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Nepal: Ominous Order Amid Murky Mandate

Nepal: Ominous Order Amid Murky Mandate

By Sanjay Upadhya

It would have been easy to hail the Nepalese government’s decision to revoke its order raising the prices of petroleum products as another triumph of “people power” had it not been so ominous. Two days of violent protests forced an increasingly drifting government to relent on something it has perhaps the least control over.

Clearly, the argument could be made that petroleum prices in Nepal must factor in the inefficiencies of the state monopoly, Nepal Oil Corporation. An organization once known for its outrageously lavish employee bonuses was bound to confront fiscal reality. Yet Nepal’s options on oil remain limited. If the government must watch the streets in making key decisions on such issues, then we must brace for perpetual chaos as part of political life.

The temptation to blame the protests on “regressive” elements linked to a beaten but unbowed palace is understandable. The real problem lies in how the participants in an increasingly uncertain peace process have politicized the issue. The Maoists, under tremendous pressure to disarm by any name, had found another excuse to buy time: demanding the restructuring of the state before they would consent to participate in the government. The rebels’ threat to launch another movement if the government failed to withdraw the petroleum price rise may come back to sting them the day they find themselves in the seat of power and responsibility.

Key constituents of the ruling Seven Party Alliance (SPA) – and their fraternal organizations – were being disingenuous as well. The Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML), whose minister tried to justify a similar price rise in 2004 amid great popular wrath, could have consulted some of those same talking points. By rolling back the price increase in its entirety, the government has chosen to appease the streets. For how long?

A reduction in the rates of increase along with efficient-distribution measures, matched with a more convincing articulation of its compulsions, could have been a more measured response. The reality that the government chose not to do so underscores its unenviable plight. Surely, an entity that could eviscerate the monarchy, secularize the country and accomplish a host of other wonders could not have been seen unable to withdraw the price rises.

This is where the nebulous “mandate” of People’s Movement-II gets murkier. The interpretations of key protagonists have conferred on that mandate an elasticity that risks negating its reality. The wily Maoists have placed themselves on the cooperation and confrontation boats. (The terminology has been deliberately moderated in view of the rebels’ repeated assurances that they would not return to the jungles.) Should the going get rough, we can expect Prachanda and Ganpathy – not obscure lieutenants – to sign the next statement of solidarity between Nepalese and Indian Maoists.

The Maoists’ vicious attacks on Nepali Congress, Nepali Congress (Democratic) and UML politicians are ostensibly part of the confrontation mode. Should the Congress unification process gather pace, the UML would find it harder to postpone its own moment of reckoning.

The Terai has brought another imponderable. For now, the region may be in the grip of violence primarily between the Maoists and a breakaway faction. Should the ambiguity of the people’s mandate spill over, the conflict will have acquired added combustibility. The solidarity demonstrated by Terai-based politicians across party lines following Sher Bahadur Deuba’s land reform effort in 2003 signaled the radicalism of regionalism. There could be a more perilous resurgence, especially when this particular element of ethno-geography finds inadequate resonance in most federalism models.

The Foreign Factor
Given the geopolitical stakes involved, the international donor community could still provide enough financial cushion to the government, enabling it to appease the streets through subsidies and other inducements. The possibility of open-ended external financial commitment diminishes with the emergence of each new global hot spot on the front pages. The external propensity for political intervention need not. With the palace and the army continuing to be hounded, the responsibility for driving the internal processes falls on the SPA and the Maoists.

Last November’s 12-point accord between the two was achieved in a different regional context. Yet the SPA and the Maoists must have acquired much of their momentum from assurances not specified in their separate texts. Recent rifts are perhaps rooted in interpretations and revisions driven by other equally eager external stakeholders after the political marginalization of the palace.

Evidently, the Maoist leadership – backed by allies in civil society -- want to claim the moral high ground here. They cannot credibly criticize the United States for impeding the peace process without addressing the substance and secrecy of their own recent visit to Silguri. (And, of course, the real story behind the Prachanda-Baburam Bhattarai conflict and conciliation last year.)

The external dynamics at play today should shed some light on the first phase of King Gyanendra’s active rule beginning October 4, 2002. The monarch had gone on national TV that night after consultations with, among others, key senior foreign diplomats. The ensuing sequence of events was peculiar.

Lokendra Bahadur Chand seemed acceptable as prime minister to the mainstream parties before the palace-led cabinet expansion turned him into a symbol of “regression”. The Maoists, who were staking their claim to head an interim government in early 2003, were stunned by the reorganization of the government negotiating team and the appointment of Surya Bahadur Thapa as premier.

Thapa, who couldn’t win the full support of his own Rastriya Prajatantra Party, continued on a caretaker basis for almost a month after his resignation in 2004. Prachanda kept insisting he would hold talks only with King Gyanendra as New Delhi and Kathmandu were having a hard time scheduling the monarch’s visit to India. On whose initiative was the visit eventually finalized? Was the royal visit called off just because of the death of a former Indian prime minister or was that only a coincidental cover? How did the monarch’s February 1, 2005 proclamation end up describing the Maoists as terrorists instead?

The murkiness of the people’s mandate may have succeeded in obscuring such questions of the past. It must not be allowed to cloud the future.


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