Populism is the tool used by modern-day politicians to gain momentary mass support with the help of the media, to create new realities before the opposition can react and the public catches on to the truth. This tool can even be useful for society’s advancement when handled with care, on a platform of high principle.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s application of populism, on the other hand, seems part of a personal agenda to use all means available to surge ahead of his party chairman and colleagues, and to reach out to the Nepali public over the head of the other parties. Can he succeed in building the required centrifugal push to leave his battle-hardened peers behind? One can wish him well, and a study of the first three weeks of the Bhattarai government will help us chart its trajectory.
Five Points, Four Points
The foundation of the Bhattarai-led government is built on the five-point policy document unveiled by the UCPN-Maoist on August 24 and the four-point agreement between the party and the Madhesi Front on 28 August. The veneer of Baburam Bhattarai’s intellectualism, which has the urban middle class in thrall, cannot hide the problematic positions and concessions that he agreed to in order to get to Singha Durbar.
The five-point declaration proposes a separate Maoist unit under the Nepal Army directorate, insisting on a ´combat role’ for the ex-fighters, the inclusion of around 8,000 into the national force and 700,000 to one million rupees for the rehabilitation package. All of which go against the letter and spirit of agreements and discussions so far. Point No 2 (gha) of the document promises to “immediately withdraw or cancel all cases brought against Maoist leaders and cadres during the conflict” and “to provide general amnesty where the courts have already passed sentences”.
The four-point deal with the Madhesi Front seeks to institutionalise impunity by repeating the general amnesty mantra, and agrees to group entry of up to 10,000 Madhesis into the national army, a matter bound to generate similar demands from other communities. The “right to self-determination” is conceded as part of the federalism package even though there is a dangerous lack of agreement in the country on the interpretation of the right. The writing of the deal is slapdash, referring to the Madhesis as exclusive from Muslims, Tharus, Dalits and Janajatis.
The peace process has been hanging fire since September 2008, by which time the 27 cantonments were to have been disbanded. Upon becoming the prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai committed himself to concluding the peace process within 45 days. He made the one gesture of handover of keys of the weapons containers, but the chain of command remains firmly with the UCPN (Maoist), as it did after the lowering of the “PLA” flag at Shaktikhor Cantonment last January.
With a Maoist prime minister, who has the backing of his chairman on the peace process, and New Delhi throwing its weight behind this government, it would seem that the stars are aligned for the proper conclusion of the peace process. The Nepali Congress, UML as well as the Madhesi forces can be expected to accept proposals from the prime minister if the proposals build on the last six years of negotiations, starting with the 12-point agreement of 2005. There is little left for the other parties to concede, and the onus of providing the “outlet” is with the largest party in parliament.
Against such a positive scenario, which can even catapult Bhattarai to being a central figure of Nepali politics, the prime minister has been strangely lackadaisical on the peace process. On 18 September, when he finally called a meeting of the Special Committee dealing with ex-combatant management, as chairman, the prime minister barely had time to tell the committee secretariat to “find the minimal points of agreement”– something that the politicians should be doing among themselves. He then rushed off to the airport for New York.
Populism vs follow-up
Why did Prime Minister Bhattarai have to travel to the UN General Assembly when the visit has minimal bearing on our urgent peace process and constitution-writing? The trip is in line with the prime minister’s single-minded devotion to populist initiatives meant to create realities on the ground for personal advancement. He played to the gallery by flying to New York in economy class, which meant he would have arrived in New York City exhausted and below peak efficiency.
The announcement of riding a Nepal-assembled car was a public relations coup for the prime minister, but would he please give up the stolen vehicle that he retains for personal use? Equally important, the number plates of all the stolen vehicles that make up the Maoist SUV fleet must be regularised. In line with his penchant for personal rather than the institutional, the prime minister takes emails from citizens, but at his “gmail” address rather than at “gov.np”.
The prime minister may be personally clean, but he has constructed a cabinet inhabited by revolutionary extortionists and others with a record of long-haul corruption. In order to ensure probity in the cabinet, he announced upon entering office that no government official would be transferred for at least a month. Home Minister Bijay Kumar Gachchhadar insisted on trasferring the upright Home Secretary Lila Mani Poudel immediately. In the cabinet, the prime minister protested meekly, to which Minister Gachhedar replied, “It’s the coalition or Lilamani, you decide!”
The relief package announced by the government on September 9 was nothing but a read-out out from the standard government´s programs and policy, and it was the goodwill towards the country’s first PhD prime minister that kept many from laughing out loud. Among the many problematic initiatives announced then was the promise to return property stolen by the Maoists, presented as “relief” rather than justice, and even then the follow-through has been invisible.
When concerned human rights activists visited the prime minister to ask about the government’s plans on the rollback of cases and blanket amnesty, the prime minister denied he was planning anything like that. Within days, however, he had assigned advocate Mukti Pradhan, a junior lawyer in the Supreme Court Bar, as Attorney General with the specific mandate to implement the party directive under the five-point declaration.
Hours before the prime minister boarded the flight to New York, Nepal was hit by a 6.8 Richter earthquake, the biggest in more than half a century. In other countries, heads of government might have made haste to return to assess the damage, but ours’ went the other way. To this day, we do not know the true scale of the damage in the eastern hills, and not a single army helicopter seems to have been assigned to overfly the region to take stock.
The prime minister has willingly posed with a t-shirt offered by some activists that reads, “Let the corrupt rot”. However, he seemed unconcerned about the fast-unto-death by three activists in Mohattari, protesting corruption in the VDC all-party mechanisms, a matter that should have had country-wide resonance given the ongoing, calibrated destruction of local government.
Twenty-First Century Maoist
The elevation of Baburam Bhattarai had drawn applause from many a Kathmandu living rooms, even as he has threatened vaingloriously from the parliamentary rostrum that failure of his government would be the failure of the nation. Nevertheless, the proof of the haluwa is in the eating, and hopefully the first few weeks will not set the tone for the rest of the Bhattarai premiership.
On the central matter of the peace process, we seem to have abandoned all hope from what was once proudly a home-grown effort. The unarticulated position of many a commentator is that, “Because India helped form this government, New Delhi will force the Maoists to follow through.” There is very little dignity left in a political class that has been flattened by the Maoist tsunami, and so there is no perspective left. For a country whose leaders such as Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala used to interact one-on-one with the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, as equals, we are degraded today to a point where the elite leader of the largest party in parliament, and leading the government, deals willingly with desk officers of “agencies” of the south.
In New York, the prime minister is scheduled to deliver a lecture at the New School on “The Relevance of Marxism in the Twenty-First Century”; a more appropriate title would have been, “Maoism in the Twenty-First Century”. Doubtless, the prime minister will talk about how the Nepali Maoists have discovered the holy grail of communism that was withheld from everyone else.
He will certainly not delve into the tragic reality of what was wrought by ten years of “people’s war” which he designed as chief ideologue – economic desolation, destroyed infrastructure, lost development, evaporated employment, where the poor have become poorer.
No fig leaf of false history-writing can hide what the prime minister and his party wrought, and yet the irony and the reality is that, for the sake of the people of Nepal, one wishes him courage, creativity and steadfastness in completing the peace process. Let Baburam Bhattarai overcome the odds of his own contribution to the devastation, and let him work to complete the peace process. When he arrives back from New York, there will be 10 days left of his 45-day deadline. Let the prime minister seek peace by working with the NC, UML and the Madhesi forces, staying true to signed commitments and negotiations that go back to the days of Girija Prasad Koirala.
The person who designed the Maoist war is now asked to bring the peace process to a successful close. Stranger things have perhaps happened.