In The Hot Seat

Is Nepal’s new Maoist prime minister up to the challenge?

Newly elected Nepali Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) waves as he comes out of the parliament building on 28 August. BINOD JOSHI / AP PHOTO
01 October, 2011

THE MORIBUND PEACE PROCESS in Nepal has been given a new lease of life with the election of a former Maoist rebel, Baburam Bhattarai, to the post of prime minister. Garlanded and smeared in vermillion powder immediately after his election to the helm of power on 28 August 2011, a jubilant Bhattarai announced his priorities loud and clear: under his leadership, Nepal would complete its five-year-old peace process by integrating former Maoist fighters into the state forces, writing the long-overdue constitution and providing the deprived populace with relief packages. Widely perceived as an intellectual with an impeccable public and political image, Bhattarai, 57, is regarded as the most popular politician today in Nepal.

Sure enough, within days of his election, the stalled peace process gained momentum with the handover of weapons containers held in Maoist combatant cantonments to the Special Committee for Supervision, Integration and Rehabilitation of Maoist combatants, and the activation of the Army Integration Special Committee (AISC), tasked with merging Maoist fighters into the Nepalese Army. Similarly, a series of meetings with opposition parties on drafting a constitution has lent credence to the fact that he has both the will and a strategy to bail the country out of a political crisis. But, given the complex nature of Nepali politics, Bhattarai, a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, is not in for a smooth ride.

The move to hand over the keys of the weapons containers met with stiff opposition from within his own party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)—UNCP(M)—which had launched a decade-long insurgency to establish a communist regime before joining the peace process in November 2006. Dubbing the move a “capitulation to the regressive forces”, Mohan Baidya aka Kiran, who leads the so-called hard-line faction in the party, put up a tough fight. Despite his resistance, the keys were handed over to officials of the AISC on 1 September. But the move generated a backlash because Baidya has a strong support base in the party. His faction began campaigns against the move,  staging protests in Kathmandu the day after and blocked vehicles during the morning rushhour.

If Bhattarai’s election, which materialised after he gained the crucial support of the United Democratic Madhesi Front, an alliance of five regional parties from the country’s southern plains, had been smooth, his road thereafter was rocky. The cabinet formation was delayed by a week, and when the new ministers were finally announced, members of Baidya’s faction declined to join.

Bhattarai’s detractors, however, point out that his choice of coalition partners exposes his penchant for power. Before his election, Bhattarai had stressed the need for a national unity government but when it came to the crunch, he went on to lead a majority government.

“The way he forged alliances to get elected is against political ethics,” said Jhalak Subedi, the editor of the leftist monthly magazine Mulyankan. Bhattarai said that the completion of a peace process and the writing of a constitution were his party’s ultimate goals—unlike the hardliners, who had pushed to capture the state through an urban insurrection. Having already deposed the centuries-old Hindu monarchy and turned the country into a secular republic, the Maoists have said their road map will usher in a new era for the 30 million people of Nepal.

As a result of the new coalition, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)—CPN(UM-L)—the second and third largest parties, respectively, have been thrust into the opposition. Ramchandra Paudel, the NC candidate who holds a record for having been defeated 17 times in various elections for prime minister, was the first to congratulate Bhattarai that August evening. But such geniality has now worn off and the NC has distanced itself further from the conciliation.

At the heart of the dispute lies the issue of the integration of upwards of 19,000 former Maoist fighters who are taking shelter in 28 cantonments across the country. There is disagreement between the Maoist and the non-Maoist parties over the number of combatants to be integrated into the Nepalese Army. “Number and rank are the two major factors that will block the peace process,” Tilak Pathak, a political reporter with Nagarik daily, said. The Maoists have asked for the integration of 8,000 former fighters, while the rest will be given their choice of rehabilitation packages. The NC says it can’t agree on the integration of more than 5,000 Maoists, arguing that the numbers of fighters must be roughly equivalent to the number of weapons used by the Maoists (which is estimated at 3,400). Rank determination is another contentious issue: the NC is adamant that the Maoist commanders don’t deserve rankings senior to that of major in the Nepalese Army. But the former rebels have pinned on at least a brigadier general to their titles.

Subtle opposition to the Maoist overtures, says Subedi, has come from a portion of Kathmandu’s upper class. “This group represents the status-quoist views of the non-Maoist parties and don’t want to see a Maoist leader completing the peace process and taking all the credit,” he said. Even Bhattarai’s predecessor, Jhalanath Khanal of the CPN(UM-L), has spoken forebodingly of the current coalition, saying it will not succeed in its mission. “Nepal’s politics is so fractured that the picture is far from clear. It’s like muddied water,” Subedi says.

Amid this turmoil, the Maoist chairman, Prachanda, seems like a Greek tragic hero. While proposing Bhattarai as his party’s candidate for the prime ministership, he called the ideologue an “A-One candidate”. But as someone who enjoyed, until recently, the greatest level of power for over two decades as the leader of his party, his fall has been rapid. In May 2009, he was forced to resign after his decision to fire the army chief was rejected by the country’s president. Since then, his attempt to return to power has been fruitless. This February, Prachanda supported Khanal in the prime ministerial election, reasoning, as before, that his decision represented a sacrifice for the larger good. “Bhattarai can rule the country only as long as he gets the support from his party chairman,” Subedi said, adding that the prime minister doesn’t have a strong following within his own party. For Subedi, Prachanda’s decision to support Bhattarai amounts to signing a suicidal note.

Part of the problem also lies in the way the entire political process is perceived. For the NC and the CPN(UM-L), the constitution can be promulgated (a two-thirds majority is required for its validation, which means that the support of both parties is necessary) only after the completion of the peace process. The Maoists, on the other hand, say both should go hand in hand. The Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing a constitution, has already been extended thrice, the previous time immediately following the prime ministerial election. But it has singularly failed in its undertaking.

Bhattarai has set himself a deadline of 15 October to complete the integration of Maoist fighters and to prepare a first draft of a constitution. But three crucial issues—the form of governance, the electoral system, and restructuring the state to form a federal model—remain unresolved. Of the three, the reconfiguration of the state, with its myriad ethnic groups, Madhesis and other mariginalised communities demanding federal states to correct their historical exclusion from both governance and franchise, is likely to stall the process.

Nepal, which has long struggled to come out from the shadows of its two giant neighbours, India and China, is at a crossroads. In recent years, both neighbours have increased their presence in the Himalayan nation. India is even credited with midwifing the 12-point agreement between the Maoists and the parliamentary parties in 2005 that paved the way for the end of the much-maligned monarchy and brought about a transformation among the battle-hardened Maoists. And China has tried to gain a foothold by pledging multimillion-dollar aid packages.

Immediately after being elected, Bhattarai was congratulated over the phone by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Chinese ambassador to Nepal requested Bhattarai to visit the northern neighbour. With both countries vying for influence, the Maoist prime minister’s next moves will entail a balancing act.

In the past two decades, this impoverished country has seen tremendous upheaval, both political and societal. The remarkably young society—more than 34 percent of Nepal’s population is under the age of 15—is hungry for change. The Maoists, by now, must have realised that rebuilding the nation is far more difficult than was enacting the armed revolt that toppled the monarchy. Bhattarai has an unprecedented, historic opportunity to demonstrate that a party which led a war can deliver peace as well.