Why did King Gyanendra and the Maoist leadership decide to talk now? It could be what is called the "principal-agent problem". The "principals" are the king and the Maoist leaders, and their armies are the respective "agents". Given the six years of strategic dynamics between the Maoists and the security forces leading right up to the killing of IGP Krishna Mohan Shrestha on 26 January, losing control of the agents' behavior in an escalating conflict would have been a genuine fear.
In six years, the Maoists' sphere of influence increased from just nine districts to 66. Lately, the state too had moved beyond tit-for-tat tactics to hunting down rebel militia inflicting a 5:1 "kill ratio". The fact that many of these were not even Maoists had started coming out in scathing human rights reports. Then came the killing of the APF chief. This was a new and dangerous escalation that had the potential of reprisal killings by death squads just like El Salvador in the 1980s.
In such a scenario, both principals (the king and the Maoists) could have lost control of their over-stretched and influential agents. In addition, the agents may have begun to carve out a set of their own incentives. The Maoists cadre already had a taste of extortion, bank robberies and executions-all in the name of their political mission. And with the political parties sidelined, unleashing a well-equipped army on an increasingly brutal counter-insurgency campaign would have been difficult to monitor for Kathmandu.
The kidnapping of school children and the alleged rape incidents in Nepalganj by the security forces could have been some of the signs of a principal-agent problem. If the conflict is prolonged and positions harden, it would be more likely that the military and the monarchy would both be bargaining chips in future negotiations. Worse yet, a full-scale civil war was not so far-fetched anymore. By trying to find an early resolution, negotiations can be limited to some of the Maoists' lesser demands.
So, this truce and negotiated settlement are in the best interests of everyone-the monarchy, the military and the Maoists. But for it to work, the political parties must be brought into the picture. They alone have the mechanism to serve as a go-between between the monarchy and the people. In addition, the Maoists must be wooed into the political mainstream.
The road ahead is fraught with obstacles. Most importantly, the negotiating parties must widen the scope of the purposed constituent assembly. After public debate, consultation and feedback, an elected constituent assembly can easily be converted into a parliament after the task of creating a new constitution is over. Some nations like South Africa have done precisely this to save resources.
A set of constitutional mechanisms should be introduced to make the parliament more accountable, stable, responsible and sovereign. It will require major changes in many areas;
. a decentralised system of regional or even zonal governments to devolve power and responsibility to the grassroots,
. a more inclusive electoral method like the proportional representation system,
. instituting a system of constructive vote of no confidence to ensure stability in the parliament,
. instituting a set of code of conduct in politicos to minimise conflict of interest and reduce institutional corruption, and importantly
. removal of ambiguity in the constitution to ensure the separation of powers.
On the issue of separation of powers, the parliament must be made sovereign by clearly defining the power and responsibility of the king. This will require key changes in the Constitution in the following areas;
. Article 118: Provisions Regarding the Royal Nepal Army,
. Article 115: Emergency Powers,
. Article127: Power to Remove Obstacles,
. Article 35: Executive Powers,
. Article 31: Questions Not To Be Raised in Court, and
. Article 128: Provisions Regarding the Council of Ministers.
Much of the acrimonious debate regarding the 4 October royal move can be summarised as follows: A sitting prime minister loses its party support on the issue of extending the emergency, he collides head-on with his party president and gets expelled from the party. He then recommends the dissolution of parliament, dissolves local elected bodies and contemplates postponing the election date. The king uses Article 127 to fire an elected prime minister for his incompetence in contradiction to the Article 35.2, which requires that any such moves be brought in front of the Council of Ministers and the prime minister himself. The new interim government gets formed against the spirit of the Article 128, which clearly requires participation by the main political parties. Ironically, Article 31 does not allow any debate regarding the constitutionality of the moves.
Most contentious of all is Article 118 about provisions regarding the Royal Nepali Army. The parliament does not seem to have a clear-cut authority to declare an emergency (Article 115), and a heavy reliance on a small set of individuals-a three-person Defense Council-to make decision on the security related matters seems undemocratic. Further, the inclusion of the commander-in-chief as a member of the Council is a conflict of interest. In almost all democracies, the primary role of the army is to follow orders. It should not be involved in any political decision-making process, nor should it ever be put in a position that compels it to question the motives of the elected government. There is much ambiguity regarding the role and authority of the democratically elected government's ability to mobilise the army. The new constitution must clarify these ambiguities.
What we have to safeguard are the accomplishments of the 1990 Peoples' Movement and the new constitution that restored sovereignty in the people. We have to make sure that the sacrifices many made 12 years ago and also in 1951 for the ideals of democracy will not be in vain. And of course, there is the sacrifice of nearly 8,000 Nepali lives in the past seven years, and the destitution, displacement and bereavement of hundreds of thousands of our citizens. We owe it to them to make this work. Finding a lasting solution to the conflict will then put us on a road to finally improving the living conditions of the Nepali people. The road ahead is fraught with obstacles. But we cannot give up trying. We owe it to our future generations and to our brave ancestors who created, preserved and defended this nation.
(Alok K Bohara, PhD, is professor of economics at the University of New Mexico, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org)