Chief opposition parties, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML on one hand, and the ruling UCPN (Maoist) on the other, are on a warpath. While Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has threatened to “tear up” all past accords if the opposition does not toe his line, NC president Sushil Koirala has dared the Maoist establishment to do so and to go back to the jungle. CPN-UML chief Jhalanath Khanal has gone a step ahead: He has announced a street battle against the Maoists. His cadres stoned Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s car in Dhangadhi on Sunday, and his colleague and Vice-chairman Bamdev Gautam has vowed to drag the PM out of Baluwatar and throw him in jail. Meanwhile, the Federal Democratic Republican Alliance (FDRA), the coalition of the ruling parties, has decided to mobilize 5,000 youths to counter opposition showdown.
The mood is of confrontation and violence. Perhaps this is the first time after 2007 that UML and NC have spewed such hatred against the Maoists. Opposition showdowns slated for various dates could be an endorsement of this politics of hate. But such an extremist approach is not going to solve current problems. All it will do is turn the country into a battleground between Maoist and non-Maoist forces once again. It is vital to avert that prospect while we still have time.
REPUBLICA FILE PHOTO
Clearly, UCPN (Maoist) is at its weakest since it came to power, mostly of its own follies. The PM’s recent spate of attack on the press, his blatant interference in journalist Dekendra Thapa’s murder investigation, and his provocation of rights activists have put him and his party in a difficult spot. But it is important to understand why the PM and Maoist leaders are coming up with such irresponsible remarks. At the heart of it is the arrest of Nepal Army Colonel Kumar Lama in London early this month, and investigation into the murder of Dekendra Thapa. In the international arena, PM’s objection to Lama’s arrest has made him seem like an accomplice to the culture of impunity, and growing calls from rights activists and a section of intellectuals that the cases of rights violations during the conflict era be tried at the International Criminal Court at The Hague have spooked Maoist leadership. The fear among the Maoists is that anyone, from the PM to chairman, can be the next victim. Besides, neither the people—except for hardcore Maoist cadres—nor the press and the intelligentsia are with the PM. This sense of insecurity has driven the Maoist leadership mad. One can expect many more blunders from the PM and his party if the situation gets more hostile in the days ahead.
But if the opposition parties are trying to write off the Maoists and their strength simply on the basis of above facts, it would be a mistake. It is true that UCPN (Maoist) is at its weakest, but it is not a defeated force. It has lost its cadre base, it does not have its own army, and disqualified and voluntarily retiring members of the PLA are deeply frustrated with the leadership. It is true that they are less likely to raise arms for the same bunch of leaders who sold them false dreams. But this does not mean they will side with UML and NC in a battle against their former masters. Most of the current Maoist cadres had joined rebel forces after NC and UML leadership failed to deliver while they were in power. Thus, when it comes to choosing between their former masters and NC and UML, they will most likely side with the Maoists.
Besides, growing enmity between the opposition and ruling Maoists is slowly bringing the two Maoist factions, UCPN (Maoist) and CPN-Maoist, closer. Mohan Baidya has conceded that he will not accept any move of the opposition aimed at reviving conflict era cases. Hence if the opposition is willing to fight, it may have to fight both the Maoist parties.
As regards the ruling Maoists’ widening trust gap with the international community, it has only been a few years since the party gained the support of international community. International stakeholders including India, US and Europe turned Maoist-friendly after the abolition of monarchy. Only recently, the US revoked UCPN (Maoist)’s status as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity, and removed it from the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). Of course, losing support of the international community will be a setback for the Maoists, but they will take this risk, if pleasing the international community comes at the cost of being tried at The Hague. The Maoists know that they had never been the darling boys of the international community, and they will not consider it a huge loss in not being so now.
What should the opposition parties do then? This scribe sees two options. One, push the Maoists to the brink, corner them and knock the doors of international community to try those leaders involved in past crimes. Given the growing frustration of the people with the Maoist government, they are unlikely to oppose such an attempt. The opposition may be successful in sidelining the Maoists for some time, but it will push the country back to 2005, before the rebels and then Seven Party Alliance (SPA) had signed the 12-point pact. The opposition then will have to disown the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the agreement between the government and the agitating Madhesi parties following Madhesh Movement of 2007. It will have to disown the promise of federal republic and restructuring of the state. This route is fraught with risks. On the one hand it will make the enmity between the Maoist and non-Maoist forces much intense. And on the other, it will strengthen the unity of Maoist and Madhesi forces and give them every reason to retaliate.
Two, the opposition should come up with a clear political road map regarding what they will do after Baburam Bhattarai goes. (The best thing would have been taming Bhattarai by joining his government, but it is too late to do so now). It will have to propose ways to settle conflict-era rights cases. And it should be able to float power sharing options to the ruling parties. One option could be that NC leads the government but allots key portfolios of defense, home and finance to Maoist forces. Another could be letting the Maoists—anyone but Bhattarai, to respect the opposition’s stand—lead the next government but allotting the chief portfolios to NC and UML. If the Maoists are committed to their words, they should accept this option without any ado, for they had proposed it to NC a couple months ago. Yet another option would be independent leadership. It is likely that the Maoists will reject all these options, but it will seriously discredit them in the eyes of international observers and people. It will expose their intentions, and the ongoing protests could gather momentum.
As a result, the opposition parties will gain the upper hand. The opposition parties will also have to make their stand clear on federalism. Whether or not people will support opposition protest will largely depend on whether they will be able to float a concrete agenda during their ongoing protests. Bhattarai government needs to be ousted, but through a bloodless battle. It is important for both ruling coalition and the opposition parties to adopt restraint.