Nepal: Times for a Maoist rethink*

The famous Friday agreement has come and gone and the term of the Constituent Assembly has been extended. But the Maoists continue their old tricks by seeking the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister. As the deadline set by Maoists for embattled Madhav Kumar Nepal to quit has come and gone, his senior Cabinet colleagues have said the Prime Minister is ready to step down if peace and constitution drafting are guaranteed by the former rebels. The Maoists, on the other hand, have said they will not hold discussion on other issues unless Madhav Kumar Nepal resigns. Back to square one!

In order to be able to understand the nature of this problem one has to go back to 2008 the year the Himalayan country held elections for its Constituent Assembly (CA) and emerged as a parliamentary republic. The elections gave an overwhelming victory to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The CPN (M) with 220 out of 575 elected seats became the largest party in the Constituent Assembly. It was followed by the Nepali Congress [NC] with 110 seats and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) with 103 seats. After months of power-sharing discussions and deliberations, CPN (M) Chairman Prachanda was elected as Prime Minister in August 2008. Put differently, the message from the electorate was : the government should be consensus based to take the country forward.

Then, like now, the Maoists demanded the resignation of Prime Minister of the day, G P Koirala. Just after winning the elections, Prachanda threatened that CPN (M) would lead street protests if Koirala did not go. Madhav Kumar Nepal therefore knows exactly what he is up against; he should not resign without concrete assurances from the Maoists.

Experience of the past couple of years, Maoists, whether in or out of power, want to control the agenda before the nation. The insistence on integrating their armed guerilla into the Nepalese army as also the actions of the Youth Communist League (YCL) show they want total control of state power. The tone and tenor of all their actions also bear this out. That the Maoists did not succeed is primarily a demonstration of the resilience of Nepal’s political system.

Consider the sequence of latest turn of events. Near to the deadline on the night of Friday, May 4, the UCPN (Maoist) said it wanted the resignation of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal first. It was a change from its plank – opposition to extension of the CA’s term. Till then Prime Minister Nepal camp was expecting the Maoists to come around and the resignation and extension to go together.

A whole lot depends on the ability of the political parties to arrive at a consensus on how to move forward on drafting a new constitution. That can only happen when they decide on the formation of a national government. At present there is little detail in the Interim Constitution about how the Constituent Assembly should operate, other than for some rules about adoption of the final new Constitution, and about achieving consensus, if possible, on the content of the constitution; there is a provision, of course, about possible reference to the people through a referendum “on any matters of national importance”. But, frankly speaking, it is very imprecise.

Admittedly, there is need for as much urgency to move forward in framing the constitution as imparting clarity to the scheme of things. Leaders of all political parties must put their heads together for a brainstorming on the nature and character of the constitution they envisage. Way back in 1947, when the Government of Nepal Act was made, it focused on transferring the power of Ranas to the people. That job was achieved at the end of People’s Movement II in 2007 with the interim constitution coming into place.

Now that the CA has been given a fresh lease, politicians should get down to the business of making the statute by giving up their penchant to be high on rhetoric. The Maoists, who are undoubtedly, a major player, what with their numbers in Parliament should learn to play by the rules of democracy; they should resist the temptation to ride rough shod over others.

But the million dollar question is: Will they? The immediate answer to this nagging question is a resounding no by the recent turn of events, particularly the display of the Maoist street power.

The point is the Moist street power is intact; so are their military cadres, who are not disbanded as yet, despite promises. These armed youth had played a key role in swinging the electoral mood during the constitution assembly elections. The Maoists continue to count on the ‘good foot work’ of these cadres in a future election as well- for a victory and for disrupting the electoral process, as the situation warrants. The Maoists appear determined not to back down or show flexibility on any issue unless it suits them.

The Maoists should doff off their guerilla fatigues and become a civilian, mainstream party. And become acceptable to a cross section of the Nepalese society, not a section of the society. Delay only harms their onward march. Other parties, notably the Nepali Congress, should do some plain speaking and press ahead with hard bargaining.

Maoists must determine the number of combatants to be integrated into national security forces, return all the properties seized during the long years of insurgency and dismantle the paramilitary structure of the Young Communist League (YCL). This is the ‘unfinished work’, or what the 10-parties in the ruling coalition term as the ‘remaining works’ in the peace process. Addressing this task and completing it transparently and learning the nuances of consensus politics give credibility to the Maoists claim for government leadership. Credibility brings respectability and paves way for acceptability.

Nepal is at cross roads. Chaos is something it must avoid. By his actions, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal has averted chaos. To the dismay of Maoists probably, and of Prachanda, who is facing revolt from within against his bid for Prime Ministership. Some new imitative on his part to break the logjam will be in order.

(*this commentary first appeared on Porg, www.poreg.org)

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Journalist, South Asian Analyst