Friday, January 11, 2008

Parallel Peace Process: An Update

When Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala publicly asserted not too long ago that the country would have a woman prime minister soon, there was little doubt that he had his daughter in mind. Since the wily acting head of state abdicating in favor of Sujata was too far-fetched to contemplate, Koirala had had to have some trick up his sleeve.
He couldn’t have booted out Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula to create space for his daughter. Sitaula is too powerfully connected – and too valuable – across the southern border. Sure, Sujata could have gotten Mahant Thakur’s old job, but what would she do tinkering with science and technology?
The only way open to Koirala was to readjust the balance in the cabinet by giving Sujata the widest berth. By bringing her onboard as minister without portfolio, the prime minister has shown much deftness.
Far from being a nepotistic relapse, his move is part of a well-calibrated initiative. The first phase of the parallel peace process Maila Baje wrote about last month has now been completed – or at least the New Delhi side of it has.
This was sealed last month when Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal and Sujata were in the Indian capital about the same time. The Indian version still needs to be reconciled with the Chinese one, which, we are told, is more generous to the Maoists.
The joint plan – which has the blessings of the US administration – is expected to be finalized during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Beijing. (Which, of course, is taking place close on the heels of Gen. Katuwal’s northern sojourn.)
If that deal goes through, the next phase would be set in motion in Kathmandu over the coming weeks. The constituent assembly elections will be postponed once more, prompting Prime Minister Koirala to step down. And the military will step in.
An army-backed Nepali Congress-led government will take charge and announce the dissolution of the interim legislature. Most likely, the interim constitution will be abrogated, too. There is some uncertainty as to the legal underpinnings of the unfolding developments. One idea is the creation of a provisional constitutional order to be endorsed by a future mechanism.
The government will announce a referendum on the monarchy to be supervised by the United Nations. King Gyanendra will remain in “suspension” during this period, as the chief executive exercises the powers of head of state and government.
Clearly, the idea is to get at least 40 percent of the Maoists on board. The Chinese seem to be confident of winning that level of support. Recalcitrant sections will be the target of a massive security operation, jointly backed by China and India.
The Maoist leadership has sought – and received – assurances of full freedom to campaign against the monarchy. In return, they have pledged to honor any adverse result.
Sujata Koirala remains the front-runner for chief executive. Some in the army have voiced their preference for Sher Bahadur Deuba – who has the support of traditional constituents in the western democracies. Deuba’s name, however, is said to have been vigorously opposed from within the party, including some of his allies in the erstwhile Nepali Congress (Democratic).
The real catalyst for change is the “royalist” wing of the Nepali Congress. People like Khum Bahadur Khadka, Govinda Raj Joshi, Chiranjibi Wagle and Purna Bahadur Khadka genuinely fear a massive loss of support for the party from voters sympathetic to the continuation of the monarchy for the preservation of the Nepalese state.
The former panchas, split in three parties, are not capable of tapping into this vote. The result: a significant section of the electorate would simply abstain from the constituent assembly elections. The prospect of an unpalatable, so to speak, outcome has been weighed carefully by all side.
A referendum on the monarchy would address a major part of the constituent assembly imperative. Such other issues as state restructuring, equitable representation and development, decoupled from the monarchy, would then be debated in light of Nepal’s experience of the last two years. A high-risk strategy, of course. But something Nepal’s principal international stakeholders believe may be the country’s last hope.