A breakthrough in negotiations between the king and the Maoists on the eve of Martyrs' Day has opened the doors for a meaningful dialogue between the warring parties. The announcement of ceasefire followed public outrage over the killings on Sunday of IGP of the Armed Police Force, Krishna Mohan Shrestha, his wife and bodyguard.
IGP Shrestha is the highest-ranking government official so far from among those who have laid down their lives for the country. The Maoist insurgency and the counter-insurgency operations by the security forces have claimed nearly 8,000 Nepali lives.
If the ceasefire leads to a lasting solution, the blood of the innocent will not have been spilt in vain. If the truce turns out to be temporary, the consequences of the next phase of the conflict are too horrendous to contemplate. This second round of talks with the Maoists has to succeed. There is no other way.
By agreeing to remove the terrorist tag, withdrawing the red-corner notice from Interpol and cancelling the bounty over the heads of Maoist leaders, the king's nominees have taken a truly bold step. The next logical move would be to unilaterally accept those demands of the Maoists that do not directly contravene the laws of the land. It can safely be assumed from all available indications that the king has prepared himself for such an eventuality.
Since the Maoists are fighting for a republic, their main clash is with the king. However, they seem to have decided to strike while the iron is hot. Politically, the king is all alone since he has isolated himself from all the mainstream political parties. The Maoists probably hope they can wrest substantial concessions.
Among all the stakeholders of the peace process, the role of the king is the most crucial. He can either seize the moment and make a place for himself in history by opting for fundamental changes in the political structure of the country, or choose to ride the waves by making cosmetic changes in the status quo. It's King Gyanendra's decision, and it will decide the future of the forthcoming dialogue with the Maoists, the future of the country and indeed, the future of the monarchy itself.
The predicament of the mainstream political parties like Nepali Congress, UML, RPP and even the Sadbhavana is unenviable. They have so far been used, ridiculed, discredited and then sidelined from the conflict resolution process between the monarchy and the Maoists. The choice they face is no choice at all-they now have to line up behind the Maoists if they want to save their political skins.
Accepting the Maoist demand for a constituent assembly shouldn't be very difficult for the Nepali Congress as it has already prepared its supporters for it. Among the possible procedures for constitutional reforms (a constituent assembly, parliamentary enactment, drafting by an all party expert committee, negotiated settlement between conflicting interest groups, petition to the ruler, direct foreign intervention and a national referendum) an election for a constituent assembly is undoubtedly the most complex. But it also confers greatest political legitimacy on the resulting text.
The legitimisation of the Maoists implies that the UML needs to reinvent itself at its Janakapur Convention. There is no place for two large communist blocs in Nepali politics and UML has to carve itself a niche around Bahudaliya Janabad Marxism. The clamour for power within UML has got so bitter that the likelihood of Comrade Madhav Nepal and Comrade Khadga Oli burying their personal differences for the greater good of the party, and the country along with it, seems remote. Unless the younger cadres decide to assert themselves in Janakpur, Nepal's bourgeoisie communists risk being consigned to the dustbins of history.
The RPP and Sadbhavana have realised by now that the benefits of being the "king's party" are ephemeral. A party, by its very definition, belongs to the people. What will be their stand when the government and the insurgents call for an all-party conference? The RPP's recent decision to accept "some kind of a role" for the king has alienated it from other mainstreamists, and it would be suicidal for it to accept any further emasculation of the constitution.
The prospect for peace in the country depends upon the choices that these stakeholders make. Meanwhile, all we can do is keep the pressure on all sides to pursue the path of peace without sacrificing democratic pluralism. In a multi-ethnic society, there is no alternative to a system that derives its strength from diversity.
At the end of a hard and bitter winter this truce, however fragile, is a respite for the Nepalis. The people have less to lose than those who have higher stakes. Let's just hope it's not a false spring.