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Will Nepal be the next failing state?

By Sudeep Chakravarti:
If the second elections to the constituent assembly of Nepal are not held as scheduled this November, or that assembly is also unable to promulgate a constitution like the first fractious assembly, then South Asia will most likely be eyeing its third failing state after Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It’s either that or army-backed rule with the possibility of the return of monarchy as figurehead. Multilateral intervention too is possible to prevent that, or a slide into ethnic strife or outright civil war. Or else gains from the people’s movement of 2005-06 that helped to overthrow an indolent and corrupt monarchy, ended a decade-long civil war with Maoist rebels, and sowed seeds of a democratic republic, would be lost.
The first constituent assembly was elected in 2008 after landmark elections in which former Maoist rebels gained majority, followed by Nepali Congress, and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)—the moderate left. Ethnic interests, Madhesi parties representing people of Indian origin being the largest, weighed in as much as the political fulcrum permitted. The most prominent is the United Democratic Madhesi Front coalition.
In government the Maoists, renamed Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) remarkably spawned two prime ministers, party chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, and his rival, Baburam Bhattarai. They in concert with other major parties—two premiers between Dahal and Bhattarai came from the moderate left—were also able to work a deal with each other and Nepal Army to disband the Maoist force, integrate many combatants into the army and paramilitaries, and pension off the remainder.
But they went nowhere with the constitution, with the assembly finally dissolved in May 2012 after several extensions. Among other things, Maoists pushed for a federal structure with 13 states to reflect the country’s ethnic diversity. Other parties baulked. Egos and the spectre of dilution of power intervened. The predetermined approach of consensus triggered irreconcilable differences. Meanwhile, a hard line faction of Maoists became increasingly belligerent and split, reclaiming the old name: Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
Led by Mohan Baidya, this group heads a coalition of over 30 smaller left-wing and ethnic parties. It wants to stall elections in November and has threatened violence and even a return to armed conflict—a tactic frequently used by Maoists to get their way. This group insists on being part of every process from setting the date for polls to creating a framework for people’s representation.
While there is general repugnance for war, widespread disenchantment with political parties can ensure that a calibrated spark leads to a conflagration far worse than Nepal witnessed in the decade from 1996. (There could be a cascading, and potentially resuscitory, effect on India’s stressed Maoist rebellion.)
Earlier this year, the former king, Gyanendra, indicated his willingness to return to public life as monarch. That naked ambition should be seen as a sharp rebuke to Nepal’s squabbling politicians who have proved no less petty and egotistical than he.
There is no longer a Parliament, only a creaking administrative structure weakened by the absence of constructive political guidance. A high-level political committee comprising interests of four major and fractious political parties runs Nepal—or not. The chief justice of Nepal is a compromise interim head of government until elections.
Meanwhile, Nepal’s economy is kept alive by its doughty farm sector, seasonal gains from tourism and related businesses, and repatriation of funds by Nepali workers overseas—mostly in India, the Gulf and South-East Asia.
Arguably, the only national institution with a semblance of order remains Nepal’s army. It is worth noting that the army has swallowed its pride and actually accepted well over a thousand former Maoist rebels who met recruitment parameters. This won’t erase for many Nepalis memories of the army’s brutality during the war years. Then again, it would be balanced by the non-erasure of Maoist brutality. It is a travesty of present-day Nepal that slim positives accrue from the sum of negatives.
There were several critics of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), among them media leaders, when it was perceived to stretch its brief of monitoring ceasefire, disarmament of rebels, and facilitating the atmosphere for elections. An Indian diplomat in Kathmandu once complained to me about UNMIN’s “mission creep”—overreaching in India’s backyard. (China’s backyard too, a reality that spooks India’s mandarins.)
Should constituent assembly elections not pass, let alone peacefully, in November, or Nepal’s politicians are subsequently unable to arrive at a new constitution in a time-bound manner, international intervention may be the only option to reassemble the pieces.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.
Respond to this column at [email protected]

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