Maoist muddle

Published : Oct 19, 2007 00:00 IST

The Maoists refusal to take part in the elections scheduled for November threatens Nepals democratic process.

in KathmanduCommunist Party of

NEPALESE politics is currently going through one of its frequent convulsions, with the popular mood swaying from complete pessimism to cautious optimism. Serial blasts in Kathmandu on September 3 shattered the long peace that followed the truce reached by the Maoists and the government. On September 18, Maoist Ministers submitted their resignation from the interim government to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala at his Baluwatar residence in Kathmandu. Subsequently, at a mass rally held a few kilometres from there, they announced their decision to disrupt the November elections to the Constituent Assembly unless the nation was declared a republic immediately and a proportional representation-based electoral system was adopted. The southern Terai region was rocked by political violence and communal clashes in mid-September.

These incidents, however, were followed by other, positive, developments the two Nepali Congress (N.C.) factions, headed by Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba, reunited and adopted the agenda of a federal democratic republic; in an effort to find common ground, the Eight-Party Alliance (consisting of seven mainstream parties and the Maoists) agreed to make a pre-poll joint commitment to a republic; and political consultations intensified. From being almost certain that the elections scheduled for November would not happen, the countrys political class, at the time of writing, thinks the Maoists will stay the course and the elections might just be possible.

The decision of the Maoists to quit the government but not the peace process stems from the mixed results of their engagement with the mainstream. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has stuck to its ideologue Baburam Bhattarais line, adopted two years ago, to engage with the mainstream parties and India against the King, and participate in bourgeoisie democracy while not giving up on the final goal of a peoples democracy. They participated in the April 2006 peaceful Peoples Movement; declared an end to their rebellion after prolonged discussions; and reached an arms management agreement with the parties, which included keeping more than 3,000 weapons and 30,000 soldiers in cantonments under the supervision of the United Nations. The Maoists helped draft the interim Constitution and subsequently joined the government. The other parties agreed to give them 83 seats in the interim Parliament, the same number allotted to the Maoists main political rival, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). While doubts have been raised about the Maoists intentions and actions, the former rebels have stayed the course and gained a lot.

We have got international recognition and have been accepted as a major player in Nepalese politics. We have shaped the national agenda on many issues and the party can now expand its organisation legitimately, says Anil Shrestha, a district-level Maoist leader.

But it has been a difficult journey for the Maoist leadership. With pressure from hardliners not to give up its core agenda and tactics, it has had to balance the shift to becoming a peaceful democratic force. It has not been easy for the former soldiers either, many of whom are now living in miserable conditions in seven cantonments.

And most importantly, the Maoists have begun to realise that the party does not enjoy a huge mass support. Some of their problems arise from the efforts of other forces to corner the former rebels. Some of it may be inherent in a transition of this nature. But many of these issues are of the partys own making its tactical blunders or the reluctance of the leadership to commit itself to peaceful politics or to rein in the activists.

The limited and declining support base of the Maoists is made worse by the mixed electoral system 240 members are to be elected through the direct first past the post (FPTP) constituency-based polls, while another 240 will be elected through proportional representation based on the percentage of votes polled by the party. While being confident about the latter system because of their ability to amass a fair portion of the cumulative votes, Maoist leaders are worried about their prospects in the constituency-based elections. There is no way we will get more than 8-10 per cent of the seats, a Maoist Member of Parliament confessed. The Maoists have neither an organisation attuned to electoral politics nor popular leaders and mass support.

The realisation that in the current political context they will fare poorly has been the trigger for the Maoists decision to reject the elections (ironically, the demand for the elections was first raised by them). But how did the former rebels, claiming to represent the people, come to such a pass? For one, their support base was always overestimated. Their intimidation tactics continued in the past year, especially in the form of the Young Communist League. Only recently, the partys student wing beat up several activists of their main political rival, the UML. These incidents made the people more apprehensive of the Maoist commitment to peaceful politics. The editor-in-chief of The Kathmandu Post, Prateek Pradhan, recently noted: They have lost the self-confidence to face the general public, mainly owing to their past atrocities.

Maoist supporters at

There is, however, more to it. The Maoists core support rested largely on marginalised communities the ethnic groups, Dalits and the landless many of whom have deserted the Maoists present policies as betrayal. Ethnic Madhesis are particularly angry. Atma Ram Sah, a civil society leader in the southern town of Birgunj, put it thus: They helped create a militant mood among us but did not deliver on our concerns, like pressing for federalism in the interim Constitution. The Maoists silence on issues relating to Dalit rights and the landless has allowed other identity-based groups to co-opt these communities, although the scope to mobilise them and recover their support still remains.

By not living up to the spirit of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and, instead, trying to weaken the Maoists, the mainstream parties and international players have only weakened the moderates in the Maoist leadership. There has been a delay in appointing a Commission on the Disappeared, as well as in providing minimal support for the families of those killed in the civil war. This has left the Maoists in a spot, for they have to answer difficult questions about why their stint in power did not help mobilise basic humanitarian assistance.

Both the N.C. and India encouraged Madhesis to continue their movement in the Terai in an attempt to weaken the Maoists. International players and other local actors tried to hatch up an anti-Maoist democratic alliance.

Most importantly, there was no movement on security sector reform. The Prime Minister and the Army leadership are reported to have struck a deal wherein the Army has expressed its formal commitment to a civilian government in return for a guarantee that its structure, leadership and lucrative contracts will not be touched. The Army leadership is against the inclusion of Maoist soldiers in any form in the Army. The PMs decision to leave the Army intact has left the Maoists jittery. The most important element in security sector reform is securing the future of Maoist soldiers residing in cantonments. It will be important to ingest a portion of the Peoples Liberation Army, even if they are the indoctrinated fighting force of a political party, into the countrys security services for the sake of peace, says Kanak Mani Dixit, a civil society activist and journalist.

These moves by others as well as their own internal weaknesses convinced most Maoist delegates to a party plenum in August that their mass base was shrinking and that they had compromised excessively. It strengthened hardliners like C.P. Gajurel, Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal and Mohan Vaidya who were anyway sceptical of the Bhattarai line and believed that the present Maoist strategy was at the cost of nationalism. They claimed that unless they had something more substantial to show, such as an immediate declaration of the country as a republic and a changed electoral system that would favour them, there was no point in going to the polls.

The decision to quit the government with a fresh set of preconditions, therefore, stemmed from these multiple factors the limited mass base and the need to recover support base by raising populist concerns, bargain hard with the N.C. and other parties, counter the royalists who the Maoists claim still have the potential to bounce back, and act as the opposition rather than as a part of the establishment. Observers point out that in many ways the Maoist move is irresponsible politics of brinksmanship, for it can derail the democratic peace process, strengthen the right-wing forces, and create instability.

Away from Kathmandu politics, though inextricably linked to it, is the trouble in the Terai plains. Madhesis, who constitute 33 per cent of the countrys population, have faced the twin crises of identity and exclusion over the decades. Plainspeople who share extensive cultural, linguistic and kinship ties with those across the border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Madhesis have been often derisively dismissed as outsiders and have not found space in the national mainstream. With the opening of the democratic space, they launched a movement early this year asking for an equitable electoral system, their immediate inclusion in state structures, a commitment to federalism and other symbolic steps that would give them respect as equal citizens.

While the Prime Minister did give in to some of the demands, the government remained lethargic on implementing them. Politicians in Kathmandu saw that the Madhesi leadership was weak and fragmented and decided that short-term Machiavellian tactics of divide and rule would help tide over the crisis.

The Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum, which had emerged at the forefront of the movement, made the tactical blunders of resuming its agitation when it should have talked and not focussing on organisation building. Neither it nor any other Madhesi force could capture the space left vacant by the erosion in the support of other Pahadi-dominated mainstream parties in the Terai, creating a political vacuum. This allowed the mushrooming of several armed groups at last count, there were 22 violent groups claiming to fight for Madhes, either for an independent country or a Madhes federal unit. A few, like the two factions of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha, led by Jai Krishna Goit and Nagendra Paswan aka Jwala Singh, have some political core but they, along with the other groups, are involved in activities that are not political, making the most of a political vacuum and an almost defunct state machinery.

This has created multiple faultlines in the Terai. There is a trust deficit between the state and Madhesi people; tensions have arisen between Maoists and Madhesi groups, as well as among different Madhesi groups, and between the hill-origin residents of the Terai and Madhesis. Many of these faultlines came together in the recent riots in Kapilvastu, a central Terai district bordering Uttar Pradesh, triggered by the killing of Abdul Moid Khan, an anti-Maoist Madhesi Muslim leader, by persons who happened to be Pahadis. Khans supporters suspected and attacked the Maoists as well as many Pahadis. In turn, Madhesi homes and enterprises were vandalised and a mosque was burnt. Political clashes were interspersed with riots, though the situation did not turn into a Hindu-Muslim conflict. More than 30 people died and 5,000 were displaced.

There is a strong cross-border element to the Madhesi issue. Many armed Madhesi leaders live in Bihar and purchase arms from the small-arms market there. People are suspected to have come across from India during disturbances, which also saw many Madhesis seeking refuge in bordering districts in Uttar Pradesh after their homes were burnt. There is sympathy for the Madhesi cause in these areas. A weak state, the political vacuum, rise in violence, and ethnic tension are coming together to create a dangerous situation right on Indias open border with Nepal.

In the immediate context, the mainstream parties and the Maoists are engaged in hectic negotiations. With the N.C. decision to adopt a republican agenda, the eight parties have agreed on expressing a joint commitment to a future republic, either at a mass meeting or through a parliamentary resolution, with the caveat that this would be endorsed by the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly by a simple majority. While not meeting the initial Maoist demand of declaring a republic immediately, this concession by other parties has been enough to assuage the former rebels.

But there is no agreement on the demand for a proportional representation-based electoral system. The Prime Minister has rejected it. A compromise might be possible if the proportion of seats is increased. Informed sources suggest that the Maoists are likely to be given an assurance that a certain number of seats will be left for them in the FPTP system. This could make the Maoists feel more secure about their electoral prospects.

There is immense international pressure, particularly from India, to hold the elections in November. Momentum for the elections has picked up the N.C. appears to be well prepared and the Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed his commitment to holding the polls; the UML, confident about doing well, has already started campaigning; it might still be possible to get the Maoists on board; and the Election Commission is confident about the logistical preparation.

But there are other variables. For now, the Maoists are not yet on board; there are several groups in the Terai that have made it clear that they will disrupt the polls; and the public security situation is weak and an environment where all parties can campaign without fear is still not present in several districts.

Moreover, time is running out. Whether elections will take place depends on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations in Kathmandu.

As Nepal deals with the twin challenges of integrating the Maoists into the democratic mainstream and addressing the grievances of the marginalised communities, its political class will need to take difficult decisions in the days and months ahead.

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