Nepal's slide into chaos will be enormously accelerated by king Gyanendra's dismissal of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government on February 1, 2005. The move was justified on the tenuous grounds of Deuba's failure to secure a dialogue with the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist rebels in the country, as well as the Prime Minister's apparent inability to organize elections - conditionalities that would have been impossible for any regime to secure under present circumstances.
The fact is, the king simply lost patience and grasped absolute power in the
country on impulse, with little evidence of a plan.
There has, of course, been a crescendo of international protests on the 'stifling of democracy' in Nepal, but the morality or otherwise of the king's move is not the primary consideration here. For one thing, democracy in Nepal had been 'stifled' quite some time ago, and the puppet regimes that have been charged with running the country since the May 2002 dissolution of Parliament have had very feeble links with representative government.
For another, even among the king's most voluble critics most would concede
that, eventually, in the realpolitik of the international order, purely
pragmatic considerations will prevail in dealings with the new dispensation at
Kathmandu. It is, however, on the power and capacities of the new order that the
king has established that the efficacy of his moves must finally be judged, and
it is on this account that the most significant reservations arise.
Regrettably, far from enhancing the capacities of the state at this critical juncture, the 'palace coup' will, in fact, severely circumscribe the range of policy options available to the king and will undermine the state's capabilities. This is despite the temporary illusion of strength created by the concentration of all executive power in the palace, the declaration of an Emergency, the detention - in prison or under house arrest - of almost the entire top political leadership of the various constitutional parties in the country, total Press censorship and the arrest of some prominent Press persons who protested the king's move, as well as some crude intimidatory tactics against the people of Kathmandu by the Army.
By his precipitate action, the king has lost all constituencies of support within Nepal, except the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), a small band of conservative loyalists and a handful of opportunists. He has, moreover, at least momentarily alienated the various countries - most prominently India, USA and UK - as well as the many international agencies who had committed extraordinary resources and support to Nepal over the past traumatic years, and whose continued support will remain critical, not only in the war against the Maoists, but to the very survival of the regime at Kathmandu. At least some of these entities will not find it possible to reconcile their proclaimed positions and postures with a resumption of aid to the new regime - and the regime's conduct may make it particularly difficult for others to sustain support.
Essentially, it would appear, that the king's strategy over the coming months will lean inordinately on heavy-handed repression to 'restore order' in the country. In this, the risks of failure are extraordinary. For one thing, the armed forces available to Kathmandu are far from sufficient to manage the scale and spread of the insurgency in Nepal, and these forces have, in fact, been operationally diminished as a result of the withdrawal of significant numbers to Kathmandu for the protection and management of the capital.
The 4,000 troops and 5,100 police personnel permanently stationed at
Kathmandu would certainly be inadequate to retain a semblance of order in this
city of three million in the present circumstances, and, while specific numbers
are not available, reports suggest that this Force has been substantially
augmented by a withdrawal of troops from other parts of the country. As troops
mass in Kathmandu, the rest of the country would become the more unstable, the
more vulnerable to Maoist consolidation, and Kathmandu itself will become the
more susceptible to 'encirclement' by the rebels.
Indeed, Kathmandu's vulnerabilities have been demonstrated again and again by repeated boycotts and blockades which have effectively choked its transport lifelines for days at end. And while the saturation of forces and the shock of the Royalist takeover may have resulted in a measure of immediate disorientation, Kathmandu's susceptibility to direct militant action is also significant.
Indeed, after the collapse of the ceasefire on August 27, 2003, and till
December 31, 2004, the 'fortified' Kathmandu Valley has topped the list for
incidents of bomb blasts, with at least 68 explosions registered, including 55
in Kathmandu, nine in Bhaktapur and four in the Lalitpur area. Though total
fatalities in these incidents have been low - the insurgents have killed 11
Security Force personnel and 8 civilians - their disruptive and demoralizing
impact has been significant. The Maoists have also established a 'Special Task
Force' with six to seven 'waves' or groups, each comprising 12 to 24
sharpshooters, to operate in and around the Valley. The potential for a
sustained campaign of harassment and terror in Kathmandu, consequently, is
With an estimated strength of just 80,000 soldiers in the RNA, 17,000 personnel in the newly raised Armed Police Force (APF) and a poorly equipped Police Force comprising 47,000 men, Nepal simply does not have the numbers to contain an insurgency of the magnitude of the Maoist movement, in a population of nearly 27 million people, with every one of its 75 districts currently afflicted.
The Maoists have a current estimated strength of between 8,000 to 10,000
well-armed and trained 'regulars' and an additional 25,000 (on conservative
estimates) 'militia' armed with relatively primitive weapons, such as pipe guns
and crude bombs. These are backed up by a substantial number of 'sympathisers'
who can, under certain circumstances, be mobilised - voluntarily or coercively -
for violent action. The current strength of 144,000 men in all state forces
cannot even provide a fraction of a minimally acceptable counter-insurgency
Force ratio, which would have to exceed at least 1:10, and arrives at desirable
(though far from optimal) levels at 1:20. Indeed, even such ratios may not allow
the state forces to dominate the entire countryside, given the nature of the
terrain - which overwhelmingly favours guerrilla and irregular forces - in
The very inadequacy of forces implies, essentially, that a strategy of repression would have to depend overwhelmingly on relatively indiscriminate violence in 'target areas' deemed to be 'Maoist infested'. Irrespective of the brutality of such operations, however, the state's forces would not be able to establish a permanent presence or control over the country's sprawling hinterland - there simply are not enough 'boots on the ground'. Indeed, the Maoists themselves would not be particularly averse to such 'state brutality'.
It is useful to recall that it was precisely at the time of the most brutal phase of its military campaign against the rebels - after the collapse of the ceasefire in August 2003 - that Kathmandu lost control of its territories at the most rapid rate. Given this record, the possibility that the Maoists may, in fact, actively seek to provoke indiscriminate state violence, cannot be ruled out. This would feed their ranks and may, eventually, so sicken the RNA's soldiery that they would begin to ask themselves whether such a king and such a regime, which commands them to fight and slaughter their own countrymen, is worth fighting for.
It is this outcome, and not some dramatic military confrontation at the gates
of Kathmandu, that the Maoists will seek to engineer with a combination of
demonstrations, disruptive activities, blockades and targeted violence. It is
useful to note that the RNA and the APF recruit from the same villages and
communities that have been, and will continue to be, targeted in the
counter-insurgency campaign and, though no numbers are currently available,
there has been a steady trickle of desertions from these forces since the Army
was drawn into operations after the Dang attack (in November 2001).
Worse, Gyanendra is a far from popular king, and whatever the truth may be, the taint of suspicion of his involvement in the palace massacre of June 2001 has never been entirely removed from the collective mind of the people of Nepal. He has, moreover, a particularly unpopular son in Paras, and the Prince's misdeeds have filled the capital with sordid rumours.
While Kathmandu is currently being held down with sheer force, and while the
memory of the incompetence of the fractious democratic parties is presently
fresh in the public mind, it will not take much before people begin speaking of
the 'better times' under the democratic leadership. Indeed, this is the critical
flaw in the king's strategy - he has removed the buffer between the palace and
the people. Henceforth, while all credit for improbable successes would no doubt
flow directly to him, so, indeed, would all blame for failure and governmental
incapacity in every sphere.
This process has already begun. The Deuba government was dismissed for failure to open negotiations with the Maoists, and the new dispensation immediately declared that, with the king wielding executive authority "it would be easier for the rebels to come for peace talks. It is what they have been wanting." But the rebels have rejected these overtures outright, stating that "The king has closed the door to any possibility of talks." The Maoist 'chief', Pushpa Kamal Dahal @ 'Prachanda', has also called on "all pro-people forces" to unite against the king's dismissal of the Deuba government and the imposition of the Emergency.
There are also indications that the most of the fractious Constitutional parties have now been, in some measure, united against the king. Most of the leadership that is not already under detention has gone underground, and some are believed to have crossed over into India. The actual strength and capacities of this movement will only be discovered over time, but any such moves can only make the king's situation more untenable.
External players - particularly India, the US and UK - cannot be indifferent to these various considerations or to objective calculations of the probable success or failure of the king's current enterprise. In this, of course, the king has also sought to force their hand by playing up traditional geopolitical rivalries - and there have been rather obvious overtures in the past few days to both China and (particularly for India's benefit) Pakistan. But here, the king may well have overplayed his hand.
The delusions of the 'absolute power' of the monarch notwithstanding, the
truth is, Kathmandu has always been, and remains, a weak and immensely dependent
centre of power. Those who are acquainted with the history of Nepal's monarchy
over the past half century, particularly in the early 1960s and the late 1980s,
will be aware of how susceptible the king would be to external, especially
There may still be some scope for the international community, particularly the countries aiding Kathmandu, to try to convince king Gyanendra that he has made a gross miscalculation, and that the possibilities of the long-term survival of Nepal's beleaguered monarchy are greatest under a stable Constitutional order, which can still be restored through immediate correctives that would address the consequences of his present and acute lapse of judgement.
It is, nevertheless, also time, now, for India and the international community, to begin imagining and assessing the possibilities and character of the successor state at Kathmandu, and containing the possibility of Nepal's spiral into chaos in case the king is led to his own downfall by continued lapses of judgement. Such a process would require envisaging radical options, including the reactivation of effective backchannel processes to work out a stable and comparatively democratic solution with the Maoists and the Constitutional political parties. A number of alternative scenarios need to be projected, and at least some of these may be 'unorthodox' and may involve support to radical alternative structures of power in the country.
Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. P.G. Rajamohan is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict ManagementCourtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal