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Blundering in Nepal

Frontline, May 20 2009

by Praful Bidwai

India’s heavy-handed interference in Nepal, which aggravated its political crisis, speaks of a colossal foreign policy failure, argues Praful Bidwai.

Is India about to lose the huge fund of popular goodwill that it earned in Nepal over the past four years by encouraging reconciliation between the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) and other parties, by facilitating a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), by helping to bring the Maoists into the political mainstream, and by facilitating the country’s transition from a despotic monarchy to a constitutional republic?

All credible reports on recent events leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda – and to a first-rate political impasse in Nepal – suggest that India is losing that goodwill, if it has not already lost it, because it is supporting discredited and reactionary forces that can only impede that transition. In the past few months, Indian policy has slid back into a deeply conservative mould, which encourages blatant interference in Nepal’s internal affairs and supports its army even as it defies civilian authority.

However much the Ministry of External Affairs pretends that the causes and effects of Prachanda’s resignation are purely “an internal affair” of Nepal, the truth is that India has been a major and partisan political player in Nepal and contributed in a big way to inflaming the confrontation between Army Chief General Rukmangad Katuwal and Prachanda’s civilian government. India used its influence with Nepal’s political parties to isolate the Maoists and negate the Prachanda Cabinet’s decision to dismiss Katuwal for gross insubordination, which was entirely the civilian government’s democratic prerogative.

In the process, India has opened up and threatened to undermine the CPA of November 2006, which it rightly – and proudly – claimed was a breakthrough and a result of its own facilitation.

New Delhi may have to regret its role in Nepal – not only because it has created a political crisis by ejecting from power a party that holds 40 per cent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly but also because it has ended up backing political forces that are untrustworthy, predominantly conservative and largely discredited in the eyes of the people. Worse, India risks losing its credibility as a state that had executed a welcome shift in 2005-08 from being an overwhelming and overweening status-quoist power bent on preserving the monarchy to a force friendly towards democracy and popular empowerment.

Contrary to the arguments of many apologists of New Delhi’s position, India’s Ambassador Rakesh Sood joined hands with his United States counterpart in lobbying for the continuation of Katuwal as the Army Chief and against the integration of the Maoists People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the regular Nepal Army (N.A.). This was in clear violation of the CPA, which mandates such integration, the N.A.’s “democratisation”, and a reduction of its overgrown size: a 95,000-strong force in a country of 25 million people.

India, the U.S. and other important powers also condoned the grave impropriety committed by the N.A. in recently briefing foreign defence attaches on Nepal’s domestic situation. In these, it rejected the CPA and said that “the stated aim of the Maoist party still appears to be to establish a totalitarian regime, which could prove a firm base for revolutionaries with regional implications”. The N.A. accused the CPN-M of “dictatorial intent” and contended that a “united democratic alliance-led resistance from all sectors combined with international pressure is required to counter CPN-M’s hegemonic advance”.

Sood met Prachanda four times in the critical few weeks preceding his resignation. According to reliable information, he delivered an ultimatum to the elected Prime Minister that he not dismiss Katuwal or face grave consequences. Hours after the dismissal order was served upon Katuwal, President Ram Baran Yadav overturned it and asked Katuwal to continue. This made a mockery of the established convention that a non-executive president in a parliamentary democracy is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces only in titular terms, not substantive ones. He must not interfere with the Cabinet’s decisions on the appointment or dismissal of armed forces personnel.

It might be argued that Prachanda did not do enough to carry his alliance partners with him – in particular the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or the UML, the Nepal Sadbhavna Party and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum – and allowed the confrontation with the N.A. to build up to a breaking point.

The CPN-M may have made tactical mistakes, but it is hard to argue that its allies were independent players who are invulnerable to pressure or inducements. They have a long history of succumbing to pressure and the loaves and fishes of office. The UML even joined a government handpicked by King Gyanendra just when his authority was in crisis.

At any rate, the principle of civilian supremacy over defence forces is unquestionable and paramount in democracy. The Prachanda Cabinet was perfectly within its rights to dismiss Katuwal. Indeed, it had no choice but to do so after he failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for at least three acts of defiance of civilian authority: the recruitment in February of 2,000 soldiers against the government’s wishes, the extension granted to eight brigadiers in March, and his decision in April to pull the army out of the National Games because the Maoists too would participate in them.

The General’s politics

Katuwal is no ordinary General. He was adopted as a son by Queen Ratna and former King Mahendra and raised with royal princes in Narayanhiti Palace. He has played politics in a brazen and divisive manner much of his adult life as an agent of the monarchy. For years, he wrote articles under a pseudonym, singing paeans to the monarchy and viciously attacking party after political party.

In 2002, just before King Gyanendra dismissed the elected government of Sher Bahadur Deuba, Katuwal argued that “enlightened despotism is preferable to chaotic democracy; the masses require protection from themselves”. A fortnight before the king usurped all executive powers in 2005, Katuwal wrote an article entitled “Support for King’s initiative”.

Katuwal was not a neutral player when the April Uprising of 2006, or Jana Andolan-II, broke out, supported by waves and waves of people. This was one of the most remarkable mass movements for democracy anywhere in the world. Katuwal advocated confrontation and the use of force. The official Raymajhi Commission investigating excesses against civilians recommended action against him.

That moment was allowed to pass by the Nepali Congress government led by Girija Prasad Koirala. The wages of inaction soon became apparent in the increasingly belligerent postures adopted by Katuwal after the CPN-M won an absolute majority of directly elected seats in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections.

It is this man whom India decided to back against civilian authority, completely oblivious of the imperative of asserting civilian control over an army, which was the monarchy’s principal instrument of repression. Evidently, Indian policymakers have learnt no lessons from Pakistan and Bangladesh, where armies acquired larger-than-life roles in the early years after state formation, with disastrous long-run consequences. Unconventional response

Apologists for India’s decision to back Katuwal at a critical point in Nepal’s democratisation rationalised it as an unconventional response to an unconventional situation: the only way to prevent a Maoist takeover. Their argument is twofold. The Maoists were about to “capture” the army. Second, they wanted to play the “China card” by using Beijing as a countervailing power vis-a-vis India.

In support of the first premise, the apologists – including some of Nepal’s discredited political parties, especially the Nepali Congress, now in the throes of a succession struggle – cite videos that have mysteriously surfaced in Kathmandu. These show Prachanda addressing Maoist cadres. He boasts that the CPN-M greatly inflated the numbers of armed guerrillas in order to increase the scope for their integration into the N.A. and says the Maoists have not abandoned their earlier goal of taking over the Nepalese state.

Theses tapes are one and a half years old and precede the April 2008 elections. The CPN-M has not disowned them but only urged that their content be reinterpreted. One plausible explanation for Prachanda’s statements is that he was trying to placate his party’s vocal hardliners. They are close to the PLA and conditioned by the nine-year-long civil war. This is true of many militant underground movements, which undergo a transformation into parliamentary organisations committed to multi-party democracy.

Whatever the intentions of the PLA leadership, three propositions hold. First, the best way to neutralise the hardliners is to push through the PLA’s integration so that the CPN-M becomes a parliamentary entity free of the PLA’s militant pressure. Second, the actual process of integration is being discussed in a parliamentary committee of eight members, in which the Maoists are a minority of two. And third, the CPN-M has done nothing in practice that shows that it rejects or suspects the multi-party system. It is reconciled to a slow process of full democratisation and the CPA’s implementation.

It makes no sense to cast aspersions on the Maoists on the basis of presumed guilt, past political practice or the army’s prejudices. By all indications, the CPN-M has embarked on a remarkable self-transformation and must be encouraged to complete it within a cooperative climate. Ultraconservatives such as Katuwal and the army’s hardened royalists, who are loath to lose their traditional privileges or see the force downsized, are the biggest obstacle to this process. Deplorably, India has chosen to be on the side of the obstacle after having been a facilitator.

The “China card” is another bogey. The sovereign government of Nepal has every right to rework its relations with its neighbours. In the past, India paid a heavy price for rejecting that right and behaving in a paranoid way. In the late 1980s, for instance, Nepal wanted to negotiate a trade and transit treaty with India and sought to import armaments from China. India imposed a crippling blockade on the landlocked country and incurred tremendous unpopularity.

The CPN-M has never been close to the Communist Party of China (CPC). There is little ideological affinity between the two. During its rosy-eyed period, the CPN-M tried to enlist China’s support and was rebuffed. The CPC has long been hostile to the CPN-M, and during critical periods it sided with the king.

That apart, there are obvious limits to how close China will move to Nepal given India’s sensitivity on the issue. Nepal is no Pakistan, with which India has a fraught relationship, and which China will do its utmost to court. China cannot aspire to rival India in economic, political, military or cultural influence in Nepal.

Close neighbours

Nepal and India are extremely close and special neighbours, with an open border and with freedom of transit, travel, work and residency without visas or work permits. The Nepali rupee has for years been tied to the Indian rupee at a fixed rate. Such close links are inconceivable with China. India would be extraordinarily foolhardy to be taken in by luridly exaggerated propaganda about “the China card”.

There is a larger point here. India has contributed to the present impasse in Nepal and must rectify its mistakes. Even if the UML, the Nepali Congress and others form a government with India’s backing, it will lack real authority and a democratic mandate. No Constitution-writing will be possible without two-thirds majority support for each article, which cannot be secured without the CPN-M’s support. India should therefore logically support the Maoists’ demand for Katuwal’s removal as a precondition for their joining the government and lending it stability.

However, Indian policymakers tend to be myopic about Nepal. They supported Nepal’s democratisation and last year’s Constituent Assembly elections on the assumption that the Maoists would be marginalised. In fact, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan declared India’s preference for G.P. Koirala’s Nepali Congress. This extraordinary maladroit expression of partisan support showed total incomprehension of Nepali realities.

It was rightly seen as interference in Nepal’s internal affairs and added to the resentment many Nepalis feel at India’s supercilious and imperious attitude towards their country. Similarly, India refused to accept the CPN-M-led government’s nominee, Ram Karki, as Ambassador to New Delhi. (In 2001, Indian authorities had arrested Karki and handed him over to the Royal Nepal Army.)

Policymakers such as Narayanan operate with a Curzonian mindset, which regards India as the inheritor of the British empire at its apogee and hence as the “naturally” dominant power in the entire South Asian region to which all other nations must kowtow. They do not understand that the people of Nepal do not want their country to be the 29th state of India. The Nepalis are so proud of their autonomy that they set the official clock 15 minutes ahead of Indian Standard Time.

Nor do Indian policymakers appreciate that Nepal holds the key to India’s water security. India’s greatest rivers, including the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra, originate in the Himalayas. The India-Nepal border region holds the key to controlling the floods of the Kosi and the Brahmaputra. The development of India’s hydroelectricity potential in the north-eastern region, an important component of renewable energy – in which India has a high stake in the context of reversing climate change – is conditional upon Nepal’s cooperation.

By taking an arrogant stand towards Nepal, India will only cut its nose to spite its face. Imperial- or vice-regal-style interference in Nepal’s affairs will damage India’s interests and create new insecurities in Nepal, including a return to civil war if the Maoists are cornered and victimised. The sooner Indian policymakers realise and correct their blunder, the better.

Copyright © 2009 Frontline.

Dealing With Nepal's Himalayan Shift

Inter Press Service, April 16, 2008

by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Apr 16 (IPS) - After greatly surprising the world through its spectacular victory in direct first-past-the-post elections to the country’s new constituent assembly, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) now appears likely to perform far better than expected in the proportional representation (PR) component of the house too.

As the counting of votes proceeds, the CPN-M has bagged almost one-third of the vote for the PR seats and established about a 10 percentage-point lead over each of its main rivals, the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) or CPN-UML.

When the results are declared for the 240 direct seats and 335 PR positions, the elected delegates will nominate another 26 members to complete the Assembly’s full strength of 601. This is bound to go in favour of the Maoists.

As the likelihood grows that the CPN-M could win a simple majority in the constituent assembly on its own, the world is struggling to come to terms with this earth-shaking development, as are Nepal’s neighbours and its own elite.

The CPN-M is slated to become the first Far Left current in any country of the world to come to national power through democratic elections since the Cold War ended.

Its victory comes barely four months after Nepal’s 240 year-old monarchy was toppled on Dec. 23, and the small Himalayan nation was firmly put on the road to a democratic, federal and secular republic.

What explains the Maoists’ emphatic win in Nepal? What do the factors responsible for it say about the direction of evolution of politics in Nepal? And what does the new democratic republican regime imply for relations within the South Asian region, and between it and the world?

Several commentators have argued that one of the reasons the CPN-M did as well as it has is that it used its "well-oiled campaign machinery" in a subtle "countrywide deployment of threat and intimidation during the run-up to the elections", which demoralised its opponents.

An additional factor, they say, might have been "the voters’ desire to keep the Maoists from returning to the ‘people's war’" they practised before 2005, with all the violence it entailed.

However, over 20,000 observers, including 1,000 observers from 28 international organisations, who watched the election process, have reached a different conclusion. The United Nations Mission in Nepal has also held that the elections were by and large free and fair.

The 67 percent voter turnout also supports this conclusion.

A significant component of these observers’ teams was the independent National Election Observation Committee, which invited 65 international observers, including many from South Asia, and mobilised 24,000 local observers and volunteers in support.

Its preliminary report holds that the elections were by and large free and fair and conducted transparently and in accordance with "internationally accepted norms and standards" right from the candidate registration stage to the sealing of the ballot boxes.

These teams witnessed the election process for several days before actual polling on Apr. 10 and visited numerous "sensitive" constituencies, and looked into allegations of irregularity, intimidation and violence. They noted that two candidates were killed and 18 other people lost their lives.

According to the NEOC preliminary report, "Most candidates campaigned actively, although incidents of restriction were reported from several constituencies. Overall, in most of the places, candidates were able to convey their campaign message without interference, and the freedom of movement and assembly were mostly respected…"

It adds: the "electronic and print media offered space to the contesting parties. The legal framework provided for equal campaign opportunities. It prohibited candidates from any abuse of official position... It forbid officials from using the authority to influence the free expression of citizens’ will by creating unequal conditions, or showing partiality."

It also noted a high level of participation of women candidates, voters and observers.

"It is hard to argue that the build-up to the polling was marked by threat or intimidation,’’ says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a Jawaharlal Nehru University professor from Delhi, who served as an NEOC observer.

He is seconded by Karamat Ali, director of the Karachi-based Pakistan Institute for Labour Research and Education, who was also part of the NEOC team.

In the event, many commentators were taken by surprise at the groundswell of support for the Maoists because they assumed that the NC and CPN(UML) are, and continue to be, the political "mainstream", into which the CPN-M aspired to enter.

"Many people were encouraged by dubious opinion polls commissioned by the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu, which gave the Maoists only 8 to 10 percent of the popular vote," comments Ali. "They seriously underestimated the widespread anti-monarchy and anti-establishment sentiment, and the undermining of the credibility of the NC and CPN(UML) because of their long years of collaboration with the King."

In reality, it is CPN-M that has emerged as the "mainstream", which has laid down Nepal’s political agenda at least for the last three years, if not longer.

Significantly, the CPN-M speaks for the smaller ethnic groups, or Janajatis, outside the Kathmandu Valley which has dominated Nepali politics. It has articulated their concerns and aspirations unlike the NC and CPN-UML. This gives it a far more representative character.

"The CPN-M’s influence has been steadily growing", says Achin Vanaik, an international relations professor at Delhi University, who has just published an analytical study of Nepal’s recent political transition. "The turning point came in the mass mobilisation or Jan Andolan of Apr. 2006, a 19-day uprising driven by the Maoists’ demand for the abolition of the monarchy and elections to form a constituent assembly,"

"The Jan Andolan", adds Vanaik, "brought over a million people into the streets of Kathmandu and other cities. This precipitated a huge shift in the balance of political forces, and produced a historic change in establishing a republic. But this was itself the culmination of long years of the CPN-M’s political work and campaigning on issues like land reforms, gender equality, and radical economic policies right since 1996, when the party went underground."

The political course in Nepal will now be set mainly by the CPN-M. While it is firm on its demand that King Gyanendra must quit, and that its own People's Liberation Army must be integrated with the Nepalese Army, it has pledged to work with the other parties and form a coalition government till a new constitution is drafted and fresh elections are held in 2010.

"By all indications, the CPN-M seems inclined to adopt a moderate and consensual course," says Karamat Ali. "The Kathmandu establishment and forces loyal to the monarchy will do all they can to thwart Nepal's transition to a stable democratic, federal, egalitarian and secular republic."

"The main instrument in the hands of these forces of reaction is violence, Ali said. The CPN-M must not fall into the trap of countering their violence with violence. And that calls for great statesmanship and political acumen. It also means that the new leadership must handle external pressures with great tact."

The external forces that matter the most are India and the United States. A section of the Indian establishment views the Maoists with great suspicion and hostility, not least because it cannot control them as easily as the pliant NC and CPN-UML, and because they stand for a "truly independent republic".

Barely a week before polling day, India's National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan made an astoundingly partisan statement in support of the Nepali Congress.

Strong anti CPN-M sentiments have been expressed by senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in private media briefings. They are resentful and worried that the Maoists will want to renegotiate the 1950 treaty of peace and friendship with India. This group would like to play hardball with the new government, and continue to support anti-Maoist groupings in the Terai plains abutting India.

However, there are saner voices too. They are acutely aware that India has no choice but to accept the democratic verdict of the Nepali people and will have to rework and rethink its Nepal policy without being partisan and interfering.

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee appears to represent the second group. He says India accepts the mandate of the Nepali people. He has already spoken to CPN-M chairman Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal) and assured him of India's support to and cooperation with the new government.

To counter the impression that India is hostile to, or shaken by the Maoists’ victory, senior Indian government officials held a special media briefing on Apr. 15, in which they stressed that India not only accepts the electoral verdict in Nepal, but also welcomes it.

The official said they regard the CPN-M as "a normal legitimate party", and recalled the role of India played in facilitating a major agreement in November 2005 between the Maoists and the seven-party alliance, including the NC and the CPN-UML. They also said that the "Old Nepal" under the king "was not working for us", and that they are no longer "attached" to it.

The Indian government has not yet decided how strongly it should press Washington to take the CPN-M off its list of designated terrorist organisations. That could well become a test of India's commitment to working with the emerging new order in Nepal.