Nepal's challenges

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

As the Nepalese government enters into crucial peace talks with the Maoist rebels, the challenge before the country's mainstream political parties is two-fold - they have to counter the King's `regressive' moves while addressing the Maoist threat.

in Kathmandu

NEPAL'S mainstream political parties are trying to reassert themselves in the context of the current Palace-Maoist face-off. Their tactical manoeuvres to counter King Gyanendra's moves could have major consequences in terms of Nepal's capacity to address the strategic challenge posed by the Maoists.

Ever since the ceasefire was announced on January 28, the Maoists have expanded their political profile rapidly. In May, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) opened its office in the heart of Kathmandu. The Maoists have moved beyond their strongholds in the encircling hills to the Kathmandu valley. Maoist spokesperson Krishna Prasad Mahara said: "We have a controlling presence in the rural areas across Nepal, except for the district headquarters, market towns and the strip running along the highways." Ram Karki, a Maoist activist, claimed: "In the villages where there are no roads and electricity, we are there." The ceasefire has given the Maoists an opportunity `to do open politics' in the Kathmandu valley.

On March 28, the Maoist negotiating team led by political ideologue Baburam Bhattarai came overground amid a flurry of `celebrity' press conferences, and meetings with intellectuals, businessmen, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and representatives of the international community. It was a whirlwind public relations exercise intended to woo Nepal's middle class, who have been alienated by the violence and reports of abduction and extortion. Further, it was aimed at hastening the pace of the dialogue process and countering the government's delaying tactics intended to sap the power of the Maoists. Shyam Srestha, Editor of the leftist monthly Mulyankan, believes that the exercise has succeeded in improving the image of the Maoists vis-a-vis the middle class and conveying the message that they are serious about the peace talks. After the Maoists walked out of the first ceasefire in 2001, their image had taken a severe beating.

Sections of the Kathmandu elite continue to believe that the Maoists, notwithstanding their rhetoric about ushering in structural transformation, are jockeying to join mainstream politics. Media commentator C.K. Lal expresses this perspective succinctly in his column in Nepali Times: "For all his pomp, Comrade Baburam didn't enter the Kathmandu valley at the head of a victorious army. Voters of Rolpa, Rukum and Jajarkot haven't sent him to the capital to frame a new constitution. He has no mandate other than the support of a group of armed insurgents calling themselves Maoists." Liberal political observers such as Krishna Hachchetu argue that Bhattarai's public relations offensive has created positive understanding on both sides. While the Maoists seem willing to be more flexible in their approach, there is wider acceptance and deeper understanding of the Maoist political agenda, especially their key demand on the need for a constituent assembly, among civil society groups, he said. Even veteran political scientists such as Lok Raj Bral argue that historically, radical political changes can be effected in Nepal only through violent means.

However, mainstream political parties continue to be wary of the Maoists' politics of violence and fear that a deal between the Palace and the Maoists might be in the making. The Maoists have abandoned their demand for a Republican state but Bhattarai has reiterated that if the King were to abdicate, a truncated role for the monarchy could be maintained.

In May, the mainstream political parties launched Jana Andolan II in an attempt to reassert their position in Nepal's polity. However, the movement has failed to gain the momentum achieved by People's Movement I, which toppled the Palace-sponsored Pancha system in 1990. Politicians are perceived to be corrupt, self-seeking and irrelevant; their tactical manoeuvres vis-a-vis the King seem to have diluted the urgency of meeting the Maoist challenge. Further, it has complicated the Palace-Maoist power equation. Narayan Singh Pun, a member of the government's negotiating team, said: "It increases the bargaining power of the Maoists. They can threaten that if there is no progress in the talks they will join the agitation. It narrows down the options of the government."

The Maoists faced their most serious challenge during the emergency, when the Palace and the political parties came together to confront them. Today, the ground reality is much more favourable than what it was during the earlier round of talks in 2001. Mahara, who was on the Maoist negotiating team in 2001 and again in 2003, told Frontline: "Last time we were politically strong, but militarily we had not confronted the Royal Nepal Army. After its deployment and the demonstrated inability of the RNA to go on the offensive, now we can claim a politico-military strategic equilibrium." Also, the dissolution of Parliament and the taking over of executive powers by the King has weakened the political parties, besides exposing and rendering dormant the 1991 Constitution.

Ultimately, it was the `nationalist impulse', asserts Bhattarai, and not weakness that prompted the Maoists to give up the goal of pursuing through `People's War' a radical transformation of the polity. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Nepal was being sucked into the strategic vortex of the United States-led global war against terrorism (Frontline, February 14). In December 2001, the U.S. embassy initiated the process of listing Nepal in the federal `terrorist' sanctions lists and every month a fresh crop of U.S. military trainers are brought into the country. A five-year anti-terrorism assistance agreement has institutionalised this arrangement. The induction of new automatic weapon systems such as the U.S. M16 guns and the Belgian Minimax belt weapon systems, versatile helicopters and substantive infusions of military aid - worth $4 billion from India - have transformed the battlefield threshold in Nepal. The Maoists' chairman Pushpa Kumar Dahal alias Prachanda shrugs off the military challenge, saying, "The arms will ultimately come under our control."

Significantly, both the Maoists and mainstream political parties share the conviction that it is Western support that is bolstering the King's actions. According to Bhattarai, foreigners do not want Nepal to find a way out of the crisis. The Nepali media gave prominent coverage to a report released by the South Asian Bureau of the U.S. State Department, asserting that Western support was an obstacle to the Maoists' goal of establishing a communist dictatorship. The report charged the Maoists with having links with extremist groups and international terrorist networks.

Consequently, in the first phase of their over-ground politics, the Maoists seemed keen to reach out to the international community in Kathmandu, to allay misgivings and to bolster their status as legitimate representatives of the people. Mahara's assessment was that while the interaction with officials of the Indian embassy and the European Union was frank and positive, the meeting with officials of the U.S. embassy was characterised by caution. According to informed sources in the Indian embassy, the Indian side impressed upon the Maoist team that India was concerned about the latter's military or training links with ultra left groups, such as the Maoist Communist Centre and the People's War Group, and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The Maoists reassured the Indian side that the links were confined to ideology. Indian officials reiterated that India was in favour of multi-party democracy in Nepal and stressed the need to establish a level-playing field by allowing the mainstream political parties to function in areas of Maoist control.

At a meeting with Mahara and the Maoist military head Ram Bahadur Thapa-`Badal', U.S. officials emphasised the seriousness with which Washington viewed the killing of two Nepali guards of the embassy, notwithstanding the Maoists' charge that the two were `informers'. According to informed sources in the U.S. embassy, the Maoists admitted that it was `a mistake' and said that they would look into the matter. U.S. officials stressed on issues of human rights violations and the need to abjure violence and reiterated U.S. support for a multi-party democracy in Nepal. At the meeting, the Maoists impressed upon the U.S. officials their commitment to reaching a negotiated settlement. "The exchange was cordial and non-acrimonious," embassy sources said. However, a few days later Washington put Nepal on its second-tier terrorist watch list. "At a time when the Nepal government had withdrawn the terrorist label to facilitate negotiations, was the U.S. trying to derail the peace talks and send the Maoists back to the jungle?" asked Mahara.

Ironically, the Federal listing caught the U.S. embassy by surprise. Although the embassy had initiated the process in December 2002, it was not pursued in view of the ceasefire. American Ambassador Mike Malinowski went on Nepalese television to clarify matters but ended up fuelling more controversy by saying that the rebels could get off the list if they stopped violence, extortion and the use of child soldiers.

It is the Palace - Army combine that holds the power balance in Nepal's polity. Political observers are clear that if the power balance is to be challenged, the Maoists and the political parties have to make common cause. But Nepal's politics is marred by deep mistrust. Political parties do not trust the King or the Maoists and they in turn do not trust the King. Veteran Nepali Congress (N.C.) leader Girija Prasad Koirala asks: "(The) two armed forces have finally come together. Is there a conspiracy behind this? Why are both forces calling for a constituent assembly?"

A compromise 1991 Constitution that is ambiguous about the powers of the constitutional monarchy has ensured that the King holds the key to power. Kathmandu is rife with accusations and counter-accusations about political leaders waiting for a call from the King. Recently, Communist Party of Nepal (UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal lashed out at Bhattarai's allegation that he was waiting for a call from the King.

Although under tremendous pressure to meet the Maoist challenge and the Jana Andolan, King Gyanendra does not seem prepared for a reconciliation. On May 4, the King gave a series of interviews to the editors of various publications asserting his commitment to establish multi-party democracy and constitutional monarchy. But, for the political parties, the King's move was yet another instance of overstepping the limits of constitutional monarchy. "A constitutional monarch is not supposed to express his views through newspapers, but through the political parties," Koirala said. The RNA has already entered the political fray by attacking the political parties for criticising the King in what it described as an irresponsible and indecorous manner.

The mood is one of confrontation, not reconciliation. The police have responded to peaceful mass rallies, the burning of effigies and vehicle blockades with targeted violence. Senior political leaders such as N.C. general secretary Sushil Koirala and spokesperson Arjun Narasingh were beaten up by the police. "Earlier, our cadre were afraid to go back to their areas because of the Maoists. Now you have the armed forces of the state hounding them with arrests and court cases," Arjun Narasingh said. Political parties blame the U.S. and the United Kingdom for strengthening the Palace and the RNA. Indeed, the `royal cabinet' of technocrats, who are backed by aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, reflects the contempt with which sections of the international community view the political parties.

For the political parties, the struggle against the `regressive' movement of the King takes precedence over the Maoist challenge. "We have to tackle the despotic action of the King and the violent anarchy of the Maoists but first we have to contain the King," Arjun Narasingh said. Responding to the charge that political parties are out to derail the peace talks, Arjun Narasingh said: "The talks are taking place between the King's government and the Maoists , we're not involved except to reiterate that there must be no derogation from the gains of the pro-democracy movement of 1990."

The major concern of the Palace is the prospect of the Maoists joining the Jana Andolan, which is now limited to party workers and the streets of Kathmandu.However, Arjun Narasingh said: "The Maoists first have to accept peaceful politics and abjure violence. We cannot afford to have any working unity with them in view of the hatred for them at grassroots level." But at a mass rally in Kathmandu on May 4, UML leaders expressed their willingness for unity, provided they led the left front.

The Maoists have said that although they support the struggle against the `regressive' movement of the King, they would join it only if the political parties become more `forward looking'. On the UML demand to constitute an all-party government, Mahara said: "We are opposed to it because if such a government is formed without completing the process of developing a consensus, it will not solve the problem." An interim government led by the Maoists could elect a constituent assembly and make way for progressive structural reforms, that will enable the assertion of the rights of excluded communities such as Janjatis, Dalits, Madhesias and women. In its third phase, the Jana Andolan is likely to adopt a more `forward looking approach' and there is a possibility of the political parties and the Maoists agreeing to a common agenda. Talks are on to arrive at such an understanding.

Meanwhile, the Jana Andolan has prompted the government to make some concessions. From the outset, the government's plan seems to have been to entrap the Maoists in an indefinite negotiating process while building up its military strength. It took more than two months to announce a common code of conduct. Prachanda has warned against the government's delaying tactics and attempts to use the ceasefire to divide the political forces, strengthen the Army and stay in power.

The first round of talks was scuttled even before it started, when it was proposed that it would be an introductory round. "We wanted to sit for a serious dialogue, not just meet for tea," Mahara said. While the government focussed on issues of reconstruction and rehabilitation, the Maoists were determined to plunge into the political agenda.

In the first round of talks on April 27, the Maoists succeeded in pushing forward their 24-point political agenda. In the second round of talks on May 9, they extracted a major concession from the government, an agreement that the RNA's search and cordon operation would be limited to areas within 5 km from the barracks. Although the Maoists wanted the Army to return to the barracks, they accepted a compromise solution, which apparently had the King's approval. Each side accused the other of violating the code of conduct. Seven Maoist cadre had been killed by security forces, which extended its operations to Maoist-controlled areas. In an interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation, Communications Minister Ram Nath Pandey, a member of the team of negotiators, denied that the two sides had reached any such agreement. Colonel Deepak Gurung, a public relations officer of the Army, called upon the Maoists to disarm and return the stolen arms as only 15 per cent of them had been recovered. Commenting on the concessions granted to the Maoists, Bhattarai said that the "issue of the mobility of the Maoists was not addressed because there were very few chances of armed Maoist cadre infiltrating Army-controlled territory".

The Maoists want the third round of talks to be held in Rolpa, their stronghold. Political observers have criticised the demand, acceding to which will be tantamount to accepting that the Maoist state is on a par with the Shree Panch government. There is the possibility of a breakdown in the talks as there is a crisis of confidence. "If the talks drag on we shall go in for mass mobilisation, peacefully, and if they break down, we'll have to go back to armed struggle," Mahara said.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment