Bhattarai’s Balancing Act In Kathmandu

By Shubha Singh

Nepal has elected its fifth prime minister in four years, Dr Baburam Bhattarai to head its second Maoist-led government. The first Maoist foray in governance came after the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 when Maoist chief, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ formed the government. The government did not last long and Prachanda quit after he was thwarted in his attempt to remove the army chief.

The Maoists are the largest political group in the Constituent Assembly but their unwillingness to make the compromises required to run a coalition government have kept the former insurgents out of office. Bhattarai is widely perceived as the sober and practical face among the Maoists and there is hope and expectation in Nepal that he can take charge of the administration and give the push required to complete the process of drafting a new constitution.

Baburam Bhattarai faces huge challenges in steering the government with the sharply divided and fractious politics of Nepal, including in his own party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Barely had he got over the difficulties of forming a coalition cabinet balancing the different aspirations and demands of the party and its allies, than he ran into a hurdle from his own party. His detractors within the party often castigate Bhattarai, who studied at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, as being ‘pro-India’ – a particularly nasty slur among the one-time insurgents who draw inspiration from Maoism.

Bhattarai faced his first set back as Prime Minister when his own party demurred at his announcement that the Maoist armed cadres of the People’s Liberation Army would hand over the keys of the containers in which their arms were locked and stored under the terms of the 2006 peace accord. It was to be a largely symbolic gesture but it riled the Maoist hardliners.

Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’, one of the three Maoist deputy chiefs, known for his radical views, demanded a reversal of the new policy while his supporters held public demonstrations to force a re-think. The Maoists have held one internal (party) discussion since then and are expected to hold another round of talks to resolve the in-house differences.

In a careful balancing move, the new Prime Minister will make his first foreign visit to the United Nations and would stop over in New Delhi towards the end of September on his way home. A visit to Nepal’s other big neighbour, China, is on the cards for October. Prachanda had ruffled feathers in New Delhi when he chose to make China his first foreign destination as prime minister, breaking a convention that Nepali prime ministers make India their first port of call after their election. The China visit had served to emphasise the Maoist leader’s affinity to China over India. It is these balancing skills that Baburam Bhattarai will have to perfect in his handling of delicate issues in Nepal’s politics.

Bhattarai came to be elected as Prime Minister after three failed experiments in government formation. Each of the three main political formations in Nepal have headed a government since the Constituent Assembly was formed – once by the Nepali Congress, and twice each by the Maoists and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML); the UML once in alliance with the Nepali Congress and the second time as a coalition with the Maoists. The jockeying for power among the three main political parties has resulted in long periods of paralyzed government and multiple elections for the post of prime minister in the Constituent Assembly.

The last coalition government headed by the UML together with the Maoist was riven by the dissensions within the Maoists, which came out in the open. Though there had been internal differences between the top leaders for some time, it was the first time that Maoist leader Prachanda had faced an open challenge from the other senior leaders.

Senior vice-chairman Mohan Baidya considered the peace process as a tactical move even as the Maoists prepared for a ‘total revolution’ while vice-chairman Bhattarai accepted the democratic federal structure of governance.  Baidya challenged Prachanda for betraying the Maoist ideology when he agreed to send back to their camps, the Maoist cadres, who were providing security to the senior Maoist leaders. This had been a demand of the Nepali Congress leaders, who described the cadres as a ‘private army’. Prachanda was also criticised for perpetuating a personality cult and a lavish life-style.

A compromise was eventually arrived at between the warring Maoist leaders by Prachanda, who still commands the loyalty of the majority of the cadres. It was decided that Bhattarai would be their candidate for the prime minister’s post in a national unity government. UML Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal resigned and Dr Bhattarai formed the government with support of the Terai-based Madhesi groups. The UML stayed out of the government.

The rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants remains a major sticking point. Under the peace accord, they were to be absorbed in the Nepali army but the modalities of integration remain contentious. The Maoists demanded they be integrated as separate units with their own officers, something that was strongly opposed by the army.  The Nepali army chief later proposed a separate directorate under the Nepali army, comprising regular army soldiers and rehabilitated Maoist cadres, headed by army officers. The combatants are the Maoist’s biggest point of leverage in the resolution of the peace process together with the street protests that they have used to destabilise successive governments.

The other priority issue is the drafting of the constitution. The Constituent Assembly was granted a third extension of three months in August. This will not be enough as the Prime Minister himself acknowledges that another nine months are needed to make a complete draft of the constitution.

Bhattarai has said that though he heads a majority government he would like to form a consensus government of national unity. The Nepali Congress has, however, rejected the proposal, expressing doubts about the sincerity of the Maoists when they have not made any effort to resolve the issue of the armed cadres.

As Prime Minister, Bhattarai has listed four priorities for his government –completing the peace process, drafting a new, forward-looking constitution, good governance and social and economic development. Nepal’s period of turbulent politics can be stilled if the Bhattarai government can show some progress on the first two items on its agenda – resolving the issue of the Maoist combatants and writing a new constitution.

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