Baburam and the Eroded Republic

Full version of my article submitted to  The Hindustan Times  of 19 oct, 2011 (Length: 1485 words)

The Nepali state would have developed into a robust democracy after the fall of the Panchayat system in 1990, with the society proceeding rapidly towards the equity and economic growth that only pluralism can guarantee. But what worked for the people did not for the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), then a small party with immense ambitions.

The Maoists declared war on the parliamentary system in February 1996, seeking a fast-track to power, making use of strategic brutality, the rugged terrain and a reactive state. The public was silenced and the parliamentary parties terrorised out of the villages. Over one decade of fighting, a population in poverty was forced to seek survival with accelerated migration to India, the Gulf and Malaysia.

The architect of that insurgency and the resulting economic devastation and lost opportunities was Baburam Bhattarai, the man who handed a 40-point memorandum to the Kathmandu government before heading underground in February 1996. He visits New Delhi on Thursday as head of government, lionised by a section of media and academia willing to countenance the Maoist experimentation in the Southasian neighbourhood.

The present prime minister is the man who crafted the Maoist ‘draft constitution’, essentially a formula for a one-party communist state. He whispers to fellow-travelers that the foray into electoral politics is but a tactical move in the “protracted people’s war”. Bhattarai does not apologise for the violent politics his party introduced to Nepal. When King Birendra was murdered in 2001, he wrote that the rebels had been in a ‘working unity’ with the royal palace.

Bhattarai is well-regarded primarily because of the expectations aroused by the ‘Dr.’ preceding his name, and he seeks to convince civil society and diplomats that he is actually a social democrat in Maoist clothing. Few have pondered how it is that this New Delhi educated scion devised an insurgent politics bereft of social science and humanism, and who loudly rejects pluralism. That the Maoists were unalloyed adventurists became clearer as Bhattarai and his cohort came above ground in 2006. To give one example, they have tried to foist a federalism based on ethnicity and identity in a society of mixed habitation, a sure-fire formula for communal mayhem.

The people have by now suffered five years of a stalled peace process, half the duration of the original conflict itself. They have been denied a post-conflict economic boom, and there has been no reconstruction and rehabilitation worth the name. The 15 years of war and anarchy has debilitated the polity on every front: impunity is rampant, the woodlands are denuded, the economy is de-industrialised, local government is a memory, extortion and corruption rule the roost, foreign policy-making is dead, and the people are left sullen and psycho-socially scarred. Baburam Bhattarai is asked to rebuild what he helped destroy.

Baburam and Pushpa Kamal

When he became prime minister in late August, Bhattarai knew that his stint at the Singha Durbar seat of government was unlikely to extend beyond the third-time extended term of the Constitutent Assembly, which expires on 30 November. He had hoped to use the time to build an image of probity and action, establishing a new reality vis-a-vis his party chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’).

This was the same Dahal who had had placed vice-chairman Bhattarai under house arrest for ideological deviation back in the underground days, but whose help was needed to reach out to New Delhi – for a while in 2007-08, the two even more wore identical shirts and slacks. By 2009, however, Dahal had become alert to his deputy’s ambitions and sought to puncture it with selective disclosures of Bhattarai’s ‘Indian tilt’.

While many see Bhattarai as a moderate who understands realpolitik, others regard him as a rigid dogmatist, and therefore more dangerous than the vacillating Dahal. Perhaps it was dogma that had Bhattarai abandon his ‘peace and constitution’ line in mid-monsoon and join the ultra-radical Mohan Baidya, who is for ‘revolt’. Cornered, Dahal agreed to make Bhattarai prime minister, and is only waiting for the right moment to pull the rug.

It is lost on no one that Bhattarai’s personalised populist campaign as prime minister is targeted against his chairman, including the latter’s opulent lifestyle. He planned to use the power and privilege of prime ministership to boost his image and spin off from the suffocating embrace of the chairman, but there  has been no centrifugal momentum.

By Dahal’s on admission, Bhattarai was made head of government under pressure. The appointment was his peace offering to New Delhi, but Bhattarai is more like a sacrificial lamb. Dahal wants the vice chairman’s ambitions extinguished once and for all, and already Bhattarai is having to contend with loud accusations of ‘Sikkimisation’ from the powerful Baidya faction.

The Prime Minister of Nepal

Baburam Bhattarai goes to India as possibly the weakest Prime Minister of Nepal since 1990. This has to do with the unprincipled nature of two documents that made him prime minister in late September. One is a five-point Maoist document which rejects the peace process as understood thus far. The other is the four-point agreement with the plains-based Madhesi parties, which brought them into the coalition government on the undefined promise of ‘self-determination’, identity-based group entry into the national army, and so on. Both documents sought to institutionalise impunity by cancelling court cases against accused perpetrators, and pardon for those already convicted by the courts.

It is incongruous that a prime minister who seeks to build an image of decency maintains a circle of political advisors that is a roster of convicted and accused killers and thugs. Suffice it to mention that Bhattarai has appointed a party activist as attorney general with the directive to implement the rollback and amnesty promise; and seeks presidential pardon for an aide convicted by the Supreme Court on a murder related to an inter-caste liaision. Last week, he only reluctantly jettisoned a confidante who was Minister for Land Reform, accused by the police for a daylight murder in 2010.

The prime minister prefers personal gestures to institutional oversight, whether supporting a t-shirt campaign with the slogan, “May the corrupt rot”, using his own ‘gmail’ rather than ‘’ to communicate with citizens, or issuing impromptu firmans without the care of a follow-up. He announced that no senior official would be shifted for a month after the cabinet was formed, but within a week conceded to the transfer of the home secretary. Neither did Bhattarai have the courage, until pushed to the wall, to ask the resignation of Defence Minister Sarat Singh Bhandari, who publicly threatened secession of the 22 districts of the Tarai plains.

The prime minister has been strangely immobile on the peace process, which will define the record of his prime ministership. What he needs to do is convince his party to accept the agreed formula of ‘integration’ and ‘rehabilitation’ of its ex-combatants, 19,000 of them in 28 cantonments, but as he went to New Delhi he preferred to blame the opposition Congress and UML parties instead. Bhattarai cannot evade the question: how can Nepal write its basic law when one party maintains its fighting force?

India and Baburam

The historic wariness of the hill principalities towards the Mughlan plains was ‘upgraded’ to anti-Indian nationalism by King Mahendra in the 1960s. The foundational platform of the Maoists, as also present in Bhattarai’s original 40-point document, is the fight against ‘Indian imperialism and expansionism’. This anti-Indianism is weak and without self-worth, which is why Bhattarai will not breathe a word of that 1996 document when he meets Manmohan Singh. For a party whose which is all opportunism and littleprinciple, there is no incongruity in acting as if the 40-points never existed – especially after one has been made prime minister.

New Delhi’s political class, exasperated by the interminable ‘transition’ in Kathmandu, seems to have lost interest in Nepal and left the bilateral management to the apparatchiks. From the time when BP Koirala stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jawaharlal Nehru, we have descended to where the most powerful party in Nepal maintains links, by its own admission and in its own language, with the ‘agencies’. In the severely degraded bilateral landscape, opportunist overseers, carpetbaggers and failed politicians turn up in Kathmandu, to be lionised for want of anyone better.

A stable and prosperous Nepal is vital also for the long-term economic growth of the Indian heartland, and experience has shown only democracy will make it happen. ‘Realpolitikal’ compromises made out of sheer exasperation with Nepali politics cannot yield results for the people on either side. That having been said, the job of keeping Nepal inclusive and democratic is that of the Nepali public, which expressed itself against autocracy and violent politics in the glorious People’s Movement of 2006. What New Delhi can do when Prime Minister Bhattarai comes by is to insist that the Maoists prevaricate no more on the promise of peace made to the Nepali people and the international community.

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