Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai must be amused at all the speculations surroundings his resignation and new government formation. At the way he is being portrayed as the biggest hurdle for April-May election, particularly after the rift between him and Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal started to surface—with Dahal appearing to be in favor of a breakthrough even if it entails conceding government leadership to the opposition, while Bhattarai continues to insist that the opposition parties join current government.
Going by his recent statements, he is also angry at how political analysts have failed to understand the challenges of running a coalition government at this difficult juncture. Baburam Bhattarai became the prime minister by stepping on the four-point agreement between the Maoists and the Madhesi Alliance, with the consolidation of federalism with strong identity component as its central agenda. With the Madhesi parties still deeply suspicious of NC and CPN-UML’s commitment to federalism, they are putting pressure on Bhattarai not to agree to change in government leadership until there is a concrete prior agreement on federalism and assurance of elections by May.
Be that as it may, Bhattarai would still be best served by vacating office, for a number of reasons. First, Bhattarai’s growing distance from Chairman Dahal bodes ill for him. Dahal holds the upper hand in all important party organs, by a wide margin. While the PM is the darling boy of the internationals—New Delhi most crucially—he has virtually no support among the party rank and file. If the current polarization between the top two Maoist leaders intensifies, Bhattarai’s options are very limited.
Dahal, it is said, cannot afford to alienate Bhattarai, whose backing will be crucial in building outside support if the chairman hopes to assume government leadership in the future. As Bhattarai is bereft of support inside the country, the argument goes, so is Dahal outside the country. But given chairman Dahal’s relentless efforts to appease the southern neighbor, and his unconditional backing of all India-centric agreements pushed by the current coalition (BIPPA, most importantly, even at the grave risk of further alienating the Baidya faction), Bhattarai’s utility for Dahal might soon run out. On the other hand, without Dahal behind him, it will be very hard for Bhattarai to stay relevant in the Maoist party on his own.
In fact, Bhattarai’s timely exit would be in everyone’s interest, including the Madhesi alliance´s. There is a fear in the ruling coalition, especially among the Madhesi parties, that if NC is given government leadership, there will be no polls by May and such a government would try to take the country back to pre-2006 days. Both these fears are overblown.
NC has nothing to gain by stalling polls. Its credentials as a mainstream democratic force depend on its commitment to periodic elections. It is true that the party got an absolute drubbing in the last CA polls, but post-Maoist split and given the fissiparous tendencies in Madhesi politics, it genuinely believes it can make inroads into the Maoist and Madhesi vote banks in 2008 CA polls. Although it is still smarting from its 2008 defeat, the feeling in NC camp is that the party hit its electoral nadir four years ago and the only way now is up. As one senior NC leader put to this scribe, “In 2008 people relied on the Maoists, who until recently didn’t even believe in pluralism and multi-party democracy, to deliver them a democratic constitution. Now, we will ask people to give a party with impeccable democratic credentials a chance this time around.” By no means a rousing electoral slogan, but a thread to hang on to for the beleaguered party nonetheless.
The other big Madhesi fear is that the NC-led government will try to subvert the federalism agenda. If only NC or any other party had such clout! The agenda of a federal republic, which was established largely on the strength of the 2007 Madhesi movement, is already included in the interim constitution. Besides, the agenda has such traction among the Madhesi and janajati communities that it would be suicidal for any party to try to reverse the course on federalism.
The other (related) argument of the ruling coalition that the achievements of the 2006 Jana Andolan and 2007 Madhesi Andolan will be at risk if there are no prior agreements is also flawed. The mandate of Jana Andolan II was overthrow of authoritarian monarchy and CA polls to give people a chance to write their own constitution. As things stand, there is no question of return of monarchy in any shape or form, and all major forces are in favor of new CA polls. The major agenda of Madhesi Andolan, federalism, is also constitutionally established. There is no question of going back on these progressive achievements.
But if the country is going to have another CA polls, people should be given the chance to express their mandate on important issues, including the nature of federalism, on the basis of the electoral agendas presented by different parties. The ruling coalition will struggle to convince people otherwise when its biggest component, UCPN (Maoist), seems to be in favor of unconditional CA polls.
It is for all these reasons that Bhattarai would do everyone a world of good by stepping aside. With the bulk of the Maoist party in favor of government change, it appears he wants personal credit for taking the country into new polls. The argument that he has been resisting opposition demands for the benefit of the ruling coalition is getting harder to establish. Bhattarai should understand that the longer the current state of impasse drags on, the more blame he will have to shoulder, not the least for the likely failure to hold polls by coming May. It is hard to believe Bhattarai is ready to tarnish his political image on the national front, while being sidelined in his own party, just to earn some brownie points against opposition parties.
Bhattarai is playing a very dangerous game, one that could forever stain his public image and plunge the country into an even deeper chaos.