Nepal shows the way

27 November 2006

November 21, 2006 will go down as a red-letter day in South Asia's history. On that day, a guerrilla movement did something unusual: it signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the government of Nepal and pledged to disarm itself and join the democratic mainstream-or rather, to decisively redefine it. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is now all set to participate in an interim all-party government which will pave the way for a Constituent Assembly (CA). This is likely to inaugurate Nepal's transition to a new political order based on radical democracy, which replaces monarchical rule, strips the King of all privilege and property, and attempts to bring about a substantive social transformation.

This change is a big cause for celebration. It's not often that a society which has long teetered on the verge of disaster makes a relatively non-violent transition to unity and stability. And it's even more rarely that a self-avowed revolutionary movement shares power within a democratically legitimate framework. Although Nepal is much smaller than South Africa, the transition it seems poised to make is in some ways comparable to the shift from apartheid to majority rule under the African National Congress's leadership.

That said, Nepal's transition is unlikely to be free of hitches. Each of its many planned stages could pose problems: reconstitution of the existing parliament to include 73 Maoist representatives; formation of an interim government in which the Maoists have five ministers (of a total of 23), the same as the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist); procedure for the disarmament of the Maoist People's Liberation Army under United Nations supervision; and the CA's election with 425 members-205 elected from existing constituencies, 204 through proportional representation, and 16 nominated by the government.

Even more tricky is the issue of a referendum, demanded by the CPN(UML), on abolishing the monarchy. No other party wants such a referendum, which is widely seen as contriving at the King's backdoor entry into power. All other parties want the issue settled by a new Constitution. Differences also persist on whether Nepal should be a full-fledged Republic or a ceremonial monarchy.

Nevertheless, Nepal seems all ready to effect great changes in its political system-more foundational and potentially more durable than in 1990, when the transition to parliamentary government occurred as a result of a mass agitation. That shift was messy, and further eroded by an interfering monarch who controlled the army and had the power to declare a state of emergency. Even this moth-eaten democratisation was cynically reversed by King Gyanendra, who imposed absolutist rule in February 2005.

The impetus for the historic change Nepal is undergoing is attributable to the spirited popular anti-monarchy movement, which brought the despotic King to his knees in April. This was itself preceded by a 12-point agreement between the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists, under which they pledged to end the "autocratic monarchy" and establish full-fledged democracy through the key demand for a Constituent Assembly.

The mass movement was without precedent in all of South Asia for its scale, sustained energy and powerful thrust against arbitrary and unaccountable rule. Although it was catalysed by the Maoists and the SPA, it retained its autonomous political character thanks to the civil society mobilisation that underlay it. Ordinary Nepalis took charge of the struggle. As it developed, they got radicalised. Yet, the agitation didn't degenerate into chaos or anarchy; the people showed exemplary restraint and maturity. They emerged as arbiters of their own fate. In the contest between their will and the monarchy, they won out.

It's incontestable that the 12-point agreement wouldn't have happened without the Maoists' insistence on a CA or without their cadres' work. In turn, the Maoists accepted a number of conditions under the 8-point agreement with the SPA that followed in June. In this, they emphasised their "firm commitment to the acceptance of the multi-party system, fundamental rights…, human rights, the rule of law and democratic ....values… "

It's tempting to see this as a thoroughly opportunist move. But Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai had formulated a new thesis even before the agitation: in the 21st century, a viable Left-wing strategy cannot be based on armed struggle alone. Nor can it use revolutionary violence, which Nepal's two big neighbours, India and China, oppose. Nepali socialism must have a multi-party system. More recently, CPN(M) chairman Prachanda elaborated on this: there must be "multi-party competition" even in a "future socialist state"; only thus can "the inherent monopolistic and bureaucratic tendencies of Communist parties in power be checked." He explicitly repudiated Stalinism.

Today, Prachanda seems to be modelling himself after Nelson Mandela. He certainly speaks like a statesman. In New Delhi last week, he met World Bank officials-who called on him in recognition of the inevitability of a Maoist role in future governments-and outlined his plans for Nepal's development, but without losing his radical bearings.

He set his sights high: he promised to "improve on" the Indian model of democracy by giving it substantive content through programmes to abolish "all forms of exploitation", poverty and discrimination. The Maoists' domestic record in fighting rural oppression, casteism and gender discrimination is encouraging and gives room for optimism.

One can only hope that the grand larger vision outlined y Prachanda is translated into action when it comes to abjuring violence, getting the Maoist militia (organised outside the PLA) to surrender its small arms, and most important, verifiably stopping the collection of taxes and recruitment of schoolchildren into the PLA.

This caveat must be sharply demarcated from the cynical attitude of many in India's hawkish "strategic community" who believe the CPN(M) is intent on disrupting the peace process and grabbing power by violent means to establish its own dictatorship. Such analysts don't understand the forces that shape history. Nor do they comprehend the importance of recognising that the Nepali people have mandated the Maoists to behave responsibly. The Maoists must be held down to their commitment to disarm under international supervision. But they aren't bound by any agreement-nor can be reasonably expected-to do so before joining the interim government.

Maoism arose in Nepal because of entrenched inequalities, coupled with the Palace's despotism for over two centuries and blatant misgovernance by inept and corrupt civilian leaders. Seventy percent of Nepalis are desperately poor. The top 5 percent own 37 percent of the land, while close to half own just 15 percent. Nepal's social hierarchy is heavily dominated by the Kathmandu Valley's elite. But in recent years, power has devolved to the periphery and the janajatis (subaltern ethnic groups) and the landless have become assertive.

The Maoists represent these forces. Their following is related to their advocacy of land reform and other rural empowerment policies. It's impossible to justify their indiscriminate violence or targeting of civilians. But they indisputably represent Nepal's dispossessed. If they join the mainstream, they can make a sterling contribution to Nepal. The present moment offers a historic chance to integrate them. It'd be disastrous to squander it under the influence of ideological prejudice or by citing "threats" to India's "security", as the hawks do.

The CPN(M) is unlikely to take full control of an elected government in Nepal anytime soon. Besides, it's far too shrewd not to realise that posing a threat to India means taking terrible risks. Its best bet lies in developing a level, balanced relationship with India. Prachanda has been at pains to distance the Maoists from India's Naxalites, whom he has publicly criticised. He recently pooh-poohed the "Pashupati-to Tirupati Red Corridor" idea. The claim of an operational Naxal-Maoist link been repeatedly disproved.

India's Nepal policy in the past was marked by excessive conservatism and uncritical support for the monarchy on the false premise that it's the best guarantee of stability-which it patently isn't. India played a helpful role in facilitating the 12-point agreement, but soon started vacillating. Last April, at the peak of the pro-democracy movement, India sent former maharajah Karan Singh, who is married into the Nepalese royalty, to Kathmandu to signal its support for Gyanendra. This was one of India's greatest-ever foreign policy blunders. India was forced to revise its stand, but lost popular Nepali goodwill at a critical juncture.

New Delhi must resist the temptation to suggest any role for the monarch in a future political arrangement-and not just because Gyanendra has proved both vicious and unreliable. It must respect the wishes of the Nepali people and counter the impression that it wants to interfere in Nepal, in particular tilt the political balance against the Maoists-like the United States does through its arrogant Viceregal ambassador James Moriarty. India's best beet lies in a democratic Nepal, where stability comes not from monarchical symbols, but from participatory governance which is responsive to the people's needs.

An edited version of this article was published in The Khaleej Times