State of ferment
Prachanda’s resignation as Prime Minister following the reinstatement of the sacked army chief has thrown politics in Nepal into a tailspin.
DEEPA SHRESTHA /REUTERS
Prachanda arrives at the President’s office to submit his resignation on May 4.
THE resignation of Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, on May 4, has once again thrown politics in the country into a tailspin. The resignation evidently did not come as a surprise to New Delhi, which has been backing General Rukmangad Katuwal, the country’s Chief of the Armed Forces, in his tussle with the civilian government. Katuwal, a protege of the deposed King Gyanendra, had been fiercely resisting the attempts of Prachanda and the Maoists to integrate into the armed forces at least some of the rebels who had laid down their arms after the signing of the 2006 peace deal.
Under the terms of the peace agreement, which was signed under Indian supervision, 23,000 rebel soldiers must be recruited into the army. Prachanda has indicated that his party is flexible on the issue. While in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly session last year, he had said that realistically only around 4,000 guerilla fighters could be integrated into the national army. The rest, he said, could be part of a new paramilitary force.
Katuwal, it seems, was determined to spark a confrontation with the Maoists, who had won the most number of seats in elections to the Constituent Assembly. In December 2008, he refused to stop the army’s recruitment drive, which was in clear violation of the 2006 peace agreement. After that he refused to implement the government’s order not to extend the services of eight brigadier generals. Then, in another calculated insult to the civilian government’s authority, he ordered the army to boycott a national athletic meet on the grounds that former Maoist rebel fighters, now cooling their heels in cantonments under U.N. supervision, were also participating in it. Katuwal was trained in India and is an Honorary General in the Indian Army.
Senior Indian officials were kept in the loop by the Nepalese Army’s top brass as they continued their insubordination to the civilian authority. Indian officials say that all important decisions, including the question of integrating the Maoist army into the country’s security forces, had to be taken by consensus as Prachanda was heading an interim government. New Delhi’s definition of political consensus apparently included not only all the political players but also the army.
Indian officials insist that Prachanda had given an assurance to this effect. The Indian political and defence establishments were very keen to ensure that the “sanctity” of the Nepalese Army be preserved. Before the peace deal was signed, India seems to have assured the Nepalese Army that its interests and privileges would be protected.
Senior External Affairs Ministry officials also continue to insist that the tenure of the army chief is not a major issue, as he is due to retire in four months. They feel that there was no need for the Maoists to provoke a crisis at this juncture. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement in the first week of May that the political crisis that has gripped Nepal was an “internal issue” of that country and that he hoped it would be resolved in a manner “which contributes to the early conclusion of the peace process”.
According to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, the Nepalese Army had circulated a note to all foreign defence attaches in Kathmandu, warning that the stated aim of the Maoists was to “establish a totalitarian regime, which could prove a firm base for revolutionaries with regional implications”. The army note urged all the political parties opposed to the Maoists to unite on the issue.
The army also submitted position papers on other weighty issues such as the Constitution and national security, which differed fundamentally from the political perspective of the Maoists. Katuwal had, in an article written in October 2002, before King Gyanendra grabbed power, said that “enlightened despotism is preferable to chaotic democracy; the masses require protection from themselves”. The International Crisis Group, in a report in February, praised the Maoists for adhering to the democratic process but said that their commitment to political pluralism was still highly questionable.
Indian External Affairs Ministry officials are happy with the commitment of Prachanda in his resignation speech to continue to support multi-party politics. They say that India’s priority is to work for an outcome that will safeguard democracy and the neutrality of the army. The Indian government, officials said, would work with all political parties in the Himalayan state. But the trust deficit between the Maoists and New Delhi has increased sharply after the recent events. Prachanda told the Nepalese and Indian media that there was now a “crisis of confidence” between his party and the Indian establishment.
Baburam Bhattarai, number two in the Maoist hierarchy, was even blunter. He accused the Indian government of “supporting the army and the President in their unconstitutional acts against the democratic forces”. Bhattarai characterised India’s role in the events leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister as an “enormous blunder” that would cost India all the goodwill that it had earned by supporting the pro-democracy movement during King Gyanendra’s regime. Nepalese media have reported that Rakesh Sood, the Indian Ambassador, met Prachanda several times to convince him against firing the Army chief.
Prachanda has accused New Delhi of backing the “extra-constitutional” act of the figurehead President Ram Baran Yadav’s reinstatement of the army chief after his dismissal. The Maoist supremo accused New Delhi of siding with forces opposed to civilian supremacy in politics. At the same time, the former guerilla leader said that he would keep talking to New Delhi in the search for a “new understanding” so that the peace process was not derailed. Prachanda has been consistent in his position that it is important for both India and Nepal that the peace process continues and a new Constitution is framed for the country.
GOPAL CHITRAKAR /REUTERS
A rally in support of the Maoists in Kathmandu on May 5.
Prachanda has been insisting that the Maoists will not be part of the government until the President rescinds his order reinstating the army chief. The Maoists are also planning to start impeachment proceedings against the President.
The President had given a week’s deadline for the formation of a new unity government. But there is little sign of a new government emerging any time in the near future. The Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), or CPN-UML, which is described as the mainstream communist party, has been trying to cobble up a government with the help of the Nepali Congress (N.C.) and smaller parties. The Maoists have rebuffed the efforts of Madhav Nepal, the CPN-UML’s prime ministerial candidate, to enlist their support.
For various reasons the two communist parties have kept each other at arm’s length. Together they can easily form a new government, all by themselves. The Maoists have 238 seats, while the UML has 109.
If the political crisis remains unresolved for long, the drafting of the new Constitution will be delayed. As it is, a two-thirds majority is needed for the Constitution to be approved by the Constituent Assembly. The two-year term of the Assembly will expire in less than 12 months. The Maoists control one-third of the seats and they will not participate in the proceedings until the army chief goes.
New Delhi has become increasingly suspicious about the relationship between the Maoist-led government in Kathmandu and Beijing. Indian officialdom was not too happy when Prachanda, breaking with tradition, made his first official visit as Prime Minister to Beijing and not to New Delhi. Prachanda had since said that he was in Beijing on a rushed visit to attend the closing ceremony of the Olympics there last year and that his first full-fledged official visit was to New Delhi.
The Indian government and the international community has traditionally viewed Nepal as being within India’s zone of influence. Beijing too has tacitly accepted this since the late 1970s. But a spate of official visits by Chinese delegations in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics made policy-makers in New Delhi a little suspicious. Recently, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal talked about preserving the country’s sovereignty and integrity. This has been interpreted as a veiled warning to India.
Sections of the Indian media had also reported that Beijing was actively encouraging Prachanda’s confrontational stance with the army chief. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said that the report was “sheer unfounded rumour”.
Army Chief Rukmangad Katuwal with President Ram Baran Yadav (right) at a ceremony held to mark Democracy Day in Kathmandu on April 24.
He emphasised that the Chinese government “always adheres to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries”. Prachanda, in a recent news conference, clarified that most of the Chinese delegations had come on their own initiative to Nepal. Some of the delegations were concerned with the activities of Tibetan exile groups in Nepal who were out to disrupt the staging of the Olympics.
The other delegations, according to Prachanda, had come to study the fast-changing political scenario in Nepal. The Nepalese security forces had taken a tough stance against the Tibetans staging violent protests in Kathmandu in contrast to the kid glove treatment meted out by the Indian police force against their brethren in New Delhi.
The Chinese government had assiduously kept its distance from the Maoists when the king was around. In fact, Beijing was unhappy with Prachanda and his group appropriating the name of Chairman Mao Zedong during their underground days. But the relationship warmed up in no time. After Prachanda took over as Prime Minister, China announced $14.5 million in economic aid, $1.5 million in military aid and a soft loan of $200 million.
Prachanda also clarified that there were no plans to ink a treaty of peace and friendship with China during his proposed visit to Beijing, which was to start on May 2. The visit was cancelled at the eleventh hour because of the political crisis. He said that he told his Chinese hosts that such a treaty would only be signed after consultations with all the major parties in the country.
India signed a treaty of peace and friendship with Nepal way back in 1950. It is basically oriented towards India’s security needs. The treaty has come in for considerable criticism in Nepal. Maoists and other political parties have been demanding that the treaty be scrapped.