Prachanda with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing on Sunday
Author: Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
At last Nepal has a president and a premier, both elected. Twelve years after they waged an armed war to capture power, Nepal’s former Maoist guerrillas finally on 15 August fulfilled their desire lawfully with their chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, winning the prime minister’s election with a sweeping majority to become the Nepal republic’s first premier.
Prachanda vanquished his sole rival former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba by garnering 464 votes, a more than two-thirds majority, while he needed only a simple majority to win. Deuba, who was sacked twice by King Gyanendra in the past for failing to hold elections and was the arch enemy of the underground Maoists during their decade-old “People’s War”, received only 113 votes. While his wife Arjoo Deuba, also a lawmaker from his Nepali Congress (NC) party, voted for him, his mother-in-law Pratibha Rana, a lawmaker from the once royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party, voted against him in an election fraught with tension and rivalry. For Prachanda it is a major political victory.
After a long period of struggle, now the Maoists are keen to rebuild Nepal. Newly elected Prime Minister Prachanda said the industries and business enterprises in Nepal which were closed due to the Maoist threats in the past will be reopened. Prachanda, who waged a decade-long armed struggle against monarchy, was on 15 August elected as Democratic Nepal’s first Prime Minister in a one-sided race in the Constituent Assembly.
Prachanda, during a meeting at his Baluwatar residence with a business delegation led by chairman of the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries Joshi, said the government will make efforts to reopen all those industries which were closed due to the threats issued by Maoist trade union workers or by other armed groups. The former guerrilla leader also promised to protect market economy and promote nationalist capitalists besides allowing the foreign investment and national labor market keeping in view the national interest.
The Prime Minister said the new government is committed to implement all past agreements reached with the business communities and will go hand in hand with the national industrialists and entrepreneurs. Thousands of passengers have been stranded and supplies of essential commodities have been halted in eastern Nepal due to the indefinite transport strike. He assured that he will also make efforts to reopen the highways in eastern Nepal which have remained closed for the past one week following killing of a truck driver by unidentified gunmen.
President and Premier
The monarchy has ended but the old mainstream parties are not ready for new economic and social reforms in the country. It was the first major decision by the assembly since lawmakers decided to abolish the 239-year-old monarchy and declare a republic, part of a peace process that ended a decade-long civil war with Maoist insurgents. Political wrangling has left Nepal without a government since it became a republic in late May following the abolition of the monarchy. Maoists had won 220 seats in the Constituent Assembly elections held on April 10 while the NC and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist followed with 110 and 103 seats, respectively. Since the abolition of the monarchy, the main political parties in Nepal had been, for a along time, unable to form a new government because of serious differences on issues like who should be the President and Prime Minister. The rebels were upset over the rejection by parliament of their choice for president – and announced they would refuse to lead the government.
The Maoists, who were eyeing both the posts of premier and president, had announced that they would not join the government if their candidate failed to get elected to the post of President. The Maoists said they did not want to lead a “shaky coalition”. They point out that Nepal has seen 16 governments in the past 18 years. Talks with other parties on the basis of Maoists program and policy proposals were under way and the party hoped to “reach a consensus soon”. The former rebels needed a minimum of two years in power to write a new constitution. Analysts say that the involvement of the former rebels within the government was crucial to the survival of the peace process which ended the country’s civil war.
After assuming power, Nepal’s first President Ram Baran Yadav, a doctor-turned-politician who had most of his education in India, has invited former rebel Maoists who won most seats but no majority in elections this spring to form the country’s new government. Yadav called on the party to forge a political consensus for the appointment of the prime minister and ministers. The Maoists did not immediately respond. They were angered after their presidential choice was rejected by other parties.
Ram Baran Yadav was fielded by the NC-UML-Forum coalition against the Maoists’ cadidate Ram Raja Prasad Singh for the president’s post. A run-off was necessitated as Yadav fell 15 short of the magic figure of 298 in the first round held. In the run-off polls, the veteran leader trounced Singh by 26 votes, securing the support of 308 lawmakers compared to 282 for the Maoist nominee who was the favorite earlier. President Yadav, a relatively unknown figure outside Nepal, was a last-minute choice of the major parties to oppose the Maoist candidate and veteran communist leader Singh, faces the tough task of overseeing the drafting of a new Constitution amid bitter political acrimony and fears of the country slipping back to insurgency with the Maoists being effectively sidelined. The new President replaced the deposed King Gyanendra as the Head of State, performing the ceremonial duties which were earlier the sole domain of the monarch.
Yadav hailing from the Indian-origin Madhesi community received his MBBS degree from Kolkata and MD from PGIMER, Chandigarh, spending about 11 years studying in India. After practicing medicine for eight years, Yadav joined Nepali Congress after the 1980 referendum held to choose between party-less Panchayat system and multiparty system. The 60-year-old has learnt the fine art of politics from Nepali Congress patriarch B P Koirala.Yadav, a three-time MP from Dhanusha, entered Parliament as an NC candidate for the first time in 1991. He was re-elected in 1999 and elected to the Constituent Assembly in the landmark polls on April 10 this year which saw the Maoists emerging as the single largest party.
A farmer’s son, who made a remarkable journey to occupy the highest post in the new-born republic that abolished the 240-year-old monarchy, Yadav said he wants to take the peace process to its logical end and maintain friendly ties with both China and India. Nepal has been at odds with neighboring Bhutan over the repatriation of thousands of refugees living in camps in Nepal. The refugees – Bhutanese of Nepalese descent – fled violence in their homeland in the early 1990s.
End of Monarchy
Until Nepal became a republic in May 2008, the country had been under the sway of a hereditary monarchy or ruling family for most of its known history, largely isolated from the rest of the world. A brief experiment with multi-party politics in 1959 ended with King Mahendra suspending parliament and taking sole charge. Democratic politics was introduced in 1991 after popular protests, but it was extremely factionalized with frequent changes of government. The last king of Nepal, Gyanendra, twice assumed executive powers – in 2002 and 2005. Meanwhile, Maoist rebels’ intent on setting up a communist republic waged a decade-long campaign against the constitutional monarchy. The rebellion left more than 12,000 people dead. The UN said 100,000 people were displaced. Its envoy said the use of torture by government forces and rebels was routine.
When King Gyanendra’s direct rule ended in April 2006 the rebels entered talks on how to end the civil war. A landmark peace deal was agreed in November and in early 2007 the Maoists joined an interim government. The Maoists withdrew from the government in September, demanding abolition of the monarchy. Parliament agreed to this condition in December, and the rebels rejoined the government. The Maoists emerged as the largest party in parliament following elections in April 2008, and the monarchy was abolished a month later.
The former monarch Gyanendra in his last appearance in palace spoke for 20 minutes. Gyanendra did not look like someone battered and bruised or a man many say was single-handedly responsible for the end of a centuries-old monarchy. A calm smile on his face, he gave the palms-together “namaste” (Hello) greeting he has always given as he fought his way to the front – bearing out the remarks of those who know him well, that he has not shown any worry in response to the political convulsions that have ousted the Crown. He felt able for the first time to confront the belief prevalent among Nepalis that he and his son plotted the palace killings of 2001 which saw 10 of the royals, including his brother King Birendra, killed in a shooting. He said he would not go abroad and had not wasted Nepal’s resources. He even said he accepted the advent of a republic – a process which was rushed through in a cursory fashion two weeks ago. But, as before, he insisted that his unpopular pursuit of absolute power, backed by the military, had not trampled on the people’s rights. Then he was gone – leaving the reporters free to pose for photos sitting in his chair. Less than three hours later he and former queen Komal were clearly seen leaving in a limousine, smiling, this time, broadly, heading for their more modest home in the forest nearby. One wonders whether if Gyanendra entered politics as a commoner he might be a charismatic crowd-puller able to match the Maoists’ magnetic leader Prachanda, in a country short of colorful politicians.
That problem, and the lack of reverence which the monarchy – or ex-monarchy – now commands, meant that there was anything but a hushed silence. Gyanendra’s words were barely audible to most. People may also miss the gossipy newspaper stories of palace intrigue which continued to leak out until the very last. In a remarkably short space of time, because of an unpopular king, Nepal has dismissed its monarchy, an institution which only eight years ago was still revered. No-one feels able to say it right now, if some of the color and pageantry of the royals will be missed in the years to come, now they are being consigned to a museum.
The euphoria surrounding the restoration of democracy two years ago; the successful elections this April; the historic end of the monarchy shortly afterwards – these have been milestones. The elevation of Nepal’s chief Maoist, the leader of the former rebels, Prachanda, to the prime ministership is something he could barely have dreamt of just three years ago. By the early 1980s, with political parties still banned, “The Fierce One” had abandoned his job as a teacher and was operating underground as an outlaw. The last two years have been full of historic symbolism as the old Hindu kingdom became a secular republic, to the delight of some and the dismay of others. Whether he retains his war name or reverts to being Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the new prime minister has a massive task ahead of him.
But state authority has crumbled so much that many Nepalis are in utter despair. A sense of anarchy prevails nationwide, so much so that mention of the phrase “the government” tends to elicit scornful sniggers. Crime and violence have spiraled. For example, eastern Nepal has been at a complete standstill for six days, called by transport workers in protest at the murder of a bus driver and a broad lack of security. The shortages of petrol, diesel, kerosene and gas are beyond measure because the authorities won’t balance the financial books. There is severe hunger in the hills. There are power cuts at the height of the rainy season. The police appear unable to do anything other than arrest demonstrating Tibetans. The politicians including the Maoists have largely ignored all this, squabbling about ministry allocation for weeks on end and scarcely acknowledging ordinary people’ problems. Luckily most Nepalis are adept at getting on with their lives despite their rulers.
Most of the Nepalese population depends on agriculture, and around 40% of Nepalis are estimated to live in poverty. Foreign aid is vital to the economy and Nepal is also dependent on trade with neighboring India, the fact India always exploited by selling weapons to them. With the world’s highest mountain, Everest, and spectacular scenery and wildlife, the country has great potential as a tourist destination. It also boasts a distinctive Hindu and Buddhist culture. But its environmental challenges include deforestation, encroachment on animal habitats and vehicle pollution in the capital, Kathmandu.
As prime minister, Prachanda will also have to draw together a country which for the past year-and-a-half has been displaying new and worrying fissures along ethnic and regional lines. As a man who comes from the hills, he is only too aware of the widening rift in the south between people of hill origin and the Madhesis -southerners ethnically close to neighboring Indians who have been campaigning against their marginalization since late 2006. Although the new president and his deputy are both Madhesis, the community’s sense of grievance persists. Violence in the south-east bubbles away, with shadowy rebel or criminal groups proliferating and people dying each week.
On a different matter, having a Maoist prime minister may help resolve the future of the 19,000 Maoist former combatants still in camps as part of the UN-assisted peace process. With a new prime minister and president at last in place, one more task can also get properly under way – the writing of a new constitution by the huge assembly elected in April. Hitherto its members have complained that the body is being marginalized by the usual coterie of establishment politicians. There has been enough talking.
India supported militant Hindu group are waging an “anti-Muslim campaign”. In an ethnically complex society, many more regional groups are emerging and clamoring, mostly peacefully, for inclusion. Having promised, extravagantly, to make Nepal into the “Switzerland of Asia”, they have encouraged high expectations. Nepalese traditionalists worry that the former rebels retain a totalitarian bent. This is a party which still sports Stalin as an icon and praises him – alongside Mao, of course. Yet now could also be the time when the Maoists are given a chance to prove themselves: to show they are serious about the social transformations in whose name they went to war. They have a very strong presence in the villages and also promise a more equitable system of land ownership. They have to deal with rivalries. There are still further challenges visible ahead, however. The work must now begin.
A clear-cut regime change has taken place in this Himalayan nation. The political forces thus far branded as the “underground terrorists” have assumed power in Nepal and these democratically elected “law-breakers” will make laws in Kathmandu for the welfare of Nepalese people.
Emerging political situation would help Nepal become strong economically, politically and security-wise and advance its legitimate national interest. With a better vision of itself as a republic, Nepal is now expected to strengthen its economy and security also by strengthening the regional bodies like SAARC. As an independent republic, Nepal should raise its voice against arms race, nuclearization of international affairs, and weaponization of space. These anti-human processes could indirectly hinder at the development programs of Nepal as well.
*Edited at ABC