The impasse in Nepal : The roles India can play

by Maj-Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)

(June 07, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Nepali political leaders have lived up to their reputation of stitching together an eleventh hour deal extending the life of the Constituent Assembly by one year and their own political longevity, thereby averting a constitutional crisis.A vaguely worded three-point agreement is the latest addition to the dozens of “package deals” and agreements between the government and the Maoists, and the government and marginalised groups and fringe political parties, most of which cannot be implemented.

Take the most pivotal agreement between the government and the Maoists — the integration of combatants, return of property seized during the war and dismantling the paramilitary Young Communist League (YCL) — on which hinges the peace process. These conditions have been included afresh in the latest three-point agreement as prerequisites for Prime Minister Madhav Nepal’s resignation and formation of a national unity government, the long-standing demand of the Maoists.

The Maoists are claiming that there was a verbal agreement that Mr Nepal would resign within five days. Reneging on that promise, they say, is “immoral, a grave betrayal and political dishonesty”. By supporting the passage of the Eighth Amendment Bill extending the Assembly’s term, the Maoists have done themselves a favour: maintaining their primacy as the single-largest party in the House. Otherwise it could have been President’s rule, the least desirable option for the Maoists. They have boycotted the House for the umpteenth time and threatened to stage protests again. The annual budget has to be passed before July 8 and that, too, requires Maoist assent.

The Constituent Assembly plans to draft the constitution by February 26, 2011, three months before its expiry. With some political compromise amongst the political formations, the eight thematic committees and three basic committees are expected to complete their work in two weeks followed by the Constitution Commission requiring one month to complete all the 11 reports. According to the revised plan, sufficient time will be available to discuss the report before presenting the draft constitution to the House. All this is predicated on the Maoists implementing the six-point package deal to facilitate power sharing.

The sticking point is the integration of Maoist combatants into security forces. Of the 19,600 combatants, Maoists are required to indicate the numbers that wish to be integrated with the security forces, including the Army; and those who want to be rehabilitated. The Maoists do not wish to surrender control of their Army before the constitution is drafted and a general election held.

The May 28 deadline has passed without either side yielding ground. The Maoist objective remains returning to power, everything else being secondary. The new power-sharing arrangement will not be constitutional but through consensus removing a democratically appointed Prime Minister in national interest to keep the peace process alive. Breaking the political impasse to end the irrelevance of a government bereft of authority and the will to govern, is imperative. The donor and diplomatic community in Kathmandu has been very active in trying to break the deadlock but it could turn into too many cooks spoiling the broth. The internal mechanism of dialogue between the big three parties has become ineffective.

Two options are available to break the impasse. First, get the mandate of the UNMIN extended to beyond “management and supervision of the armies” to include the role of “facilitator” in the peace process. UNMIN’s term has been extended for the sixth time by four months, till September 2010, presumably the time it estimates will be required for integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants. An extended mandate would mean the UN role will become bigger and its life prolonged, matching that of the peace process.

India, which is allergic to a UN presence on the subcontinent and was opposed to the UNMIN in the first place, will not be happy about any expanded UN role in Nepal. The non-Maoist political formations have frequently accused UNMIN of being biased towards Maoists and named its former chief Ian Martin for it. India too was critical of him particularly for meddling in Madhesi affairs. The current head of UNMIN, Mr Karl Landgren, is also not in the good books of the government for refusing to share the numbers of Maoist combatants in the 28 camps. UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon drew the ire of the Nepal government when he suggested the formation of a national unity government in his latest report to the UN Security Council. Mr Nepal’s government asked why he had not mooted the idea when the Maoists were in government.

The second option is for India to return to peacemaking. Many Nepalese say that as it was India that brokered the 12-point agreement between the Maoists and the other political formations in 2005, it is its duty to put the peace process back on the rails. Considerable suspicion and distrust has been created between India and the Maoists during the last one year since the fall of the Prachanda government that the latter are not likely to accept India in any mediatory role.

But the Maoists’ public posturing of India-bashing may have been tempered by better comprehending ground realities about New Delhi’s pre-eminence in the region and the limits on their China card. The Maoists would also have drawn lessons from their failure to dislodge the Madhav Nepal government from within the House as well as from the streets.

In an unprecedented public statement, US Under Secretary of State William Burns noted earlier this month that the US would want India to be more involved in South Asia, including “easing tensions” in Nepal. There has never been such a suggestion by the US for India to act. The public perception that India has thrown its weight behind the Nepal government to keep the Maoists out at any cost is not inaccurate though this policy requires to be recalibrated now.

India cannot allow Nepal to remain on the boil, given the China and Naxal factors. The Maoists are the new and powerful political force in Nepal with whom it must establish a working relationship as it cannot ignore them. What will India do if the Maoists win the next election as according to a Himal publication poll, the Maoists are still ahead of the Nepali Congress and the United Marxist Leninist parties. The ball is in India’s court. It must offer to facilitate the restoration of the peace process provided the political formations want it to do so.

A year has already been wasted. Front and back channel dialogue must be reopened with the Maoists to build trust and confidence. New Delhi must reaffirm its willingness to work with a future elected Maoist government. For the present, a high-level political visit should be followed by an all-party friendship delegation, including friends of the Maoists like Mr Sitaram Yechuri, to help rebuild confidence with the Maoists.

The Maoists may or may not have realised that their grand vision of “Looking Beyond India” is ideologically and economically flawed, even if it has a certain romantic appeal of nationalism. In strategic and practical terms, too, it is unsound. Given the geography and open border, both countries have enormous stakes in the prosperity and well-being of each other. The opportunity to renew and reset India-Nepal relations is now and must not be missed.

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