Nepal What now?
It is now necessary for India, the international community,
and the people of Nepal to begin assessing the character of the successor
State at Kathmandu. But it is clear that the balance of power lies in
favour of the Maoists, who may seize power either directly or through
a temporary alliance with the parliamentary parties, exploiting democratic
processes to secure control over the one force that remains an obstacle
to their absolute sway - the RNA, writes Ajai Sahni
The King's latest gambit has evidently failed, as Nepal's
teetering monarch offered too little too late, in his April 21 televised
address to the nation. Clearly, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) led agitation,
well into its third week, will continue, even as anger over police action,
the 14 demonstrators already killed, and the hundreds injured and arrested
brings unprecedented crowds into the streets.
As Nepal spirals into what appear to be the penultimate
disorders preceding the end of the monarchy, there has been a flurry
of diplomatic activity, with India in particular, but other concerned
powers as well, striking dramatic postures, exhorting the King to greater
sagacity and restraint, and demanding a return to "democratic"
norms. In this, it would seem, these governments are given more to theatre,
to appearances, than to any concrete perspective or prospect for corrective
action, and are attempting to salvage with mere words and pretence,
a situation that has long been lost to the lack or infirmity of actions.
India and the international community could have enormously
empowered democratic forces in Nepal 14 months ago - or even earlier,
when the King dismissed Parliament, hiring and firing a succession of
Governments after 2002 - by exerting irresistible pressure on Kathmandu
to immediately restore the integrity of constitutional democracy. A
clear model for such pressure existed in the Indian blockade of 1989,
which forced King Birendra to introduce multi-party democracy in the
country. But they chose, instead, to restrict themselves to the symbolism
of interrupted military supplies and partial withdrawals of economic
aid, even as political parties were progressively marginalised and eventually
driven into an alliance with the Maoists.
Significantly, the agreement between the SPA and the
Maoists was secretly brokered by Indian agencies - and to this extent,
India is directly responsible for escalating the crisis in Nepal. Unfortunately,
this has been done in the absence of a clear game-plan, and under what
may prove to be misplaced confidence in the notion that the Maoists
are, in fact, engaged in a good-faith process of negotiations with the
powerless political parties and would be willing to join in a democratic
process which their ideology unequivocally rejects as a "bourgeois-comprador"
corruption of the "people's democracy" that they seek to impose
"through the barrel of the gun".
The Indian state has in the past entirely misjudged
the Maoists' commitment to their own radical ideology and their willingness
to arrive at compromises, within the Indian context. There is no reason
to believe that the much stronger Maoist movement in Nepal would be
willing to embrace any remarkable compromises, particularly at a time
when events in that country are so clearly following a trajectory that
they have scripted.
Indeed, India's present posturing is particularly embarrassing,
as it pretends to take up a "leadership role", sending special
envoys to intercede with the King and the parties, and attempting to
share, if not take, credit for the King's inevitable, and evidently
worthless, "concessions". The fact, however, is that the King's
limited concessions did not come as a result of anything India chose
to say at this juncture but are, rather, a response to the unmistakable
message of the Nepali street.
What is insufficiently understood in all this is the
degree to which the initiative has been relentlessly held by the Maoists
since the Dang attack in November 2001, when they decided they were
strong enough to take on the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). All other parties
to the conflict, domestic and foreign, have since then merely been reacting
to the realities of the ground created by the Maoists.
Over the past 14 months since the King's coup, moreover,
the RNA has essentially "hunkered down" in defensive positions,
protecting urban concentrations, particularly the Kathmandu Valley,
with little effort to challenge the Maoists in their areas of domination
in the rural hinterland. A review of incidents of violence over this
period demonstrates that an overwhelming majority of fatalities have
occurred during Maoist attacks on Army and Police posts, camps, establishments
and transports, or on Government facilities in well protected urban
The truth is, the King has long realised that he is
fighting an un-winnable war, and had essentially put his faith in the
inevitable exhaustion that he hoped would result from a long drawn out
confrontation, with Royalist forces holding on to the urban areas, abandoning
the countryside to the Maoists. The error of this assessment was twofold:
for one thing, exhaustion works both ways, and does not necessarily
benefit a passive state; for another, there can be no strategy of permanent
defence. If the initiative is constantly held by the more aggressive
anti-state force, a necessary process of "nibbling expansion"
eats away at the vitals and capacities of passive defence.
Worse, the King's orientation, beginning with dissolution
of Parliament and compounded by an unending series of arrogant and repressive
measures, had divested him of all constituencies of political support
within Nepal, except the RNA, a small band of conservative loyalists
and a handful of opportunists. Militarily, Kathmandu simply did not
have the capacities to take on the Maoists. The very inadequacy of Forces
implied, essentially, that a strategy of repression would have to depend
overwhelmingly on relatively indiscriminate violence in "target
areas" deemed to be "Maoist-infested". Irrespective of
the brutality of such operations, however, the state's Forces would
not be able to establish a permanent presence or control over the country's
sprawling hinterland - there simply were not enough "boots on the
It is useful to recall that it was precisely at the
time of the most brutal phase of its military campaign against the rebels
- after the collapse of the ceasefire in August 2003 - that Kathmandu
lost control of its territories at the most rapid rate.
Nevertheless, the Maoists also lack the armed strength
to "sweep down the hills" and "take Kathmandu" in
positional warfare, engaging the well trained and better armed RNA in
a conventional confrontation. The end, if it was to be brought about
within the foreseeable future, had to come, not through some dramatic
military confrontation at the gates of Kathmandu, but through a combination
of demonstrations, disruptive activities, blockades and targeted violence.
It was into this scheme that the exhausted political
parties were brought in, as Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoists' "ideologue"
expressed it, because "the historical necessity and the new objective
reality of the country is that the new 'two pillars' of parliamentary
and revolutionary democratic forces join hands to uproot the outdated
and rotten third 'pillar' of monarchy." This is, in essence, a
marriage of convenience, and will last as long as the common enemy,
the "rotten third pillar", survives. But "revolutionary
democracy" is just as irreconcilably opposed to "bourgeois-comprador"
parliamentary democracy, and this alliance will crumble swiftly in the
wake of the collapse of the monarchy.
That collapse is now inevitable, though not necessarily
imminent, as protests by the SPA bring out tens of thousands into the
streets, defying curfew orders, and as the Maoists launch a coordinated
campaign to defy the curfew, "capture" highways, and break
down royal statues across the country. Within the Kathmandu Valley,
the Maoists have declared a "unilateral ceasefire", but their
war of attrition against the State's forces continues in other parts
of the country.
It is now necessary for India, the international community,
and the people of Nepal to begin imagining and assessing the possibilities
and character of the successor State at Kathmandu, and containing the
potential of Nepal's spiral into chaos when the King's continued lapses
of judgement lead to his eventual downfall. The precise contours of
Nepal's end state cannot currently be defined, but it is clear that
the equation of power is overwhelmingly in favour of the Maoists, who
may seize power either directly in the ensuing disorders, or through
a temporary alliance with the "parliamentary parties", exploiting
democratic processes to neutralise or secure control over the one force
that remains an obstacle to their absolute sway - the RNA.
The Maoist ideology constitutes the gravest danger
to democratic governance in geographically the widest area threatened
by insurgent and terrorist violence and disorders in South Asia. It
is a movement, moreover, that has systematically expanded its scope
and influence over the past years and one that has, just as systematically,
been underestimated by Governments in the region.
The situation in Nepal is not yet irreversible, and
concentrated international action to restore the integrity and power
of parliamentary forces at Kathmandu, combined with a long-term strategy
of recovery of the regions lost to the Maoists, remains a theoretical
possibility. Given the record of the international players - and crucially
India - however, this is a pipe dream. The script the Maoists have written,
it appears, will continue to be played out by all the other actors on
Nepal's ill-fated stage.
Published in The Pioneer, April 23, 2006 )