Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nepal: Critical Days Ahead

Temples of Patan in Nepal | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Shastri Ramachandaran* Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - Nepal has ceased to be a Hindu kingdom – and renamed itself into a federal democratic state – but it is far from certain where it is headed. Besides, though located between two turbo-charged emerging economies, India and China, Nepal remains one of the world's poorest countries with political instability thwarting its economic prospects.

On May 29, a day after the second, extended deadline for delivering a new constitution, Nepal's constituent assembly (CA) gave itself another three months to do the job it has failed to complete in three years.

The three leading parties – Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML), the Nepali Congress (NC), and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) – amended the interim constitution to extend the CA's term by 90 days after arriving at a five-point agreement.

The agreement includes resignation of Prime Minister Jhalanath Kanal (of the UML) to make way for a government of national unity; completion of the fundamentals of the peace process; and preparation of a first draft of the new constitution. In tune with the earlier pacts with the Madhesi parties, the agreement promises to make the Nepal army more inclusive.

[The three Madhesi parties are: Sadbhawana Party, Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik (MJF-L) and Tarai Madhesh Loktantrik Party (TMLP). The Madhesi are the native people of Nepal who reside in the southern, plains region the Terai which they refer to as Madhesh. Madhesis comprise about 40 percent of the total population of Nepal. Madhesi people are ethnically, culturally and lingually similar to people of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh states of India.]

Once the commitments are met, the parties would seek another three months' extension to finalise the constitution. Thus, a constitutional dead end has been avoided, and a political crisis managed from recoiling on the discredited elected elite, who have reduced multiparty democracy to a sham.

Whether Nepal's lawmakers will act with any greater urgency and sense of purpose during the next few weeks than they did during the last 36 months is a moot question.

One slender sign of hope since the end of May is the Maoist leadership agreeing to do away with dual security cover, where the detail comprises combatants of their own People's Liberation Army (PLA) and men of the state police.

This is a small step but it may be a signal of Maoist supremo Prachanda's desire to break the deadlock over integration of 19,000 disarmed combatants into the Nepal army. Doubtless, Prachanda, as Pushpa Kamal Dahal is known, has to reckon with the hardliners in his own party, especially in the military wing, who do not want to be subsumed by the peace process.

The success of the present agreement and the progress of the peace process depend on Prachanda prevailing against detractors within his own party. As the biggest winners of the election in 2008, the Maoists have more at stake than the UML and the NC.

The resignation of Khanal as prime minister is a fraught issue. He has been in office a little over two months and people are yet to forget the seven-month charade of 17 rounds of voting that preceded the election of the present government in February 2011. While Khanal says he will resign when an alternative is ready, the Nepali Congress wants him to step down at once.

Similarly, finding a suitable replacement for Khanal may not be easy. The candidate has to be credible, acceptable to all parties and capable of delivering on the five-point agreement in a little over two months. Intra-party factions and personal rivalries can also be expected to queer the pitch.

The first and foremost need is to swiftly decide on a new prime minister – without a 'tamasha' (bustle and excitement) like the last time – and get a government of national unity in place. That would be both a test and evidence of the parliamentarians’ commitment to their pledge.

India needs to "help" Nepal along the road to a new republic. This may happen with Jayant Prasad replacing the controversial Rakesh Sood as ambassador to Nepal.

Of late, beginning with the Maoists' electoral victory, India's Himalayan diplomacy is notable for its blunders. Much of the goodwill across the political spectrum built up by the likes of Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, Deb Mukharji and Shyam Saran, when they headed New Delhi mission in Kathmandu, has been dissipated in the last three years.

While the new Indian envoy Prasad has an uphill task ahead, the Chinese, who have also named a new ambassador - Yang Houlan – are on velvet. They are not only sitting pretty but gaining ground by the day, sweetening their push for political stability with financial and developmental goodies.

Even so, Prasad has an advantage. His father, Bimal Prasad, the distinguished historian, was ambassador to Nepal from 1991 to 1995. He served the cause of India-Nepal relations well and with distinction. The good memories of his time in Nepal should stand his son in good stead.

*The writer, who recently travelled to Pakistan at the invitation of the Government of Pakistan, is a former Editor of Sunday Mail and has worked with leading newspapers in India and abroad. He was Senior Editor and Writer with China Daily and Global Times in Beijing. For nearly 20 years before that he was a senior editor with The Times of India and The Tribune. Besides commentaries on foreign affairs and politics, he has written books, monographs, reports and papers. He is co-editor of the book State of Nepal. This article first appeared on