of integration of Maoist cadre into the Nepal Army. There is an urgent need for an amicable settlement on this issue among the political parties. The Maoists also need to understand that a hard-line stance on this issue would go against their broader political interest. Going back to the jungle is not an option either. Mainstreaming of marginalised groups and restructuring of the state are also important issues that have the potential to derail the government.

    All these issues can be resolved only if the political parties find time to concentrate on constitution making rather than being engaged in political intrigues. A national government as proposed by the Maoists would be a panacea only if the Maoists learn the art of accommodating other political parties. One hopes that after their recent experience, the Maoists have learnt that it is not just numbers alone that make a government but that political skill determines its longevity. India had played an important role in forging an alliance between the Maoists and the political parties which saw the exit of the Monarchy. It again needs to play a similar role to ensure the successful completion of the peace process.