It’s a different Nepal, Gopalji doesn’t like it
Gopalji, our driver in Kathmandu is not only skilful in his trade but also well-informed on the contemporary political scene in Nepal. He sums up the current situation: “Hamro desh khatam chha”, which is the nearest equivalent of a failing or failed state. These remarks were heard earlier when the civil war started, after it ended and now, following the failure of the Constituent Asembly to draft a Constitution. Adding to the despair are painful power and fuel shortages, rising prices, and the mixed blessings of bulldozers and cranes removing encroachments to broaden Kathmandu’s narrow roads and alleys which are creating new jams.
Here are eight snapshots taken last week:
Political stalemate: With the CA dissolved, Nepal is in a legal and constitutional void. After aborting the 90 per cent-completed-Constitution, the Baburam Bhattarai-led Maoist-Madhesi Government’s game-plan to remain in power and hold elections will not fly. Amendments to the interim Constitution needed for elections require resurrection of the CA which is the best course to preserve the gains of the peace process but is in violation of a Supreme Court verdict. The politically correct and over-cautious President Ram Baran Yadav could have prevented the catch 22. The blame game and kissa kursi ka are being replayed. Meanwhile, the caretaker Government rules through ordinances and the Opposition sulks.
Constitution: Restructuring the state is proving to be the most complex and cathartic issue. Power has to be redistributed from Kathmandu to the periphery, ending the historical Brahmin-Chhetri domination over usable levers of power and wealth. The folk song, Aaaju ma to Nepal janchhu (Today, I will go to Nepal) said it all as Kathmandu was Nepal. Decentralisation of power and not ethnicity should be the focus. The Maoist-Madhesi alliance representing the aspirations of the marginalised and underprivileged seeks to redefine the balance of power, institutionalising it through another shot at a new CA.
Integration: The delay over integration used by Maoists as a political bargaining chip and an instrument of coercion has robbed the peace process of a happier ending. Of the originally claimed 35,000 combatants of the People’s Liberation Army, only 32,000 were produced and 19,602 of them verified by United Nations Mission in Nepal. Three thousand one hundred and twenty-three PLA combatants are now left in camps with others opting for voluntary retirement. Around 2,000 combatants are expected to be integrated with the Nepal Army against the accepted 6,500 number. The PLA has been disarmed and is under command of the Nepal Army in cantonments. Once more, integration is on hold over age, education and induction norms. The Nepal Army says it will go by the seven-point agreement on integration unless it is amended.
Appointment of Government Functionaries: With the CA having lapsed, appointments to the Election Commission, judiciary and other constitutional posts are blocked due to the dissolution of the constitutional council. Acting CEC Neelkanth Uprety has said elections can’t be held by ordinances alone. A dozen judges will retire by the year-end and their replacements have to be found. The Madhesis are lobbying for Industries Secretary Umakant Jha as the new Chief Secretary, the first time a Madhesi would secure the coveted office.
But there is no hitch in the selection of the new Army Chief. The post will return to the blue-blooded Rana-Chhetri preserve, following the historical exception made in the case of the incumbent, General Chhatraman Gurung, a Janjati. When Indian Army Chief, General Bikram Singh, visited Kathmandu last month on his first foreign trip to be appointed an honorary General in the Nepal Army, Gen Gurung apparently introduced Lietenant General Gaurav Shamsher Rana as the next Nepal Army Chief. In Nepal, the chain of succession is very clear. It is the Army Chief who chooses his successor.
Budget: Due to the political impasse, the Government was allowed to pass only one third of the Budget. Unless the stalemate is broken, the financial crisis could recur in October when partial allocations run out. The economy has grown by 4.6 per cent with rise in agricultural production and remittances which are put at 22 per cent of the GDP but are actually around 30 per cent. Per capita income increased by $26 to $742 but due to the devalued Nepali rupee and eight per cent inflation, the real per capita income is $667. Tourism continues to suffer due to inadequate hotel, communication and power infrastructure. If only Nepal followed the Bhutan model of not mixing politics with water, its liquid gold could make it the richest country in the region.
New Players: Patronage, wealth and power flowing from politics have resulted in the proliferation of political parties and partisan interests. The rise of Madhesi groups best illustrates this. From four parties in 2008, the alliance of United Madhes Democratic Front has mushroomed into 19 parties. One third of the law-makers in the dissolved CA were from the Madhes and Madhesi political parties have been king-makers. The traditional Big Three — the Maoists, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists — have become the Big Four to include the Madhesis. But now the Dalits, indigenous nationalities and Madhesi activists realise that mainstream parties do not represent their aspirations and are forming their own parties. Janjatis like Gurungs, Magars, Limbus have their own associations which could transform into political groupings like the Dalit-Janjati party and the Nepa party.
The recent but expected split in the Maoists, ranks will have a serious political and security fall- out with 20,000 trained Maoists being at large. Other than the four big foreign players — the US, the UK, India and China — the Scandinavian donor countries have also become politically active.
Monarchy: Till the collapse of the CA, King Gyanendra was only seen, not heard, yet he was attracting larger crowds than the political parties. Recently, he told a TV channel that the monarchy might return if the people wished it to. Even the most ardent supporters of the Palace believe this is wishful thinking. But the threat of the monarchy’s return might bring the political parties together.
India: Despite an ostensible re-orientation of policy on the Maoists, India’s stock is still very low. The King, the Maoists (Baidya) and now even the Nepali Congress are individually referring to a foreign power undermining Nepal’s sovereignty. Nepalis also see India’s influence declining and that of China rising. Nepalis ask who in India scripts its foreign policy towards Nepal: R&AW, the Ministry of External Affairs, monarchy-sympathisers, the political class or the Army?
The Way Forward: The current stalemate has to be broken with the Nepali politicians’ favourite recipe — a package deal. Another multi-point agreement incorporating integration, elections and a national Government with mechanisms to preserve the gains of the peace process is required. Maoist supremo Prachanda and Prime Minister Bhattarai have to hang together otherwise the next election might produce a horribly hung House. That is Gopalji’s fear.