The war in Nepal has acquired a false air of suspended animation; an impasse appears to have reached, with neither King nor rebel gaining ground - and the political parties long relegated to the margins. But nothing could be more misleading. Nepal is in continuous ferment, and the equation of power is shifting constantly, though it is yet to crystallize in an overwhelming advantage for any of the contending parties.
Among the more significant signs of the unsettling trend of developments was a district-level meeting between representatives of the agitating political parties and Maoist insurgents in Humla, a remote district in the Karnali region, on July 28, 2005. While details of the discussions were unavailable, both sides are said to have agreed to forge an alliance to continue their fight for the restoration of 'complete democracy' in Nepal, and the first signs of an agreement between the Maoists and the 'constitutional parties' are now emerging.
The current scenario developed after June 19, when seven political parties agitating for the restoration of democracy urged the Maoists to shun violence against their political activists and called for Maoist support for their ongoing pro-democracy movement. The seven-party alliance includes the Nepali Congress (NC), Nepali Congress - Democratic (NC-D), Communist Party of Nepal - United Maoist Leninist (CPN-UML), Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, People's Front Nepal, Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi) and United Left Front. Between them, these parties exhaust an overwhelming proportion of the political mainstream, and leave out only the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), a pro-Palace group, among the country's major political forces.
The very next day, Maoist 'chairman', Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, sent out a 'positive signal', stating, "Earlier, we were surprised at the way the political parties had been conspiring, directly or indirectly, with the despotic monarchy. Now, although late, the parties have given (their) commitment to (a) constituent assembly, absolute democracy and an end to the despotic monarchy." Subsequently, considering the "historic demand of the movement against authoritarianism as well as the request of the seven political parties", Prachanda issued strict directions to all organs of the party, the People's Liberation Army and the new 'People's Government', not to carry out physical attacks on unarmed persons 'even if they are criminals'. These announcements became stepping stones to an emerging alliance between the insurgents and the constitutional parties.
Certain differences, however, do persist within the seven party alliance itself, regarding the approach to the Maoists. Even CPN-UML General Secretary, Madhav Kumar Nepal, urged caution, insisting on a peaceful movement for restoration of democracy during a meeting on June 21, where he stated, "Parties cannot trust them (the Maoists) as they have repeatedly committed mistakes regardless of their commitments expressed earlier." Another senior CPN-UML leader, Jhalnath Khanal added, "There exists (a) 'Pacific Ocean of distrust' between us. The Maoists need to walk several miles to fill the gulf."
On the other hand, the Chairman of RPP, Pashupati Shumshere Rana, had called on all democratic forces to evolve a 'national consensus' between political parties and the Monarchy, and urged the formation of an 'all-party government'.
These contrary pulls and pressures were ironed out when the 'strongman' of Nepal politics and prominent leader of the seven-party alliance, NC President Girija Prasad Koirala declared an 'open dialogue' with the Maoists to restore peace and to bring the rebels into political mainstream, 'irrespective of the consequences'. Responding to Koirala's statement, Prachanda expressed his readiness to collaborate with all political parties and called on them to constitute an official negotiating team in order to create a "massive people's pressure for a democratic way out". Ruling out the possibilities of resumption of peace talks with the Royal Government, the Maoist political wing leader and politburo member, Baburam Bhattarai, declared further that his party was "not attempting a final military victory right now, but is working for a negotiated political settlement either directly for a democratic republic or for the election to a Constituent Assembly."
Clearly, the incipient alliance between the Maoists and the political parties is intended to isolate the Monarchy. The political parties have realised increasing frailty in the wake of the 'King's Coup' on February 1, 2005. The Maoists had also, in the past, been heavily targeting the cadres of the political parties, to curtail their activities and influence across the country, and had substantially eroded their capacities across much of the country - particularly in rural areas. The Maoist deal with the seven-party alliance can create the basis for the restoration of some political activity, and may also, over time, create the foundations of a joint mass movement to pressure - or remove - the King. In the immediate future, it could secure wider acceptance for the Maoists in the international community, as they project the message that they are not against the idea of multiparty democracy in Nepal and are willing to settle the problem through a dialogue.
This certainly weakens the King's present position. The political parties have already conceded the Maoists major demands for a Constituent Assembly and the creation of a Republic and the abolition of the Monarchy as a centre of power in Nepal's political system. Analysts have long predicted that the longer King Gyanendra continues to hold on to absolute power, the more he will push the beleaguered political parties into a deal with the Maoists, and this appears to be what is now happening.
The response from the palace has been a ominous warning, with Government spokesperson Tanka Dhakal describing the 'ongoing attempts for an alliance with a terrorist outfit' as 'unfortunate'. In a thinly veiled threat, he added, "If the parties join hands with the Maoists, the Government will be forced to see them from the same viewpoint."
King Gyanendra has made claims that the situation in the country has 'improved' since February 1, 2005. On July 28, he asserted there had been "considerable improvement… in the internal law and order situation of Nepal." In its efforts to strengthen the King's position, the Royal Government had appointed the Chairmen and Vice Chairmen of 25 District Development Committees (DDC) on June 13 under the Local Autonomous Governance Act. These positions had been vacant since 2002. But the move has been far from popular. Many of the nominated authorities had earlier been convicted under corruption and criminal charges. Nor, indeed, are there significant signs of the 'considerable improvement' the King has claimed in the law and order situation, with 1,331 persons killed during the six months of direct rule under King Gyanendra. Kathmandu's control over the West Central, Far West and Terai areas is now tenuous. Little of the North has ever been under formal governance. And the state's dominance of at least some of the eastern districts is also weakening. What remains is an iron control over a progressively beleaguered Kathmandu Valley.
Little is expected to change in this stressful and unstable equilibrium over the coming months. The rains preclude significant military and political activity. Thereafter, however, there is reason to believe that the Maoists will seek to escalate their campaigns - combining overground and underground movements to engineer disorders across the country, even as the King's isolation - both within the country, and from the international community of Kathmandu's erstwhile supporters - grows. At this stage, the political parties may easily become pawns in a possibly constitutional quest for absolute power. Failing this, violent and potentially chaotic pathways will be explored.
P.G. Rajamohan is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.