Aworld-historic event occurred in a small South Asian country on 23 December 2007, when the toppling of the centuries-old Nepali monarchy and its replacement by a democratic federal republic was codified by the country’s interim parliament.footnote1 The political force principally responsible for this achievement has been the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Starting from the early 1990s the cpn-m had embarked, against all received wisdom, on a strategy of underground armed struggle which, within a decade, propelled it to the very forefront of Nepali politics. Militarily, it had fought to a stalemate—at the very least—the Royal Nepal Army. Politically, it had redefined the national agenda with its central demand for an elected Constituent Assembly, to draw up a constitution that would in turn ensure the formation of a new kind of Nepali state—republican, democratic, egalitarian, federal and secular.

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In 2005, at the peak of its military influence, the cpn-m made a strategic turn to seek a permanent peace settlement and forge an alliance for democracy with Nepal’s mainstream parliamentary parties, against the dictatorial rule of King Gyanendra. In so doing, it opened up a completely new phase in the turbulent political history of Nepal and paved the way for the remarkable mass upsurge of April 2006, known to Nepalis as the Second Democratic Revolution—Jan Andolan II. Beginning on April 6, with the declaration of a 4-day general strike and rally for democracy, the Jan Andolan turned into a 19-day uprising that brought over a million people into the streets of Kathmandu and the other cities, braving tear gas, baton charges, plastic bullets, arrests and, eventually, an 18-hour ‘shoot-to-kill’ curfew. The strike was soon declared indefinite and joined by shop-keepers, drivers, civil servants and even bankers, the cities soon running short of food, fuel and cash. The Royal Nepalese Army shot dead at least 15 protesters—by most estimates many more. Finally, faced with the threat of a 2-million-strong march on the Palace, King Gyanendra capitulated on April 24. The monarchy was stripped of its special executive powers and its very existence made subject to the rulings of a prospective Constituent Assembly.

Negotiations in the aftermath of the uprising have often been fraught. On the political front, an initial set of agreements between the Maoists and the new Interim Government, headed by the veteran Nepal Congress leader Girija Prasad Koirala, had laid out a roadmap for elections to the new Constituent Assembly, originally scheduled for June 2007. The Assembly was to have 497 seats, with 240 to be decided by a first-past-the-post constituency-based system, another 240 by proportional representation based on party lists, and the remaining 17 filled by ‘eminences’ nominated by the Cabinet. In the meantime, there would be an interim parliament where division of the total tally of 330 seats would approximate the proportions of the 1999 elections to the then lower house of 205 seats, with an extra allocation to the Maoists who had not stood in 1999. This meant over 100 seats for the Nepal Congress, the oldest bourgeois party, around 80 for the centre-left Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), and the same number for the cpn-m.

On the military front, the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army duly handed over 2,857 weapons to the un Mission in Nepal on 7 March 2007, the Nepal Army having agreed to hand over an equal cache; each force would keep the sole key to its arms locker, which would be guarded by the un. The joint agreement stipulated that the Nepal Army would remain in its barracks, and the combatants of the pla would be confined to seven cantonments, where their upkeep was to be the responsibility of the Interim Government. Most importantly, it was agreed that a process of ‘Security Sector Reform’ or ‘Democratization of the Army’ would be initiated, which would integrate the soldiers and officers of the Nepal Army and the pla.footnote2

On this basis, the cpn-m joined the Interim Government on 1 April 2007, expecting that this would bring them both domestic and international legitimacy. The message was driven home to Nepal’s state bureaucracy that it had better come to terms with these new masters, and several European capitals were obliged to remove the Maoists from their ‘terrorist’ lists. But the general euphoria of the cpn-m in the immediate aftermath of Jan Andolan II gradually gave way to consternation as, with belated but accumulating force, the logic of electoral politics began to hit home. With full proportional representation, each of the main parties—the Maoists, the nc and the cpn-uml—might expect to get roughly a third of the seats in a Constituent Assembly election. Under the mixed electoral system to which the Maoists had initially given their consent, however, they were likely to come a poor third to their main rivals. With regard to the 240 (out of 480) elected seats that were due to be filled on a first-past-the-post constituency basis, the other two parties were amply endowed with what the Maoists lacked: well-funded campaign coffers, long-standing patronage structures and readily identifiable candidates. As the leading forces in the new Constituent Assembly, these two parties would be strongly placed to garner most of the credit for the republic that the Assembly would declare, and to shape the actual content of the new constitution and of future government policy. Maoist representation might be reduced to a sixth of the Assembly’s seats. Understandably, this prospect caused deep dismay and anger within cpn-m ranks, especially among the sections that had always been unhappy with the ‘strategic turn’.

On 18 September 2007 the Maoists pulled out of the Interim Government and threatened public agitation to back their call for a full proportional-representation voting system for all 480 elected seats in the Constituent Assembly, and for the Interim Government itself to declare the Republic of Nepal forthwith. These were cardinal demands, but went back on written commitments that the cpn-m leaders had already given. Unsurprisingly the cpn-m were widely accused in Nepal and abroad of irresponsibility and untrustworthiness, in seeking to derail a process that they had themselves endorsed once they realized that they might not achieve sufficient electoral support within the rules agreed.

But if on the surface this seems obvious enough, there is a deeper reality. In the transition from being an armed revolutionary ‘outsider’ to working within the established Nepali state framework, the Maoists have discovered grave unanticipated dilemmas caused not just by their own mistakes and arrogance, but by the duplicity and machinations of various forces opposed to them. In addition to their own-goal in agreeing to an unrepresentative voting system that could only benefit the established parties with well-oiled electoral machines, the key issue has been that of military reform. In the months following Jan Andolan II, Prime Minister Koirala adamantly refused to sack any of the rna’s top 25 generals, who bore responsibility not just for the April 2006 shootings but for thousands of civilian deaths during the civil war, and who were besides deeply compromised by their close association with the dictatorial King. The upshot is that although it was the Maoists, far more than any other force, that were responsible for the new and highly positive transformation of Nepal’s political trajectory, it is likely that their gains will not be at all commensurate with their contribution. Their new demands were an attempt at least to narrow this gap.