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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Process in pieces

Don’t rejoice at ‘Maoist hara-kiri’. India must keep talking to all players

Written by Pranab Dhal Samanta |
May 5, 2009 12:07:18 am

As Nepal plunged into political crisis with the Maoist government deciding to sack its army chief,General Rookmangud Katawal,and Prime Minister Prachanda’s resignation following the president’s refusal to implement the decision,India has to brace itself for some deft diplomacy in the coming weeks if the peace process has to be saved. It is clear that the Maoists’ political strategy rests on making India a domestic issue — as an outsider that precipitated the current crisis by backing Gen Katawal,and then getting other political parties to rally behind the cause.

Now,New Delhi clearly does not want to do anything that could strengthen the Maoist argument. Yet,it has a lot at stake. This is a new situation; and it would be important to ensure that the military does not overplay its hand. While Gen Katawal gets to keep his job after President Ram Baran Yadav declared the Maoist move unconstitutional,it is critical that the army is seen acting democratically under the president.   

It is a little-known fact,but critical in the current context,that Gen Katawal has close contacts with India’s military top brass. He is trained in Indian military institutions and personally knows many of the top Indian officers. In fact,he did seek advice when the show-cause notice was handed to him by the Prachanda government over a week ago; despite the outrage that he felt,Katawal was advised that he must respect democratic institutions and reply to the notice. He did so,and even included in his response an assurance that he would abide by government decisions — while at the same time making the point that,under the still-enforced constitution,the president of Nepal was the supreme commander of its armed forces. This relationship and influence would prove vital in the next few days,and must be protected. In fact,it’s reliably learnt that he has been advised after today’s development to keep the army firmly under control and not be provoked by anti-military Maoist protests that are likely to gain momentum from tomorrow.

In many ways,the reply was a face-saver for Prachanda as President Yadav had already told him that the government must reconsider its decision to sack Katawal. The Maoists prolonged their deliberations by a bit,sought to get the CPN-UML — their biggest alliance partner — on their side,failed,and chose to anyway go ahead with the sacking. They stand isolated in Nepal’s complicated political matrix,but perhaps that is the sentiment,liberally peppered with anti-India slogans,that the Maoists plan to exploit.

Observers in Nepal may argue that the Maoists have only themselves to blame for this. Quite true,but from New Delhi’s perspective the fact remains that,having dropped the monarchy for perfectly legitimate reasons,it now has to strain its ties with the extreme Left. This essentially means that India is back in the somewhat familiar situation of placing bets on the middle ground — the Nepali Congress,the Madhesis and even the CPN-UML. These parties have marked their presence,and together can form an alternative government in Nepal and ensure that a constitution is drawn up by May 2010. But what value would this attempt hold in a scenario in which the Maoists walk out of the entire process?

These are tricky questions. It is not just a relatively simple problem of saving the army chief and installing another government in Nepal; there is a larger issue,that of ensuring that the peace process reaches its logical conclusion — vital,given the amount that India has already invested in it. It is possible to make a compelling argument that,somewhere in the past year or so,India took its eyes off the ball. Maoist intentions surfaced from Day One when Prachanda chose to visit China before India as his first foreign visit. Instead of sending a tough diplomatic message,India lobbied hard and ensured he visits India soon after.

He then went after the Nepal army,questioning their routine

deployments and promotions and then even taking them on over something as trivial as the National Games. He showed no compromise when it came to integrating the People’s Liberation Army (the erstwhile Maoist armed cadre) and was blatantly unilateral in decisions much to the annoyance of his alliance partners. India watched with concern,but did precious little to effect a change in attitude or approach.

Then came the all-changing peace and friendship agreement with China,a draft of which was handed over to Nepal a few months ago with a far-fetched promise to end Kathmandu’s electricity woes. The Chinese laid the unwritten condition that they would move forward on this only if the Maoists ensured they would crack down on fleeing Tibetans and not allow them to use Nepal as a transit into India. This was critical for Beijing in the month of March — the draft was handed over in February — when the Tibetans decided not to celebrate their traditional New Year as a mark of protest. The month also marked 50 years of the Tibetan uprising in 1959. Prachanda obliged,and as a reward,he was invited to visit China in the first week of May. He,perhaps,would have liked to sack the army chief and go to Beijing to sign the agreement; but,clearly,his calculations were a little off.            

In each move the Maoists made,they showed signs of being emboldened beyond their mandate; checkmating India was somehow the centrepiece of this misguided tactic. New Delhi has to face up to the allegation that it did allow matters to drift; and that,now,that inaction has come to a head,challenging the very process India hoped to save by pretending to be a quiet bystander.

As the situation stands today,the Maoists have shown ineptitude at running a democratic government,which requires taking all parties along,and making shrewd compromises for a larger political purpose. Instead,they tried a “my way or the highway” approach. Many would be tempted in New Delhi to revel at what is being dubbed as “Maoist hara-kiri” — but that could prove as costly as missing the first signs. The bottom-line is that,for the sake of the peace process,India has to remain engaged with all players,even the Maoists — challenging as that may be.

nab.samanta@expressindia.com

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