Gathering storm

The question arises what the government has achieved by its further curbs on fundamental freedoms, including particularly a protest rally planned by the seven-party alliance for last Friday and foiled by the government’s morning-to-dusk curfew. The government may have felt a sense of security by such a harsh and undemocratic measure, but it has actually lost much more than it has gained. First of all, it has strengthened the widely held impression, at home and abroad, that the government’s ‘commitments’ to democracy and peace are far from sincere, and the clampdown has eroded its image further, as major donors, such as the EU and Japan, and countries with tremendous influence in Nepal — India and the US — have taken serious note of it. But this, along with the disruption of the following day’s seven-party demonstration in a highhanded manner, including beatings and arrests, seems to have provoked even more protests, as the seven-party announcement of a Nepal bandh for January 26, the day for filing nomination papers for the civic polls, suggests.

Protests promise to increase in number and intensity with the level of government intolerance. The new clampdown suggests something of an approach to restrictions imposed on February 1 last year — night curfews in several towns, including the capital, news channels such as Aaj Tak and Star News going off the air, the mobile phone service becoming non-functional, as well as the arrest of protesters. Tiny parties are increasingly expressing their security concerns about the polls, keeping open the option of withdrawing mid-course. The bogey of Maoist infiltration and rioting has failed to carry conviction, raising the danger of the government increasingly resorting to such tactics in days ahead.

The government still seems determined to hold the polls but the Maoists and political parties, to foil them. However, holding the polls is not vital; how they are held is, including the kind and quality of participation. Even if the polls were held, they would be devoid of legitimacy in the eye of the domestic and international publics. Besides, it is quite possible that the violence that has taken place since the lapse of the unilateral ceasefire might look like rehearsals beside what may occur in the run-up to the elections and afterward. Therefore, the government must rethink the impending civic polls and take concrete initiatives for a dialogue with the political parties as well as with the rebels. This is no time to allow one-upmanship, egos, or parochial interests to dominate. All political forces need to show statesmanship.