As things stood on the evening of July 26, 20011, Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal’s five-month-old government could collapse by the weekend, thereby giving serious headache to India, which has serious stake in the peace process and drafting of a new constitution. The present Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML)- is Nepal’s fourth government in three years.
Back in February of this year, Khanal had become the Nepalese Prime Minister by pulling the rug from below the feet of his own party leader, Madhav Kumar Nepal after signing a controversial pact with the former Maoist guerrillas to gain their support.
As discussed in an earlier post in this column, it was only on the last day of the expiry of the term of the Constituent Assembly (CA) on May 28, 2011 that Nepal’s key parties had forestalled a major Constitutional crisis and struck a last-minute deal to extend the term of the Constituent Assembly (CA) by three months, under which Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal would step down for the formation of a national unity govt.
While it was always going to be quite an uphill task to keep the top, warring leaders (Chairman of UCPN-Maoist Prachanda, President of NC Sushil Koirala and Chairman of CPN-UML Jhalanath Khanal) from going for the jugular, what triggered the present impasse is UML’s decision of a reshuffle of ministers in the Prime Minister’ cabinet. In place of Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the Maoist central committee meeting yesterday nominated Narayan Kaji Shrestha, vice president of the party, to lead its ministerial team with the portfolio of Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister. The party has been seeking to reshuffle the cabinet, replacing their party men with a new list of 24 ministers since Monday (July 25).
However, Khanal, who heads the United Marxist Leninists Party but is dubbed as ‘half-Maoist and half-UML leader’ by his own party colleagues, refused point-blank to the demand and made it clear that he would rather resign than swear in any new ministers in the cabinet.
On the other hand, the party was clear in its stand: “We have given him time until 8 AM Wednesday,” disclosed Vice Chairman Narayan Kaji Shrestha of Unified Maoists.
At the same time, Nepal’s main opposition party, the Nepal Congress (NC) has now been obstructing the parliament for the last two days, demanding resignation of the Prime Minister. NC asserts that the nomination of new ministers by the Maoist party is gross violation of the five point deal (towards formation of a new constitution).
Speaker Subas Nembang had to adjourn the House meeting as NC lawmakers continued their protests despite his request to allow House proceedings. As a consequence, the Parliament failed to consider bills or conduct other business during the week.
Speaking in parliament, NC’s deputy parliamentary party leader Prakashman Singh said, “The PM had signed the five-point agreement admitting the fact that the government had failed to make progress in the peace process and constitution writing. So, he must step down.”
In a meeting of the top leadership of the major three political parties, the NC objected to yesterday’s endorsement by the Maoist Central Committee’s of the proposal put forth by UML Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal on peace, statute and organizational – including cabinet – reshuffling.
Signaling tough days ahead for the parliament, the NC central committee has announced that the party would continue to obstruct the parliament until PM Khanal tenders his resignation. “Until environment becomes favorable we will continue to obstruct the parliament,” said NC Vice President Ram Chandra Poudel.
Critics of India, which are in significant numbers in the Himalayan nation, leave out no opportunity to point out that the current NC rigidity coincides with the visit of NC President Koirala’s to India – thereby implying that the impasse is (at least partly) created by India.
However, while PM Khanal would not have lost sleep over NC’s protests, the fact that the Maoists, whose support only he had managed to gain, are now hostile towards him for his refusal to reshuffle the cabinet means that resignation may be the only option left for him. In the process, he may also answer media and opposition criticism of him being a mere puppet in the hands of the Maoists.
And sure enough, the desire of the belligerent-by-the-day Maoists to rule the nation either directly or by proxy comes through the statement of Unified Maoists’ Barsa Man Pun: “After Khanal resigns we will take needed actions to form a new government under our own command.”
Quite poignantly for Nepal, the fall of the Jhala Nath Khanal government – irrespective of all its political ramifications – is the least of the worries for the Nepalese people. The biggest issue for them would be the unveiling of a new constitution. As per the 5-point agreement, the government would dissolve anyway if the new constitution does not come into being by the end of August. And since Nepal has already missed two earlier deadlines by which it was to arrive at a new constitution, the Supreme Court of Nepal has “discouraged the government” from seeking yet another extension.
Even a kid on the streets of Kathmandu would tell you that PM Khanal would not be able to get the new constitution ready by next month. Nor would he be able to discharge the Maoists’ guerrilla army, whose nearly 20,000 combatants remain a major concern for the future of democracy in the country.
All of the aforementioned uncertainty is taking a toll on the country’s economy – especially in the form of trade with India. India bashing may be the order of the day in some circles during the current volatile political climate, but what should worry even them is that the Indian investment in Nepal is now at its lowest since the last five years. It is a relationship that the Himalayan nation can barely allow to deteriorate.
Unless the final aim is to facilitate Maoists’ sitting in China’s lap.