The clock started ticking for the thrilling and unpredictable drama of the race for the prime ministerial post the very minute Madhav Kumar Nepal put down his papers. Along with the usual contenders of major political parties, the bosses of fringe parties too have thrown their hat in the ring. Given the level of hatred that the Indian establishment harbors against Pushpa Kamal Dahal, it is very unlikely that he will end up having the job once again. The leader of the largest party in the parliament is all but out of the race. Dahal is a victim of his own unwarranted shrewdness. By now, he must have realized that even in a gullible nation, there is a limit to which you can exploit populism and stoke ultra-nationalism to get to power.
India would have no problem letting the Maoist party head the government if Dahal made way for Dr Baburam Bhattarai. The work to make that happen has been underway for a while now. India’s proxies in Nepal have been openly promoting the idea of Bhattarai as prime minister. The Tarai-based Madhesi parties have come out openly in favor of Bhattarai. Recently, Brikhesh Chandra Lal of Tarai-Madhes Democratic Party went to the extent of saying that Bhattarai was the only capable candidate in the Maoist party to head the government. The change of heart in favor of Bhattarai is not a coincidence. It is a part of a greater design of the Indian establishment to bring about virtual split in the Maoist party. The Maoist party at its current form is too big for India to dictate and its proxies in Nepal to compete with. Indians calling the shot truly believe that the only way to break the Maoist party is by promoting Bhattarai and making him compromise on contentious issues like integration of Maoist combatants.
Given the intra-party feud in the Nepali Congress (NC) and its antagonistic posture against the Maoist party, there is a huge possibility that Jhalanath Khanal might emerge as a consensus candidate for the prime minister’s post. Having Khanal as prime minister has its own pros and cons. It may temporary halt the migration of CPN-UML cadres to the Maoist party and delay the defection of the likes of Bamdev Gautam. In other words, having him as a prime minister may delay the surge of the political left in Nepal. The longevity of the government under Khanal will be greater than that of anyone from the NC. This is mainly because the Constituent Assembly members from the UML will not support the NC government for long even if it materializes. The chances of the NC heading the government are very slim at this point of time. Given the fact that even the likes of Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Shekhar Koirala, both of whom once openly boasted about bringing the Maoists over ground, have now become weary about the Maoists’ intentions, there is very little reason for the Maoists to support NC to form a government. If they cannot head the government, they want someone who favors them. Or else they had no reason to persist on getting rid of Madhav Nepal.
The danger associated with Khanal’s ascendancy to power is that he is too tilted toward the left. If you look at Khanal’s views on crucial issues and his relationship with Dahal and other Maoist leaders, it becomes quite evident that there is not much of a difference between him and the top-level Maoist ideologues. Additionally, Khanal flip-flops too. At this point in time, we need someone who can tactfully deal with the Maoists on the issue of integration of combatants, pressurize them to return seized properties, demobilize Young Communist League’s paramilitary structure, and crush criminal activities under ethnic cover. We need someone who can deliver on the aforementioned fronts and still have enough political capital to spend on the constitution-making process. Given Khanal’s cozy relationship with the Maoist party, his emergence as a compromise candidate may help solve the existing political stalemate but will be of no use when it comes to mainstreaming the Maoists. The mainstreaming of the Maoists is crucial because unless that happens, the desire to have a republican order of their liking will remain alive and kicking.
Madhav Nepal’s government failed on all possible fronts. It could not work well with the opposition party, failed miserably to maintain law and order, and was fiscally irresponsible. But Nepal must be given credit for not heeding to Maoists’ coercion. He did not heed to Maoist threat of indefinite strike, which the Maoists were forced to withdraw because of the lack of popular support. Nepal might have gotten the directives from international players to not get coerced by the Maoists but it takes some courage to stand the heat. We all know how capable the Maoists are in extracting concessions from gullible personalities. The late Girija Prasad Koirala’s post-2006 stint as prime minister is a classic example. At this juncture, the country needs a strong but tactical prime minister to effectively deal with the Maoists. We need someone who can adopt a carrot-and-stick approach required to tame the Maoists and take the constitution-drafting process forward at the same time. By now, even the eternal optimists must have realized how misguided the process of achieving peace through the appeasement of the Maoists has been.
None of the claimants for the premiership have the required political will and capital to deliver on all fronts. There is no evidence whatsoever to believe that the new government will last longer than the one it replaces. But the resignation of Madhav Nepal has opened up a space for political compromise. It has once again given chance to Nepali politicians to come together and solve the problems confronting the nation. Nepali people would feel lucky even if some of the contentious issues are resolved.