Monday, April 14, 2008

After Long Struggle, Maoists Win in Nepal

From Asia Times, M K Bhadrakumar:
The South Asian political landscape will never be the same again following the Maoist victory march in Nepal's elections to a new 601-seat constituent Assembly last Thursday. It may take several days before the election results are fully known, but available trends indicate that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is surging ahead. By Monday, the Maoists had secured 89 of the total declared 162 seats for which results were declared.

The established mainstream parties, such as the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) are trailing far behind. The royalists, who rooted for the perpetuation of the 240-year-old Hindu monarchy, have been routed. A distinct possibility arises that the Maoists will secure a simple majority and lead the next government - an extraordinary feat for the former rebels who gave up a decade-long armed struggle and took to the democratic path hardly two years ago.

The impact is bound to be far-reaching on Nepal's political economy, South Asia's political landscape and the geopolitics of the region. Thursday's elections are primarily aimed at forming a constituent assembly to determine the contours of Nepal's political system. The results signify that the country is irrevocably set on the path of republicanism. Even the limited role of a constitutional monarchy seems out of the question.

The results signify pervasive popular disenchantment with the established political parties. Most expert commentators have to explain their lapse in not foreseeing such an outburst of popular opinion. Clearly, the people have voted for change. The groundswell of support for Maoists is fairly widespread, cutting across regions. Claiming victory, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (popularly called Prachanda) said his party's victory was a mandate for lasting peace, implementation of the democratic republic and rapid economic development. He frontally addressed the intriguing question: "People are asking, 'What is this Maoist party?' And the international community is asking, 'What will happen after the Maoists win?' All these fears are unnecessary."

Prachanda held out the assurance that his party's agenda would be to work with other political parties during the transition period. "We will establish greater national unity with all political parties after the election," he added. The Maoists received commendation from an unexpected quarter when former US president Jimmy Carter, who led a team of foreign observers, stated at a press conference in Kathmandu on Saturday his conviction that the former rebels were every bit wedded to the democratic path.

The poorest country in South Asia has suddenly catapulted itself to the vanguard of democratic reform and political transformation in the region. India, which basks in the glory of its democratic way of life, at once looks a little bit archaic and tired in comparison. After 60 years of uninterrupted democratic pluralism, vast sections of Indian society are yet to realize the potentials of political empowerment. The Nepalese people have come from behind and overtaken the Indians in expanding the frontiers of "bourgeois" politics.

Politics in India still meander through alleys of caste and parochialism and eddies of religious obscurantism and Hindu nationalism. The upper-caste Hindu elites in Nepal used to share social kinships with the Indian political elites. The Maoists have upturned Nepal's entrenched caste politics. The Indian electorate is yet to explore in full measure ideology-based secular political empowerment, which is the bedrock of democratic self-rule. Unsurprisingly, India's main opposition party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which thrives on Hindu fundamentalism, has been stunned into silence. It feels let down that a country that it dearly cherished as the world's only "Hindu kingdom" has taken to secular democracy with such panache.

The Maoist government will proceed to dismantle the pillars of Nepal's feudal structure and will take recourse to radical economic and political reforms based on distributive justice and egalitarian principles. That is bound to catch the attention of impoverished Indians in the sub-Himalayan belt sooner or later. The Indian states (provinces) bordering Nepal are notorious for their misgovernance.

The Maoist victory in Nepal poses a challenge to the Indian establishment as well. Delhi is distinctly lukewarm about the prospect of an outright Maoist victory. The Indian establishment traditionally works with the Nepali Congress. Some elements within the establishment view with disquiet the prospect of the Maoists galvanizing revolutionary movements within India. Conceivably, Delhi didn't anticipate a tidal wave of popular will favoring the Maoists in Nepal.

All the same, Delhi allowed the democratic process in Nepal to take its course. It could not but take a keen interest in Nepalese politics and a completely "hands-off" approach was unrealistic to expect, but the real question was of not being intrusive to the point of interfering in Nepal's internal affairs. In the event, Delhi kept cool and maintained a delicate balance - watching developments closely while keeping a decent distance and reserving options to adapt to circumstances. However, a period of adjustment to the new political realities in Kathmandu becomes necessary and a thorough revamping of policy directions is inevitable. Nepal is far too important a neighbor for India. Its rapidly growing relations with China add to Delhi's policy calculus.

China's policy towards Nepal is not ideology driven insofar as Beijing kept in view the imperatives of inter-state relations almost until the end of King Gyanendra's direct rule. But Beijing swiftly adapted to the emergent democratic forces in Nepal with great pragmatism and forged working relations with all political parties, including the Maoists. China's interest in Nepal has increased almost exponentially. The overarching geopolitical reality is that the United States has become hyperactive in Nepalese politics. The developments in Tibet have added a further dimension. Tibetan activists in Nepal have been particularly strident.

Much depends on Prachanda's priorities. The Maoist leader has time and again shown he is not a dogmatist wedded to textbook Marxism and will give primacy to the implementation of his reform agenda. He has proved to be a brilliant tactician. He will tap into all available goodwill in Delhi and Beijing to the extent that his agenda of Nepal's rapid economic development benefits.

In his first post-election comments, Prachanda said Nepal will develop "new relations" with the Indian leadership. He stressed the close cultural and historical links between the two countries and pointed out it is "quite important" to have good neighborly relations with India. "A good understanding with Delhi can create a new basis of unity with India," he said.

But he clarified that Nepal will maintain equidistance between India and China in political terms. Beijing is certain to respond to him, given the criticality of Nepal to Tibet's security and stability. If China's Central Asia policy is anything to go by, it will put big money on the table in Nepal in the coming period so as to keep at bay the three "evils" - terrorism, religious extremism and separatism.

Besides, Nepal is resource-rich. There are any number of areas such as development of infrastructure, hydroelectric power or the manufacturing industry, where Nepal offers attractive business opportunities for enterprising Chinese firms. Nepal can also be a gateway to the Indian market.

The advent of the Maoists to power in Kathmandu, therefore, confronts Delhi with a creative challenge. The old days are gone when Delhi could take a complacent view that come what may, Kathmandu would remain wedded to cultivating Indian goodwill. The need arises now for Delhi to be proactive, efficient and competitive. China's "soft power" in Nepal is already very considerable, while Nepal is no exception to the latent "anti-Indianism" common to India's neighboring countries.

Any Indian assumption that Nepal is its security backyard or that it should be within India's "sphere of influence" will be untenable. If Delhi resorts to pressure tactics, sensing that the Maoists have a long way to go to consolidate their grip on political power, it might prove counterproductive.

On the other hand, the lengthening shadow of Chinese influence in Nepal should act as a spur goading India into creative diplomacy. Having said that, India is still left with vast leverage over Nepal spread over several inter-locking planes - geography, culture and common ethos, shared history, economic and social linkages, etc - and there is no real need to panic.

Almost certainly, the Maoists will want to jettison the 1950 treaty of peace and friendship with India, which they consistently viewed as an unequal framework. Equally, Delhi is conscious of the treaty's growing irrelevance, even though the treaty provides significant trade and transit advantages to landlocked Nepal and the Maoists, once in power, may come to better appreciate that. No doubt, the renegotiation of the treaty will bring to the fore the new impulses of the three-way equations involving India, Nepal and China.

Nepal has proved to be an unhappy experience for the United States and India in their newfound interest to coordinate and harmonize their regional policies. While India managed to keep its options open in a developing situation, the US policy finds itself in a cul-de-sac. It was predicated on the naive belief that Nepal could be made a geopolitical pressure point on China's soft underbelly. Nepal becomes the latest link in the chain of the George W Bush administration's foreign policy misadventures. The Maoists of Nepal still figure in the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

But Prachanda may offer Washington an exit strategy without loss of face. Responding to the media on Sunday, he said, "Yesterday, I had a very serious discussion with former US president Jimmy Carter, and I raised this question [of Washington regarding the Maoists as terrorists] ... It seems ridiculous to me."

M K Bhadrakumar. 15-Apr-2008. Nepal triggers Himalayan avalanche. Asia Times.

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