After being lampooned for extravagant, but empty, promises and criticised for having nothing concrete to show for his first year as prime minister, K P Oli has moved quickly to address two lingering legacies of the conflict and the constitution-writing process: sign a deal with C K Raut to get him to abandon secessionism, and outlaw the hardline Netra Bikram Chand (Biplav) faction of the Maoists. Despite misgivings and cynical comments on social platforms, the Oli administration has also won applause for its new assertiveness and a renewed sense of purpose.
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In the 11-point agreement signed with Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa on 24 March, Raut has committed to accept Nepal’s sovereignty and unity as well as enter the democratic mainstream. That declaration has removed the threat of ethno-separatism from plains politics, meaning that moderate Madhesi parties can now no longer fall back on Raut’s secessionist rhetoric as a bargaining chip with Kathmandu.
With his Cambridge education and work in IT, Raut brings with him international exposure and perhaps a cleaner, meaner brand of politics. Anger in Province 2 runs deep, and the mistrust of K P Oli may have grown among Madhesi parties because of last Sunday’s deal. As David Seddon reports from Province 2, unless there are real moves towards autonomy and devolution, there may very well be other Rauts.
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The surprise announcement last Sunday was not easily digestible to the opposition NC and other parties who accused Oli of a sellout. But the most vocal critic of the 11-point agreement were Oli’s rivals within the NCP itself: party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal did not show it but was privately miffed that Oli had not kept him apprised, and Bhim Rawal’s main gripe was also that he was not consulted.
However, we give Oli a thumbs up on this even if it is only for keeping the sensitive negotiations under wraps in the leaky corridors of Singha Darbar. Oli has shown that he likes to surprise people by pulling rabbits out of hats. For example, the pre-electoral alliance in 2017 between the Maoists and the UML was also a bolt from the blue when announced.
The agreement with Raut followed close on the heels of the Kailali District Court sentencing Resham Chaudhary to life imprisonment for the massacre of policemen in Tikapur in August 2015, and his party the RJP-N subsequently pulling out from the governing coalition in protest. There also seems to have been some behind-the-scenes winks and nods between Baluwatar and the Supreme Court for Raut to be released from jail a day prior to the agreement.
The wily Oli seems to have killed several birds with one stone with the agreement: he countered his public image of being only talk and no walk, neutralised the fallout of RJP-N leaving his government, and depending Raut’s future role, laid the groundwork for the next general election which will be won or lost in the Madhes.
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On Biplav, although the government split hairs by saying it was not a ban on the party, only on its criminal activities, the action essentially drives the Maoist faction underground. There could be two reasons for this: the ruling NCP wants to keep the door open for negotiations, or ex-Maoists in the ruling party used to be buddies of Biplav and just want to pretend to go after him. After all, Biplav is now using the same tactics of extortion and violence they used at the beginning of the insurgency in 1996. Even so, by publicly calling the Biplav party a “gang of looters” Prime Minsiter Oli has thrown the gauntlet.
The Maoists were already semi-underground, and owned up to three bomb attacks in the capital last month that killed one person, and set fire to more than a dozen Ncell towers across the country. The government was challenged, and there was no other way for it to respond but warn that criminal activities will no longer be tolerated.
With both the Raut deal and the warning to Biplav, the government now needs to show that it means business. A ruling party that can bring a separatist force to the negotiating table should easily be able to convince former comrades-at-arms to give up violence. While doing that, the government should also try to win the hearts and minds of the people of Province 2, expedite political devolution and remove grievances that feed extremism.
As far as the Maoists are concerned, they are cashing in on disillusionment among the people with the NCP’s poor governance and corruption. The root cause of extremism is extreme inequality, and unless there are moves towards social justice, Nepal will continue to be unstable.