It was no surprise that the Constituent Assembly of Nepal was saved at the eleventh hour. While the assembly building — China’s gift to Nepal as a national convention centre — remained heavily fortified, and baton-wielding policemen patrolled the roads last week, protests brewed elsewhere. There were symbolic acts like feeding 601 oxen and performing the last rites for 601 people. Why 601? That is the strength of the assembly.
However, after the decision to extend the tenure of the House, politicians seem to be in a proactive mode. The leaders of the three major parties — the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M), Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) — who had signed the agreement to give the assembly three more months seem to be working in cohesion, and at a pace not seen before. But will they be able to complete the peace process by August 14, and promulgate the new constitution thereafter?
Maoist chief Prachanda has initiated some measures like doing away with the dual security cover — of state security personnel and the People’s Liberation Army — for the party’s top brass. Over 130 Maoist combatants guarding their leaders will be sent to cantonments. The Maoists will also hand over the keys to their arms containers to an all-party special committee headed by the prime minister. But the UCPN-M’s senior vice-chairman, Mohan Baidya, has called Prachanda’s act a surrender. Given the crisis within the party and the Maoists’ history of faltering in the implementation of the peace process, Baidya’s dissension has generated a sense of scepticism. The breakthrough will come when the rehabilitation and integration of Maoist combatants takes place according to the recent agreement. If that goes smoothly, it will amount to the Maoists saying farewell to the arms.
Can the five-point programme be honoured and the deadline met? Political will can make that happen. It is also possible that Prachanda’s proposal could be challenged, especially by Baidya, and the peace process derailed. However, such a debacle will further discredit political parties, particularly the Maoists. The future course of Nepali politics and the fate of the peace process will be largely determined by Prachanda’s response to the emerging situation as Baidya’s camp takes a hardline.
Like the Nepalese, the international community too is keeping its fingers crossed. Interestingly, Nepal’s two giant neighbours — India and China — have not reacted to the latest extension of the House, although the EU, the Scandinavian countries and the UN have welcomed it. India watchers in Kathmandu say its “multichannel” diplomacy in Nepal outweighed ambassador Rakesh Sood’s “no term extension” hardline.
India, at the moment, appears happy with the consolidation of Madhesh-based parties which had stayed neutral at the time of voting after putting forward their demand that 10,000 people from the region, bordering India, be given entry to the Nepal army. Madhesh-based leaders have warned that otherwise they will launch a protest movement and, if necessary, block the lifeline to Kathmandu by calling bandhs.
India’s policy that was vigorously pursued by Jawaharlal Nehru and followed since has been to discourage any trouble in the Madhesh region as it will have a direct impact across the border. With Sood likely to leave next week, on completion of his extended tenure, the Maoists say building relations with India may again be possible. It is something that the new envoy, Jayant Prasad, has to define at the earliest. For the moment, India’s clout in Nepal seems to be shrinking, confined to a few districts in Madhesh.
Meanwhile, Yang Houlan, a security expert, will be arriving as the new ambassador from China. Beijing may not have spoken publicly on the new developments in Kathmandu, but it had apparently encouraged the ruling Left groups to have the House term extended. While India appears far more dependent on discredited Madheshi leaders as allies, China has moved fast, cultivating political, social and business groups. China has certainly strengthened its ties with the Maoists, but even if the UCPN-M suffers a split or abandons the peace process under pressure from the Baidya camp, it will not be without allies.
Nepal’s politicians — having failed to deliver what they had promised — are increasingly blaming the international community. “They raise our aspirations, support us initially, but then at the end want to make us slaves,” says Prithvi Subba Gurung, a former UML minister, who belongs to an indigenous group. His reaction comes in the wake of the British government stopping financial support to the National Federation of Indigenous People of Nepal. This was ostensibly done to discourage them from going on a strike. The group is turning hostile towards Britain and the Scandinavian countries, almost in the same way that Maoists are turning against India. And China is comfortably smiling.
These are early days and much depends on how the big parties get their act together. The early signs, though, do not augur well.