Sunday, October 04, 2009

Whose Side Is He Really On?

As Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai once again raise the decibels over the imminence of a new revolt, former loyalist Rabindra Shrestha pointedly reminds us that the duo never went to the jungles during the decade-long insurgency. His implication? The Maoists can holler all they want, but the nation need not pay much attention.
Given his stimulating background, there is enough reason not to dismiss the minister of general administration’s retort. When much of the country was consumed with how soon the Royal Nepal Army might be able to defeat the rebels, Shrestha wrote most audaciously about how the Maoists would prevail. The rebels were fighting for their beliefs while the soldiers were fighting for their bread. Shrestha’s further revelation was more breathtaking. By escalating their attacks on the state, the Maoists were actually aiming to draw in the Indian Army and then fight a war of national liberation.
Around this same time, Shrestha was also actively involved in opening a dialogue with the government. In late 2000, he was holding talks in the chambers of then-Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel while another act was unfolding under the aegis of Information and Communication Minister Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta. Ostensibly acting on the instructions of then-Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, Gupta had produced two Maoist detainees – Dinesh Sharma and Dina Nath Gautam – in front of TV cameras to denounce the Maoist “people’s war” before setting them free.
The artlessness of the drama angered Maoist supremo Dahal into slamming the door on any hope of peace talks. A few hours later, the two detainees faxed reporters a statement recanting their denunciation of the Maoist leadership, saying it was extracted through state coercion. To make sense of the absurdity, one must recall that this was a time when Koirala was locked in a bitter power struggle with King Birendra on dealing with the insurgency.
After the Narayanhity carnage, Rabindra Shrestha seemed to have undergone a metamorphosis, at least in the eyes of his superiors. With the breakdown of the first peace talks in November 2001, Shrestha was among the first senior rebel leaders to fall in the grip of the security forces. But he reportedly managed to escape. The Maoists felt there was more to the story. Had Shrestha bolted to the government’s side? The leadership felt that the few Maoist bigwigs the security forces killed or captured were linked, one way or the other, to information Shrestha supposedly volunteered. The fact that he was back in prison only seemed to strengthen those suspicions.
As the second round of peace talks faltered in the summer of 2003, Shrestha went on hunger strike demanding better prison conditions. Having kept their suspicions to themselves, the Maoist negotiating team set the release of Shrestha, along with two other central committee members, as a pre-condition for a third round of talks. The rebels did well to have recognized the risks a public rift would have posed. The government obliged. The peace talks failed and the conflict went on to assume greater lethality.
During the final months of the royal regime, Shrestha joined hands with Mani Thapa to revolt against the leadership. Dahal expelled the duo for, among other things, their pro-monarchist proclivities. Shrestha shot back that Dahal had actually been conspiring with the palace until he discovered that the monarch had appointed himself head of government.
Once the king was sidelined and Dahal emerged in public, Shrestha became a votary of a new cultural revolution. He claimed the Maoists had actually struck a working relationship with then-Prince Gyanendra, not King Birendra as widely claimed, on a broad nationalist platform. In the halo of the newness of Nepal, that revelation carried little relevance. Over time, Shrestha accused Dahal and Dr. Bhattarai of betraying the revolution by overseeing the Maoists’ ‘UML-ization’. Yet, months later, he joined the UML, after returning from a trip to China.
By including Rabindra Shrestha in the cabinet, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal signaled his readiness to play hardball with the Maoists. The minister has taken every opportunity to oblige his boss. Last month, he claimed that the Maoist combatants in the camps were already under the government and, therefore, had ceased to exist as a rebel army. Now he rejects the notion of Koirala or Dahal replacing Prime Minister Nepal in the name of consensus and cooperation. The premier, for his part, has been in the game too long to consider that as a categorical vote of confidence from this colorful man.