Nepal’s Present Impasse Demands National Consensus

Nepal’s lawmakers on Sept 5, failed to elect their new prime minister. This is the sixth round since July 21, when the first ballot was taken after consensus eluded them. Under Nepali law, the contest will continue till a victor emerges. So, another ballot is scheduled for September 7, and it cannot offer a different result unless the one-upmanship game’s end.

Simple majority in the 601 member Parliament is enough for victory under the Interim Constitution (Clause 2, Article 38) but it has eluded the Moist leader Puspa Kamal Dahal, ‘ Prachanda’ and his challenger Ram Chandra Poudel of Nepali Congress. While Prachanda polled 240 votes, Poudel settled for just 122 votes. A matter of satisfaction to Maoist chairman is that fewer MPs are opposed to him now – 101 as opposed to 110 in the last round. It is no mean achievement given the bad blood between the Maoists and the rest of the political spectrum. How this change of heart came about? Well, an answer to this question holds the contours of future scenario.

Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Mahesi parties hold the key. Whoever wins their support can hope to become a Prime Minister. Both have stayed neutral. The Maoists are the largest block in Parliament with 229 seats. While the Nepali Congress is the second largest party (115 members), the CPN (UML) is the third largest with 108 seats and the United Democratic Madheshi Front, an alliance of four Terai parties (Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Nepal, Madhesh Janadhikar Forum (Loktantrik), Terai Madhes Democratic Party and Sadbhavana Party) account for 82 seats. There are some 25 parties in all; barring these biggies, others are in single digits. The Maoists count the Nepal Peasants and Workers Party (five members) in their kitty. Last month (August), the Maoists had won over an MP from the rival camp but it did not lead to more defections. Instead, it brought ridicule to the Maoists.

During the phase of insurgency Maoists used to take shelter in the Madhesi territory and had stuck deep friendship with local leaders. This was in contrast to the trust deficit between the mainline Nepali leadership and the Madhesis; cementing their equation, the Maoists had promised a better deal to the region and the people but once in office, the Maoists forgot these promises. The relations turned sour. Now, survival instincts honed during guerilla days made Prachanda and his colleagues befriend the Madhesis once again.

Unlike in the past, this time around, the Maoists planned to break the Madhesi unity by dangling ‘carrots’. A Kathmandu date lined dispatch by Nepali journalist Yubaraj Ghimire says that Maoists offered a concrete power sharing formula to Madhesis Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and its break away MDF (Loktantrik). If Prachanda becomes prime minister, MJF chief Upendra Yadav and MFD-Chief Nijay Gachhedar will be made deputy prime ministers. One of them will get foreign ministry and the other will get Home Ministry. Both portfolios are heavy weight ministries and have a major say in framing the country’s policy towards China and India.

MJF has accepted the bait. On Sunday, it deserted the United Democratic Madhesi Forum (UDMF) but did not take part in the PM election. That is because the Maoists were hit by Moneygate on the eve of the ballot, and, therefore, not sure of victory for their chosen leader. Without the Moneygate, the Maoists were tantalizingly close to the goal post.

MJF and MJF (L) could bring to the table 25 seats. Operation Majority targeted Terai Madhesh Loktantrik Party (TMLP), another constituent of the United Democratic Madheshi Front. It has 21 seats. Sensing the desperation of the Maoists, the TMLP pitched for finance and education.

Maoists were taken aback. Because this is not what they had set out for – to head a government where real power rested with the allies. Yes, defence would still be with the Maoists but they are not confident to what extent their writ would run with the army brass. The brush with the army chief in the first stint had left them bruised. The army is unwilling to accept Maoist armed cadres, presently in the UN managed camps on the Maoist terms, namely enblock integration of the former guerillas with the forces.

Classic Chankya line is that if threats and intimidations don’t work, then bribe your way through. This is what the Maoists appeared to have set out to do by turning for help from a friendly Chinese diplomat going by the sting operation that had led to recording of two telephone talks between Krishna Bahadur Mahara, and an unnamed Chinese official. Mahara, as head of the foreign cell of UCPN (Maoist), knows his way on the diplomatic highway.

The sting operation was reported on Nepal One TV and in a section of the Nepali print media. The audio tapes of two conversations, lasting over 12 minutes, were reportedly recorded on August 31 and September 1. A voice sounding like Mahara speaks in broken English; his caller has a noticeable Chinese accent. The ‘revelation’ makes eminent sense in the context of unfolding events. It is a reality that cannot be brushed aside.

The Himalayan Times quoted a Chinese Embassy official in Kathmandu terming the Moneygate allegation as baseless and the tapes as fake. Well, does the daily expect the official to be a Tiger Woods and make a grand confession before the TV cameras? Denials and claims have to stand the test of an inquiry, for which demands have come from political parties.

This digression aside, NRs 500 million Mahara was heard asking for in the tape to bribe 50 MP is not big money. It works out to NRs. 10 million for each of the prey. What a grand stooping for power? Maoists once believed in the barrel of the gun; today their faith is in the power of the wallet.

Questions are bound to appear whether it is this new found faith that had forced them to make Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal resign on June 31 on the spacious plea that he must go to speed up the peace process. Moneygate is not the first instance of political bribes on offer. A Communist leader, C.P. Mainali of the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist Leninist has also said that the Maoists had offered him NRs 50 million to vote for them. ‘When I refused, the Maoists split my party’, he said, and asked for Sunday’s vote to be postponed.

There were reports the Maoists were willing for a return of the royalty as the titular head. When the media carried the reports in August, everyone brushed them aside as absurd. That initial reaction has given way to serious concern now.

What next?

If the Maoists end up cobbling up a coalition through carrots, the result will be a government on daily wages. Political stability will remain a mirage. And political vacuum will continue to haunt.

All the stake-holders in Parliament have a stake in the stability of the government and the prosperity of the country. Since the electorate denied the Maoists a clear majority, they cannot go about manufacturing one.

As the UML said in the past and repeated on Sept 5, a government based on consensus can only live upto the expectations of the people. ‘Without a government based on consensus, we cannot prepare the new constitution’, says Ishwar Pokharel, UML general secretary.

Consensus demands an agreed agenda. So far, the Maoists are unwilling to give up their agenda. Their first coalition failed because of their refusal to accommodate the views of the allies. Showing or seeing India phantom everywhere does no credit to the Maoist camp and its proxies in the media as the Moneygate tapes clearly bring out. In one of the conversations, Mahara was heard telling his ‘China agent’ friend that some parliament members are guided and controlled by the ‘South’ and it is necessary to ‘neutralize’ its influence. A front page comment in a Kathmandu English daily sees the Moneygate as the beginning of a new level of open rivalry between the two giant neighbours, openly accuses India of carrying out the very sting itself.

Both Mahara and the daily are ignorant of history and ground realities. Both should learn to unlearn what they are made to learn these past couple of years. Neither Hinduism nor geo-political-strategic location is germane to India’s interest in Nepal. For India, Nepal is a friend with which it shares an open border, and for Nepal it is extending a helping hand without demands and demur, unlike Nepal’s other friends who have demands on its generosity and an uncanny ability to test its nerves.

(* This commentary first appeared on POREG,