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Nepal: Drifting In A Sea Of Doubts

Nepal: Drifting In A Sea Of Doubts

By Madan P. Khanal

Nepal’s tepid democracy movement appeared to receive a boost from an unlikely source this week. The country’s Maoists rebels announced a patch-up of differences that had threatened to split the organization.

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, chief ideologue and No. 2 in the party, has been reinducted into the politburo special committee after several months of suspension caused by major policy differences with the organization’s top leader, Prachanda. In a statement Monday, Prachanda said the decision, which included the reinstatement of two Bhattarai allies, was aimed at uniting various factions in the party. In a separate statement, Dr. Bhattarai welcomed the move urged the organization not to view these developments as a victory or defeat for anyone.

The rebels have been trying to woo mainstream political parties opposed to King Gyanendra’s Feb. 1 takeover of full political powers into creating a broader front against the monarchy. Dr. Bhattarai, who led Maoist negotiators in failed peace talks with the government in 2003, is considered a strong proponent of a Maoist-mainstream alliance.

Earlier this month, Prachanda offered to hold talks with the mainstream parties, which insist that the rebels first renounce violence. From the Maoists’ perspective, laying down weapons is simply out of the question, especially when they are on the threshold of their much-hyped “strategic offensive” against the government. Dr. Bhattarai’s reinstatement was the second best thing to do in terms of appeasing the mainstream parties. But how real is the patch-up?

The feud became public several weeks ago when Prachanda, in an audiotape released by the Nepalese army, was heard accusing Dr. Bhattarai of being “India’s man”. Dr. Bhattarai responded by saying only the king’s people could level such an allegation against him. In a sense, the Maoists were caught in the same fault line that has always bedeviled Nepal’s communist movement: who is their principal adversary – the monarchy or India?

Days later, however, Prachanda officially dispatched Dr. Bhattarai to New Delhi in order to establish contacts with leaders of Nepalese opposition parties visiting the Indian capital. He was reported to have held extensive talks with Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala and Unified Marxist-Leninist leader Bamdev Gautam. Dr. Bhattarai reached an understanding with the parties that they would be launching a joint struggle to find a democratic way out of the current stalemate.

Clearly, the consultations were facilitated by a section of the Indian establishment that has scarcely veiled its desire to see the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal. Professor S.D. Muni of Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi and retired Gen. Ashok K. Mehta, currently a security analyst, are the public face of this group. Evidently, they see the monarchy’s assertion of Nepal’s right to exercise its full and complete sovereignty in national and international affairs as the greatest threat to India’s claim to regional dominance.
Indian Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh has been described as an advocate of promoting the Maoists and mainstream parties to eventually replace the monarchy. However, differences of opinion within the ruling coalition in New Delhi have precluded an official reversal of Indian policy vis-à-vis the monarchy. The Indian home and defense ministers, along with the country’s armed forces, are reportedly pressing the need to strengthen the Nepalese army against the rebels. Their obvious concern is the growing cooperation between Nepalese Maoists and fraternal groups operating in at least nine states of India.

The anti-monarchy section of the Indian establishment, therefore, has been operating its own campaign, with the active support of Indian intelligence agencies. The Times of India stood by its story last month that Indian intelligence agencies were "chaperoning" Dr. Bhattarai despite official denials. Clearly, the Maoists’ new-found unity owes much to this establishment as part of an effort to build a broader anti-palace front.

How realistic is that objective? In his statement Monday, Prachanda said the party was going to consolidate its position based on renewed unity, struggle and self-criticism for mistakes and at the same time undertake to unite all political forces against the absolute monarchy. Ominously, he stated that no one in the party would have the freedom to air internal issues in public. After all, Prachanda had accused Dr. Bhattarai of bolstering groupism and working against the insurgency by questioning recent military decisions of the party’s highest decision making body. Is Prachanda’s latest statement an indication that Dr. Bhattarai, a prolific and powerful essayist, would not have the liberty to express himself without the explicit approval of the party?

On the other hand, does Dr. Bhattarai’s assertion that the patch-up must not be seen as a victory or defeat for any side signal his determination to continue pursuing his opposition to Prachanda’s centralization of power and posts and elevation of himself to the pantheon of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong?

There are other imponderables. How far can the mainstream alliance benefit from the Maoist rapprochement? The two major constituents – the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists -- have been locked in internal feuds. Ahead of the party’s quadrennial national convention, the Nepali Congress leadership is under pressure from younger activists to join the Maoist campaign to overthrow the monarchy. However, leaders like former deputy premier Shailaja Acharya have been increasingly vocal in warning that any deviation from the party’s traditional support for constitutional monarchy would be tantamount to political suicide.

Moreover, sections within the Nepali Congress that now appear to favor a republican agenda – such as former House of Representative speaker Ram Chandra Poudel and former finance minister Ram Sharan Mahat – question the wisdom of forging an alliance with the Maoists, who have not formally renounced their ultimate objective of turning Nepal into a one-party communist state.

Within the UML, party cadres have been criticizing senior leaders, including general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, for their decision last year to join a government appointed by the king. The UML pulled out of street protests against the palace and entered a coalition led by Sher Bahadur Deuba on the argument that it would help restore democracy in a country that had been without a parliament for two years. Critics of that decision cite the royal takeover as a vindication of their stand. At a broader level, this episode neatly fits into the majority-minority rifts that have perennially rocked the party.

Then there are serious questions relating to the agenda of the alliance. In a recent article, Dr. Narayan Khadka, a leading member of Deuba’s Nepali Congress (Democratic), noted that the mainstream alliance is founded on “very shallow theoretical and pragmatic foundations”. Some of the parties in the alliance, he wrote, have only very reluctantly accepted the demand for the reinstatement of parliament and many active members (in all parties) do not subscribe to this demand at all.

Opposition activists concede that these sharp divisions are discouraging public participation in anti-palace protests. In newspaper interviews, senior leaders have been reminding ordinary Nepalis that the movement that brought about the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990 was 30 years in the making.

Barring a dramatic turn of events, such as an embarrassing scandal involving the royal regime or a sudden manifestation of popular discontent, these contradictions are likely to be debated vigorously in the days head. The sad part, of course, remains that the mainstream parties and Maoists – which have pledged a fight to the finish on behalf of the Nepalese people – are becoming tools of the same elements across the southern border that have been fostering conflict and instability in Nepal over the decades.


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