The Maoists didn't emerge victorious from the devastating war against the state, but the security forces lost it the moment the Seven Party Alliance signed the 12-point understanding with Maoists in November 2005 in New Delhi.
The little goodwill the army had in urban areas was also squandered when soldiers became Gyanendra storm troopers after the 1 February 2005 takeover. But Girija Prasad Koirala forgot and forgave when he promoted an accused human rights violator to the post of Chief of Army Staff (CoAS). But many in Kathmandu still find it difficult to accept that one of the loudest critics of the democratic parties, who once wrote op-eds under the pseudonym Ajay P Nath, has suddenly become the chief proponent of constitutional supremacy, freedom of the press and parliamentary democracy.
Ambitious individuals are pragmatic in their careers. When the 240-year old Shah dynasty passed into history, an army as old as the kingdom earned its republican spurs by literally doing nothing. Behind the scenes deals were never disclosed, but was security of tenure for the incumbent army chief a part of the bargain? Then the guerrilla chieftain and prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, should have nothing to complain about. The trouble is he also has to placate his deputy commander, Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, who needs to be seen to be doing something to bring a former foe under direct control of the party high command.
Behind all the talk of civilian control versus constitutional supremacy, a lingering antipathy between warriors of opposite camps is what lies at the core of the current Maoist-military row. The generals haven't yet recovered from the trauma of their failure, and the Maoists find it hard to accept that power flows out of the ballot box. Both sides in the war of words are caught in the vortex of their own vitriolic rhetoric. Unlike in the past, however, the army has shown that it is better at masking its fears than Maoist commanders.
"All war is deception," said a great military strategist of 500 BC. The Maoists haven't publicly abandoned what they call 'The People's War'. The Nepal Army still finds it difficult to submit itself unequivocally to civilian control of the Maoist party. The country is still in a state of war for all intents and purposes. The military knows what it's doing, and so do the Maoists. The rest of us are merely guessing or reacting.
Under the pressure of Chinese and Indians, Dahal wants to let the mandate of UNMIN lapse when it comes to an end on 23 July 2009. With that deadline in mind, he recently assured visiting British Under Secretary of State for Defence and Minister for Veterans, Kevan Jones, recently that the government's special committee for supervision, integration and rehabilitation of the combatants would complete its work by mid-July. But the prime minister knows that the schedule can't be met when the incumbent army chief is allergic to the very word 'integration'. So the CoAS had to go to make way for a more amenable general.
When the general waiting in the wings realised he may be bypassed by a colleague on the verge of superannuation, news of an impending coup was carefully planted in the friendly media to spur anti-Maoist forces into action. Mission complete, rumours of a 'soft coup' were strongly denied.
It was a publicity coup, meticulously planned and brilliantly executed. Clearly, the army has a better corps of propaganda consultants these days than it did during the war years.
For the Maoists, too, it's a 'heads I win, tails you lose' proposition. If Dahal can manage to sack the CoAS, he will be feted as a brilliant tactician. If the Maoists are forced to backtrack, they can always turn the episode into a publicity stunt: "Look, we tried our best. But other parties are prisoners of the past." The UML too has little to lose, as always, it will be on the side of the winner when the game ends. The victim will be the NC. When a political party has to hold the coat-tails of a military chief to establish its credentials, there is something wrong somewhere.