M.R. Josse: Maoists In Government
Maoists In Government: End Of Beginning Or Beginning Of End?
By M.R. Josse
With the long expected induction of Maoists into an interim government, this on 1st April of all days, it was hardly a wonder that questions such as 'is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end' were being bandied about in Kathmandu bistros, news rooms and political/diplomatic salons alike. While leaving it to posterity to pass a final judgment on which assessment turns out to be the more accurate, it may be much easier for this column to merely chew the cud over a few of that development's more interesting features.
To begin, it marks Girija Babu's sixth incredible innings as prime minister – a feat that may or may not get him into the Guinness World Book of Records. Whatever it says about Prime Minister Koirala's astounding luck, protean political talents, longevity and amazing staying power, it is certainly another manifestation of the essentially Byzantine character of Nepali politics.
It is also testimony to this enduring paradox: a politician who for years was notorious as an arch anti-Communist now purportedly leads an extreme Communist grouping that waged a gory "people's war" against the state for a decade into the mainstream of open, competitive politics.
The assumption among some is that the Maoists have genuinely become converts to non-violent politics. While the jury is still out on that question – as least as far as this columnist is concerned – it was probably only inevitable that pat clichés like the 'long march', 'great leap forward' and 'changed mind set' should now lie thick on the ground.
And yet there are not a few Doubting Thomases' who wonder, even worry, whether it is wise to place all one's bets on the Maoists' alleged transformation into regular, or garden variety, politicos. Indeed, many strongly maintain that the Maoists have not merely joined the mainstream; they have, in fact, defined it.
Similarly, there are others who keep on reminding one that 'hope is not a method' for ending conflict, pointing out that the pronouncements from Maoist honchos are not always obeyed by their cadres be it in regard to treatment of journalists, in the collection of "voluntary" donations or even in attacks on political leaders professing a philosophy different from that of their stalwart Chairman.
Much has been made of the fact that eight SPAM leaders have decided to hold the CA polls on 20 June 2007. However, it is enormously interesting that this contradicts the provision in the Interim Constitution, 2007 which states specifically that the event should be conducted within the month of Jestha 2064 (i.e. by mid-June, 2007).
In fact, the date 20 June corresponds to Ashad 6, or six days into the Nepali month following Jestha. Indeed, legal exerts maintain, the government cannot defer the time period specified in the constitution without first amending it.
Another interesting aspect is that the 20 June date has yet to the "formally" announced by the SPAM interim government. That apparently will only happen after consultations between the new government with the Election Commission (EC) and the UN Mission in Nepal. As the Prime Minister will be returning to Kathmandu only tomorrow, it is pretty obvious that the formal announcement on that may still be days away.
In practical terms it will be impossible to meet the 20 June date. For one thing, as the EC has repeatedly reminded, it needs at least three months after the date has been formally announced for it to conduct a credible election. Reliable sources say that an official announcement will soon postpone it, possibly to some time in November, after the Dasain, Tihar and Chhat festivals.
How prominent members of the international community have referred to CA elections in their initial reaction to the interim government deserves some attention here.
The official Indian reaction, contained in a press release of India's External Affairs Ministry and as reported in the state-owned Rising Nepal, (2 April issue) makes no mention of the 20 June date. The US Embassy press statement on the subject merely says that the next step in the peace process should be the holding of constituency assembly elections "as quickly as possible."
The corresponding EU statement has it that the EU encourages the interim government…to move the peace process further forward for "timely elections" for the constituent assembly. Finally, the UNMIN's relevant press statement, like India's, makes no reference of the timing of the CA polls, merely recommending that conditions be created for "a credible Constituency Assembly election."
Not surprisingly, there is no reference to any specific date for the polls in official Chinese or Japanese comments. Neither, for that matter, did visiting British minister of international development Gareth Thomas do so.
TUSSLE FOR NUMBER TWO SLOT
Another notable feature was the unworthy public tussle between the NC and the UML over who secures the number two position on the governmental totem pole. As all can vouchsafe, this scramble delayed the formation of the Maoist-inducted interim government by a full day – pushing it from 31 March to 1st April, a date internationally associated with merriment and tomfoolery.
The consensus among professional Baluwatar observers is that the UML, determined to position itself on the SPAM hierarchy right after the Big Chief himself, came forward with Sahana Pradhan's name as its nominee. Though of indifferent health and only a few years younger than the aged prime minister himself, Pradhan's seniority – after all she had represented the Left Front in the 1990-1991 interim government headed by NC's Krishna Prasad Bhattarai – would normally have placed her ahead of NC's Ram Chandra Poudel.
Though Koirala, one learns, had argued and pleaded to Madhav Kumar Nepal for the UML to name someone else to lead its team in government, he stuck to his guns throughout the 31 March parleys causing an embarrassing deadlock. Yet, magically, on 1 April he sportingly agreed to have Pradhan in the Number Three slot, accepting that Poudel should be ahead of her, just below Koirala on the protocol order.
Given Koirala's delicate health and advanced age, it was understandable that he desired that the next-in-line should be Poudel. That would ipso facto allow Poudel to officiate as PM if he were to be incapacitated in any way.
QUID PRO QUO
Perhaps even more intriguing is how or why Maoists backed off from their oft-emphasised claim to the position of Deputy Prime Minister. In the event, they settled not even for the Number Three slot but for the lowly position of Number Four!
This, too, is intensely mysterious. According to insider information, Prachanda agreed to compromise on his claim for DPM for his party's nominee, or even for number three, on the condition that Koirala name Krishna Prasad Sitaula once again as Home Minister. Such a quid pro quo between Prachanda and Koirala seems plausible, among other considerations, because Koirala had refused to name his team until the eleventh hour.
Incidentally, there were also credible reports flying around that even Poudel had set his heart on that portfolio but was denied it by his captain.
Given the sheer importance of the home portfolio, directly linked to security and related arrangements for the polls, and not forgetting Sitaula's widely perceived proximity to Prachanda over the past year, such a deal sounds entirely credible. Its wide-ranging implications don't have to be spelt out here, I believe.
IMPACT ON MADESH
Indeed, on 2 April itself, a day of an announced Terai Bandh organised by the Madeshi Janaadhikar Forum, the retention of Sitaula as Home Minister had the expected impact of pouring generous quantities of fuel into the already raging fire of Madeshi discontent.
While the long-term effect of the decision to retain Sitaula as Home Minister, at any cost, should be repeatedly evident in the days ahead, it is surely meaningful that in the meeting between PM Koirala and PM Manmohan Singh in New Delhi the very same day, the India indicated that 'Nepal itself has to deal with the problems of the Terai' as Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon revealed to reporters later. (The Kathmandu Post, 3rdApril).
On another level, although PM Koirala proudly took credit for bringing the Maoists into government during his plenary address to the 14th summit in New Delhi, curiously enough he did not think it politik to include even one Maoist member of his cabinet in his delegation. One wonders why.
Incidentally, at this point one may note civil society figure Devendra Raj Panday's observations in a newspaper interview (TKP, 2nd April). Queried about the possibility of the government being able to hold CA polls 'in two months' time', against the backdrop of three election-related bills still pending, Panday has this to say:
"Will the bill passed in the parliament add fuel to the conflict? We have to be very careful. They all started raising their voice for their right after the promulgation of the interim parliament. The government must meet the demand to quell the conflict, though the responsibility is for holding the CA polls."
Similarly, responding to a question whether it would be possible to hold election by June, he retorts: "I have seen threats from no quarter except from the Madeshis, Janjatis, Dalits and the Adivasis. The main responsibility of this: The interim government has to create an open environment to resolve the differences before holding the CA polls…If the government cannot create that sort of environment, then I can see it being derailed."
STRESS ON INCLUSIVE POLITICS
Significantly, what Panday has stated bluntly representatives of the diplomatic community have also endorsed, albeit in softer language. Thus, for example, the most recent US Embassy statement on the political situation has, inter alia, urged the new government to initiate a comprehensive national dialogue will all ethnic groups to hear their "grievances" and to promote unity.
Likewise, the EU urged the government "to fulfill its aim of enabling everyone, including traditionally marginalised groups and especially women, to participate" in the polls. Similarly, the UNMIN statement stresses on "a truly unified government" and calls for "more inclusive democracy."
Translated into workaday language, they all suggest that the government should not move forward without first holding comprehensive talks with all marginalised groups. In the present context, it means that the government must not bulldoze through without doing so first. Unstated is this sombre implied message: to do so will be a risky proposition.
As the interim government thus far has shown no intention of holding meaningful talks with those groups, and as signaled by Sitaula's retention, one returns to where we began: does the induction of Maoists into the interim government mark the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?