War without bloodshed
NEPAL'S Maoist prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or "Prachanda" (fierce), recently said that running a country was harder than running a guerrilla war. He should not have been surprised. The Maoist-led coalition government was formed after the ex-guerrillas pulled off a stunning election victory last April, just two years after they tramped in from the jungle. It faced three giant tasks: to bring better government to one of South Asia's poorest countries; to help sustain a peace process that followed a bitter, decade-long struggle; and to preside over the writing of a new constitution. Achieving all this, within the 30-month term allotted to a government, was bound to be difficult. Yet there is now a growing fear that failurein a country that has seen civil war, a royal coup, the abolition of the monarchy, huge protests and an ethnically based rebellion in recent yearsmay spark a fresh crisis before long.
On its first task, the government has done passably well. With a few able ministers, it has made a better fist of administration than its shambolic predecessor, headed by the main opposition, the Nepali Congress party. The Maoist finance minister, Baburam Bhattarai, promised lots of handouts for the poor. But by making it easier for people to pay income tax, and threatening retribution to those who will not, he has also, he says, boosted the government's revenues by 38%. If this has not endeared the Maoists to Kathmandu's well-heeled tax-dodgers, the ex-guerrillas do not care. "Resolutely unclubable", in the phrase of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, the Maoists rose on the back of popular resentment against Kathmandu's grip on the nation's power and wealth.
On the second task, encouraging peace, the news is less good. In Kathmandu on March 22nd, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, declared that without justice for the victims of Nepal's war, in which 13,000 died, the country's fragile peace might be doomed. There is as yet no prospect of such justice. The war's murders and rapes were carried out by two forces that remain at loggerheads: the Maoists' 24,000-strong People's Liberation Army, currently corralled under UN supervision, and the national army.
Under the terms of a 2006 peace accord between the Maoists and the main political parties, the Maoist fighters were to be taken into the army, or found other jobs. The army, which backed Nepal's deposed king, Gyanendra, in a 2005 power-grab, was also to be reformed. None of this has been done. In private, politicians and some army officers agree that a few thousand Maoist foot-soldiers will have to be recruited into the army, and some Maoist commanders given accelerated officer training. Yet the army chief, General Rookmangud Katwal, who hates Maoists, is reluctant to concur. And the Maoists seem unwilling to disband their forces.
This is unsustainable. On March 15th the Maoist defence minister refused to extend the service of eight brigadier-generals, as General Katwal had asked him to. The Maoists were retaliating against General Katwal's earlier refusal to abandon an army recruitment drive, as the government and UN had said he should. Might the army take over? "Let's hope that situation doesn't arise," says a senior officer. It may not, at least without tacit support from India, and that seems unlikely.
Alas, the Maoists' third task, presiding over the writing of a new constitution by Nepal's elected assembly, promises to be the most difficult. Little progress has been made, because of incompetence, political jockeying and fundamental disagreements. Most contentious is the issue of federalism. All the main parties have vowed to support a new federal Nepal, but few, if any, consider this practical or desirable. The root of the problem is, again, widespread resentment of rich Kathmandu and its pampered elite. Yet few regions outside the Kathmandu valley generate much wealth and, even if politically possible, the sort of provincial structures that many Nepalis now expect may be unaffordable.
The issue is already explosive. After a 2006 insurrection in the southern Terai region by the Madhesi ethnic group, all the main parties have pandered to regional sentiments. This has encouraged more uprisings. This month members of another ethnic group, the Tharu, in the western part of the Terai, launched a ruinous two-week blockade of roads across the country. They objected to their classification by the Maoists as Madhesi, whom the Tharu consider interlopers from India. Nepal's troubles are far from over.