Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Squeeze the middle


The present political mood is eerily similar to pre-October 2002 and pre-February 2005, with the ultra-left and ultra-right feeding on each other.

The political parties were still running show in principle then. But everyone knew that Sher Bahadur Deuba's governments (after the dissolution of the parliament as well as the one in alliance with UML, and the Lokendra Bahadur-Surya Bahadur interregnum) were masks. Narayanhiti and Bhadrakali were calling the shots.

A deep sense of foreboding prevailed. As soon as a government was formed, people were calculating how long it would last. The democratic space in the districts had shrunk with the army colonel and Maoist commissar setting the terms and agenda. The war escalated. There was a hankering for a 'strongman' to see the country through, even as democratic aspirations were growing on the ground.

At a time when the rest of the country was moving left with the Maoist transformation, Kathmandu turned right with the king's takeover. This disconnect led to the regime's downfall.

Contexts differ but examine the similarities with the present. While the electorate delivered a verdict in favour of left forces, the centre is being run from a definite right orientation.

Madhav Nepal is the face but has to report to multiple masters. Those who helped cobble together this government (from the president to army chief) already have differences with the PM. No one knows who's the real boss.
There is a concerted effort by previous benefactors to discredit an already fragile government.

Isolated and hounded by other parties in capital politics, the Maoists have gone back to their old violent ways out in the districts. The general sense is that the present government won't last very long: both because of the opposition from outside and contradictions within. Even cabinet ministers admit this is a "stopgap arrangement".

Within a few months, as protests escalate and the government is seen to have failed, there will be a growing clamour for an alternative. A top businessman told us this week: "These parties are useless. We will finally need the army, and the president playing a more active role to control things."

The fall of this government, whenever it happens, will be a critical moment. Will it mean a renegotiation with the Maoists, their re-entry into government, and movement on contentious issues? Or will it be followed by an even more rightward shift in the polity, with the military taking an assertive role?

Going by the trend, the latter is more likely. And Maoist actions will only help push us towards that.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai have learnt the limits of their power after the army chief episode. They want to escalate protests but only in a calibrated manner to increase their bargaining power. Both realise that the only way out of the impasse is to make up with India and other parties.

But they have to deal with the Kirans, Gajurels and Biplabs within the party. These divisions are for real. One leader from the dogmatic faction recently said that he would like to see the parties go with the army.

Their aim is to deepen the polarisation, monopolise the opposition space, create urban unrest, and attempt a power grab. The revival of parallel governments in Surket and Bajura, hitting out at rivals in Kalikot stems from this approach.
Squeezing the middle ground is common to the aim and orientation of both the ultra left and the right-wingers who are powerful in the present dispensation. Erstwhile royalists, hardliners in the army, NC and UML conservatives have always felt that the last few years was "unnatural", that another onslaught on the Maoists is both necessary and desirable, and the time is now ripe.

What can pull things back?

The Maoists have to practice peaceful oppositional politics and reassure other parties of their commitment to democracy. Parties have to realise that the army is not their natural ally and they will be left nowhere when the democratic space shrinks. The military must recognise that it may become more powerful in the short-term, but the present route will discredit them and hamper their institutional development as a modern army.

And India must temper the rightward drift, for that can only lead to conflict. Delhi will not be able to escape the consequences of an unstable and anarchic Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)