One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The former Himalayan kingdom of Nepal has transformed into a democracy but is still groping in the dark for a Constitution that would have the backing of all political players.
Nepal, a landlocked country bordering two giants: India and China is often ignored by South Asia watchers as they pay perhaps too much attention to India and Pakistan. However, in keeping with Nepal’s increasing strategic significance in the larger geopolitical landscape of Asia, it is important to understand this country.
Nepal was a monarchy until recently as it was ruled by the Shah dynasty of kings since 1768. However, by 2005, it was a consensus among all that Nepal should become a republic. In November 2005, all actors including the Communist Party of Nepal agreed on a ten point agreement. The movement proved effective and in April 2006, an interim constitution was promulgated. An interim house of representatives was established and the King had to give up a number of his powers to the house. Maoist rebels joined this set up in April 2007 after successful peace talks. On April 10, 2008, the first ever elections in Nepal took place. The elections resulted in a somewhat hung parliament as no party managed to get a simple majority in the parliament. The Communist Party which got the highest number of seats formed a coalition government. It is interesting to see how armed guerril- las became politicians and ran for office. The question how rebels or insurgents can be incorporated into the mainstream needs further research and study and the lessons can be useful for other South Asian states, especially for India and Pakistan.
The parliament decided on May 28, 2008 to abdicate from the monarchy and make Nepal a democratic republic. Ram Baran Yadae became the first President of Nepal when he assumed office on July 23, 2008.
The first major task for the newlyelected constituent assembly members was the drafting of a constitution for the country. Some 11 thematic committees were established to work on various aspects of the constitution. It was decided that the drafting would be done in two years and May 28, 2010 was set as the deadline for the finalization of the draft.
Another important issue for the new political setup in Nepal to address was the fate of the Maoist guerrillas. Over this period, this became a bone of contention between the Maoists and all other political actors. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda, now as the prime minister of Nepal demanded that all the guerrillas should be integrated into the Nepalese Army. He viewed this integration as the most vital part of the peace deal. The Nepalese Army Chief Rookmangud Katawal, on the other hand insisted that only those guerillas will be inducted who fulfill the military selection criteria and the rest should be facilitated to start afresh as civilians. Prachanda refused to accept this and demanded that the general should be dismissed. After President Yadav’s refusal to accept this demand, Prachanda resigned in May 2009.
This resulted in a period of increased uncertainty in Nepalese poli-
tics. Due to the political crisis, the deadline for the drafting of the constitution was missed. When the parliament decided to extend its term by a year, it also extended the deadline for the drafting of the constitution and set February 26, 2011 as the new deadline. At the same time, it was decided that instead of unanimous approval of the draft, a two-thirds majority vote would be enough to pass the new constitution.
After the resignation of the caretaker prime minster Madhav Kumar, in July 2010, the political crisis deepened. It was in February this year that Nepal finally got a prime minister after a long political maneuvering and deals. Maoists once again showed their power as the election of a new prime minister became possible only after they agreed to support him and withdraw their own candidate. The response to the election of the new prime minister has been mixed as many consider the new Prime Minister Mr. Jhalanath Khanal, a Maoist, and that he actually cut a secret deal with the Maoists before his election.
Nepal is heading towards further political uncertainty and instability as the problem of having a constitution persists. It has been aptly put that a major challenge is agreeing on a new constitution. With the current parliament’s mandate due to expire on May 28, can Khanal muster the necessary two-thirds parliamentary majority? It has long been said that this will require consensus across the three main parties in the constituent assembly – the Maoists (237 of a total 601 seats), the Nepali Congress (114 seats) and Khanal’s CPN–UML party (108 seats). However, factional splits within parties complicate the arithmetic.
The political parties in Nepal are extremely divided and at least two, Nepali Congress and the Madhesis, are known to have strong links and contacts with New Delhi. This further complicates the picture. The fact is that both India and China cannot ignore the developments in Nepal as it is of immense strategic importance to them. This makes the situation more complex. It is unlikely that the Nepalese parties would be able to find common ground on political issues including the constitution, hence the political instability in Nepal will continue. A return to large scale violence is even unlikely. The writer is a doctoral candidate at the department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Western Australia and a former Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor of Politics, IAS, University of Bristol, UK. He is also a visiting scholar at Brookings Institution and is currently working on a book on the Strategic Culture of Pakistan.
Can peace ever be restored in Nepal?