Originally Published 2004-08-31 06:28:06 Published on Aug 31, 2004
Nepal is in deep turmoil. At the centre is the 8-year-old Maoist insurgency, the cost of which has been enormous ¿ 10,000 lives, a disrupted economy and a sharply fragmented society along ethnic, caste, regional and religious lines. The worst chaos is in the political arena where the government stands discredited and paralysed and the State is gradually sliding towards total collapse.
On a hot tin roof
Nepal is in deep turmoil. At the centre is the 8-year-old Maoist insurgency, the cost of which has been enormous - 10,000 lives, a disrupted economy and a sharply fragmented society along ethnic, caste, regional and religious lines. The worst chaos is in the political arena where the government stands discredited and paralysed and the State is gradually sliding towards total collapse.

The Maoist insurgency that is blamed for all these depressing developments is, in fact, a product of more than 50, if not 200, years of political distortions. Monarchy in Nepal has reigned supreme for 40 years, governing through a corrupt, inefficient and repressive Panchayat Order. During the last 14 years, while managing to arouse popular aspirations for economic well-being and social justice, the parliamentary political system utterly failed to keep its promises.

Political leaders and elected representatives of the people gave priority to their preoccupations with power and pelf rather than to the concerns of their wider social constituencies. The monarchy that had found itself clipped and constrained by the constitutional obligations imposed in the aftermath of the 1989-90 popular uprising did contribute to vitiate the democratic governance. It kept the parties divided and their leaders fighting with each other.

To discredit their efficacy to govern, the king did not even hesitate to quietly patronise the unfolding Maoists rebellion during 1996-2001. The year 2001 didn't only witness the complete transformation of the monarchy following the palace massacre, but it also lent a greater stridency to the Maoist rebellion that had already gained considerable social support and self-confidence to challenge the kingdom's armed forces. Since then, the situation in Nepal has been on a steady drift. An effective blockade of Kathmandu by the Maoists for nearly a week through an effortless diktat may be seen as a landmark in this growing state of anarchy.

There are four principal players in Nepal who can arrest or accelerate the violence and destruction being witnessed: the king, the Maoists, the political parties and the international community. The weakest among them are the political parties, a victim of their own internal and mutual bickerings, caught in the crisis of confidence and credibility. They are an essential component of a democratic political structure in Nepal, but are incapable of influencing either the king or the Maoists in any meaningful way. Neither the king nor the Maoists are powerful enough to subdue the rest of the players on their own and establish an order of their liking.

The public image of the king has suffered greatly during the past couple of years. His army, even with more funds, modern equipment and foreign training, is incapable of taking on the Maoists decisively. It cannot venture beyond the district headquarters in the Maoist territory.

The Maoists control almost two- thirds of Nepal's geographical space and enjoy wide public sympathy for their proposed socio-economic programme. But there aren't many takers of their violent and strong-arm methods. They are capable of strategic initiatives in pursuance of their political goals - such as the Kathmandu blockade and paralysis of normal public life - but they are not well-equipped to militarily overwhelm the armed forces.

The international community has generally rallied round the king in the name of fighting terrorism. But it has no clue about how to exit from the present political impasse. The members of the international community seem more concerned with extracting concessions and advantages from a beleaguered State.

What Nepal urgently needs is a peace process that aims to provide the Maoists with a face-saver which, in turn, integrates them into the Nepali political mainstream. This will call for basic compromises and accommodations on the part of all the Nepali key players, particularly the king. It is unfortunate that the king is hoping to revert to a Panchayat-style role rather than be willing to adjust his own position within the parameters of a multi-party democracy. The king seems reasonably assured that with the backing of the international community and the support of a fast growing and modernising Royal Nepal Army, his present status can be perpetuated.

The Maoists, also, do not appear to be inclined towards a genuine peace process. They know that such a process will eventually call for their laying down of arms and adjusting their revolutionary notion of 'new democracy' with a multi-party parliamentary order. The Maoists feel that they have the strategic initiative with them and have already softened their position by giving up on the goal of ushering a republic. Their demand for a constituent assembly is increasingly gaining acceptance even among the political parties. So there is actually no real reason why they give in. Unless there is a basic change in the mindsets of the monarchy and the Maoists, all gestures of a peace process, secret or transparent, will remain nothing more than tactical manoeuvres.

There is much at stake for India. Its approach so far, however, has been myopic and confusing - chanting the ideal of constitutional monarchy while lending almost total support to the king's authoritarian moves. Behind this policy is India's somewhat imprudent and unrealistic dislike for 'corrupt and power-hungry' political leaders as well as its near hatred for the Maoists who are seen as supporters and abettors of the Naxalite and insurgent groups in India.

India's assertive stance during the Kathmandu blockade was understandable. But that can't be the long-term response. There is a streak of adventurism from some quarters in India which is contemplating direct and active military support to the Royal Nepal Army against the Maoists. Countries like the US may welcome such a dare-devil course, but that would be a foolhardy, if not suicidal, move. If military methods could be the fitting response to insurgencies, there should have been nothing to worry in India's North-east, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh all these years.

What India really needs to do is to work as a quiet and honest facilitator. It should try and set a sincere peace process, involving all the three major players, moving in Nepal. Towards that end, it has to lean heavily on the king to make him accept the role of a genuine constitutional monarch. India also needs to engage constructively with the political parties as well as the Maoists without prejudice.

While the political parties have been keen to be heard by India, South Block has let go of opportunities to nudge the Maoists towards meaningful negotiations. For too long, India's policies have only halfheartedly been linked to the democratic and grassroots forces in Nepal. It is time to reorient this legacy and evolve a fresh outlook that is responsive to the needs of a resurgent and forward-looking Nepal 20 years from now.

The writer is Director (Research), Observer Research Foundation and Professor, South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

(Courtesy: The Hindustan Times, August 29, 2004)

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