When the people of Nepal cast their votes in the elections to the Constituent Assembly in April, they did so not merely in order to abolish the monarchy. What they wanted was an end to the era of manipulated democracy in which political parties and politicians swung this way or that for no reason other than to grab or hold on to power. That is why they delivered a crushing blow to the two establishment parties most associated with this brand of crass parliamentarianism — the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxists-Leninists. If the voters sealed the fate of the Shah dynasty by choosing candidates who were formally committed to the republic, they also sent a stern message to that lesser Nepali dynasty, the Koiralas, by defeating the daughter and virtually every close relative of its patriarch, Girija Prasad, barring one. As for the UML, there was no better measure of the public’s contempt for its opportunism of the past few years than the defeat handed out to its leader, Madhav Kumar Nepal, from both the constituencies he contested.
By voting in the Maoists as the single largest party, the electorate also sent a clear message that it favoured the new. But voters tempered this message by denying the former rebels an absolute majority of their own. Under the rules of Nepal’s interim constitution as it stood at the time of the election, a two-thirds majority was needed for any major decision, including the election of Prime Minister and President. By giving the Maoists a little more than one-third of the seats in the 601-strong house, the electorate said it wanted the Maoists to keep alive the principle of consensus that had served Nepal’s parties so well in the struggle against the monarchy. And also that it considered the party’s manifesto to be so important to the constitutional development of Nepal that its views could not be ignored by the CA, even if the Old Establishment were to gang up against them.
Sadly for democracy, peace and the immediate future of the young republic, however, this fine balance that the electorate struck has now been cynically subverted by reactionary elements in the NC and the UML.
By stitching together an unprincipled coalition together with the UML and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum of Upendra Yadav, the NC managed to get one of its leaders, Ram Baran Yadav, a Madhesi politician, elected President. As part of the same bargain, the MJF’s Parmanand Jha was elected Vice-President. In both cases, the Maoist-backed nominees for President and VP — the independent Madhesi activist and intellectual, Rama Raja Prasad Singh, and the independent legislator, Shanta Shrestha, respectively — were defeated.
Sequence of betrayal
Once it was clear that the Maoists had emerged as the largest party in April, the NC and the UML more or less conceded that the party would have the right to lead the new government. At the same time, they kept raising procedural and policy obstacles in the way of the Maoist leader, Prachanda, becoming Prime Minister. In particular, they said the Maoists might never leave power if the two-thirds majority rule were not replaced by a simple majority. Mr. Prachanda warned that such a change would destroy the principle of consensus and bring in the power-play of majority and minority, but his concerns were brushed aside.
Even after amending the interim constitution to allow the President and Prime Minister to be chosen (and removed) by a simple majority, the political stalemate persisted. For the better part of the past two months, the question of who would become the republic’s first President paralysed the entire process of government formation. After initially staking a foolish claim for both the prime ministership and the presidency, the Maoists had quickly backed off from the latter and expressed their willingness to nominate any prominent non-political personality for the job of ceremonial head of state. But this proposal was immediately rejected by the NC, which proposed, instead, that the caretaker Prime Minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, be elevated to President and none else. Given Mr. Koirala’s age and indifferent health, as well as the well-founded fear that he would use the job to create an alternative power centre, the Maoists baulked at his nomination.
With deadlock at that end, the Maoists asked the UML to nominate someone other than Mr. Nepal — whom they judged to be unsuitable given that he lost both the seats he contested in the April elections — for the presidency. This time, it was the UML’s turn to be adamant. The party rejected the Maoist suggestion that its senior leader, Shahana Pradhan, or any woman, Dalit or janajati from its ranks be made President, and insisted instead that it wanted only Mr. Nepal for the job.
Rebuffed by the intransigence of both parties, the Maoists then turned to the fourth-largest formation in the CA, the MJF, with an offer they thought no self-respecting Madhesi group could refuse: the nomination of Rama Raja Prasad Singh as President. The MJF was unhappy with the choice of Mr. Singh but could not afford to openly reject him. So it insisted that one of its members be made Vice-President, something the Maoists were unwilling to accept since they had imagined the top four posts of President, VP, Prime Minister and Speaker would be equitably divided among different sections of the population in such a way that Madhesis, women, Pahadis and janajatis would all feel they had a stake in the new set-up.
As the Maoist agreement with the MJF broke down, the NC and the UML rushed to field their own Madhesi nominees for President. For two months, these parties had refused to come up with any names other than those of their top leaders. But now that it seemed the political stalemate could be broken in such a way as to isolate the Maoists, the two Establishment parties promptly withdrew their insistence on nominating Mr. Koirala or Mr. Nepal. With the MJF on board, a carve-up was effected wherein an NC leader with no credibility in the struggle of Madhesis became President (the UML helpfully withdrew its nominee, Ramprit Paswan), an MJF leader became the Vice-President and the UML’s Subhash Nemwang was chosen to be Speaker of the CA.
At the best of times, such unprincipled politics should have no place in a democracy. What makes the recent drama more sordid is that it is taking place in a country that has just freed itself from the yoke of monarchy and is trying to usher in a constitutional system that would genuinely empower its citizens.
Having demonstrated the viability of their unholy coalition, the NC and the UML are now saying they have no objection to the Maoists forming the government. It is clear, however, that any Maoist-led government would be subject to constant blackmail by the Old Establishment. That is why Mr. Prachanda has said he is still willing to enter and lead the new government but only on the basis of an understanding with all the parties in the CA about the broad policies to be followed and about the new set-up not being destabilised.
The present stalemate presents both an opportunity and a dilemma for the Maoists. By staying out of power and insisting that the Old Establishment run the country as it sees fit, the party will almost certainly ensure an even bigger vote share for itself when elections are next held. But staying out of power will vitiate the constitution writing process and perhaps even fatally imperil it. It will also raise questions about the smooth implementation of the peace process, since any NC-UML led government is unlikely to pursue the promised integration of the Peoples’ Liberation Army with the Nepal Army.
The presence of the MJF in the coalition alongside the NC and the UML will also open up a dangerous frontline. The latter two parties are reluctant federalists who embraced the concept of an inclusive Nepal only because the Maoists placed it squarely on the national agenda. Will they end up appeasing the more extremist elements of the MJF and provoke a backlash of the kind that has already started, thanks to Mr. Parmanand Jha taking his oath of office in Hindi rather than in his constitutionally-recognised mother tongue of Maithili? Or will the Pahadi chauvinists amongst their ranks prevail and push for a polarisation of the polity on ethnic lines?
Though the Maoists have every right to feel betrayed and cheated, they must make one last attempt to foster a consensus. For better or worse, the former rebels are the only party with the ability to manage the contradictions and faultlines which lie at the base of Nepali society. A government that is not led by them will find it hard to negotiate its way through the next 20 months during which the rising and sometimes contradictory aspirations of Nepal’s people must be bound together in the emerging Constitution.
Even at the eleventh hour, it is essential that democratic elements in the NC and the UML put an end to the dangerous course their parties have embarked upon. President Yadav should immediately invite Mr. Prachanda to form a government, swear him in and give him one month to demonstrate he has the support of the CA. Nepal has a unique opportunity to showcase its spirit of republicanism and peace at the SAARC summit in Sri Lanka next week. There can be no better way of doing so than for Kathmandu to be represented by Prime Minister Prachanda.