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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 settlements.

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 ground".

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 )





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