Indian Decade

Nepal: Where It’s Heading

Recent Features

Indian Decade

Nepal: Where It’s Heading

The political impasse in Nepal threatens long-term instability. India should play a more enlightened role in helping out.

‘History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues, and deceives with whispering ambition, guides us by vanities.’

These unforgettable words from T S Eliot’s poem Gerontion sum up the situation in Nepal today. The Himalayan nation’s recent history is indeed full of cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues. And it’s also now being surrounded by the whispered ambitions of many domestic and international political players who are closely watching the emergence of the tiny state as a democracy after the overthrow of the monarchy.

But the impending departure of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) complicates the process of democratic evolution. UNMIN originally came to Nepal in 2007, with a mandate to monitor the state’s two ‘armies’—especially the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M). But despite being extended for seven terms, the mission couldn’t disarm the Maoist forces, nor bring about any sort of forward movement on integrating the two major political forces in Nepal.

So, will the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), under which the Maoists agreed to end the decade-long violence and join the democratic process, survive the departure of UNMIN?

UNMIN was in fact a by-product of the CPA, and was meant to facilitate Maoist entry into the democratic process by integrating the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the Nepal Army and rehabilitating guerrilla combatants, sorting out any differences between the Maoists and the national army in the process. This arrangement was agreed on at the time by the Maoists, mainstream political parties and the Nepal Army.

However, the exit of this mutually agreed on arrangement leaves a big vacuum in Nepalese politics. And it also begs the question of why only the Maoists seemed to be demanding the extension of UNMIN.

One reason appears to be that the national army, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) think that the UN body is sheltering and recognizing the PLA as a legitimate army; they also believe it’s pampering the ambitions of the Maoists. Indeed, they see UNMIN's presence as allowing the Maoists to drag their feet over the peace process and hope that its exit will remove a safety valve and result in pressure on them to reform and disarm.

Maoists for their part aren’t willing to trust the intentions of the traditional political establishment. The way Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda—the first-ever Maoist prime minister who was elected in 2008—had to resign doesn’t inspire much confidence among the former rebels. (Prachanda resigned in 2009 after current President Ram Baran Yadav opposed his decision to dismiss the Chief of the Army Rookmangud Katawal.)

And ever since, the differences between Maoists and non-Maoists have been growing.

Despite getting 40 percent of the seats in the constituent assembly, Prachanda has failed on seven occasions to be selected as prime minister, meaning Nepal’s constituent assembly, which still needs to write a new constitution, has been operating without a permanent prime minister. There are now fears that if the impasse continues, the experiment of forming a new assembly, the term of which expires on May 28, might fail.

Meanwhile, the non-Maoist parties, with the backing of India, have ganged up against the ultra-Leftists, fearing a shake-up of the old political system—it’s feared that Maoists have no intention of running the country in a democratic fashion and instead want to establish authoritarian rule.

As one of the proponents of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, India also feels let down by the Communist Party of Nepal’s (CPN (M)) behavior, and is concerned by its leaders’ supposed closeness with China.

India’s stand simply isn’t helping matters. As analyst Srinath Raghavan has written in The Asian Age:

‘The challenge for India is not to allow its approach to be shaped exclusively by the concerns of the Nepal Army and its political backers. The Army’s concerns are understandable. But persisting with the current set-up is not in the long-term interest of Nepal—a point that New Delhi understood when supporting the CPA in 2006. During the stand-off between the Maoist leader Prachanda and the army chief in 2009, India stood by the army. This not only led Prachanda to step down as prime minister, but also called into question India’s commitment to the principle of democratic control. New Delhi must now display more creativity in tackling this thorny but unavoidable issue.’

But New Delhi seems to be suffering from a historical hangover, always wanting to control not only the polity, but also the destiny of its northern neighbour. Mere suspicion of the Maoists’ commitment to democracy shouldn’t be enough grounds to keep them out of power. As a democracy, India should accept that the CPN (M) got 40 percent of the country’s seats in parliament, or else it will lend credibility to the widely held view in Nepal that it’s India that’s getting in the way of the Maoist’s re-entry into government.

Writing in The Hindu, Prashant Jha says that, ‘India needs to play a constructive role in enabling a deal on power-sharing and the peace process, in which the Maoists will be accommodated while locking them into handing over their coercive apparatus. This is essential for constitution-writing. Otherwise, this May could well mark the collapse of Nepal's ambitious experiment in political transformation.’

India knows the consequences of chaos in its neighbourhood—a disturbed Pakistan is an ongoing source of tension for India. So if Nepal remains in turmoil, it makes it much more difficult for India to look beyond its immediate surroundings.

Of course, political parties in Nepal should work harder to sort out their own mess, rather than depending on others. But if India wants to play a bigger role on the international stage, it will have to demonstrate an enlightened approach in helping reconcile regional differences.