After failing to recognise the obvious groundswell of support that had built up for the Maoists in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in Nepal, India needs to move quickly to adjust itself to the new power balance. Despite receiving reliable field reports of the widespread support the Maoists were enjoying across the country, South Block deluded itself into believing that the former rebels would be at best a distant third. Bogus surveys commissioned by t he U.S. embassy in Kathmandu in which the Maoists were shown as winning only 8 to 10 per cent of the popular vote started circulating within the corridors of power in New Delhi. Accordingly, the foreign office’s contingency planning revolved around coping with the fallout of a poor showing by the former rebels. Even here, the official assessments showed scant understanding of the ground reality with improbable scenarios like a Maoist “urban insurrection” being bandied about.
Predictably, no attention was paid to exploring the consequences of a Maoist victory. Indeed, so confident was the Manmohan Singh government of its assessment that National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan issued a certificate of approval for the Nepali Congress barely a week before the polling day. That India was extending a ‘helping hand’ to the campaigns of the NC as well as the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) was not a secret. The Indian role in boosting the profile of at least two Madhesi political outfits was also quite significant. But publicly taking sides on the eve of elections was not only improper but unwise as well. It is testimony to the statesmanship of the Maoist leadership that it preferred quietly to convey its concerns about Mr. Narayanan’s remarks to New Delhi rather than making public accusations of Indian interference.
Though India was caught off-balance by the Maoists’ stunning victory, the government has begun to correct the impression that it has been discomfited by the verdict. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee described the result as a “positive development” and senior officials say they are looking forward to working with the Maoist-led coalition government which will rule Nepal till the Constitution is finalised and fresh elections are held in 2010. This is as it should be. After all, India played an important role in facilitating the Nepal peace process and effecting a “soft-landing” for the Maoists. Where New Delhi erred was in assuming that the NC and the UML represented the Nepali “mainstream” into which the Maoists were being brought. In reality, years of compromise with the monarchy had destroyed the credibility of these two parties and the subterranean balance of forces inside Nepal had already tilted in favour of the Maoists. By the time of the Jan Andolan of 2006, it was the Maoist demand for an end to the monarchy and the election of a Constituent Assembly which had captured the imagination of the people, even if the Maoists were not at the head of the mass movement in Kathmandu.
Over the past two years, the Maoists succeeded in pushing the envelope further, winning popular acceptance for their slogans of an inclusive, federal republic as well as for a more equitable voting system. Nepal’s political elite and sections of the Indian establishment who feared losing control of the entire process sought to derail the momentum the former rebels had built up. The proposal for a fully proportional election system was blocked and the Madhesi agitation encouraged as a means of weakening the Maoists. None of these efforts succeeded. The Maoists contested the CA election as the creators of the new mainstream. And it is hardly surprising that the people of Nepal should have chosen them to lead the process of writing the country’s constitution.
To be sure, this process will have to be a consensual one. There is no way the Maoists will win more than 250 seats in the 601-strong CA. In any case, the Interim Constitution established consensus or a two-thirds majority as the principle for taking decisions. So, having even a simple majority is of little practical significance. The Maoists have been quick to emphasise their commitment to running a coalition government, but the NC and the UML have so far not been forthcoming about where they stand. Indeed, it is possible that hardliners within these two parties may suggest staying out of government in order to make life difficult for the Maoists. What happens on the coalition front, therefore, is the first major challenge the Maoist leadership will have to deal with. Having emerged victorious in a bitterly fought election campaign marred by violence in some areas, the onus is on the Maoists to reach out to all the other parties, especially the big two. The Maoists will have the right to name one of their own as Prime Minister and also keep the Home, Defence and Finance portfolios for themselves. But every effort should be made to include the other parties in the cabinet. To the extent to which the UML or even the NC (under the parliamentary leadership of Sher Bahadur Deuba) may baulk at such an arrangement, India must be prepared to offer its good offices to counsel the two parties against playing the role of spoilers.
The second challenge for the Maoists will be the inclusion of the Madhesi parties in the governing coalition. Given the bad blood between the Maoists and Upendra Yadav of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, this is easier said than done. Mr. Yadav is an unpredictable quantity with questionable affiliations and associations. His activists have been directly or indirectly responsible for the killing of dozens of Maoist cadres. If any outside power or agency were interested in destabilising the Maoist-led government, using the MJF would be their first line of attack. Which is why the Maoists have to find an effective way of neutralising this threat. Inclusion in the coalition is one way. Handling the underlying grievances of the Madhesi people with grace and sensitivity is another.
The third challenge Nepal’s new rulers will have to confront immediately is in many ways the most difficult one — overseeing the integration of the People’s Liberation Army with the Nepal Army. Integration is a formal part of the peace process and the seven party alliance is formally committed to seeing it through. Until now, the Nepal Army brass has publicly opposed integration but with the Maoists likely to head the Defence Ministry soon, the generals will have to fall in line. Maoist leader Prachanda has said in the past that Nepal does not need such a large army but any drawing down of numbers will have to be accompanied by a plan to re-absorb those being demobilised into some kind of productive employment. What form integration will take and what the overall size of the Nepal Army should be, thus, are issues that need sorting out. The Maoist leadership needs to handle this question with a great deal of sensitivity and tact. But it is essential that the international community not send out wrong signals on the question of civilian control over the military.
The fourth hurdle to be overcome is the continuing designation of the Nepali Maoists as a terrorist organisation by the United States. Former President Jimmy Carter has publicly called for this designation to be withdrawn but no organisation that has been so named by the U.S. has ever been taken off the terrorist list. Here, India will have to take the lead in counselling Washington — its supposed ‘strategic partner’ — to abandon its pig-headed approach to Nepal.
On the bilateral front, it is natural that Nepal’s relationship with India will undergo a change. The relationship until now has been one of unequals and the very public perception of this inequality inside Nepal has actually served to limit what India has been able to do on the economic front. In the long run, India will find that a democratic, self-confident Nepal will be a far better friend and partner than the monarchy which it supported for years ever was. In the meantime, however, it is essential that New Delhi not seek to press too hard on the gas pedal. The internal political dynamics of Nepal first need to recover from the shock the electorate has delivered. Large hydroelectric projects, even if scrupulously for mutual benefit, will have to wait till then.
All told, the election results are good news for both Nepal and India. Rather than looking at the rise of the Maoists with fear and trepidation, the Indian establishment needs to do what it can to help Nepal’s new coalition government fulfil its democratic mandate.