Monday, August 27, 2007

A Measure Of Maoist Moderation?

Already facing multi-frontal challenges from party dissidents, Maoist supremo Prachanda now seems to be at odds with his chief representative in the interim government.
Information and Communication Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara asserted the other day that the elections to the constituent assembly will be held as scheduled on November 22. He spoke after Prachanda denied published reports quoting him as demanding another postponement of the balloting.
Maoist No.2 Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, in subsequent comments, indicated that Prachanda’s denial was not really, well, a denial. When the party can’t find an official spokesperson, you are bound to have all kinds of people speaking from all sides of their mouths.
As the spokesman for the interim government, Mahara was perhaps only reiterating the state’s official position on the controversial polls. Yet in many instances in the past, where his party’s position was at variance with the government’s, Mahara chose to maintain a stoic silence.
This sudden propensity for finality, therefore, raises a deeper question. Does Mahara symbolize a distinctive current within the fractious ex-rebels?
A member of the first parliament after the 1990 changes, Mahara represented a forerunner of the Maoists. Before that, during the referendum years, we know him as an active student leader. What Mahara’s official biography doesn’t reveal is that he was once a member of the Nepali Congress student wing.
It’s in this context that Mahara’s recent purported contacts with Prakash Koirala, a minister in King Gyanendra’s cabinet, becomes relevant. As B.P. Koirala’s politically prominent son, Prakash was the man who liaised with Nepali Congress youths. If moderation is what this Maoist now espouses, then he’s probably in good company.
As spokesman for the Maoists until he joined the government, Mahara sought to justify to national and international audiences the imperative of a bloody and destructive armed rebellion to restructure one of the world’s poorest states. Many of those who dismissed the substance of his arguments couldn’t help admire his persistence.
After the collapse of the royal regime, Mahara stressed the urgency of unity between the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists for at least a decade. He was expected to become the principal deputy premier in the interim government.
But somewhere along the peace process the Maoists – as if to heed his call – ceased to be a coalition partner with the SPA, settling instead for a status as the eighth member of the ruling establishment. If Mahara was wounded by this sudden downgrading, he surely couldn’t let the rest of the country know.
As the Prachanda-Baburam and Kiran-Badal factions slug it out for the spokesman’s job, Mahara probably sees some virtue in the full mainstreaming of the ex-rebels at a personal level. Once again, Cambodia becomes instructive here. Our man from Rolpa, the cradle of the world’s first post-communist Red uprising, might be too prominent a Maoist to become a Nepalese Hun Sen.
But would that be sufficient to deter him from pursuing the full mainstreaming of his party – or at least a faction of it? Were Prachanda ever to act on his repeated threats to pull out of the government, Mahara would be the man to watch.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mr. Flip-Flop’s Fidelity Or Feint?

Madhav Kumar Nepal sees the Maoists as the principal obstacle to the constituent assembly polls. Worse than the regressive right, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) chief claims.
Now is there a subtle signal here? Has the palace improved its standing in the eyes of the UML? Nepal’s assertion a few weeks ago lends credence to suspicions of a shift.
The UML general secretary was the first prominent leader to defend the government’s decision to apportion funds to the royal family through the back door. Of course, the comrade took a circuitous route, arguing that even a prisoner deserved some kind of state allowance. But that trajectory hardly made the context any less revealing.
If anything, Comrade Nepal is the country’s principal flip-flop man. A member of the panel that drafted the 1990 constitution, he couldn’t get his own party fully aboard. General secretary Madan Bhandari had to come out with a multi-point note of dissent before the erstwhile Marxist-Leninist faction announced its critical support for the statute. Ever since, this cluster of comrades, who went on to form the UML, has been battling criticism for trying to have it both ways on almost every issue.
Catapulted to power after the death of Madan Bhandari in a road accident in 1993, Nepal did much to explain the tragedy as a premeditated crime. Once in power, though, Deputy Premier Nepal let the Dasdhunga mishap languish as a cold case.
A party that clobbered the Nepali Congress for pushing the country into the Tanakpur swamp, the UML thrust us deeper in the guise of the Mahakali Package. Nepal cited the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the parliament the UML government had dissolved as a constitutional coup d’etat. In response, the party arrogated to itself the right to choose the premier even if it meant rehabilitating the erstwhile panchas.
The Mahakali expedition eventually led to the party’s split, which, by some accounts, deprived the UML from winning a majority in the 1999 parliamentary polls. Comrade Nepal accused the government of rigging the results, almost forgetting that the UML was part of it.
After the palace massacre in 2001, not a few diehard royalists felt uneasy at the angle at which Nepal paid obeisance to the newly enthroned monarch. Unfazed, the UML chief urged King Gyanendra to form a commission to probe the palace massacre but refused to sit on it.
He traveled to Silguri for consultations with the Maoists only to acquiesce in the deployment of the full might of the state against the rebels. When the time came for parliament to renew the emergency order, UML MPs ended up waiting for their leader’s wink before voting in the affirmative.
Amid the Nepali Congress split, the comrades thought they had locked up a majority in the impending the mid-term elections. The Maoists weren’t thrilled by that prospect. Ultimately, the UML joined others parties in calling for a postponement of the elections.
We don’t know what Nepal, like other senior politicians, told King Gyanendra before the monarch sacked Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and assumed full executive powers in October 4, 2002. What we do know is that the UML, like most mainstream parties, detected royal regression only after Lokendra Bahadur Chand formed his cabinet.
By winter, Nepal could easily have mobilized several thousand cadres against the palace. Instead, he chose to convene a party convention in Janakpur, confounding the rank and file. The internal divisions the Janakpur conclave brought out must have made it easier for the Maoists and the palace to announce a ceasefire and new peace talks. Comrade Nepal then stepped up his attacks on the monarch, raking up all the old allegations he could recall. Upon completing each round of invective, we were told, he would check whether the palace had called to schedule a swearing-in ceremony. The premier-in-waiting had his daura surwal in immaculate condition wherever he went.
When Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala reneged on his pledge to back Nepal as the consensus candidate for premier, the UML leader began considering alternatives. Deuba’s appointment as premier signified a partial rectification of regression, allowing the UML to pull out of street protests and return to power. Comrade Nepal was awaiting his moment of glory when the monarch took the job of head of government himself.
During the 15-month royal regime, the UML chief set the record among party chiefs for having been incarcerated the longest. Since detention came in stages, Nepal squeezed in a couple of visits to India. During one trip, he castigated the China for arming the royal regime against the people.
After the collapse of the royal regime, Beijing chose to embrace the Maoists, whom the military supplies were targeted against. That must have come as quite a revelation to the UML chief.
Comrade Nepal is well within his rights – as any other Nepali is – to aspire for the premiership. Has he now finally recognized how important it is for others to consider him worthy of the position?