Fresh political challenge

Print edition : August 04, 2001

Sher Bahadur Deuba assumes charge as Prime Minister in Nepal as G.P. Koirala is forced to step down. But will it make a qualitative difference to a country mired in deep political, economic and social crises?

MID-JULY, and Nepal seemed on the brink of an all-out civil war as official sources reported that the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), in its first 'action' against the Maoist forces, had encircled the 'rebels', including some top-ranking leaders in their stronghold in the mid-western hills of Rolpa district. The 'action', however, fizzled out, and as the media blackout lifted, evidence showed no Army encirclement and no tense confrontation: the Army, the Maoists and their human shields, residents of the several villages, had melted away in the mist in the hills in Nuwagaon, which the Maoists have proclaimed a liberated zone. The episode left in its wake a minefield of questions, about doublespeak on the part of the Army and the Palace and insinuations of betrayal. Informed sources in the Nepali Congress suggest that this was the final straw that caused Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, in a surprise move, to yield to the vociferous demands for his resignation from his own party and from the mainstream Opposition and Maoists. His arch political rival, former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, 55, was elected by Nepali Congress parliamentarians to take over as Nepal's 11th Prime Minister. Koirala, 78, who was Prime Minister for most part of the 11 years of multi-party democracy, retains the party presidentship. Deuba defeated Sushil Koirala, a cousin of G.P. Koirala, in the race for prime ministership.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.-BINOD JOSHI/ AP

In his first move on becoming Prime Minister, Deuba has announced the suspension of the operations against the Maoists and the Maoist leadership has agreed to suspend its military attacks. The announcement came within hours of a Maoist attack on an isolated police post, in which 17 policemen were killed. Deuba has said that he will seek an all-party consensus on dialogue with the Maoists.

(Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a former member of Parliament and a human rights activist who has been involved in negotiating a dialogue with the Maoists, views the ceasefire announcement as a good start. However, for a dialogue to be put in place it would be necessary to follow this 'good gesture' with the withdrawal of the Army from Rolpa, he said.)

With their one-point agenda of ousting Koirala fulfilled, can Nepal's squabbling and self-serving political parties revitalise themselves morally and politically to take on the Maoist challenge? More fundamentally, the political challenge is to revalidate the democratic arena and resolve the contradictions of the horizontal inequities of class, region and ethnicity. But under Nepal's whirligig of governments of the Right and the Left, democracy seems to have failed on all fronts. Today Nepal's political crisis has been compounded by the destabilisation of the institution of monarchy with the massacre in June of King Birendra and his family members. Can the Deuba government shake off the legacy of the Nepali Congress' policies of failed development and worse still the hollowing of democratic institutions? Political pundits are not optimistic - plus ca change plus ca la meme chose (The more things change, the more they remain constant).

As Nepal sinks deeper into crisis, Kathmandu is becoming a refugee camp with more and more families from the hills flocking to its relative safety. With the political parties floundering, only the Maoists seem to be showing direction and making political gains. The recent Maoist rebel-Army 'non encounter' at Nuwagaon holds ominous lessons for Nepal's embattled political forces. This round has not only discredited the government but is feared to have compromised the institution of the Army.

In the six years of the 'People's War' launched by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Army was kept away from engaging the rebels as they targeted and effectively decimated the police force. However, on July 13 the Army was deployed in Nuwagaon to 'search and rescue' 69 policemen who had been taken prisoner when 1,100 Maoists attacked the Holeri police station. According to Nepali Congress sources, Koirala had urged King Gyanendra to endorse, in his constitutional capacity as the supreme commander, the National Security Council's decision to deploy the Army as the demoralised police force was on the verge of revolting. A week prior to that, 42 policemen had been killed by the Maoists in three separate actions in a day, in which the Senior Superintendent of Police of Dang district, Parameshwar Sijapati, was killed. In the run-up to the Maoist-sponsored bandh on July 12, banner bombs went off in Kathmandu and the houses of the Chief Justice and the daughter of the Prime Minister were targeted.

For Koirala the Army 'action' was a dramatic opportunity to wrest back control over the deteriorating law and order situation, which had been his rationale for ousting Krishna Prasad Bhattarai in 2000. It also signalled the Girija-Gyanendra understanding on the need for a proactive, tough stance against the Maoists as indicated in the monarch's opening address to the 20th session of Parliament. Articulating the government's policy statement, the King had stressed ''effective mobilisation of agencies responsible for maintaining peace and order in their task of controlling violence, terror and criminal activities''- that is, the Maoist insurgency. Unlike King Birendra, whom the Maoists now hail as a nationalist for his reluctance to use the Army against its own people, King Gyanendra was widely expected to favour a tough military stance. This was reflected in the Maoist denunciation of the 'Girija-Gyanendra fascist clique', reportedly backed by India-United States imperialism in its alleged design to use Nepal to encircle China.

The Kathmandu grapevine put out that the King had brushed aside the Army chief's publicised misgivings about the lack of a national consensus on deploying the Army and the absence of a defined overall programme which included the limited Nuwagaon operation of 'search and rescue'. A violent confrontation, it was feared, was imminent, especially after the rebels guarding the hilltops fired upon two Army reconnaissance MI-17 helicopters as they swooped down, hitting one. Until then the Army and the rebels had scrupulously avoided any engagement.

From July 13, Radio Nepal broadcast official reports of a build-up of the Army in Nuwagaon as it tightened the siege of the rebels, cutting them off from their arms dumps and sealing off all exit points. The rebels were reported to be massing women and children as human shields. Bad weather was said to be delaying reinforcements (although a news weekly sympathetic to the Maoists, Jan Awhan, published a photograph of bright and clear skies over Nuwagaon). Dismissed as propaganda were counter statements issued by the People's War supremo Comrade Prachanda calling for an exchange of prisoners of war and indicating that it was the Maoists who had encircled the soldiers and who had let them leave with their weapons and dignity. With the media denied access to the area, it was only after an independent human rights team reached Nuwagaon that the true story came out. The seven-member team had gone to defuse the confrontation, rescue trapped civilians and negotiate a way out of the Army siege for the Maoists.

Bodies of policemen killed during a Maoist raid on a police post in Bichaur village in the hilly region northwest of Kathmandu.-AP

Dr. Bogendra Sharma of the Centre for Victims of Torture told this correspondent that the team found "no Army, no rebel battalion, no abducted policemen and no massing of trapped villagers. There was no tension. There were only two dozen people's militia men armed with .303 rifles and khukris." The residents of the villages, some armed, went about their agricultural tasks. Apparently the rebels along with most of the abducted policemen had left Nuwagaon, the day Radio Nepal announced that the Army had launched its action. Some six contingents of the Gorakh Bahadur battalion, said to have been part of the encirclement force, were still encamped in the adjoining Dang district. The local version is that about 42 soldiers had been heli-dropped into Nuwagaon when a victory celebration by a Maoist battalion, attended by thousands of villagers, was on. The Maoists claimed that the soldiers were subsequently enabled to leave with their weapons. Four to five abducted policemen were still at Nuwagaon but the human rights team was not allowed to meet them. The CPN (Maoists)'s district-level secretary Sajal told the team that the People's Court would release policemen against whom there were no charges. Several policemen were charged with rape and other atrocities during the notorious police operations of Kilo Sera Two and Operation Romeo. Soon the first batch of 12 policemen was freed.

OPPOSITION parties have been quick to criticise the Nepali Congress' use of the Army for political ends. "The Home Ministry has only misled the public... In fact the Army cannot rescue the kidnapped policemen," said K.P. Oli, standing committee member of the main Opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist). Accusing the government of misusing the Army, Oli warned that mobilising the Army "will have a negative impact on the Army and the police, and the move will also make the Maoists bolder." Unspoken was the fear of the vulnerability of the large majority of Army recruits drawn from the ethnic hill minorities, such as the Magars, who form the bedrock of the Maoist popular base. Prachanda has already appealed to the Army not to fight its brothers.

The Koirala government recently pushed through a budget involving a hefty increase in security allocation which accounts for 10 per cent of government spending. The government and the Palace are committed to the presence of the Army to oversee the implementation of the Integrated Security Development Programme in the Maoist-dominated areas. But the issue of from whom the Army takes orders has ominously come to the fore, especially after the Nuwagaon incident where Koirala failed to exercise control. Is Deuba likely to be any more successful, especially since the Constitution remains fuzzy over who controls the Army - the King or the elected government?

Deuba can be expected to score through his decision to re-open the dialogue with the Maoists. The Maoists had ruled out any dialogue with Koirala. Prachanda had warned that an "attempt to choose a leader similar in character to Koirala would not solve the situation of the country." Of all the Nepali Congress politicians, Deuba is the one who has cultivated an image of being able to do business with the Maoists. As the chairperson of the committee appointed by the Bhattarai government to negotiate with the rebels he had projected an image of being held back by the lack of sincerity and commitment on the part of Koirala. Ironically, during his first term as Prime Minister of a coalition government in 1995-97, when the Maoists made their demarche in the form of a 40-point memorandum (which, except for its republican orientation, found many a sympathetic echo among the centre-left democratic forces) Deuba was dismissive of it. When the People's War was launched in February 1996, he refused to take it seriously. Subsequently, as chairperson of the government committee, Deuba cultivated the Maoists as an important factor in Nepali politics. It remains to be seen whether he will withdraw, as a confidence-building measure to facilitate dialogue, the controversial preventive detention law Public Security Regulation (2001), promulgated by the Koirala government on July 4. The Maoists have also asked the government to make known the whereabouts of 200 persons who are missing after being in government custody.

Already Koirala, in his bid for a 14-point national consensus, has flagged issues on the Maoist agenda - land reforms, property rights for women, anti-corruption policies and untouchability, among others. On top of it, "a Deuba in Singha Darbar (Parliament) will make it very difficult for the Maoists to shy away from dialogue," Oli said. However, continued infighting in the ruling party could give the Maoists a fresh excuse.

More fundamentally, given the revolutionary agenda of the Maoists, is a negotiated settlement possible? Maoist ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattari, in an interview to Nepali Times was sceptical. "Whether the armed struggle will be waged till the very end or not depends not on our wishes but on the objective and subjective conditions of the revolution, particularly on the policy of the ruling classes. Our openly stated goal is total state power for the oppressed masses. Nothing more or less. Will the reactionary ruling class hand over state power through a negotiated settlement? You should ask them."

ALTHOUGH Baburam denounces as 'betrayal' the possibility of the CPN (Maoist) turning into a parliamentary party like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in Sri Lanka, liberal political commentators like Himal South Asia Editor Kanak Mani Dixit have observed that the Maoists in Nepal may want to ''parlay their underground strength into parliamentary power''. Dixit argues that the Maoists "are close enough to the surface that they may yet be brought to the (negotiating) table, thereafter to participate in a political process with some give and take." Arguably, this is reinforced by the Maoist strategy of inveigling itself into a "special relationship" with the disparate political forces in Nepal.

Saubhagya Shah, a political commentator writing in The Kathmandu Post remarks on the great game of flirtation practised by the Maoists. "...the Maoists have succeeded in convincing everyone - the N.C. government, its internal opposition, parliamentary communists and the intellectuals - that they enjoy an exclusive insider deal..." The result is that it discredits their opposition to the Maoists and by implication subverts democratic forces. This was most dramatically demonstrated by the Maoists defending King Birendra as a nationalist and revealing the existence of a dialogue between the Maoists and the Palace envoy, Prince Dhirendra. More recently, the Maoists announced that the focus of their attacks would be the Koirala-Gyanendra clique. Its cadres were instructed not to attack UML cadre. Oli mocked at this Maoist subterfuge and pointed to the situation in the district of Dailekh where the rebels attacked UML cadre and leaders.

At a time when the operational capability of the Maoists is expanding, and the security apparatus of the government is demoralised, why should the Maoists come to the negotiating table for a 'give and take'? The UML assessment is that the Maoists have an Army of 1,500 and a 2,000-3,000-strong militia. "You'll need the whole Army to take on one district'', said human rights activist Sharma, on his return from Rolpa. Even more ominous is the emergence of a South Asia Coordination Committee of ultra-left groups, including the People's War Group (PWG), the Marxists Coordination Centre (MCC), the Parti Unity and the radical left groups of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. The CPN(Maoist) is the dominant player in the group. Coordination along the border in gun-trafficking and intelligence has been signalled at their recent meeting. India's move to initiate patrolling of the Indo-Nepal border is linked to these new security developments. Moreover, the increased U.S. intelligence interest in Nepal is also not incidental.

Indeed Koirala's off-the-cuff remarks at a business event in Kathmandu merited more serious reflection, but it instead became extra ammunition in the hands of anti-Koirala forces. Koirala had said: "Nepal has reached a stage where it could become a playground for foreign powers... Let us not be forced to seek foreign help to solve our problems just because we cannot do it ourselves."

Deuba takes over the leadership of Nepal mired in deep political crisis. The legacy of Koirala, the four-time Prime Minister, is a Nepali Congress, which was once the vanguard of the democratic struggle, and is now politically identified with the Palace. Indeed politics in Nepal has become polarised between the Maoists and those who see Nepal's survival anchored in the future of the (constitutional) monarchy. Koirala's exit was ignominious - hounded out for corruption scams by political rivals whose own records in that respect are no less sordid. Koirala introduced into the political lexicon of Nepal the term 'Pajero politicians' as he allowed parliamentarians to import luxurious four-wheel drives. Political infighting obliged him to carry corruption to new heights, say his Nepali Congress colleagues.

Will Deuba have a chance to govern? Or is the change of guard merely a generational change?

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