Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On the Nepal turmoil..

...An editorial published in the Economic and Political Weekly

A Curious Twist

The recent withdrawal of the representatives of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN (M)) from the government has precipitated a crisis of governance and created an impasse for the “seven party alliance” (itself a misnomer, since one of its members, the United Left Front is an alliance in itself) that had taken over power from the king in November 2006. Since the formation of this government, based on a mutual pact between the representatives of the seven political parties/groups and the Maoists, several steps had been taken to steer the political process in Nepal towards the formation of a democratic republic. The institution of monarchy has lost its legitimacy; most political observers now believe that Nepal is bound to become a republic if the elections to the constituent assembly are indeed “free and fair”.

The withdrawal of the CPN(M) from the government at a time when, as is being claimed, some of the key issues raised by them were being addressed, has aroused widespread curiosity. A series of dramatic moves, such as the withdrawal of several of the powers and privileges of the monarch and the adoption of a part “majoritarian”, part proportional representation system of elections, had been initiated by the present government.

Recent events in Nepal, particularly the happenings in the Terai region, suggest a set of clues to disentangle the reasons for the political impasse. The anarchic violence in the plain regions of Nepal, led by a diverse set of groups, whose claims range from madhesi inclusion in the political mainstream and government to independence for the Terai region, has not been contained. The Maoists, who had included marginalised sections such as dalits, madhesis and minorities in their contingent of members of the interim parliament, have not been able to assuage the raging discontent in the Terai. Neither could the government, of which the Maoists were a part, relying as it did on same old patterns of containment and selective appeasement as a response to madhesi demands.

Essentially, the madhesi problem is a cauldron that involves fissures on several axes such as caste and language and not just the differences between the dominant “pahadi” and the madhesi identity. The Maoists had lent support to a madhesi regional front, the Madhesi Rashtriya Mukti Morcha, but the internal fissures in the Terai region have meant that this forum no longer commands predominant support. The Gaur incident of March 21, in which several Maoist sympathisers were massacred by other madhesi partisans, is indicative of the sharp divisions on the ground. The Maoists have blamed the forces backing the royals and foreign interference (India and the US) for this situation and have therefore demanded the declaration of a republic even before the elections to the constituent assembly.

The rapidly deteriorating support for the Maoists in the Terai region and their inability to retain their support base despite commitment to genuine devolution of power and radical economic reforms has in turn created pressures within the party, linking the setback to the party’s participation in government. In a recent party plenum, apparently dissatisfied with the performance of the Maoists in government, many members demanded a reorientation to the goals of revolution. As such, the Maoists had accepted minor ministries in the interim government, perhaps contributing to this dissatisfaction.

The Maoists’ demands for immediate declaration of a constitutional republic in Nepal and a full proportional representation system have therefore to be seen in this context. This “shifting of goalposts” (so termed because the Maoists originally insisted on the question of the republic being decided by the constituent assembly) and withdrawal from government had precipitated the present crisis. In hindsight, the Maoists should have insisted on a full PR system to be incorporated in the interim constitution itself.

The “return to open politics” by the Maoists has necessitated renewed mobilisation and readdressing of demands (as mentioned in the 22-point charter prepared by them before the formation of the government), even as they realise that the containment policy followed by the other parties towards them is limiting their influence. The Maoists still appear committed to the elections to the constituent assembly and there seems no threat of a return to “people’s war”. The political uncertainty suggests unfolding political alignments among the left in Nepal to counter the reunited and strengthened Nepali Congress. Meanwhile, as we go to press, the government has requested the Election Commission to suspend the elections to the constituent assembly (that were slated for November 22) pending a special session of the interim Parliament to consider an amendment to the interim constitution to meet the Maoists’ demands.

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