Fresh Crisis for Fledgling Democracy in Nepal

Arindam Sen

The recent developments in Nepal should take no one by surprise.  When parties with antagonistic class interests (like the NC and the UCPN (M)) join others with very different political agendas of their own (the CPN (UML) and the Madheshi Janaadhikar Forum for example) to try and run a government on the basis of an impossible "consensus" -- and that too with a very influential regional hegemon constantly playing its cards from across the southern border -- breakdown of the fragile arrangement becomes inevitable sooner or later, for one proximate cause or another.  In the event, the current crisis was precipitated by a showdown between the most advanced contingent of the anti-monarchical republican forces and the strongest bastion of the old feudal state power -- the unreformed (saved in name) armed forces.UCPN (M) protest in Nepal
Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Rookmangud Katawal had been doggedly resisting the integration of the PLA with the national army as agreed in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the nine-year civil war. However, both New Delhi and Washington mounted a strong pressure on the sovereign Nepali government not to remove their trusted General and the UCPN (M) made it clear that they had no objections to Gen. Katawal serving out his tenure so long as he recognised the supremacy of civilian authority. But this he never did.  Matters came to a head when the CoAS was asked by the government to explain why he (a) continued military recruitment despite the government's halt order (b) reinstated eight brigadier-generals who had been retired by the defence ministry and (c) ordered the army to boycott the National Games on the entry of PLA teams. Gen. Katawal, a protégé of the late King Mahendra who remained loyal to King Gyanendra in fighting the Jan Andolan-II (peoples’ movement), justified his actions on all the three counts and that in a tone of defiance. On the extension of officers’ services, for example, he insisted that these were routine matters or accepted norms. But such “norms” pre-date the new Army Act 2007, which categorically empowers the “Council of Ministers” to “control, mobilise and manage the Nepali Army.” Similarly, new recruitments are a clear violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of November 2006, (Art. 5.1.2). The U.N. Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) which is managing both the PLA and the NA under the peace process had categorically said so.
It is thus clear that the military high command, backed by its foreign patrons and right-wing parties in the country, openly defied the authority of the elected government. The latter responded by removing General Katawal. He refused to accept this and the government’s decision was then illegally overturned by President Ram Baran Yadav of Nepali Congress. With their coalition partners in government refusing to support the UCPN(M), Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) announced that he had no choice but to resign. As senior Maoist leader and Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai commented on the day of resignation, "The so-called democratic forces specially [those] headed by the so-called democrats in New Delhi have been dictating their patrons in Kathmandu to side with the army and fight against the democratic forces".
Detractors of the Maoists rarely say the latter were wrong in principle in taking these positions.  The complaint basically is they did not go by consensus.  The Maoist reply is that top central leaders of CPN (UML) had agreed about taking action against Katawal but later changed their stance. (See Prachanda’s two-part interview in The Hindu, May 11-12). We do not know the details of what actually happened, but surely it is unfortunate that the two communist parties comprising the core of the ruling coalition did not stand together even on such a fundamental requirement of a democratic republic as the supremacy of the elected government over the armed forces.  If they did, the outcome of the crisis could be entirely different.
But that was not to be.  The two communist parties now find themselves on opposite sides of the political divide.  As we write these lines, we learn that a UML- NC-led coalition has, after full two weeks of hectic intra-party and inter -party parleys, cobbled up the numbers to form the next government. However, observers have expressed doubts about the stability of a coalition government comprising some 22 parties, with the third major constituent, the MJF, vertically split between two warring factions.  Meanwhile, the UCPN (M) on its turn has described the whole thing as some sort of a Coup d’etat and the beginning of “Sikkimization” of Nepal. They are carrying on a struggle on the streets and within the interim parliament to amend the President's unconstitutional move to reinstate the army chief, saying they will support the formation of a new government only after a proper discussion and voting on the president's move on the floor of the house. The vital task of drafting the new constitution is thus hanging in balance.
India, as usual, denies any involvement in the whole episode, but defends the action of the Nepal President in his capacity as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. Now this is an absolutely untenable argument. The constitution does not allow the President to use that authority against the advice of a lawfully constituted government because parliament is sovereign. (Just imagine what type of a constitutional crisis India would find itself in if Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, who was unjustly sacked as Navy chief by the Vajpayee government in 1998, had been reinstated by President K.R. Narayanan!) The Indian authorities know all this well enough. But they cannot digest the prospect of political contamination of the army -- their ally of last resort in Nepal -- and of the Maoists stabilising themselves in power.  For different reasons the CPN (UML) and other forces within Nepal are also not comfortable with this, and they have some genuine reservations against the UCPN (M).  A spanner was therefore found and thrown into the wheels of the Maoist-led government.
Accustomed to see Nepal as its exclusive sphere of influence, India supported by the US had initially tried to keep the King in and the Maoists out of power.  When that seemed impossible, it changed tack.  It brought the Maoists, who were then an underground party, and the mainstream Nepali parties together at a meeting in Delhi, which culminated in signing the 12-point agreement that paved the ground for a massive upheaval bringing down the monarchy.  The new tactic was adopted with a view to co-opting and assimilating the insurgents into a bourgeois parliamentary setup where New Delhi would continue to call the shots. In other words, as long as possible it tried to maintain the status quo and when change  became irresistible, devised new ways to influence that process and develop new clout in the emerging equations of power. But since the Maoists won the election last year and came to power — against India's calculations -- the latter stepped up the scale of interference in all matters ranging from the appointment of a head priest in a temple to a proposed treaty of friendship with Beijing to issues relating to the peace accord (e.g., the NA-PLA integration). The latest turn of events comes as a culmination of this long process.
We denounce in strongest possible terms the brazen foreign intervention in Nepal and demand that it must be stopped immediately and for good. We believe the abolition of the monarchy requires not just the removal of the King but a thorough restructuring of all organs of the state including the army, judiciary and bureaucracy. Exactly how this is to be achieved is only for the people and the left and democratic parties in Nepal to decide.  Like in the past, we stand unambiguously by them as they negotiate the zigzag course of a troubled transition. 

Today the CPN (UML) finds itself in the unenviable position of running a government that must depend fully on the support of a redoubtable NC and a faction- ridden MJF.  The UCPN (M), now that a smooth transition has been proved impossible, will have to reposition itself in the system of multi-party democracy, which they perceive as "a transitional state of compromise to institutionalise through constituent assembly a new type of democratic republic." (Press Communique following the Fifth Expanded Meeting of the Party's Central Committee, August 2007).  Let us hope that sooner rather than later the two communist parties will once again find common ground to overcome all obstacles and carry the democratic revolution through to the end.