Monday 25 June 2007

Only Free Elections Can Save Nepal (UPIASIA)

M.D. Nalapat

Manipal, India — A year ago, when the government of India invited all major political formations in Nepal to an "offer you can't refuse" conference in New Delhi, a sympathetic New Delhi forced through a "democratic" alliance of eight parties that would take over effective power from King Gyanendra, widely regarded as leaning too close to China.

A short while back, the king had destroyed what little support he had within India's ruling United Progressive Alliance government by sponsoring a resolution at the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Dacca, calling for China's entry into SAARC as an "observer." Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka backed the move enthusiastically.

Had the previous National Democratic Alliance regime not lost power in the 2004 general elections, India at this stage would have exercised a quiet veto, thus returning the suggestion to cold storage. However, the Congress-led UPA depends for its parliamentary majority on the communist parties, and hence could not oppose a move backed by the majority of SAARC countries.

After the summit, however, immediate steps were taken to neuter the king of Nepal's powers by installing a "democratic" government in place of the Gyanendra-led "autocracy." Such was the headline. The reality was that the very Nepali Parliament that had been dissolved by the king in 2002 was brought back to life, in the opinion of constitutional experts, illegally. The members of this "elected" legislature last faced an election in 1999.

Once revived, the Parliament expanded its strength by a third, nominating the additional members mostly from the ranks of the Maoists. It had been this armed group that had stymied repeated efforts to hold elections since former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba dissolved Parliament in 2002 to head off certain defeat in a no-confidence motion brought against him. Since then, Nepal had seen a succession of nominated prime ministers, each chosen by King Gyandendra after the previous incumbent finally admitted defeat in his efforts at holding elections in a country where the Maoists killed any candidate not sympathetic to them.

A series of disastrous attempts by the Royal Nepal Army to put down the insurgency by force failed, and by the time the Maoists formally entered the government (courtesy of the government of India), they controlled more than 70 percent of the land area of the country but a much smaller share of popular support. It was this disproportion between popular support and control over territory that fuelled their violent campaign against political opponents, a situation that continues in most parts of the country.

India already backed the Maoists, thanks to the patronage of the communist bloc within the Indian Parliament, and it was not long before several European states, led by those hardy do-gooders the Norwegians, began supporting this "democratic" force against what was admittedly a dysfunctional and oppressive monarchy.

King Gyanendra had ascended the throne after the reigning monarch, his brother Birendra, had been gunned down by his son the Crown Prince in June 2001, and almost all of Kathmandu's inflential "liberal" set believed him and not the apparently crazed Dipendra guilty of the crime. The new king, unlike his brother, took a hard line against the Maoists, and had he confined himself to them, may have retained the support that the monarchy has historically had in Nepal. However, Gyanendra regarded all groups other than those sponsored by the palace with distaste, and after three years of ruling behind a succession of puppet prime ministers, took direct charge of the administration two years ago, thus making enemies of even non-republican political parties, who saw their hopes for a return to office extinguished by the move.

The communist-driven support of India's Manmohan Singh government to the Maoists forced the democratic political formations in Nepal to accept the guerrillas as senior partners in the government that was sworn in a year ago, after a legislature dissolved in 2002 was miraculously brought back to life in 2006.

Interestingly, even after the now-prostrate King Gyanendra earned the hostility of India by his preference of Beijing's regional interests over New Delhi's, China has now established contact with the Maoists, and there is dizzy talk in the salons of Kathmandu of a so-called "natural" alliance between the guerrillas and the country that was the home of Mao Zedong and has been run by the Communist Party since 1949.

Not surprisingly, their ideology and their newfound affiliation to the only U.S. rival in Asia have resulted in a distancing of Washington from its usual European partners. If King Gyanendra is still in occupation of Kathmandu's Narayanhiti Palace today --although not of much else -- it is because U.S. envoy James F. Moriarty publicly protested against a resolution calling for the abolition of the monarchy, which was passed last fortnight with an overwhelming majority by a Parliament that had one-third of its members nominated by those who last faced election in 1999.

India, of course, said nothing, although by now the efforts of the Maoists to prevent a free election have become too visible to ignore. After three years of paralysis induced by fear of the ruling coalition's Communist Party backers, India's Foreign Ministry is finally awakening to the reality that the ongoing takeover of Nepal by the Maoists would create another China client in India's neighborhood, following the example of Pakistan and Bangladesh and -- until recently -- Sri Lanka.

Expectedly, the "democratic" government in Kathmandu has let slip the promised June 2007 deadline for the holding of fresh elections, and is now talking of a November deadline. The fear among some analysts is that the Maoists will prevent the holding of polls till they can ensure conditions that would make the election as "free" as the many that were held in Soviet-bloc countries from 1950 to 1990. Only united action by India and the United States can ensure that it is the people of Nepal rather than sundry authoritarians who decide the future of their country. Nepal is close to breaking point, and unless a democratic process is carried out swiftly, the risk of a civil war will rise to a level that may make such chaos inevitable.

-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)

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