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Nepal's Political Conundrum: Emerging Challenges to Tenuous Peace

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 03, 2006

    Nepal is witnessing relative political calm after the Maoists declared a three month ceasefire to facilitate a political solution to the insurgency, which has been marked by unabated violence, threatening peace and stability in the Himalayan Kingdom. The Maoist insurgency, which originated ten years ago in April 1996, has reached a new phase. After several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations to resolve the political crisis posed by the Maoists in the past, the current situation is characterized by anxiety and hope. The anxiety is over whether a peaceful solution can be reached. Hope arises because of the fact that there seems to be a certain convergence of interests between the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists. After nineteen days of demonstrations, initiated by the political parties and supported by the Maoists, the King caved in to the spontaneity of anger expressed against his rule in the streets of Nepal. With the restoration of the suspended Parliament and swearing in of Mr. G P Koirala as the Prime Minister of Nepal, the focus has now shifted to the two main actors - the SPA and the Maoists.

    There are difficult tasks in front of the new government headed by G P Koirala. The perceptible uncertainty is evident as the Maoists wait for the government's announcement regarding elections to the Constituent Assembly. The new government has made an appeal to the Maoists to shun violence and give up arms. But the situation remains tricky, with the Maoists reluctant to give up arms before any concrete political settlement. Maoist support to the political process is backed by the twelve-point agreement that they signed with the political parties in November 2005, one of which stated that the political parties would form an interim government and hold elections to a Constituent Assembly. As is evident from various statements emanating from Kathmandu, the political parties have expressed their desire to hold elections to the Constituent Assembly.

    Before the forthcoming elections there are certain issues that need to be thrashed out between the SPA and the Maoists. First, the question of disarming the Maoist cadres would be important before an election takes place. The Maoists, as per the agreement, have agreed that they would put their armed cadres along with the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) under some kind of UN or any other reliable international supervision so that there could be free and fair elections. It is likely that the Maoists would not agree to complete disarmament before the elections because of the existence of a trust deficit between the parties to the conflict. Therefore in their twelve-point agreement both the political parties and the Maoists have categorically stated that they expect reliable international mediation even during the dialogue process. The Maoists need to be convinced that the government is committed to an elected Constituent Assembly. As for the SPA, it needs to be convinced that the Maoists believe in the democratic process and would accept the outcome of the elections to the Constituent Assembly and their drafted constitution. It also seems impossible that the Maoists, without a credible commitment, perhaps an international guarantee, would give up their armed wing.

    The Communist Party of India and its leaders played an important role in forging an agreement between the Maoists and the SPA. They were also instrumental in convincing the Maoists to declare a three-month ceasefire. How far the Indian Communist leaders would be able to convince the Maoists to adhere to the constitutional path remains to be seen. Given their recent positive role, they could indeed play a crucial part in Nepal's unfolding political future. At the same time, the Maoists want to give peace a chance due to international pressure.

    The most important issue before the Constituent Assembly would be the future role of the King. It is difficult to believe that the Palace would remain a silent spectator and accept the decision of the Constituent Assembly about its future. The King still holds immense powers under the 1990 constitution and is in a position to dismiss the government using the controversial Article 127. He will remain the Supreme Commander of the armed forces until the new constitution of Nepal is written. He is an important third party and would try to retain a certain political role instead of simply being relegated to the role of a ceremonial monarch. Both the political parties and the Maoists have indicated that the future role of the King would depend on what the people of Nepal want. The existing situation is that there is certainly a consensus among the people regarding a less intrusive monarch, though perhaps people are not yet prepared for a Republic. The Monarchy as an institution still has socio-political relevance.

    There is a need on the part of the political parties and the Maoists to tread carefully. They have been able to marginalize the King and there exists popular support for their efforts to draw up a new constitution. If the negotiation proves to be a long drawn one or if the Maoists leave the constitutional path, the King's position will get strengthened. Any failure on the part of the political parties could inevitably lead to the King's assumption of power. With the SPA in the process of consolidating power, the Maoists are waiting patiently for political progress along the agreed line.

    India is waiting cautiously for the next political move of the Koirala government. It is also going to watch anxiously how the SPA and the Maoists work out the necessary modalities for an election to the Constituent Assembly. At the same time India is equally apprehensive that Nepal would face a deeper political crisis if the Maoists and the SPA do not reach an understanding. This will not only impinge on the credibility of the parties as political actors but in turn would strengthen the institution of the Monarchy. It is important to ensure that the Maoists do not use the cease-fire period to strengthen their armed wing and prepare for another phase of armed struggle. The resultant instability would have grave security implications for India, which shares a 1700 km open border with Nepal.