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Nepal: Work In Progress Or Bargaining Chip?

Nepal: Work In Progress Or Bargaining Chip?

By Sanjay Upadhya

The euphoria generated by last month’s agreement between Nepal’s mainstream political parties and Maoist rebels has offered considerable space for candid discussions. Interestingly, the three smallest constituents of the seven-party alliance arrayed against King Gyanendra takeover of full executive powers almost a year ago have provided the greatest clarity to the debate.

Narayan Man Bijukkche, head of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, has serious concerns over ambiguities in the 12-point accord as well as the process through it was struck. Among his principal objections is the provision of placing the Royal Nepalese Army and Maoist fighters under international supervision during an election to a constituent assembly. Bijukkche has cautioned his colleagues they might end up compromising Nepal’s independence and sovereignty in the name of restoring democracy.

Recalling that alliance leaders had only agreed to hold talks with the Maoists, Bijukkche said he was surprised when leaders of the big parties announced they had reached an actual accord. Mindful of his constituency, which is perhaps the most skeptical – to put it mildly -- of Indian motives in Nepal, Bijukkche has demanded clarification on India’s role in drawing up the draft.

C.P. Mainali, a mythical figure of Nepal’s underground communist movement during the 1970s and 80s but now relegated to the sidelines, has no problem with the venue of the talks. But he shares Bijukkche’s concerns about the accord’s implications, specifically those relating to placing the Nepalese army under the supervision of foreigners. Referring to Nepal’s geopolitical position, Mainali has hinted that such a move could provoke a strong reaction from the kingdom’s northern neighbor, China.

Nabaraj Subedi, general secretary of Janamorcha Nepal, has said the seven parties’ leaders had not been given the mandate to sign any pact. He echoed Bijukkche’s and Mainali’s profound concern over the foreign-supervision clause.

Even after making allowances for discrepancies in reporting these remarks, and the leaders’ own propensity for the “misquotation” defense, deep disquiet within the alliance over the emerging political realignment is unmistakable.

Maoist leader Prachanda, in his first radio interview, frustrated the BBC’s repeated attempts to find out whether the party had climbed down and accepted the monarchy. In his mild-mannered cadences, Prachanda stressed the importance of an interim government, constituent assembly and respect for the people’s verdict. But how were these to be achieved? The probing questions of the BBC’s inimitable Rabindra Mishra provided greater insights into the complexities of Nepalese politics than did the answers of his star guest.

The government, for its part, clearly felt the absence of King Gyanendra, who had left on a three-week visit abroad before the consultations in New Delhi picked up speed. Ministers opted for the most obvious response. Radha Krishna Mainali and Prakash Koirala -- expelled from the Unified Marxist-Leninist party and the Nepali Congress respectively for their royalist sympathies -- vigorously pressed the “foreign conspiracy” charge.

The Indian government, according to this view, had hastily forged a joint opposition front to prevent the monarch from trying to pull Nepal out of India’s exclusive sphere of influence. The trigger was Nepal’s role at the Dhaka summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in ensuring the inclusion of China as an observer in the grouping. Indeed, events preceding the announcement of the mainstream-Maoist accord – such as the convergence of prominent Nepalese politicians on the Indian capital for “medical treatment” -- lent credence to the government’s contention.

The merit of the argument, however, has been obscured by the profound public aspiration for peace after nearly a decade of senseless violence. The opposition has also benefited from perceptions that the ministers were merely seeking to prolong their tenure.

Part of the national perplexity is obvious. The parties and Maoists, after unveiling their versions of the agreement, ended up awaiting the man they hoped to isolate. King Gyanendra, upon his return home, tangentially referred to the accord as a positive step toward holding elections – something the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels alike have vowed to defeat. Beyond that, the monarch’s opponents remain baffled.

The mainstream parties want the restoration of parliament dissolved three years ago, which would then pave the way for a constituent assembly that would, in turn, draft a new constitution. The Maoists don’t want to take that route.

The Road Ahead
From the outset, the restoration of parliament was always going to be more of a political outlet than a constitutional one. Given the parties’ success toward mainstreaming the Maoists, the restoration demand has acquired its greatest political relevance. The Maoists’ opposition to that option means another route to a constituent assembly must be found.

The seven party alliance, which has held mock sessions of the dissolved parliament in the past, would evidently have little difficulty in endorsing a blueprint for reform and formalizing their working alliance with the Maoists through such a forum. Having bypassed the palace, the two forces could then work toward ensuring that a constituent assembly addressed Nepal’s real problems.

Are the mainstream parties prepared to take that course? For all the political rhetoric of the moment, the palace and the upper house of parliament still represent continuity – however tenuous – with the 1990 constitution. If the parties feel King Gyanendra has torn apart the constitution through his own interpretations, the palace is at equal liberty to see the parties’ abandonment of constitutional monarchy as a violation of the basic law.

Moreover, a political outlet based on the perceived power equations of the day may be able to determine the future of the monarchy. Addressing the deeper issues of Nepal’s poverty, underdevelopment and inequities would require a truly rational deliberation.

Admittedly, the failure of the mainstream parties and the Maoists to come out with a joint declaration cannot detract from the importance of the initiative. That shortcoming, on the other hand, underscores the need for further deliberations between the two sides. The voices of dissent from within the mainstream alliance only reinforce the urgency.

Since the palace had no direct role in producing the accord, it would be illogical to expect the king to feel bound by it. The best the two signatories can hope for is building enough public pressure for the palace to accede to the process.

However, by clubbing together terms like “total democracy” and “ceremonial monarchy” in their public pronouncements, leaders of the Nepali Congress and the UML – the two biggest constituents of the mainstream alliance -- have only muddied the waters. Acknowledging the accord as a work in progress – not a bargaining chip with the palace – would be more prudent.


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