Monday, August 04, 2008

Setback for the left in Nepal

Article written for The Post, Lahore

Just as the trust vote in India saw dramatic intrigue featuring some dubious moves that ultimately mattered in the result (the government won the vote), the presidential election in post-monarchy Nepal came about with a thrilling climax. There was equal intrigue, deceit and backstabbing, sudden friends and instant enemies made in the presidential elections story, which saw the Maoists outsmarted, just as the leftists in India were unable to stop the nuclear deal’s operationalisation.

The Maoists had won the elections in April but the win was nowhere decisive. This resulted in a situation where the formation of a new government was put off till alliances were created that would ensure a numerical surety for whomsoever who had the majority claim. Initially there were attempts to generate consensus among the seven party alliance for the major executive posts (president, vice-president, prime minister and speaker). That consensus was elusive. The main losing parties in the constituent assembly elections, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified-Marxist-Leninist (UML) – were nowhere willing to partake in a consensual understanding with the Maoists. So after much haggling and drawn out processes of talking between every political party, some kind of understanding was worked out between the two largest leftist forces in the country, the Maoists and the UML. The idea was for the UML to get the post of president while the Maoists would retain the chief executive post of prime minister. It all looked hunky dory at this point of time till the UML announced its preferred choice for president.

Madhav Kumar Nepal is one of the senior-most communist leaders of not only Nepal, but the subcontinent. Coming of age in the Jhapa movement, he had steadily grown in the ranks of the party before eventually becoming the main leader of the UML in the mid- and late 1990s. He had however lost out in the recently held CA elections in both the constituencies where he had been fielded by his party. That in one stroke meant that he had lost moral authority to lead his party and he promptly resigned from the general secretaryship of the UML. Over the past few months since the elections, he had been replaced from the leadership by other leaders such as Jhalanath Khanal and had gradually faded away from the limelight, before the decision by his party to suddenly pitchfork his name for the post of president.

The Maoists were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Madhav Nepal as the president for many reasons. For starters, they perhaps wanted someone who was not part of the old political guard that dominated Nepali politics in the 1990s and the 2000s; which ruled out Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress and Madhav Nepal for the largely ceremonial post. The Maoists were also keen on pitching a Madhesi face for president, to mark a symbolic break in the history of Nepal with a name from the plains for the highest (if purely ceremonial) constitutional post in the country. They were also thinking of arranging the executive posts (president, vice-president, prime minister and speaker) in a manner that various identities were represented in them; a Madeshi, a person from the hills, a janajati (roughly translating to a tribal identity) and a woman. And this idea was what motivated the Maoists to suggest the name of Sahana Pradhan, a senior UML woman leader for the post of president, but the UML were adamant on getting Madhav Nepal the post.

When the understanding between the UML and the Maoists led to a deadlock, the latter thought it best to propose a new understanding with the largest Madhesi party, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and get a Madhesi face elected as president. And the candidate was Ram Raja Prasad Singh, a veteran and militant republican from the plains. It seemed that the Maoists’ new coup wrought out with the alliance with the MJF would catapult Singh to president, but it was not to be.

The rug was pulled out from the Maoists’ feet by last minute machinations worked out by the NC, UML and surprisingly by the Madhesi parties too, as all these players ganged up and rejected the primary Maoist candidate by putting up Ram Baran Yadav, a veteran Nepali Congress leader from the plains. And the MJF got the vice presidential post nomination, with Parmanand Jha named as the joint candidate of the newly formed front of these parties. In one sweep, two Madhesis were elected president and vice-president and although the Maoists’ idea of ensuring representation of a prominent name from the plains succeeded, the persons finally elected were a “soft” monarchist from the Nepali Congress and a former judge from the plains representing the MJF. Surprisingly, neither of these posts were occupied by anyone closer to the Left, even though the Left parties in Nepal had enjoyed nearly two-thirds majority together in the constituent assembly.

Eventually, the Maoists were checkmated in the plain old game of Kathmandu power politics. They were still determining whether or not to join the government and to take the prime minister’s post, which according to the mandate was rightly theirs. A unity government with Left domination had proven to be a mirage, with the UML and the Maoists unable to get over their differences, much of which were got to do with their leaders’ ego, in this writer’s opinion. The UML was not able to think beyond minor considerations of getting their senior-most leader accorded a ceremonial post, while the Maoists were being too calculating in their approach to get a configuration of executive posts to their liking.

The machinations wrought out by the various parties against the Maoists could be used by the latter to get more support from the people who are already tired with the shenanigans that have accompanied government formation since the elections and declaration of a republic. To get more popular support from the people by pointing out the machinations, would require the Maoists to sit in opposition. But that would mean that the levers that the Maoists would hold in the creation of an egalitarian and progressive constitution will be considerably weakened.

It is a new dilemma for the newly entered force into mainstream polity. The Maoists had a lot at stake while they were entering the mainstream. They had to pacify their radical constituency which had sacrificed a lot in ensuring power for the radical party, whose armed wing was barracked and is still awaiting a decision to either integrate with the armed forces or accept a new “security” role. Criticisms have emanated about their tactics to integrate completely into mainstream polity at the cost of their stated aim to achieve a revolution in Nepal immediately. But so far, the Maoists were consistent in manoeuvring the various political steps to be taken in Kathmandu toward achieving a progressive constitution and toward laying the foundations of a radical democracy, before this new setback that they received. Lack of consensus, primarily with the UML has been the main reason for the setback to not just the Maoists but to the Left in Nepal.

It is high time that the Maoists sat down and had long and elaborate talks with the UML about their vision and the need for unity. Or else all gains made so far in constructing an agenda for genuine change from the discredited parliamentary and unitary system in the newly declared republic will come to nought.

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