Tough agenda

Print edition : September 23, 2011

Baburam Bhattarai, his face smeared with vermilion, coming out of the Parliament building in Kathmandu after being elected - BINOD JOSHI/AP

Nepal: The challenge before Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is to complete the peace process and frame a new Constitution to take forward the vision of New Nepal.

YET another majority government; yet another extension to the Constituent Assembly; yet another phase of politically motivated positions on critical issues of urgent national importance; and yet another phase of persisting malgovernance in Nepal?

Someone has to break this vicious circle, and if Baburam Bhattarai cannot do it no one else will be able to, at least not in the near future. There is an upsurge of hope and expectations of Nepal's new Prime Minister. Bhattarai has set his priorities right: concluding the peace process by implementing the integration/rehabilitation plan promised by the Maoists for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cadre; writing the Constitution for New Nepal; and bringing relief to the people. But in all these areas, he should be prepared to face resistance, strong and aggressive, not only from the united opposition of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist, or UML), but also from within his own Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and his allies among the Madhesh groups. Bhattarai will be tested both for his patience and for his political acumen not only for nudging out his allies and the forces within the UCPN(M) but also for his skills in negotiating and making reasonable adjustments and compromises in persuading the opposition parties to extend their support.

On the question of the peace process and integration of the PLA cadre with the army, both the Nepali Congress and the Maoists have adopted strong positions, particularly on issues relating to the number of PLA men to be integrated into the security forces, the amount of compensation to be paid to those who opt out, the rank and status that is to be given to the integrating cadre and commanders, and amnesty for their past acts of violence and terrorism. Sections of Maoist leaders have to grasp Nepal's reality and accept the fact that they cannot continue to pursue the politics of force and violence and, as such, the instruments of politics and violence have to be dismantled. If force and politics could deliver them their political objectives, then there was no need to opt for the democratic process. Not only their political competitors in Nepal but also the wider international community has to be credibly assured that the Maoists have given up the path of violent revolution.

The Nepali Congress, while making a fuss about the various aspects of the plans to rehabilitate the PLA, must recall its experience of the early 1950s (during the anti-Rana revolution) as also of the 1960s and 1970s (struggle against the autocratic panchayat system) when it opted for armed resistance. How many of its armed cadre surrendered or were penalised for their acts of violence against the state? To whom did the Nepali Congress cadre surrender their arms when it made peace with King Birendra in 1976? Why was the question of disarming the PLA cadre not taken up seriously when the Nepali Congress had everything under its control during the first two years of the interim government (2006-07) after the success of Jan Andolan-II, or later again when the party shared power (2008-09) with the UML after the fall of the first Maoist government in 2008?

Bhattarai will have to get mutually acceptable and win-win formulations evolved for his party hardliners as well as the Nepali Congress negotiators on various issues relating to this sensitive question of integration. Even while granting amnesty to the PLA cadre for their acts during the 10-year-long insurgency and to the Madhesh movement activists thereafter, Bhattarai's government must ensure that the victims of these acts and their families are adequately compensated, both materially and emotionally.

On the issue of Constitution making, there are serious differences among all the major political formations. The aspects of the form of government and the nature of federalism are extremely complex and the stakeholders do not see eye to eye on them. On these aspects, the hitherto marginalised social groups (specially the Jan-Jatis) are also emotionally sensitive and legitimately suspicious of all the upper-caste-dominated major political parties. Given the political will, it should be possible for the lawmakers to resolve amicably as many of these issues as possible and leave the rest for a suitable mechanism, including structured referendum, to be addressed even after a Constitution, framed on the basis of inclusive principles, has been adopted.

Economic issues

To deliver good governance, the priorities are in the areas of restoring law and order and reactivating the stagnant economy. The business community has high hopes of Bhattarai, who refreshingly injected a sense of fair play and purpose in dealing with economic issues as the first Maoist Finance Minister in 2008. The level of confidence among the business establishments and workers is very low. In order to raise their confidence level, Bhattarai will need the cooperation of the workers' unions and their mentors among the political leaderships, including that of his own party.

NEPAL'S LAWMAKERS VOTE to extend the term of the Constituent Assembly by three months on August 29.-PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

For law and order as also other areas of governance, the new Prime Minister will need persons of clean and committed record, which may be in short supply within the UCPN(M) as well as in the Madhesh groups. He has no freedom to choose his team members either from his own party or from among the allies, or in allocating portfolios. Only Bhattarai's humility and ingenuity will help him overcome this constraint.

The success of Bhattarai's efforts to pull Nepal out of its present political stalemate will most critically depend upon the extent of the support extended by the Nepali Congress and the Maoist parties. These two parties are destined to emerge eventually as the two competing centres of ideology and power if and when Nepal establishes itself as a dynamic democracy. Until then, however, both the Nepali Congress and the Maoists have to cooperate. The Nepali Congress knows better than any other party that the foundation of Jan Andolan-II, which initiated the process of creating a New Nepal in 2005-06, rested on its alliance with the Maoists. It is this alliance alone that can bring the process to its culmination. The disruption of this alliance, following the elections of 2008 which jolted the power-sharing arrangement, was the worst thing to happen to Nepal. Rebuilding this alliance is the need of the hour, but it is easier said than done. In the Nepali Congress, as in all other major parties, including the Maoists, there are strong and powerful constituencies of royalists, power-seekers and rank opportunists who had no commitment to the vision of New Nepal even during Jan Andolan-II.

The roots of that vision were planted decades ago by the late B.P. Koirala. His successor, Girija Prasad Koirala, nursed the vision but not at the cost of his stakes in power. The present president of the Nepali Congress, Sushil Koirala, promises to be above the temptations of state power. He owes it to the future of his party as well as of Nepal to steer the party clear of the entrenched retrograde constituencies and contribute to the realisation of the people's aspirations unleashed by Jan Andolan-II.

There is no dearth of detractors for Bhattarai even within the UCPN(M) both on account of ideology and because of his steady rise to national prominence. These naysayers have been trying to isolate and denigrate Bhattarai on every possible pretext by dubbing him a counter-revolutionary and an Indian agent. They need to realise that the success of the Bhattarai-led government is probably their last chance to restore the sincerity and credibility of their political transition and reinforce their stakes in Nepal's future power structure.

The diehards and extremist elements among the Maoists should also understand by now that a pathological preoccupation with radical methods and anti-Indian nationalism are counterproductive to their goals of acquiring or sustaining political power in Nepal and restructuring its polity and society.

India has done well to let the Maoists' alliance with the Madhesh groups emerge in the form of a new government. India must now consider persuading the Nepali Congress to join the government and broaden the coalition in the interest of the twin tasks of completing the peace process and drafting a new Constitution within three months, before the term of the extended Constituent Assembly ends. If the present government fails in this, it will take a long time for Nepal to get out of the trap of instability and disorder. This will not be in India's long-term interest.

S.D. Muni is Visiting Research Professor, ISAS, Singapore.

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