Nepal’s controversial SAARC-XV participation

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Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is leading the Nepalese delegation to the 15th summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) slated for Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 2-3, 2008.

This decision became controversial as soon as it was announced for several reasons. Chief among them: that Koirala is a lame-duck head of government, having formally tendered his resignation on July 24 to President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav who accepted it and asked him to stay on until a successor is in place.

Indeed, deputy leader of the CPN (Maoist) parliamentary party, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, asserted at the Constituent Assembly (CA) on July 27: “This government cannot take part in the summit as it has no moral and legal authority to take part in the international summit, where major agreements are all set to be signed.”

Yet, although there is widespread popular support for that school of thought, this columnist differs with it, in part. Where I agree is that Koirala has no moral authority to represent Nepal is his present caretaker capacity (and that, too, of an interim government).

Thus, supporting that point of view, the Himalayan Times in an editorial questioned:

“How much political legitimacy and authority the representation of Nepal by a Prime

Minister in a purely caretaker capacity carries is a serious matter that need to be properly sorted out – and also, what will be the status of the accords and declarations Koirala will sign on behalf of the Government of Nepal.”

Yet the fact that he is, legally and constitutionally, head of government at this time gives him the needed justification to lead the Nepali delegation to SAARC’s 15th summit in Colombo. Besides, it is much too late for Nepal to back out, as suggested by Bhattarai, since the first phase of the SAARC summit process, meetings at the level of officials, had already begun before Bhattarai came forth with his suggestion.

Besides, it needs to be pointed out that, as Foreign Secretary Gyan Chandra Acharya explained at a public forum a few days previous to Bhattarai’s stated objection at the CA,

As per the by-laws and SAARC charter revised three months ago, even a caretaker government could be represented on such an occasion.

Furthermore, it would have been the height of irresponsibility on the part of Nepal to have announced, at that late stage, that it would not be attending. Quite apart from causing a huge diplomatic storm within the seven other member states of SAARC, it would have upset high level observers from China, Japan, the US, the EU, South Korea and Iran that have already committed to attending the proceedings in Colombo.

That having been acknowledged the ire or anguish of the Maoists is quite understandable. In fact, even a month ago, few, if any, would have imagined anyone else but Prachanda, as Nepal’s new prime minister, leading the Nepalese delegation in what would have been his maiden debut at an international conference in his capacity as head of government.

However, in the interregnum there has been a startling sea-change in the political landscape here with the outlook that the Maoists will be heading the first post-CA polls government becoming remoter by the day.

That, as all who follow political developments know very well, is because of the forging of an alliance between the NC, the UML and the Madeshi Janadhikar Forum. That recent political reality resulted not merely in the defeat of the Maoists’ candidates for president and vice-president but constituted a stark reminder that just being a party that has the most seats in the CA does not, per se, guarantee that it will have the numbers needed to claim the right to form a government.

If the three-party alliance holds, there is no legal or constitutional way in which it can claim to head the new government.

It is the general perception that the Maoists have none but themselves to blame for this sorry state of affairs having acted arrogantly vis-a-vis other parties and naively assumed that none but their party could lead the new government.

The bitter lessons that they have probably now learnt about the intricacies of the multi-party parliamentary business, including that of not taking anything for granted, will not be forgotten soon.

Yet, looking back at last April’s 14th SAARC summit in New Delhi, they should have at least been more alert this time around. Then, although the Maoists had already joined the Koirala-headed government, not even one member of the CPN (Maoist), even Minister for Information and Communication, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, was included in the official delegation to that summit.

They ought, then, to have thought about its implications more thoroughly than they seem to have done. If that had been the case, perhaps they would not have made the mistake of

Believing that Koirala, denied his aspiration of becoming Nepal’s first president by the Maoist leadership, would not have sought some form of political revenge.

What is mildly surprising is that although the Maoists have been publicly warning about conspiracies and plots against them by various foreign powers, including the US and India, they seem not to have followed up on that.

Had they done so they might have realized that since they do not command a majority in the CA, it had always been theoretically possible for a combination of other parties to form an alliance against them – indeed that is exactly what has happened!

The question thus naturally arises: why should the Maoists be taken aback that those who do not wish to see those taking command of the Government of Nepal should have exploited this opportunity?

Were they so innocent of the ways of the world that they do not know that the Maoist philosophy is not the most beloved in this day and age? Or, did they believe that India, whose ambassador was loudly proclaiming to all that the Maoists should head the new government, was truly sincere?