New Delhi: A victory for Nepal’s Maoist rebels may have set off alarm bells in Washington and New Delhi, but the former rebels are set to focus on development, pursue pragmatic policies and avoid ruffling foreign feathers.
The Maoist march: Hishila Yami of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) waves to public as she, along with supporters, takes out a victory rally in Kathmandu after winning a seat in the recently held elections.
With counting continuing after last week’s election, the Maoists are almost certain to become Nepal’s biggest party and head of a new coalition government in the Himalayas. Even they seem shocked by the result, and a little daunted.
“My gut feeling is that this victory will make the Maoists more and more of a responsible party,” said Rhoderick Chalmers, Nepal head of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “They now have a tremendous burden of expectations to deliver on their promises, and they are intelligent enough to realize they can’t do it on their own.”
The victory wrong-footed neighbouring India, which helped bring the Maoists into the peace process but expected them to come third in the elections — and is worried the result could encourage its own Maoist insurgency.
It will have shocked the US, which always opposed negotiations with the guerrillas and still considers them a terrorist organization.
And the result will also make uncomfortable reading for Nepal’s conservative military establishment, traditionally loyal to the Maoists’ bitter foe, Nepal’s 240-year-old Hindu monarchy.
The army was not defeated by the Maoists during a decade-long civil war that ended in 2006, and has since resisted absorbing former guerrilla fighters into its ranks.
“Our stand is that politically indoctrinated people cannot be taken into the national army,” one general said.
Maoist chief Prachanda, likely to become Nepal’s first president, now appears to have the upper hand in this debate — but he is unlikely to play his cards too aggressively.
“I don’t think the Maoists want to stir up that particular nest of hornets...or make a powerful enemy of an armed force,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times.
Instead, the Maoists are likely to take their time over the integration of their fighters into the army, and even allow many to be absorbed into the police force, analysts say.
The Maoists’ biggest challenge will be to deliver on the change and development they have promised and that Nepal desperately needs, after decades of corruption and ill governance in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Like most parties in opposition in Nepal, the Maoists were not averse to a bit of anti-India rhetoric, but in office they cannot bring prosperity to Nepal without the support of India, its main trading partner and donor and the source of its fuel.
Indeed, in a victory speech described by analysts as magnanimous and conciliatory, Prachanda has already pledged to maintain good relations with all countries, including India and China.
New Delhi may have been caught a little off-balance, but is already finding its diplomatic feet. India’s foreign affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee was reported on Monday as welcoming the likely Maoist win as “a positive development”.
Nor are the Maoists about to export their revolution or embark on any foreign adventurism, analysts agree. If there is a risk for New Delhi, it lies with its own Maoist insurgency, active in more than dozen states.
“Maoists in Nepal have their hands full, and they have an agenda for their own country,” said Ajai Sahni of New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management. “But it will be a tremendous encouragement to Indian Maoists.”
An interim government formed after a 2006 peace deal already included four Maoist ministers, and Western diplomats described them as “pragmatists”. It is a word used a lot to describe the former rebels, who call themselves 21st century communists.
Abandoning much of the rhetoric of Marx and Mao, they talk of public-private partnerships, welcome foreign investment in many sectors of the economy, and shy away from nationalization.
Instead, education, healthcare, development and social justice are likely to top their agenda.
It will be a huge challenge, and with a new constitution to write as well, it is not surprising that Prachanda has already promised to establish greater unity with all political parties.
But, one thing was missing from Prachanda’s victory speech after he won by a landslide in his Kathmandu constituency — an explicit renunciation of violence.
Analysts say this is unlikely while the monarchy still exists and the army’s loyalty is not unquestioned. But, it will also make it difficult for Washington to remove the terrorist tag on the Maoists.
The Maoists were accused of human rights abuses during the insurgency, and of intimidation in the run-up to the vote.
But former US president Jimmy Carter, observing the vote, told BBC that it was “embarrassing and frustrating” to see his government refuse to deal with the Maoists, and said he had no assurances that would change under this US administration.
Even so, US ambassador to Nepal Nancy Powell has had some clandestine meetings with senior Maoists, Western diplomats say, and the US had little choice but to accept the election result.
“We look forward to the formation of an assembly that reflects the will of the Nepali people, ready to begin the important work of framing a constitution that addresses their needs,” said US state department spokesman Sean McCormack, congratulating the people of Nepal.