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After the Maoist Victory

Sunday 13 April 2008, by Kanak Mani Dixit

The Nepali citizenry surprises itself and the world on occasion,
with a show of people’s will that is unprecedented and path-breaking.
The People’s Movement of April 2006 was one such epochal event, which led to the Constituent Assembly elections of last Thursday. Those polls in turn have brought a rebel force, barely out of the jungle,
into the driver’s seat of national politics.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has achieved a massive win
over its rivals the Nepali Congress and the ‘mainstream-left’
Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), and is set to
organise the government and define the Constituent Assembly process.
While still a radical force, it has been cleansed and legitimised by
daring to go to elections. The forecast of analysts who had predicted
a graduated entry of the ‘Maobaadi’ through the elections of 10 April
has been turned on its head, including this writer’s projection that
the CPN (Maoist) would come in third after the other two parties.

The people of Nepal seem to have kept their own counsel, and in
an election that saw more than 60 percent participation of the 17.5
million-strong electorate in 21 thousand polling centres, they pushed
the Maoists far ahead of all other political forces. We have seen a
demographic tsunami, and the face of the 601-member Constituent
Assembly will be the most inclusive of any legislature in Nepal’s
history. An electoral formula combining direct-candidate and
proportional elections is set to deliver a dramatically expanded
representation of marginalised communities from the country’s
uniquely diverse population.

Several factors would seem to explain the victory of the former
rebels, who went underground in 1996 to start their war against the
state, ten years later made a compact with the NC and UML to defeat
the autocratic King Gyanendra through the People’s Movement, and
thereafter came above ground and joined the interim set-up of the
last two years.

To begin with, the Maoist win is the result of a well-oiled
campaign machinery worthy of a politico-military organisation. There
was countrywide deployment of threat and intimidation during the run-
up to the elections, which demoralised competing party activists and
civil servants alike. On the day of the polls itself, voting was
enthusiastic and widespread enough for national and international
observers to declare the exercise a resounding success, though ‘proxy
voting’ seems to have been a factor in various parts.

However, election-malfeasance cannot explain the extent of the
Maoist victory and would deny the populace the agency and rational
choice it exercised last Thursday. A major reason for the win seems
to be voters’ desire to keep the Maoists from returning to the
‘people’s war’ and suffering attendant miseries. The imperfect peace
process, made so by the absence of rule of law and state
administration over the last two years, left the population
beleaguered and worried of a return to that horrific period. Much of
the electorate seems to have decided, en masse, to give the CPN
(Maoist) the prize of government so that the dire threats of a
‘return to the jungle’ would not be implemented.

That said, the urban analyst is required to respond with
sobriety to the Maoist victory, because this is also an indication of
the scale of unrelenting deprivation from which the people sought
release. The hold of the Maoists’ populist promise has been strong in
a country whose workforce continues to migrate in massive numbers to
India and overseas because of high levels of poverty. Against this
backdrop, both the UML and the NC were seen as failed
establishmentarian forces, while the Maoists projected themselves as
true agents of change. The vote swept much of the political old guard
entirely out of the picture.

With the flexibility available to a new entrant, the Maoists
also filled their candidatures with members of the deprived
communities, including the Dalits, the janajati ethnics and women.
They laid claim, with justification, to having introduced all the
salient issues that had been placed before the electorate, including
the demands for inclusion, federalism, secularism, and an overturning
of economic relations to serve the underclass.

Immediate steps

The expectation has been that the Constituent Assembly would
deliver long-lost political stability, which would allow the revival
of the economy and restart development. The populace has been
watching the neighbouring economies grow at nearly ten percent, while
Nepal’s own growth has been consistently below three percent for the
last decade. The question in many minds today is: Will the Maoists be
able to ensure political stability in order to trigger economic growth?

The people now wait to see how the Maoist leadership responds to
the grave responsibilities of writing a new democratic constitution
and running the state administration. By the understanding in the
interim parliament, the key political forces must work in
collaboration to ensure a smooth and inclusive functioning of
government and constitution-writing. That was when the NC and UML
believed that the Maoists would be the third force; now that the
tables are turned, the latter would have to take the lead on ensuring
consensual procedures.

Indeed, all eyes are on the Maoist top brass, which itself has
been taken by surprise by the extent of the people’s verdict. Early
signs will be read in how they respond to criticism and challenges
from the opposition parties and by members of civil society who are
not exactly fellow travellers. Across the country, the leadership
will have to call off the Young Communist League, engaged in a
campaign of harassment for the past year.

There are other challenges for a Maoist party confronted with
the task of moving from belligerent radicalism to responsible
leadership of state within weeks. Besides controlling the YCL,
immediate gestures would include a public rejection of political
violence by party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), and the
dissolution of the parallel governance structures that have made a
mockery of state administration. On Saturday evening, at a victory
rally Mr Dahal did not go that far, but did speak with statesmanship
when he asserted the Maoist commitment to multiparty democracy and to
work with other parties in the writing of the constitution.

Federal republic

Nepali politics will never be the same again, and people
everywhere wait to see how the Maoists comport themselves in the days
ahead on issues beyond the matter of personal security of citizens.
If the Maoists work with the UML and NC in a collaborative spirit, to
begin with, the collective decision to abolish the Nepali monarchy
and create a ‘Federal Republic of Nepal’ will be irreversible.

A consensual approach to the writing of the constitution as well
as a commitment to pluralism, freedom of press and assembly, and a
willingness to stand by the principles of accountability and
transitional justice, will reassure the citizenry and the
international community alike. Such reassurance is also important to
control capital flight, as well as to attract foreign direct
investment from investors who have been waiting for post-election
stability, but who might now have second thoughts.

Here is a country trying to push through a return to peacetime,
a return to democracy, and a state restructuring exercise all at the
same time. Society is confronting demands for inclusion from myriad
quarters in order to right historical wrongs. All will be eager to
see how the Maoists respond to these demands now that they are
indubitably a part of the state establishment. In particular, they
will have to display full maturity in dealing with the antagonistic
Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum of Upendra Yadav, whose victory in the
plains mirrors that of the Maoists elsewhere. The ability of the CPN
(Maoist) to present a sober face will also obviate a radical-right
coming-together, which would plunge the society into a spiral of
violence and uncertainty.

A party which has always been an anti-state rebel force needs
now to immediately convert into an organisation that can keep its
cadre in check, reassure the international community and neighbours,
and project a face of responsibility to the donor and business
communities. Most importantly, it must rise to the expectations of
the citizenry. Beyond the jubilation of the moment, the challenges
before Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his comrades are enormous. But Nepal
has surprised the world before this, and perhaps the Communist Party
of Nepal (Maoist) will surprise us all with its power of transformation.

Kanak Mani Dixit is editor of Himal Southasian magazine and a
civil rights activist based in Kathmandu