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On foreign policy, the Maoists explain that “equidistance” does not imply playing China against India or ignoring the compulsions of geography, history, culture and an open border to the south.

Unique Opportunity in Nepal

The Maoists were surprised by their own success in a fair and open election. Their task will now be to keep exuberant youth cadres in check.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald/Tribune, 29 April, 2008

Nepal’s election has effected a globally significant Maoist transition from people’s war” to parliamentary government. An excellent conference in Patna last week, brought leading “New Nepal” representatives face to face with Indian interlocutors in constructive dialogue. The outcome was reassuring. Listening to ranking Nepali Maoists, like C.P. Gajurel (politburo member) and Ms Hislisa Yami, Minister Interim Government and engineer-wife of Baburam Bhattarai (the Maoist No. 2, suggested pragmatism in shaping the new constitution and realizing transformational progress in measured steps.

Taken with statements by Prachanda, the Maoist chairman, the Party is pledged to building a consensus in constitution-making and governance on the basis of  “democracy, republicanism, federalism and secularism” with a mandate for “peace, stability and inclusiveness”. Ideology is not being abandoned but ground realities predicate capitalist development with political competition based on consensual politics to ensure national unity and cohesion. Gajurel bluntly stated that “socialism” failed in Eastern Europe as it denied the principle of competition.

The Maoists were surprised by their own success in a fair and open election, despite some pre-poll violence and intimidation. Their task will now be to keep exuberant youth cadres in check. Seeking representational insurance through a part-direct, part-PR electoral system, the Maoists now find themselves disadvantaged by the larger indirect representation gained by their opponents. The latest tally gives the Maoists 220 seats in a House of 601, the Nepali Congress 110 and the UML 103. But since all decisions in the constituent assembly must be taken consensually or decided by a two-thirds majority, both sides have a blocking majority. This should induce compromise and sobriety in all matters. 

The CA is charged with writing a constitution within 24 months, following which there will be fresh elections. There are a number of sensitive issues to be resolved. Republicanism is virtually a fait accompli, though some still harbour a fugitive hope otherwise. Merger of the Maoist PLA and Nepal Army is trickier, but Mr Prachanda is for “professionalism”. “Capitalist” development should not preclude essential agrarian reform, but the Nepal’s business community has been told that private property and investments will not be expropriated. 

Leadership of the government may be contested, with some in the NC and Seven Party Alliance suggesting marginalizing or even excluding the Maoists. This would be unwise.The PR system has brought about representational inclusiveness, including a measure of gender equity. The Madhesis (around 85 seats) and Jan Jatis have secured fair representation for the first time. This has also altered the regional balance. However, great care must be exercised in designing the new federal units. Madhesis favour a single east-west Madhesi province bordering India. Similar absolute ethno-linguistic divisions could create one or more Jan Jati units in the northern belt. Such a configuration could have geo-political repercussions that are best avoided. Further, east-west divisions would contradict the logic of south-north natural resource regions based on Nepal’s greatest asset, its rivers, and could be a recipe for bitter upper-lower riparian tensions such as experienced in India. A mixed approach could perhaps accommodate the essence of both principles, with water being included in the concurrent list to ensure the national interest and balanced regional development.  

On foreign policy, the Maoists explain that “equidistance” does not imply playing China against India or ignoring the compulsions of geography, history, culture and an open border to the south. They have committed themselves to Panch Sheel and see themselves not as a buffer but as a bridge between their two giant neighbours. Nepal is not landlocked by but “open-locked” with India, whose growing market and economic strength offers it a great opportunity in every way. Revision of the 1950 Treaty should pose no problem.  India has reiterated its willingness for a review or abrogation while prudent Nepalese realise that the Treaty is really loaded in their favour and while being modified should not be scrapped.

A new realism is dawning in Nepal on harnessing its water potential in collaboration with India. The Maoists talk of developing 10,000 MW of power within 10 years as against a current installed capacity of 800 MW. Three deals Upper Karnali, Arun-III and  Burhi Gandaki), worth almost 1400 MW, have been negotiated with Indian firms while the Power Trading Corporation of India is to buy power from the 750 MW West Seti project to be built by Australia’s Snowy Mountain Engineering Authority. Four major transmission lines are also proposed to evacuate power to India. Some old cobwebs remain to be cleared but the omens seem good.

Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry and Power outlined various measures under way to promote trade facilitation and remove non-tariff barriers (after drastic tariff liberalization). Trade will follow investment and, if Nepal creates an enabling environment, with greater access to Indian markets through a proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) there could be dramatic progress. Interestingly, he also advocated a Nepal-Bihar-UP trade and cooperation mechanism to harness economic interest with regional political will to spur implementation, especially for flood moderation, to which the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, drew special attention. Complementarities exist. Let none forget the huge opportunity costs of delay. 

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