At a recent private gathering a few top generals of the Nepal Army said: "The Maoists want to emasculate all institutions. Another round of confrontation is inevitable. We have been restrained, but we really want to go after them."
A month ago, while returning from the PLA celebrations in Nawalparasi, a Maoist divisional commander told us: "It is a suicidal decision by the army (to defy the defence minister on recruitment). Now they will have to face the people's wrath."
The Maoist-Nepal Army relationship is complex, there are informal channels of communication. Maoist leaders are delegated to build individual ties with key army officers. Ethnicity and hierarchy within the army have been factors in shaping perceptions.
But at its root, there remains a wide trust gap between the Maoist leadership and the NA. They have different and often conflicting interests and there is a personality clash between the defence minister and the army chief.
COAS Rukmangad Katuwal scored a point on the recruitment issue. Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa knew his credibility and political future was on the line, and he needed to act. He struck back with the extension decision this week.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who played the good cop on recruitment (privately blaming his defence minister for mismanaging the issue, and distancing himself from the PLA decision to begin recruitment) backed Thapa this time around.
His calculations were possibly based on the fact that this would weaken Katuwal within the army, irrespective of the eventual compromise. The older officers would perhaps blame him for taking the confrontation with Maoists too far. A few officers would be happy at getting a chance to rise up. And everyone would know who's boss.
It would appease the PLA, which in the past few months has been asserting itself as an autonomous political stakeholder. Even if Dahal is hand in glove with the PLA commanders, there is an attempt to portray it as an independent force as this increases the bargaining power of the Maoists.
At press time, the politics is still playing itself out. The Maoists can't be seen as backtracking yet again but they don't want this to be a pretext for anti-Maoist cosolidation. And despite the NC's support, it will be more difficult for Katuwal, who has steadily been exhausting his political capital, to rally forces around him. Whether the Indians try to broker a compromise or adopt a more hands-off approach, they will have a role.
The army is continuing as if it is business as usual. What was the screening process for an extension for these eight officers? Was there a serious evaluation about immediate needs of the army and abilities and indispensability of these officers? Was this shared officially with the political leadership? When will they bring about a culture of transparency?
On the government side, the original villain for not setting up institutions is Girija Prasad Koirala who seriously believed he was the state. He centralised all decisions related to the army, calculating this would give him control. A committee headed by defence minister (himself) and a few government secretaries would decide on key military decisions. The Maoists just continued this political culture of not consulting the cabinet, or the legislature oversight committees.
At a time of transition when civil-military relations are strained, when non-Maoists suspect that the Maoists are trying to take control, why be reckless and not engage in broader consultations if your intent is right? What if the army and the country need some of those eight officers at the leadership level right now?
This episode erodes the trust between Maoists and non- Maoists, and pushes back the possibility of substantive discussion on integration. Is that the Maoist intention all along?
But it also presents an opportunity. The Maoists are mistaken if they think they can bulldoze their way and exert partisan control over the army, there are just too many balancing factors. If they want a stable political system, which will allow them to exercise power with legitimacy, they have to focus on building independent civilian institutions to control the army. Emulating Koirala won't work.
The Nepal Army needs to see that there has to be a major overhaul of its organisational culture. The rules of the game have changed, they should reconcile themselves to it in practice.