Thursday, February 3, 2011

India defeated at Nepal PM election

KATHMANDU: Plagued by a "sleepless night" and fears that "lawmakers would not be able to venture out on the streets due to people throwing shoes at them", Nepal's Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda decided to make a "sacrifice" and bow out of the 17th round of prime ministerial election Thursday. The surprise exit paved the way for the Maoists' last-minute poll ally, the ruling communists, to sail to a facile victory with their chairman Jhalanath Khanal pipping his remaining two contenders, Ram Chandra Poudel of the Nepali Congress, and this election's surprise contender, Bijay Kumar Gachhedar, who was backed by an alliance of regional parties from the Terai plains of southern Nepal.

The election, that started almost three hours behind schedule and continued for nearly five more hours, protracted by long speeches by the contestants, recriminations and counter-recriminations, saw the 61-year-old Khanal, a former information and communications minister, poll 368 votes, more than the simple majority needed. Poudel, who had fought 16 earlier rounds of fruitless elections for the last seven months, polled 122 votes while Gacchedar, the sitting deputy prime minister, got 67 votes.

However, it was more a defeat for India than the two losing politicians. Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao's recent visit to Nepal had not envisioned the possibility of such an opportunistic poll alliance between the Maoists and the communists and as Prachanda indicated in his exit speech, it was an act of defiance against "Indian interference". The Maoist supremo blamed India for the fall of his government in 2009, saying foreign forces had been trying to force him into agreements that would have compromised Nepal's sovereignty. "We want good relations with our neighbours but we won't brook interference," Prachanda warned. "My stepping down is meant to prove that we (Nepalis) can decide our own fate."

The election was delayed as the Maoists, facing the possibility of yet another round of fruitless election, decided to support the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist candidate minutes before the exercise started. In the past, the same party had derided a poll alliance between the communists and the Nepali Congress as "unnatural" and "unholy".

However, though Khanal's victory ends a seven-month vacuum, it will not be a bed of roses for him by any means. The snub to Gachhedar by the Maoists and communists has left the plains community – the Madhesis – as well as indigenous communities, especially his Tharu community, fuming. Lawmakers from these communities warned there would be "fire in the plains and hills" if the new constitution – to be promulgated by May 28 – failed to include their aspirations. They said they would refuse to obey such a constitution.

If the Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal after the Maoists, also refuses to join Khanal's government, the remaining four months will see fresh turbulence in Nepal. Khanal will have to maintain a tough balancing act with his Maoist allies as well. He promised to integrate the Maoists' People's Liberation Army with the national army and rehabilitate those who wanted out within 90 days. It is a near-impossible promise as on one hand the Maoists will seek their pound of flesh for their support and try to get as many fighters in the army as possible and on the other hand the disgruntled opposition parties trying to block the move.


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