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Moment for Peace and Constitution-Building in Nepal

After almost three years of political flux and pessimism, a measure of clarity finally seems to be emerging in Nepal. The newly formed Baburam Bhattarai-led Maoist-Madhesi coalition government enjoys immense public support and is expected to conclude the peace process, but the opposition led by the Nepali Congress could pose obstacles as it is wary about losing the "peace dividend" if this were to happen. How the Maoists in government manage to tackle differences with the opposition and from within will determine both the outcome of the peace process and the writing of the constitution in the new republic.

COMMENTARY

Moment for Peace and process forward, as neither Khanal nor Prachanda, the chairman of the Maoist
Constitution-Building in Nepal party, were able to convince their respective parties on the steps to be taken. Coop
eration continued to be lacking from the
chief opposition party, the nc, which had
Srinivasan Ramani refused to take part in a national consensus

After almost three years of political flux and pessimism, a measure of clarity finally seems to be emerging in Nepal. The newly formed Baburam Bhattarai-led Maoist-Madhesi coalition government enjoys immense public support and is expected to conclude the peace process, but the opposition led by the Nepali Congress could pose obstacles as it is wary about losing the “peace dividend” if this were to happen. How the Maoists in government manage to tackle differences with the opposition and from within will determine both the outcome of the peace process and the writing of the constitution in the new republic.

This article is based on a visit to Nepal and was made possible thanks to a grant by the Appan Menon Memorial Trust.

Email: srini@epw.in

U
nity and struggle is the current theme of politics in Nepal as new alliances are forged, new vistas are explored for cooperation and new expectations are generated both for the conclusion of the stalled peace process and the writing of the constitution. There cannot be a more propitious political moment than the present for handling the vexed issues that have eluded a consensus among the major parties. These issues include the long held up process of integration of Maoist combatants into the Nepal army and those related to constitution building – state restructuring in particular. But the air of political intrigue is still quite thick in Kathmandu and the forces favouring the status quo are not going to give up things easily.

Baburam Bhattarai, the vice chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was elected as prime minister by members of the Constituent Assembly (CA) on 28 August 2011 after the Maoists-United Democratic Madhesi Front alliance managed to stave off the challenge led by the Nepali Congress (nc) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist-Leninist) known as the UML. His ascension has been an important reason for the new expectations among the public. Bhattarai is widely seen as a committed left intellectual and is identified with a lot of the progressive steps taken in the processes that led up to formation of the republic and indeed “Naya Nepal”.

The creation of the Maoist-Madhesi alliance was a story in itself. Ever since the fall of the first iteration of Maoist-led rule in Nepal after the CA elections, every effort had been made to isolate the Maoists from the political mainstream. The imperative to finish the constitution writing process had enabled the Maoists to stage a slow comeback into the corridors of executive power when they managed a coalition with the UML supporting and participating in the government led by Jhalanath Khanal of the same party. This “left bloc” in power, however, did not manage to take the peace

october 8, 2011

government and had earlier pitched a candidate of its own during a prolonged and near farcical sequence of elections for the post of prime minister.

More than three years after the CA elections, it had finally dawned among the major actors that any step forward was impossible unless the chief actors of the peace process

– the left Maoists and the centre-right Nepali Congress – came to a certain understanding. The coming round to this line of thought coincided with a lengthy debate within the Maoist party that centred on both the line of action vis-à-vis the CA as well as greater distribution of powers among the “factions” within the organisation. The “factions” were identified with the three major leaders – chairman Prachanda, and vice chairmen Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya “Kiran”.

Unity Phase

It required a phase of unity with Mohan Baidya to struggle for a greater distribution of powers for Baburam Bhattarai to be able to secure the status of a prime ministerial candidate. It later required a phase of unity and solidarity with the chairman, Prachanda, to take the peace process forward by offering concessions for the opposition to be able to respond. It has also entailed a new phase of struggle within the Maoists over these steps between what is termed the “establishment faction” led by Prachanda along with Baburam Bhattarai versus Mohan Baidya’s “hardliners”. They have in general called upon the new government to handle the peace process in a less compromising and more dignified manner for the party. Though an inner party debate – even struggle – rages there is unity on the idea that constitution making is an imperative and that the Maoists have a huge stake in the CA.

The successful alliance with the Madhesi front was itself another case of unity of thought on the issue of state restructuring and identity recognition. The Maoists were the only major political party that was willing to shift away from the past and distribute

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more power and ministerial posts to the Madhesis. They were the only force that agreed to take up the issue of state restructuring – a cause that had coincided with the social upsurge of long marginalised identities during the republican movement in the mid-2000s. The Madhesis were no longer swayed by the rhetoric of the “democratic alliance”, which included the nc and the UML, and neither was the Indian establishment – an influential player in Nepal’s polity – willing to push them in that direction. Indeed, the Indian establishment’s “hands off” role in the present iteration of the Maoist-Madhesi-led government has signified a shift in their undeclared position that favoured the isolation of the Maoists after the resignation of Prachanda two years ago.

Baburam Bhattarai announced that his priorities were peace, the constitution and economic relief to the people. Having secured the alliance with the Madhesis by signing a four-point deal, which among other things called for the inclusion of Madhesi people in the Nepali security apparatus as well, he then set out to reach out to the opposition. The handing over of the keys of the arms’ containers of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) to a special committee set up to work out the process of army integration was the first such step. This was warily welcomed by the opposition.

Baidya’s faction among the Maoists had immediately denounced what it termed the “unilateral” handing over of keys to the special committee without proper consultation with the rest of the Maoist leadership. Thus far the response from the Nepali Congress has not been very encouraging, as the leadership continues to adopt a rigid position on the integration process.

PLA Integration

Bhattarai’s government had wanted an agreement in the special committee on the number and ranks of PLA ex-combatants to be integrated, besides the amount of compensation to be paid as retirement or rehabilitation benefits. But since the differences with the opposition were too many to bridge, it now accepts that a piecemeal approach – first an agreement on regrouping – would be in order to take the process forward. The Bhattarai government had also affirmed that property seized during

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
october 8, 2011

the people’s war would be returned in tune

with the Comprehensive Peace Accord

(cpa). Yet, they have been met with a luke

warm response from both the UML and

the Nepali Congress, who now want a

“package solution” on all the issues related

to integration and do not want any agree

ment on constitution writing unless the

peace process is successfully resolved.

The intransigence of the Nepali Congress

and that of the UML is not difficult to under

stand. Politically, concluding the peace pro

cess under the Maoist leadership provides

the ex-rebels with the opportunity to cash in

on a “peace dividend”, which could trans

late into expansion or consolidation of their

support base. The opposition is therefore re

luctant to quickly concede ground on various

issues, even if it has more or less accepted

the various provisions on integration that the

Maoists have offered, either in private or in

earlier statements during different political

contexts after the CA elections. Bhattarai’s

government evinces hope that the opposi

tion will ultimately come around, as it

shows its sincerity towards accommodat

ing them in the power structures as the CA

concludes its work. Prachanda has already

suggested that the Nepali Congress will be

given an important role in the executive

after the peace process is concluded.

The opposition has also betrayed a poor

understanding of the recognition of the

Madhesis’ concerns and has reacted to the

four-point agreement in the typical hill

chauvinistic fashion that has characterised

Nepali politics for decades. Even the Indi

an establishment in Nepal which has intri

cate links and connections with the Nepali

political class has found this insistence on

the status quo by the opposition very diffi

cult to understand or endorse. With public

opinion in favour of the present government,

it remains a matter of when and not if the

opposition will eventually come around to

accepting a honourable settlement on the

issue of integration of Maoist combatants.

The Nepali Congress’ rigid attitude to

wards the Maoists is as much ideological as

a consequence of the fraying of relations

bet ween the parties since the CA elections.

It must, however, be remembered that under

the helmsmanship of late Nepali Congress

leader Girija Prasad Koirala, various conces

sions to both the Maoists and the Madhesis

were made possible despite differences with

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these forces. The latter’s demand for recognition of citizenship of various plain dwellers was accepted during Koirala’s interim government rule, while the Maoists were accommodated both in the Comprehensive Peace Accord as also under the interim constitution which also oversaw the CA elections.

The UML, on the other hand, suffers from its own two-headed nature. A right wing and conservative section of the party does not favour any cooperation with the Maoists, while another section only wants to as long as it controls the reins of power. Indeed, the UML’s shift to a closer relationship with the NC now and the joint demand for a “package solution” suggests that the party is firmly status quoist. After forever arguing for “national consensus” over the past three years, the party suddenly seems to be averse to forging a consensus simply because none of its leaders are in power. Even its support to the NC in the recently concluded elections seems to be a case of miscalculation. The UML had hoped that the Madhesi parties would throw in their lot against the Maoists, little understanding the importance of the concord between the Maoists and the Madhesis on issues related to greater inclusion and state-restructuring. Indeed the forces of status quo believe that the lack of an accord, due to non-acceptance of the Maoists’ concessions, could precipitate a situation where yet another government could be formed, this time with either the NC or the UML again at the helm.

Constitution-Writing

After the CA elections, it was expected that the drafting of the constitution would proceed unimpeded as the political parties would shepherd the peace process to its conclusion. Yet the bottlenecks in the peace process have meant that agreements on various provisions in the constitution are yet to be reached.

However, various multiparty committees formed in the CA to examine issues such as federalism or state restructuring, land reform, form of governance among others have come up with detailed reports. The consensus is that a very progressive constitution is in the offing and that with the conclusion of the peace process, disagreements will be thrashed out in the CA.

It is also not the case that the process of forging unity with diverse partners has

COMMENTARY

resulted in the best possible of outcomes.

Integration of Maoist combatants and promises to include close to 10,000 Madhesis into the Nepali army could have the potential to augment the already bloated Nepali army. Agreement on the nature of the executive – which is widely expected to be based on the French model with both a directly elected president and a prime minister accountable to parliament – seems to have been arrived at to forge some unity of thought. The Maoists were insistent on a presidential system, the Nepali Congress keen on the classic parliamentarian prime ministerial system, while the UML preferred a “directly elected prime minister” accountable to Parliament.

Having a French model could be problematic as the concept of two centres of power has always proved difficult for Nepal which has had a history of conflict between the monarch and the prime ministers, elected or otherwise. The Maoist-Madhesi agreement on amnesty for those with criminal cases lodged against them during the decade-long people’s war or in the Madhesi movement, as part of the four-point agreement is also problematic. While politically motivated cases would have to be dropped, those involved in criminal activities of a serious nature should be prosecuted and not be given a general amnesty.

Among the Maoists, a lengthy debate has raged over the means to achieve a people’s federal democratic republic of Nepal. Ever since graduating from the people’s war to signing an accord with the parliamentary parties representing diverse class interests, debates have gone on as to whether a socio-economic transformation is possible through these means – by adopting a progressive constitution in accord with the other parties. Whatever be the differences over the nature of integration of the PLA or over matters such as a return of seized property, there seems to be an unanimous agreement among the Maoists that the CA has to take the process of constitution writing to its logical conclusion.

India and the Maoists

That leads to the other story of “unity and struggle” – the relations between the Maoists and the Indian establishment in Nepal. The CPA was made possible due to the facilitating role played by the Indian establishment which helped the sevenparty alliance forge an agreement with the ex-rebels. Over the years, a distrust has developed and increased between the Maoists and the Indians, with the latter wary of the former’s new articulations on foreign policy of the Nepali state.

While a distance continues to remain, there is a view that a stable, democratic and prosperous Nepal is in its neighbour’s best interests. And that the cultural, civilisational and society-society relations between the two countries make a unique state-state relationship imperative. The Maoists’ understanding of the latter has helped it engage better with the Indian establishment. The Indian interlocutors’ understanding that a truly stable Nepal is possible only if the interests of marginalised communities are accommodated through a progressive constitution has helped them drop their stark distrust of the Maoists. The Maoists still have to wage a larger struggle to achieve their true aim of a people’s republic in Nepal, but a unity of purpose has emerged and it is expected that this should facilitate a similar process as that occurred in 2006 to help take the peace process to its conclusion.

The next few months of rule by the Baburam Bhattarai government therefore promise to herald a change from the status quo even as challenges persist.

october 8, 2011 vol xlvI no 41 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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