Journalist | Writer | Analyst
2 May 2006
For Nepal, and India, the road ahead is difficult
MOMENTOUS THOUGH the events and accomplishments of the past few weeks have been, the struggle for democracy in Nepal is perhaps entering its most difficult phase only now. As the country moves towards elections to a constituent assembly, the ingenuity and wisdom of not just the Nepalese political forces but also of India will be put to the test. The choices each makes will help to determine whether the `April Revolution’ reaches its final destination or disappears in the quicksand of palace intrigue and political cowardice.
Amidst the exhilaration and excitement of the people’s movement in Nepal, India’s momentary suspension of disbelief following Karan Singh’s fatal meeting with King Gyanendra stands out as the one discordant note. Whatever New Delhi intended, people in Kathmandu saw in both the choice of the special envoy and the subsequent Indian endorsement of the monarch’s cunning first proclamation a sign that India cast its lot with the palace. To make matters worse, this syndrome of mixed signals — of `tough’ messages delivered, sometimes in private, to an intractable monarch by envoys enamoured of kingship, or petrified of the Maoists — continued right up to the bitter end.
At a time when lakhs of people were on the streets protesting King Gyanendra’s ploy of asking the Seven-Party Alliance to nominate its Prime Minister and take executive power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told journalists accompanying him to Hanover that the king was acting in the “right direction.” He also needlessly endorsed the discredited two-pillar theory of constitutional monarchy being as indispensable to stability in Nepal as multi-party democracy. In the same unhelpful vein, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan chipped in from Germany that India might resume arms supplies to the Royal Nepal Army if the situation in the country continued to deteriorate.
Mr. Saran’s eleventh-hour intervention — at a press conference last Saturday — that India stood with the people of Nepal and not with any royal pillar retrieved India’s standing on the streets of Kathmandu. But unless the underlying problem which plagues India’s Nepal policy is tackled, ambiguity is bound to crop up again.
India’s Nepal problem has two dimensions, which are interlinked. First, New Delhi does not fully appreciate that a thoroughgoing democracy including a republic, if that is what the Nepalese want, will be good for India. Secondly, subsequent governments have allowed multiple channels of communication to come up — which amplify the existing policy dissonance in Delhi and create maximum confusion.
Instead of the Indian embassy and ambassador, acting on the instructions of the Ministry of External Affairs, being the sole conduit for messages between India and the Nepalese establishment and political parties, a large number of interlocutors and busybodies have involved themselves in the process. There are the special envoys with their one-on-one meetings with King Gyanendra, where nobody else knows what is discussed. There are the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of the Army Staff, who believe in running their own lines of communication with the RNA. Then there are tantric interlopers and Hindutva fanatics who further contribute to the radio clutter. More noise also comes from our legion of ex-rajas, rajvadas and `cadets’ who have family ties with the Narayanhiti Palace and who intercede at crucial moments with the ruling party to ensure that India does not side with the people of Nepal.
Somewhere in the middle of this unholy mess are the intelligence agencies, which also appear not to know what India should be doing. For example, their agents turned a blind eye to meetings between the Nepal Maoists and the SPA, which were crucial to the mass mobilisation witnessed on the streets of Kathmandu in April. But their boss, India’s intelligence czar, worries endlessly about the security threat posed by the Maoists and is reportedly keen on turning the RNA’s weapons tap back on again.
India might have muddled its way through the thicket of policy dissonance to emerge, finally, on the side of the people, but there is one major obstacle still to be overcome. This is the official anxiety about allowing the United Nations to play a role in the implementation of the SPA-Maoist road map for peace.
Now that Nepal’s Parliament has unanimously passed a resolution calling for elections to a constituent assembly, it is time for both Kathmandu and New Delhi to get serious about how those elections are to be conducted. Since the Maoists are unlikely to surrender their arms until after the palace’s military powers are neutralised, some kind of international supervision will be needed to provide assurances of a level playing field to all during elections to the constituent assembly and even while the body meets. The Maoists say they are prepared to confine their armed fighters to the barracks under U.N. supervision pending elections and their eventual integration into a new national army along with elements of the RNA. Such a formula provides the only viable option for insurgency to end peacefully. But without international oversight, this is impossible to implement. For obvious reasons, India cannot involve itself in this process and would not want the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) there either. Nor would India want the task executed by a `contact group’ led, inevitably, by European countries which are part of Nato’s overall command structure. Are there countries, then, that New Delhi can trust? Whose involvement in supervising the sequestering of the Maoists would not compromise India’s sense of national interest? These are questions the South Block needs to start asking with a sense of urgency.
In many ways, the U.N. would be the best vehicle. But some sections of the Indian establishment are paranoid about the implications the U.N. involvement in a South Asian election process might have for Kashmir. Such anxieties are completely misplaced. Apart from climate, Nepal and Kashmir have nothing in common. And if the peace process were to falter for want of a via media to manage the entry of the Maoists into competitive politics, it would be King Gyanendra, who ultimately stands to benefit.
So momentous have the changes of the past few weeks been that it is tempting to conclude that the king is already history. This would be a serious mistake. King Gyanendra may not be able to utilise his constitutional powers to dismiss Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala or Parliament — if he did, he would have to contend with a full-blown insurrection that would end with either his flight or execution. But he has managed to buy time for himself, a commodity that is infinitely more useful today than are legal provisions. In the most optimistic scenario, elections to a constituent assembly are surely more than a year away. That provides plenty of time for intrigue behind the scenes. The king also knows he is dealing with political parties which lack confidence in their ability to carry the people’s movement forward. Ideally, the SPA should have announced the restoration of Parliament itself. But it didn’t have the gumption to do so. Mr. Koirala did well to refuse to take the oath to the Rajparishad but there are many in Nepal who would have found his being sworn in Prime Minister by King Gyanendra a distasteful event.
Mr. Koirala has also failed immediately to operationalise the promise he held out last week of a military ceasefire to reciprocate the three-month ceasefire declared by the Maoists. To make matters worse, an RNA helicopter on Saturday opened fire on a public meeting organised by the Maoists in the Sunwal area of Nawalparasi district. Was this the last act of defiance by an army which knows it will soon have to change course, or a warning shot to the SPA of who is still the boss?
One mistake Mr. Koirala, the SPA and India should avoid making is to disregard the role played by the Maoists in last week’s peaceful revolution on the streets. The Maoist slogan of a constituent assembly is what fired the imagination of the people, both as an end in itself and as a way of bringing the insurgents into the mainstream and ending the decade-long armed conflict. The Maoists also mobilised their cadres and sympathisers, in Kathmandu, Dang and elsewhere. True, Maoist leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai lashed out at the SPA for welcoming the king’s second proclamation restoring Parliament. But they quickly followed this up with two conciliatory gestures: the lifting of their blockade and a three-month ceasefire.
Mr. Koirala must move swiftly to capitalise on this opening and immediately order the RNA to declare a ceasefire too. Along with removing the terrorist tag from the Maoists and releasing all political prisoners, a ceasefire is necessary to start the dialogue process. He also needs to signal, right from the outset, that the RNA is fully subordinate to Parliament. On its part, India should impress upon the Koirala Government the need for a ceasefire and undertake not to resume arms supplies until it is clear that the RNA reports to Parliament and not the palace.
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