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Nepal: Clarity At Home, Cloudiness Abroad

Nepal: Clarity At Home, Cloudiness Abroad

By Sanjay Upadhya

Despite the discordant notes sounded here and there, Nepal’s normalization process has made an agreeable start. Since issues of constitutionalism will remain in the back-seat for a while, the tenure, remit and jurisdiction of the revived House of Representatives will be driven by political imperatives. By unanimously voting for elections to a constituent assembly, which would draft a new constitution, the legislature has broken the state’s stalemate with the Maoist rebels.

By annulling the municipal elections, compensating families of “martyrs” and setting up a judicial commission to probe the royal regime’s excesses, the government has satisfied the short-term circumstances needed to focus on the big picture.

For all their bluster, the Maoists, too, seem ready to engage with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s government. For each hard-line statement, ostensibly aimed at the more militant party cadres, Maoist supremo Prachanda has come out with soothing words of conciliation. Perhaps it won’t be too long before Prachanda sheds decades of obscurity to take command in full public view. With the mainstream parties and the Maoists warning the people against “royal conspiracies,” it’s clear the palace remains a player.

Prime Minister Koirala intends to proceed toward constituent assembly polls after drawing the Maoists in an interim government. There can be no better way of ensuring the rebels’ commitment to the integrity of the process and sanctity of the outcome. The tasks of reaching out to the rebels and drawing up the modalities for the assembly can proceed on parallel tracks.

The discontent within the SPA over the allotment of ministerial portfolios and the speakership of the reinstated lower house cannot be dismissed as a reversion to the parties’ inherent weakness for power. Civil society is entitled to admonishing the political leadership every step of the way. Even the worst critics of the parties and politicians cannot, however, obscure the reality that without their leadership, the streets protests would not have acquired the political legitimacy to succeed.

With its principal objective achieved, the SPA will require a different kind of adhesive to remain relevant. Without proper distribution of responsibility, the constituents cannot be expected to unite behind a common endeavor. A more judicious distribution of ministerial portfolios is essential to maintaining the political balance needed to sustain the open and transparent system envisaged. With the Maoists on board, the challenge of reconciling ideological and procedural disagreements will become more daunting.

Given the politically charged atmosphere, the constituent assembly elections have been primarily linked to the future of the monarchy. In days and weeks ahead, the SPA and the Maoists will no doubt recognize the perils inherent in such a narrow frame of reference. During the drafting phase of the 1990 constitution, such issues as exclusion, oppression, distributive injustice were dismissed as distractions from the larger task of consolidating democracy. The country has paid a heavy price for that haughtiness. These issues hold the key to our collective salvation irrespective of whether Nepal becomes a ceremonial monarchy or a republic.

More troubling, however, are the critical questions relating to the external dynamics of Nepal’s conflict. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, explaining why he did not meet with the king during his recent visit to Kathmandu, emphasized that the palace had ceased to be a political player. At the same time, Boucher defended his meeting with Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa, saying the United States continued to view the military as an important player.

How much of Boucher’s stance on the monarchy stemmed from the political atmosphere prevailing on the streets? What kind of role does the United States envisage for the RNA? Washington elevation of the RNA in its calculations became when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks with the top brass at Army HQ in the absence of a single representative of the elected government of the day.

Boucher’s elevation of the military cannot be seen in isolation from domestic efforts to re-brand the institution. What kind of resistance could be expected from within the RNA to any reorganization effort? When the time comes for creating a national army, can the United States, so bitterly opposed to the Maoist political leadership, accept the integration of ideologically driven former guerillas? Persistent reports in the Indian media suggest New Delhi, too, desires to build on its traditional relations with the RNA. How “national” could the military be with Washington and New Delhi vying for influence?

Despite its principal role in defusing the immediate crisis, India has emerged bruised. If there is any consensus among Indians about their latest experience in Nepal, it is that New Delhi has managed to alienate the palace, parties and Maoists. India would certainly prefer a modicum of stability in Nepal in the run-up to the constituent assembly elections to craft a more coherent policy. Will the political and institutional schisms already evident in New Delhi permit one?

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) views the latest developments in Nepal as less a defeat for the world’s only Hindu monarch than a moment of glory for the Indian left. The Indian army and the internal security apparatus, for their part, will closely observe the Maoists’ transformation as part of their overall threat perception. New Delhi could find itself sharing Washington’s dilemma vis-à-vis the creation of a national army in Nepal.

China, the most silent stakeholder in Nepalese stability, is unlikely to lose its faith in quiet diplomacy. Had the royal regime, behind the heat and dust of the democracy movement, reached any security-related accords with Beijing? If so, how far can the new government go toward revising or even annulling them without discomfiture in public?

This brings us to the crux of the crisis. For all the noise about autocracy, King Gyanendra’s takeover was in large part driven by the urgency of consolidating Nepal’s space between the two Asian giants. The king’s domestic and foreign adversaries succeeded in obscuring that compulsion with the democracy garb, aided in no small measure by the royal regime’s impaired articulation faculties. Whether Nepal retains the monarchy or becomes a republic, its geostrategic vulnerabilities will persist. The storm clouds on horizon threaten to offset the clarity at home.


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