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Nepal: Geography And Politics In Perpetual Contest

Nepal: Geography And Politics In Perpetual Contest

By Sanjay Upadhya

From the assurances emanating from both sides, the audible hardening of positions may not stand in the way of the next summit between Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist supremo Prachanda. The uncertainty over how this transformation might influence the outcome underscores the precariousness of the peace process.

The Maoists evidently see virtue in letting some ambiguity shroud the deliberations of their recent central committee meeting. The firmness of Prime Minister Koirala’s insistence on the primacy of the arms-management issue vis-à-vis the peace process directly stems from the rebels’ strong utterances after the meeting. Yet he is addressing a wider audience.

In confirming Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal as army chief, over the objections of Seven Party Alliance (SPA) politicians, civil society and the Maoists, Koirala has reminded the country that he still retains enough of his record of implacability. In recent comments, the premier has qualified his insistence on giving space to a ceremonial monarchy with an acknowledgement of the people’s ultimate sacrosanct right to choose.

His political priorities are clear. The draft interim constitution is full of blanks waiting to be filled through political consensus between the SPA and the Maoists. The issue of constituent assembly elections – with or without a referendum on the monarchy – lies beyond Koirala’s immediate gaze. Having brought the army under civilian control – if that is what it is – Koirala recognizes the flip side of the achievement: earning and retaining the loyalty of the forces.

With the Maoists and the SPA squabbling over almost every vital element of the 12-point accord, we now know why the signatories came out with separate statements last November. A broader opposition front had become urgent to tame the palace in the immediate aftermath of the Dhaka SAARC summit, where Nepal was instrumental in shifting the geopolitical locus of South Asia by drawing in China as an observer.

Koirala, who Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed as the greatest statesman of the region in June, could not have forgotten the sustained difficulties he had to encounter in scheduling meetings with Singh’s predecessor in the aftermath of King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Nepal’s last elected government in October 2002.

It took five months for the SPA-Maoist accord to achieve what now appears to have been its sole objective. From this perspective, at least, the 12-point accord lost its relevance the moment King Gyanendra reinstated the House of Representatives. Yet the Maoists chose to moderate their criticism of the SPA’s betrayal of the spirit of the April Uprising because it provided an opening to the urban uprising component of the People’s War.

For the Maoists, the series of steps the legislature took toward eviscerating the palace, democratizing the military and secularizing the state helped to undermine the “old state” a decade of murder and mayhem could not. Sooner or later the MPs’ ebullience would end up bordering on the ridiculous. Their penchant for taking repeated oaths and ordering others to do the same set the stage for other absurdities such as “outlawing” discrimination and throwing in internationally recognized heritage sites to bloat the royal assets they proudly covered.

Over time, Maoist military commanders like Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal broke their mysterious silence on the peace process, but not without employing the creative ambiguity the political commissars had long perfected. Once representatives of the republican camp in Nepali Congress, such as Ram Chandra Poudel, began criticizing the Maoists’ haughtiness, chief rebel ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai grew anxious to see, more than anything else, another split in Koirala’s party.

Having seen King Gyanendra struggle for American and Indian sympathy – if not outright support -- for his compulsions in seizing power on February 1, 2005, Maoist leaders certainly did not think they were making any great revelation in suggesting that the key to peace lay in the hands in Washington and New Delhi.

The four-month-old logjam, on the other hand, must have allowed the two capitals to appreciate the complexity of a stalemate the monarch could not break with the three governments he appointed – the last drawing partial representation from the opposition alliance -- before taking direct control. Surely, the SPA and Maoists are alert to the implications of a deepening of any such assessment.

In retrospect, international opposition to royal rule – at least from quarters that mattered the most -- had more to do with geopolitics than with an underlying revulsion for a grand autocratic design of an ambitious monarch. As Koirala and Prachanda prepare for their next discussions and beyond, Nepal’s geography and its politics remain deeply engrossed in search of that ever-elusive state of equilibrium.


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