Nepal’s Political Rites of Passage

Nepal is experiencing neither revolution, nor anarchy, nor chaos. It is in the midst of a complex rite of passage.

Nepal’s Political Rites of Passage , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, reassesses the state of the peace process in terms of Nepal’s political culture. Nepal’s transition from war to peace appears chaotic. But the country is not in chaos; its transition may be messy and confusing but it is not anarchic. There is an order within the political change and the resilience of Nepal’s political processes acts against fundamental transformations.

“The shift from war to peace was rapid and remains incomplete”, says Jacob Rinck, Crisis Group’s South Asia Analyst. “But the peace process is much stronger than it often seems”.

Neither side is likely to go back to war easily. The Maoists will not accept sidelining indefinitely. But they have undergone significant structural changes and are by now better prepared for open politics than for war. The army has some elite support for renewed conflict. But it is unlikely to act without Delhi’s nod, which is itself improbable unless the Maoists unexpectedly dominate the state.

Political parties and groups pressing ethnic and regional agendas have mushroomed and there is a perceived increase in organised crime and political violence. But new groups offer no existential threat to the political system – they largely work within it. None of them challenges the state in the way the Maoists did. The use of violence is ordered and bounded by the increasingly institutionalised involvement of mainstream parties, police and administration officials.

The only real risk of serious unrest stems from the gathering backlash against federalism and programs for political inclusion. The transition to federalism will present the biggest challenge, and conflict risk, of the near future.

The state’s response to instability is of critical importance. Public security efforts have been undermined by a lack of strategic clarity, the politicisation of policing and internal rivalries within the security sector. In any case, the roots of instability lie in entrenched political cultures that good policing alone cannot address. Defusing conflict risks in the long term will require constructive reform.

Reform of the state is slow because elites benefit from the status quo and public pressure is rarely acute. The state is dysfunctional by demand. Despite featuring high on the lists of fragile or failing states, the Nepalese state is more flexible than fragile. It has survived the conflict surprisingly unscathed, and unreformed.

Party behaviour – even revolutionary behaviour – is constrained by a set of sophisticated unwritten rules. The rites for the Maoists’ reincorporation in to the body politic have long been completed but the existential threat they pose is not yet extinguished. Whether they will be primarily a force for transformation, primarily transformed by more powerful forces, or a mixture of the two, is the central question of the transition.

“There are still real conflicts being played out”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “The peace process is not heading for a neat, logical conclusion”.


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