By Ajai Sahni
The good news is that Nepal has a new Prime Minister; the bad, that the intrinsic and entrenched political instability that has marred the country since the Constituent Assembly (CA) Elections of April 2008 and the end of the Monarchy in May that year, shows no signs of receding.
On August 28, 2011, the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal elected Unified Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist (UCPN-M) Vice Chairman Baburam Bhattarai, as its fourth Prime Minister (PM) since the CA Elections. The previous incumbent, Jhala Nath Khanal of the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist Leninist (CPI-UML), had resigned on August 14, 2011, to pave the way for a National Consensus Government (NCG). He had, in turn, taken over as Prime Minister just in February 2011, after a seven month deadlock over the election of the Prime Minister.
Bhattarai’s elevation to the PM’s post, however, represented a failure to establish a NCG, and came after another contentious election process, and an uncertain last minute deal between the UCPN-M and the United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF), a grouping of five Madhesh-based parties.
In the latest electoral process, Bhattarai received 340 votes while Ram Chandra Poudel, the Nepali Congress (NC) Parliamentary Party leader, who stood against Bhattarai, received 235. 575 lawmakers, out of a total of 594, participated in the voting. The UCPN-M has 229 members and the NC, 115, in the CA. The UDMF, with 65 lawmakers, and few fringe parties, supported Bhattarai, Poudel was backed by the CPN-UML, which has 108 members, and some small political formations.
In the morning of August 28, just before the commencement of voting, UCPN-M Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda had signed a four-point agreement with leaders of the UDMF. The UDMF pushed a hard bargain, which reportedly included up to eleven cabinet and eleven state ministries in the new Government, including the crucial Home and Defence portfolios, as well as an assurance of the inclusion of the Madhesis in the Nepal Army and in public office.
The election followed the May 29, 2011, 5-point agreement between the three largest political parties in the CA – UCPN-M, NC and CPN-UML, to pass the Ninth Amendment to the Interim Constitution, to extend the CA by another three months. On August 29, 2011, the CA’s term was once again extended for another three month, by the Tenth Amendment to the Interim Constitution.
The failure to constitute a NCG, and the potential for continuing instability was clearly recognized by Bhattarai, even before he was voted to power, as he noted, “It is very unfortunate that we were not able to form a consensus government… The country is also caught in a cycle of frustration and uncertainty.”
That the country will not quickly find its way out of this cycle was confirmed by the NC and UML, with both parties openly declaring that they had no reasons to trust the Maoists. NC leader Ram Chandra Poudel thus declared, “The Maoists have constantly breached past agreements and continue to retain their military apparatus.” Similarly, the UML noted that they had not yet received any “credible and acceptable peace process proposals” from the Maoists. For any significant progress on the fractious issues of the absorption of Maoist armed cadres into the Nepal Army (NA) and agreement on a number of divisive clauses in the Draft Constitution, some agreement between the present ruling Coalition and these two major political formations would be necessary – and seems entirely unlikely in the proximate future.
The stability of the present arrangement is also enormously jeopardized from within. Bhattarai’s installation as Prime Minister represents, at best, a transient victory in an inner-party factional feud. Despite the fact that Bhattarai’s candidature was proposed by Party Chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, the rivalry between the two leaders is legendary. Worse, Bhattarai’s commitments on the transfer of control of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) weaponry to a Special Committee, and to complete the process of integration with the Nepali Army, have rankled with hardliners, who insist, on the one hand, that the decision to hand over keys of the Arms Containers was ‘suicidal’, and that Bhattarai was exceeding the mandate of the Party’s Central Committee. The hardliners insist that decisions on the weapons’ handover issue should have been left to the Party’s CC meeting , scheduled for September 18, 2011, though Party Chairman Dahal has strongly criticised the rhetoric emanating from this faction. Significantly, the keys of the weapon containers were handed over to the Special Committee, on September 1, 2011. In protest, the hardline Mohan Baidya faction refused to send its candidates to the Cabinet, despite a directive from the Party leadership to ensure that they were part of the Cabinet expansion of September 4, 2011.
Bhattarai has also come under direct personal attack by proxies, denounced as “a Nepalese face with an Indian mind”, even as connections with India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) are hinted at.
Acknowledging the factionalism in his party, Prime Minister Bhattarai, nevertheless, insists that this was both natural and entirely manageable. “In a communist party,” Bhattarai argues, “two-line struggles are natural and we have successfully managed it so far and we will manage it in the future.” He insists, further, that, in the Special Committee, “both PLA and Nepal Army are there. It is not a question of surrendering to the state, but handing over to the Special Committee, which is a joint committee.” Nevertheless, the dangers of factionalism and a possible split in the party are recognized: “Even if some leaders and cadre may oppose or some splinter groups may move out, even then it won’t make much impact on the political line followed by the party.” An astonishing deadline of 45 days has been imposed by Bhattarai to complete the weapons transfer and Army integration processes – and this commitment is likely to become the anvil on which his political future will be tested.
Bhattarai also insists that his ‘majority government’ is only a prelude to the promised ‘consensus government’ to which all parties had committed themselves: “unfortunately since that (a consensus government) could not happen, the second choice was to start with a majoritarian and work for a consensus government. Even though I was elected by a majority, my efforts are directed towards forging consensus.”
The UCPN-M – UDMF agreement of August 28, 2011, has been preceded by at least a dozen earlier agreements between major political formations in Nepal, since the 12-Point Agreement between the Seven Political Parties and the Maoists in November 2005, which initiated the peace process and laid the groundwork for an end to a decade of armed violence. These agreements have sought to impose and maintain political equilibrium, to advance the peace process, to establish an effective structure of Governance, and to take the Constitution drafting process to a conclusion. These various agreements have, however, been riven with contradictions and a failure by various parties to adhere to their terms. Factionalism in the Madhesi parties is already threatening the survival of the latest agreement, and this is expected to intensify once the process of allocation of ministries is completed, with leaders who are left out potentially resorting to brinkmanship to press their own case, failing which, they at least some would attempt to chart out their own course.
Nevertheless, some sort of a democratic framework has survived in Nepal, and all major political formations have restricted their confrontations and contradictions below the threshold of armed violence. It is abundantly clear that national consensus on a wide range of issues, including the formation of a NCG, Army integration, the structure of the Federation, the form of Government, and a number of other divisive issues, will remain tantalizingly elusive. Bhattarai has already admitted that the three month extension of the CAs tenure will be inadequate to complete the drafting process, and a nine-month timeframe is likely more realistic. The gains of the past years, however, are not insignificant. The absence of sustained armed violence – despite the persistence of intimidation and sporadic incidents of bloodshed – has itself transformed both politics and the character of political parties in Nepal, including, most significantly, the Maoists. Despite intra- and inter-party friction, there is no reason to believe that this process will not deepen, or that there will be an abrupt regression to the more atavistic politics of the past.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management and SATP