By Prashant Jha
Nepal is limping back to normal after a six-day general strike (May 2 – 7) called by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN-M) that crippled the country.
Billed by the party as the ‘decisive’ and ‘final’ movement for ‘peace, constitution, national independence, civilian supremacy and a Maoist-led national unity Government’, the strike saw hundreds of thousands of Maoist cadres agitate in Kathmandu and other urban centres. While there was some hidden violence, in terms of extortion and pressuring urban dwellers to accommodate and feed party workers coming from outside, the movement itself was largely peaceful.
There was something of a carnival feel, with protestors congregating at every street corner early in the morning, singing and dancing to ‘revolutionary’ music, and listening to speeches directed against the present Madhav Kumar Nepal-led Government and ‘foreign powers’. The narrative was kept simple – we have brought the republic, federalism and secularism; we are the most powerful and popular party in the country; we won the elections; this Government is run by a set of unelected losers who do not want peace or constitution; it is there only because of India; so we need to have a movement against this Government and for national independence; people in security organs are also sons of Nepali farmers and workers and will not go against us.
But, almost a week into the movement, the Maoists unilaterally withdrew the strike on Friday, May 7. The next day, Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda gave a speech at a mass meeting, giving two reasons – to make life easier for the general public, and to foil the Government’s conspiracy of turning people against people, a reference to instances of backlash against Maoist protestors in parts of the Terai and Kathmandu. On Sunday, May 9, the Maoist Standing Committee decided that they would not engage in any talks with the Government till the PM resigned; that the party would focus on ‘internal training sessions’; and they would organize mass rallies across the country on May 25 – three days before the term of the Constituent Assembly (CA) is set to expire, even though a Constitution has not yet been finalised.
Ever since Prachanda’s resignation as PM after his failed attempt to sack the then Army Chief General Rukmangad Katawal in May 2009, the Maoists have been in agitation mode. They demanded that the President’s ‘unconstitutional move’ be corrected (the President had written to the Army Chief not to relinquish office); blocked parliament for six months; waged a movement for ‘national independence’ against India; toyed with the idea of tabling a no-confidence motion against the reigning coalition; and then decided to initiate its ‘final’ movement. Throughout the period, the party machinery has been active, organizing rallies and expanding membership.
But none of these attempts has succeeded in forcing the non-Maoist alliance to make way for the former rebels, or even cede them any space in the formal apparatus of power. The trust deficit between the Maoists and all the other parties remains deep. The latter suspect that the Maoists are not committed to multiparty democracy and, with an Army of their own in cantonments, they could attempt to ‘capture the state’. The Maoists, in turn, doubt the commitment of the older parties to any kind of progressive change, and suspect there is a deep conspiracy to dissolve the CA. The India-Maoist relationship has steadily deteriorated, with India suspicious of Maoist intentions and what they perceived to be insensitivity to its security concerns. Prachanda’s anti India rhetoric won him no friends down south, in the Madhesh region, either. The Maoists, for their part, blamed India for conspiring in the removal of their Government. Suggestions that India would find an alternative Maoist leader, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, more acceptable as PM made Prachanda both nervous and angry. And the Nepal Army and Maoists continued to view each other warily, despite repeated attempts by the Maoists to assure the Army that they were ‘natural allies’ for the cause of ‘nationalism’.
The cumulative constellation of forces that has emerged has, for the first time in four years, seen a strong anti Maoist alliance – of parties, President, Army, and India – in place.
Prachanda thought this could be broken with an indefinite national strike and a show of strength. His calculations were four-fold. One, getting hundreds of thousands on the streets would generate enough moral pressure on the Government to resign. Two, the disenchantment of the Kathmandu populace with the Government would translate into support for the Maoists, and the increasing frustration due to the bandh (shut down) would be directed against Prime Minister Madhav Nepal. Three, a prolonged deadlock would force the international community, particularly the Indians, to step in and stitch a deal ceding space to the Maoists. And four, the ‘military-bourgeoisie’ alliance, manifested in the consolidation of all non-Maoist political forces, President and Army, would fracture; there would be fissures within both the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) eroding the Government’s strength.
This was a miscalculation on all fronts. The Government sat tight, and did not blink. The support of locals in Kathmandu was limited; they did not particularly like the Government, but neither did they understand the need for such a massive and disruptive movement at the present juncture. The middle class was further alienated due to the strong-arm tactics adopted by the Maoists in the run-up to the movement, and showed up in large numbers at a ‘peace rally’ on Friday morning, calling for an end to the strike and a resolution of the political deadlock. The Maoists also under-estimated the Indian resolve as well as the determination of domestic political forces not to allow the Maoists back in ‘till they change’. The more the Maoists adopted the route of militant mass politics, the tougher the non-Maoist camp was getting. And the pressure from non-regional international actors, including the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, was on the Maoists, urging them not to cripple the country.
Faced with such an adverse reaction, the Maoists made a tactical retreat. Realizing that they could not achieve what they sought through the strike, they came to project the withdrawal as the moral high ground, making a show of magnanimity; putting the onus on the Government; reaching out to the internationals; and hoping to win public sympathy for being a ‘sensitive and responsible party’. The top Maoist leaders feel the present battle could go on till May 28 (the deadline for the Constitution drafting process) and beyond. Sustaining a strike till then would be difficult. The current withdrawal creates a breather to regroup and re-strategize.
The non-Maoist camp has been smug, viewing the collapse of the strike as a victory. The PM has refused to resign, and many in the Indian establishment and in the NC-UML combine feel this is the moment to pressurize the Maoists even more. These, however, are short-sighted and potentially counter-productive perspectives that would push the Maoists to unleashing their substantial destructive prowess (which was held in check last week). The Maoist organisational ability to mobilize masses, as demonstrated through the strike, should give ample warning about the risks of brinkmanship in the current situation.
If the objective remains completing the peace process, writing a constitution, and achieving a degree of political stability, a fresh political settlement will be necessary.
For now, the Maoists have to be honest on integration and put the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under the all party Special Committee in practice. Numbers and process (of who would be incorporated in the Nepal Army, in other security organs, and who would be rehabilitated) have to be agreed upon. There have to be serious negotiations on how to transform the paramilitary structure of the Young Communist League (YCL). The culture of militant youth wings in other parties, especially the UML’s Youth Force, has to be simultaneously tackled. All parties would also have to accept the need for an extension of the CA through a constitutional amendment. And a new national unity Government, led by an acceptable figure, would have to be constituted to reflect the actual power realities of the country and to bridge the current trust deficit.
If such a deal is not arrived at in the next fortnight, a political and constitutional crisis is inevitable. The CA would cease to exist on May 28. Ultra-left sections of the Maoists would seek to capitalize on the vacuum by declaring a constitution from the streets, even as the ultra-right would try to use President Ram Baran Yadav to take over state power. The risk of a militarized confrontation on the streets, the consequences of which would be totally unpredictable, would rise unacceptably.
It is crucial that the process that was initiated with the 12-point agreement in New Delhi in November 2005 is not aborted mid-way. The Maoists must implement their commitments; Prachanda would have to accept that the balance of power is not conducive for him to become Prime Minister immediately; the older parties have to remain wedded to the agenda of a new constitution; the Prime Minister has to resign and make way for a Government with Maoist participation; and India has to use its leverage with all sides to revive the process instead of remaining totally partisan.
The alternative is greater anarchy and violence.
Prashant Jha is a Guest Writer for SATP, and Contributing Editor, Himal Southasian Magazine; Columnist, Nepal Times, Kathmandu. This article first appeared at the South Asia Terrorist Portal – SATP – (http://www.satp.org) – produced by the Institute of Conflict Management.