Saturday, July 18, 2009

No time to stay cool

Kathmandu is awash with rumours and speculation about an imminent military coup with a civilian face. Some believe that it may happen well before September 10, the day Army Chief Rukmangad Katawal retires. But he is required to take a mandatory leave a month prior to his retirement. Now several things have happened since the beginning of April this year that provides some credence to the theory that Nepal's Army chief is seriously testing the water for a military takeover. The ruse it appears is to preempt a Maoist takeover.
When the Maoists led government sought a clarification from the General in April, there was a story in the press, of a dramatic exchange between the Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) that gave an account of a 'soft' coup that was planned by competing factions, but was averted by the leadership of General Katawal. The story was reported in The Kathmandu Post and Kantipur daily on April 24. The reason I think it was planted and that the exchange might have never taken place is based on two facts.

First, General Kul Bahadur Khadka says that the narrative about him in press story was ingenious but untrue. Second, General Katawal appears to be the calm, composed and rational military leader in the narrative, thus the hero in the story.
So it appears some within the military intelligence planted the story to achieve two things: one, to prove that Khadka was the bad guy and that the Maoists have tried to split and weaken the Army, the last line of defense against the Maoists takeover, by infiltrating it and pushing for wholesale integration. Second, it was a way to test the water: for the reaction of parties, international community and the public.
Since that incident, the Maoist led government was forced to resign, and it is not a secret that the Army had a say in the formation of the new government. The leadership of the Army that accepted civilian control following the demise of monarchy, has suddenly tasted some serious political clout in the new republic, and perhaps now feels invincible to rush headlong into a conflict with any political or military force within the country. In recent weeks, General Katawal has actively met political and diplomatic actors often with an unnecessary military entourage to sell his version of Nepal's impending apocalypse at the hands of the Maoists
Doesn't this rhetoric sound similar to that before February 1, 2005? Then, the United States tacitly backed the King in the belief that the monarchy and the Army were the only running horse and the last line of defense against a complete Maoist takeover. They condoned the squeezing of the democratic space, which expedited the end of the monarchy and the propelling of the Maoists to state power, albeit through democratic means. The paranoia about Maoist takeover then was exaggerated, and is equally so today. Anyone who is listening to these individuals who were instrumental in the downfall of the monarchy, is not in the right frame of mind. At best, it will only provide a ruse for the dismantling of the Nepal Army, should such a misadventure fail. Foolhardiness of few individuals will sink the entire Army.
Any militarization of politics, 'soft or hard', will only take us decades behind, and would protract the involvement and commitment of the international community here. It will actually play into the Maoist strategy. In the short term, it may provide a semblance of victory for the detractors of the Maoists, but in the end, will only act as a catalyst for consolidation of Maoist power.
Right-leaning politicians may be right to think of ways to stop the march of the Maoists, but military solutions should not be among them. As for Indians, it will have a bigger internal security implication, not necessarily from the Nepali Maoists but from their own. It will send the wrong message to the insurgents operating within the length and breadth of the country and would throw the chances of peaceful solution there out of the window.
The Maoists are a formidable force, but any militaristic thinking of the situation will only serve the interest of some individuals with deeply vested interests and the weapons cartel that stand to lose from the peace process. I hope both the politicians and the international community, especially, the Indians, the Americans, the Chinese and the Europeans will draw a line and say enough is enough to those behind the coup chatter. By courting the Generals too much, the ministers in the government, the president's office, and the diplomats are only giving the few adventurists in the military a toehold in the political turf. Before they realize, jarsaabs will have their whole foot and body inside the forbidden door of politics. It is one thing for the international community to maintain a line of communication with the military, and completely another to listen to the crazy idea of sabotaging the fledgling peace process.
By validating the decision taken by the President to revoke the decision of Prime Minister Dahal, the current government has effectively set a precedent that authorizes the President to take extra-constitutional decisions in the guise of political complication. The better course would have been to let the Supreme Court decide the matter. Even the hereditary monarchs hesitated after 1990, with the exception of King Gyanendra's takeover, to so overtly reverse the decision of an elected executive without seeking legal advice from the Supreme Court.
Now that we have a presidential precedent, and an ambitious General who is seeking to extend his tenure, only an international community that proactively condemns any further militarization of Nepali politics can prevent the self-fulfilling prophesies of the Maoists and jarsaabs alike.

Published in The Kathmandu Post on July 17, 09