Crisis with a Silver Line

By Murari Sharma

 Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s resignation from his post has thrown Nepal into a lamentable political crisis. The crisis precipitated when Mr. Dahal sacked the army chief and appointed his successor to replace him, and one of the key ruling coalition partners withdrew from government in protest. President Ram Baran Yadav added fuel to the fire by asking the removed army chief to stay put in his job. This turmoil was totally unwarranted, but it could turn out to be cathartic for the country’s messy politics.  

 The crisis was building up over time. The Maoists themselves are primarily to blame for this. They have publicly and unequivocally avowed that their ultimate goal remains to convert Nepal into a people’s republic. The ruling coalition partners and opposition parties were deeply worried about it. Excesses of the Young Communist League, a Maoist outfit, have always been a cause of serious concern for other parties and the public. YCL members engage in preventing and disrupting activities of other political parties and in killing and maiming their opponents.

 People have been worried about the way the neutrality of the civil service, police and intelligence was being dented by stuffing Maoist loyalists and supporters in senior posts. Equally troublesome has been the way the Maoists were trying to undermine the judiciary’s independence by cowing the courts to give verdicts of their liking. The military brass was under enormous pressure to integrate into army ranks the 19,000 Maoist combatants living in the 7 UN-monitored cantonments. Reportedly the army chief, Rukmangad Katuwal, was resisting that pressure, which apparently led to his sacking on grounds of insubordination.

 A successful revolutionary, Mr. Dahal has proved to be an unsuccessful prime minister. His government could not pacify the ethnic outbursts and passions that continue to flare up. Frequent shutdowns and strikes continue to paralyze the country. Children cannot go to school; the sick cannot go to hospitals; and employees cannot go to their jobs. People are forced to live in dark, because there is power outage of more than 12 hours every day. There is no petrol at the gas station, no running water at the tap, no cooking gas in the store. These are not necessarily problems the Maoists have created, but the public blames them for not doing enough to resolve them.

 In the economic front too, the government has left much wanting. It could only spend 25 per cent of its budget allocated to development activities. Maoist economic policies, labor militancy, atrocities of political party-supported extremist outfits, and frequent shutdowns have been driving businesses to shut their door. Investors are looking elsewhere to invest. Agriculture too has suffered because the Maoists have not retuned the captured land, and landowners are not investing in land because they are frightened that the Maoists are going to confiscate their farms in the name of land reform. 

 Most important, the raison d’etre of the Dahal government was to write a new constitution, and that business was not going anywhere. Drafting a democratic constitution seemed to be the last thing on the Maoists’ mind. If they cared about it, it was not manifest. All these factors had disillusioned the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), a left of the center democratic party.    

 The dismissal of the army chief was the last straw that broke the patience of UML and the back of the ruling coalition itself. The prime minister and Maoist ministers had taken a hasty decision to remove him unilaterally, disregarding the UML’s advice to find a consensus solution to the row. As a result, UML walked out of the government in protest and pulled the crisis’s trigger. The crisis deepened when several other coalition partners followed suit, and the president asked the sacked army chief to stay on, despite the government’s decision.

 In his address to the nation the other day, Prime Minister Dahal announced his resignation citing moral grounds. But the resignation has more to it. First, the Maoists wanted to make the president’s order to the army chief to continue as a constitutional issue, which it is. Secondly, it would have been uncomfortable for the prime minister to continue working with an army chief whom he had dismissed, which is understandable. Thirdly and most importantly, the Damocles’ sword of no-confidence motion with uncertain outcome was about to hang over the government’s head, which was imminent.

 Now that the country has plunged into a deep political crisis, this is a time for sober reflection about how best to provide a stable government to the country that can ensure security and rule of law, protect democratic values and institutions and promote people’s welfare. Given the precarious condition of the country and shaky state of its peace process, this is not a time for a hasty, emotional and parochial decision.

 Other parties could form an alternative government, as they might be able to garner a razor-thin majority in the house. But they cannot govern, and the Maoists will make sure of it by churning the streets and by disrupting the house, something they have learned from other parties over last 9 months of their government. What is more, you cannot possibly leave the largest party in the house – they have 238 seats out of 601 — out of government altogether if you are serious about writing the constitution, whose approval requires a two-thirds majority.  

 We need to bear in mind that if the Maoists have been a problem player in the government, they could prove a nightmare out of it. So we need to find a way to accommodate them. Let us not forget, despite their many flaws, the Maoists have come this far in the peace process, and they still have enormous capacity for disruption and destabilization – for instance, the combatants and YCL – and prospects for their transformation into a democratic party. Here is what I think should be done.

 Ideally, we need a government of national consensus. If that proves impossible to have, then it should be a government that commands at least a two-thirds majority in the constituent assembly. A government of simple majority should be the last option. The primary mission of the assembly is to draft a new constitution, which requires the approval of a two-thirds majority. This is not a time to engage in political bickering, as the stipulated timeframe for writing the constitution is running out fast. Consensus and collaboration is the need of the day. Therefore, whichever party is able to form at least a two-thirds majority government should be given the opportunity to do so.

 Who could do it? The Maoists, Nepali Congress Party and UML come to mind. If they want, the Maoists could give another try to cobbling together a government of national consensus or at least of two-thirds majority in the house. Other parties should remain open to supporting the Maoists if they demonstrate genuine willingness and sufficient flexibility to do this. Although there are no permanent friends and foes in politics, there is so much accumulated acrimony between them that it would be inconceivable just yet for the Nepali Congress Party to support the Maoists. By the same token, the Maoists are unlikely to throw their support behind their declared class enemy — the Nepali Congress Party, the second largest in the house

 That leaves the third largest — UML – on the field. UML stands the best chance of constituting a broad-based government – at least enjoying a two-thirds majority if not an all-party one. The Nepali Congress Party, the second largest in the house, has already expressed its willingness to support UML for this. In quid pro quo for their support for Mr. Dahal’s government, the Maoists might, and should, be willing to accept UML leadership as well.

 I believe a national consensus or two-thirds majority government will change the game in Nepal. The constitution writing will move forward more smoothly and speedily. Businessmen and investors will feel secure to invest, farmers to sow and harvest, children to go to school in safety and the sick to have proper medical treatment. More confident about our future course, our friends and allies would want to provide us more assistance. Foreign investors would want to invest or expand their investment in Nepal. There could be a whole chain of positive multiplier effect.

Indeed, the current political crisis is a serious challenge to Nepal’s stability and progress. At the same time it has also presented us with the opportunity to form a new, broader based government than before and to engage in fresh thinking. As they say, every dark cloud has a silver lining, and we ought to make the most out of this flickering bright line.



May 4, 2009 

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