Monday, October 26, 2009

Who Do We Want The Maoists To Be?

India’s Maoists accuse their Nepali brethren of betraying the cause. At the same time, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram believes our ex-rebels may be arming his country’s increasingly lethal insurgents. The truth must lie somewhere in between.
Clearly, our Maoists succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams. The Nepali Congress had democracy on their side. Yet their insurgencies faltered almost from the start. When the Jhapali Reds began hunting heads, skulls should have accumulated across the country. After all, the people who abhorred the partyless government had no other way of articulating their sentiments. Leaders in those two groups came in various shapes and sizes. There must have been a reason beyond ideology, injustices and idiosyncrasies for the Maoists’ triumph.
With that question, Maila Baje slipped into sleep. The probe persisted with every move of the eye, starting from that April midnight in 1990. King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties to checkmate the Indians, who were pressuring him to Bhutanize Nepal. New Delhi was stunned by the monarch’s impudence but it certainly was not out of options. While Nepalis were dancing and singing their way to “one of the world’s best constitutions”, the real fight had entered a more virulent round.
Controlled chaos was always the operational term on India’s Nepal file. In the post-1990 years, it seemed far easier to operationalize. The Chinese, on the other hand, pulled back from their Panchayat-era assertiveness, only after ceding space to their allies, the Pakistanis. As the Nepali Congress squandered opportunity after opportunity, the Unified Marxist-Leninists were getting too big for their boots. Enter the Maoists.
Clearly, the palace saw the Maoist rebellion as a vindication of its disbelief in the Fukuyaman end-of-history exegesis the mainstream parties had been peddling. More important, however, was the dominant Indian and Western view of this ragtag band of extreme Nepali leftists. They could come in handy to show the UML its place. The Nepali Congress, not too soon, was mesmerized by the prospect. Sure, success would swell the Maoists’ head, too. But that was for another day.
By the end of the nineties, Nepalis had a revelation. The world’s only Hindu state’s relations with India had never been as bad as it had during the first few years of the ascension of a Hindu nationalist-led government in New Delhi. Of course, the palace’s ties with prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders remained excellent. But they were Indians first. Across the southern border, the dump-the-monarchy cabal was ready for the final battle King Birendra had apprehended from moment of his enthronement. By the time of the Narayanhity massacre, this group of Indians believed they had an organized group ready to take control.
In the West, the monarchy had more influential allies than adversaries. But that changed after the US Republicans’ White House win in 2000. When the neocons in the wider West discovered that King Birendra and Crown Prince Dipendra were up to something not in conformity with their worldview, the equations shifted. As vital as Nepal was as a geopolitical prize, it was menacing as the world’s only Hindu state. Nepal was among the six most difficult countries to spread the Gospel. The godless Maoists could not be the answer.
The India-West divide became apparent after the carnage when Zee News and Star News were confidently reporting that no one had survived the Narayanhity massacre and that thousands of Maoists were moments away from capturing the palace. CNN was equally certain about that Prince Gyanendra was safe in Pokhara. The Maoists who were supposed to storm Narayanhity simply melded into the crowd of mourners.
The Maoists recognized they were totally in India’s lap now. This was not a source of comfort to the Indian government. But those who botched up had an instant CYA moment. In the eyes of much of the world, the Great Helmsman and his legacy were associated more with the Chinese. Why not paint the new king as pro-Chinese, notwithstanding the fact that his entire business associations had been with the Indians?
The Indians enjoyed plausible deniability. And there were other interests at play. Controlled chaos meant peace as a prelude to more virulent war. Every life lost became a statistic. Every infrastructure blown up was a potential opportunity for reconstruction.
The Maoists’ success rested on their flexibility with alliances. If being branded as palace lackeys helped, that was fine for the time. If allying with India helped perpetuate the myth the Nepal would become a paradise the moment the monarchy was out, that was good, too. War and peace, purity and flexibility all became interchangeable concepts and campaigns. Without the arsenal of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai’s words, Pushpa Kamal Dahal would have had long lost his war on the battlefield.
The external investment paid off in 2005, when King Gyanendra did what his brother or nephew would have done: adjust Nepal’s geopolitical locus. The see-we-told-you-so grin on the Indians was too wide to measure for the mortified westerners. With the monarchy finally out of the way, the Maoists could be mainstreamed as part of India’s national-security strategy.
To their good fortune, the Maoists joined the mainstream at a time of great geopolitical shift. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited New Delhi but not without instructing his ambassador there to reaffirm claims to Indian-held territory. After using former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to validate their electoral triumph and rise to power, the Maoists looked northward.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s men and women, in the eyes of China’s Nepal pointman, Wang Hong-wei, not only emerged as the largest party. It is also the best placed to unite all nationalist elements. Yet, considering all that has happened, the Chinese, too, must be wondering who they would like the Maoists to be. That was the question Maila Baje woke up to and has been pondering ever since.