Dubbed as the 'third people’s movement' by the Maoists and as an illegitimate attempt to capture state power by their rivals, the current street protests by the Maoists in Nepal may potentially change the course of Nepali history as well as regional geostrategic relations. China and India are therefore watching with wary eyes.
It has been common among the analysts to anticipate something drastic, often dramatic and frightening about the political future of Nepal over the past few years. The forecasts about the economy of Nepal have been even more pervasively gloomy as each of the gloomier prediction has turned truer than the more optimistic ones, eventually. The origin of multifaceted conflicts after the apparent end of the State-Maoist conflict with resulting chaos and anarchy has added to the over-all pessimistic tone of analyses. Over the past year, since the sudden ouster of the Maoists-led coalition government, it has been commonplace to anticipate some kind of major confrontation between the two emerging poles as inevitable.
And finally that prediction has come true with the Maoists in the streets with full force against the rightist coalition of the PM M. K. Nepal. They have now virtually filled the streets of Kathmandu and other major cities with the agenda of ousting the incumbent government from streets after failure of their attempts to dislodge it from the parliament. And it was more than coincidence that they chose the historically important May 1 to begin their mass protest. The attempts at reconciling the two receding poles have effectively failed now as both the government and the Maoists have followed the steps that are definitely irreversible. The end of the confrontation is hard to speculate even though the daily developments over the past two days tell a lot about the prospective fate of the two sides.
If there is anything that all the partners in the incumbent coalition share, it is the longing for power and glamour that comes with the posts in the government. And for many tiny parties in the exceptional 22-party coalition, this is ‘now-or-never’ condition as the prospective Maoists-led government (in case of success of the mass movement) will include far lesser number of the parties. For PM Nepal, who lost the election from two constituencies in the CA polls, this is logically the last time he will ever have any meaningful political role in his life, let alone the post of prime minister. After their triumph in the CA polls 2 years ago, the Maoists had invited the beleaguered UML leader Nepal to the Assembly by nominating him as member of CA and eventually giving him the prestigious post of Chairman of the Constitutional Committee. With prospects of becoming the PM for the first time, however, Mr. Nepal trampled the vital post easily and came to confront his former benefactors head on by aligning himself with the rightist elements in the country including the formerly royal parties.
Ever since the prime minister, backed by a extremist right-wing faction inside his party, has done everything to antagonize the Maoists and to appease the rightists including the leadership of the national army, leading to the most prominent political polarization in the post-Monarchy Nepal. The resulting political stagnation and low-intensity confrontation between the two camps has now finally given rise to the overt confrontation.
Even though the current uprising of the Maoists has marked dissimilarities when compared to the 2006 mass uprising of the political parties against the monarchy, some similarities are difficult to miss. First, the protesters, the Maoists have made this uprising the question of life and death and are ready to go to any length and pay any price for the success of the movement. Second, the common people, though not currently motivated enough to follow the Maoists in the protests, are quite disgusted with the attitude of the current government to stick to the power at whatever cost to the country and the people. Third, the security agencies, with possible exception of the army, though apparently ready to fully comply with the orders from the current government, seem still unwilling to participate in a major bloodshed for vested interest of ‘politicians’ whom they despise almost uniformly. Fourth, the extent to which the current government can proceed to suppress the current protest is limited as the more opportunists among the coalition partners can change their loyalties at any moment to align with the leftist camp.
These facts are well understood by the government as well as the Maoists and that is why the MKN has been showing so much desperation to bring the protests to end even as he glues himself more intensely to the chair of PM. The pressure from the pro-Maoist faction inside his own Party is also enormous even though he has been brushing it off till now with help of rightist hardliners within and outside the party. The perception that the Indian establishment is firmly in favor of the supposedly India-friendly current coalition is the other fact which is boosting the morale of the PM. The India trip of K. P. Oli, the leader of right wing UML faction just before the planned protest by the Maoists may be the attempt to keep India placated in the face of potentially ground-breaking protests. But the restraint in the Indian side may be more reasonable this time as the premature response in the people’s revolt in 2006 turned out to be an embarrassment to the diplomats in South Block as the protesters refused to accept what India thought to be an acceptable offer by the then king Gyanendra. The growing menace of the Naxalites in India and the confusion that has prevailed after the latest slaughter of 76 security personnel by them is the other factor that will force India think twice before antagonizing the Nepali Maoists.
Regardless of other factors, the apprehension of India that any prospective Maoists-led government would be hostile to India has been working in favor of the current coalition government. And centuries-long bond between the Indian and Nepali army along with the perceived threat in India that the Maoists would eventually overwhelm the Nepali Army if given a free hand was what led to the frank involvement of India in ousting the Maoists-led government and that was the single-most factor that resulted in the accession of current coalition to power. The anti-India rhetoric of the Maoists has become increasingly shrill over the last one year. This has only increased the distance between the two sides to the extent that India may now attempt its best to prevent the Maoists from leading the new government.
The current uprising by the Maoists has got other ramifications as well, for the political dynamics in Nepal. The Maoist Party has been harboring the conflicting visions inside the party between so called ‘hardliners’ advocating immediate revolt to uproot the government and the ‘pragmatists’ advocating engagement with the political parties to conclude the peace process and this conflict has often proved problematic. The hardliners or the pro-revolt faction has been feeling alienated inside the party as the agendas of the pragmatists have eventually prevailed almost every time when the party has had to choose one out of the two. This may prove the golden chance to solve the contradictions between the factions as this is the first time the former’s line of action has been followed by the whole party with unity. And the party leadership can capitalize the sense of unity to instill more vigor in the cadres who were occasionally confused by the ambiguity of the leadership.
And most importantly, what are pushed to the background in this tussle essentially for power, are the vital processes of concluding the peace process and constitution drafting. With little more than 20 days remaining for the deadline to issue the new constitution, this confrontation makes the perfect excuse for each party to their blatant dereliction from duty. If the protests culminate in national unity government as demanded by the Maoists, it may well be possible to draft the constitution by extending the term of the CA by few months. If it occurs the other way, however, with the government attempting to crush the protesters with force resulting in protracted conflict, the achievements of last few years may well be reversed.
Coming few days will be thus crucial as any outcome of the protests is sure to impact the future of Nepal and Nepalis for long time to come. That will also shape the regional geo-strategic relations involving India, China and Nepal since having the Maoists in leadership of the government in Kathmandu does not mean the same thing as having UML or Nepali Congress in that position for India and China. Indeed that is why the present confrontation may turn more intense before being settled.