April 5, 2006Foreign Affairs

Balance of powerlessness in Nepal

Stable instability?

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

King Gyanendra has enough power to retain control over Kathmandu and other urban redoubts, but lacks the power to defeat his opponents. The Maoists have enough power to terrorise the countryside and keep large swathes of territory under their sway, but they in turn lack the power to defeat the Royal Nepal Army. The politicians of the Seven Party Alliance have enough power to engage in politics, but lack the power to decisively swing it in any direction. The people of Nepal have enough power to oppose Gyanendra, the Maoists and the politicians, but lack the power to anything about the stalemate.

India has enough power to prevent outside powers from intervening decisively in support of any of the three sides, but lacks the power to prevent those powers from intervening enough to take the game out of India’s hands. China has enough power to tantalise Gyanendra, but lacks the power to fulfil his demands. The United States has enough power to be seen as an actor but lacks the power to act as one.

The balance of powerlessness has acquired such a degree of stability that unless there is a major realignment of players the stalemate will simply persist. This explains why a major strike called by the Maoists and the SPA fizzled out today — Gyanendra locked up the leaders and signaled his intention to play rough with protestors. It worked. Only a hundred die-hards turned up to demonstrate.

India seems to recognise that the resolution to the Nepal crisis will proceed at a glacial pace. That may explain why it has adopted such a low-key approach towards its Himalayan neighbour: tacit support for the Maoists, open support for the politicians and little of either for Gyanendra.

The United States has come in for some criticism for its role in backing up Gyanendra. Its critics, both in Nepal and in India, contend that American support has emboldened the King at the cost of a resolution in favour of the Maoist-SPA combine. Given the balance of powerlessness, that may not be a bad thing. It is far better for Gyanendra to draw closer to the United States than into the arms of those across his northern border.

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