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Maoists and the mainstream

DEC 18 - Last week, this column argued that the 2006 movement was for order and justice, and two factors—a fragile balance of power, and existence of entrenched interests unwilling to share power—are responsible for the rather unsuccessful quest for those political values. But in more specific terms, any evaluation must place the principal game changer, the Maoist party, at the centre. Their transformation into a democratic force, and their struggle to redefine the “mainstream” even as the “mainstream” sought to co-opt them, is the big story of the past six years.

The two extreme critiques of the Maoists that are most widely prevalent serve little analytical function.

The first comes from the conservatives, who in a screeching self-righteous tone, accuse the Maoists for ruining the wonderful 90s with little reflection of the ills of period; of being “undemocratic” even after their victory in elections; of destroying state institutions while glossing over similar antics of past governments; and wish for an anti-Maoist political alliance aimed at isolating the former rebels.

The second comes from the ultra-left, which believes that Maoists should have continued their insurgency for longer without offering insight on how the military stalemate could have been broken; and that the Maoists compromised excessively after entering the peace process, and have betrayed the “revolution”—with no inputs about how the party could have managed the constraints it faced better.

A more fruitful approach is to ask—what did the Maoists set out to do when the signed the 12-point understanding? What did the other parties hope for? Are Maoists solely to blame for the prolonged transition? Have they served their constituents and supporters? How has the leadership fared?

Judged by the limited parameter of viewing politics as the struggle for state power, the Maoists have been rather successful. Their own ambitions of war-time—of exercising absolute control over Kathmandu—may not have materialised. But who would have thought when Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai were hiding underground in India or Rolpa that they would lead the government in less than a decade? That a Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal” would become defence minister, or a Barshaman Pun “Ananta” the finance minister? The fact that Maoist district leaders today have a stake in how all 75 districts of the country are run, that they have access to the bureaucracy and budgets, and that they can influence governance is in itself a major political success for the party.

What is important here is that it is not just a party, but the party’s supporters and base, which get access to political power. The Maoists mobilised marginalised sections of the Nepali society during their insurgency. Sections of the lower middle class and the poor of Hindu hill upper castes, Magars, Dalits both in the hills and plains, and Tarai’s intermediate and lower castes who supported the party have representatives who are in powerful positions. Their grievances may not get addressed, but these groups have a foot inside a door which had earlier been closely shut.  

By including those who were almost powerless in the political theatre, and raising issues that touch them, the Maoists have exposed the contradictions in Nepali society and deepened Nepali democracy. By breaking older power structures—from Nepal’s rural life to the monarchy at the top—the Maoists have opened up the space for upward mobility of large sections of society and broken several structural barriers.

But in this process, of accessing power, the Maoists have adapted themselves to the political culture that existed. The party has filled up its institutional coffers; crony capitalism is the norm; leaders have resorted to personal corruption; state institutions and appointments have been compromised; patronage networks have been built and expanded; the ruthless competition that existed in other parties for ministerial positions is mirrored in the Maoists.

The most telling instance of degeneration was when the party commanders and leadership deserted the Maoist combatants, but also sought to skim off benefits meant for them. All of this has drastically eroded the moral authority and the image of simplicity, sacrifice, and service the Maoists leaders had built during the war. It has also raised a troubling question—if the Maoists had to behave in precisely the same manner as all preceding rulers, what was the need for the war? There may have been no way to avert the party split with dogmatists pursuing a different line, but the rapid descent into the worst of bourgeoisie politics also contributed to fuelling discontent among the more committed cadres who have walked away. In the next election, the Maoists will have to undergo a difficult test for their record in government.

Navigating such a process would have been an enormously difficult task for any leader. And Prachanda has done well for most part, if one were to judge on the limited grounds that the violence has not resumed, and that the Maoists are now within the multi-party set up as they had promised. The fact that he remains at the centre of politics, despite multiple detractors, is a testament to his skills and risk-taking abilities. But his by now legendary vacillating character has not helped either his credibility or the process.

The competitive yet co-operative relationship with Baburam Bhattarai, visible at the current moment, has also taken a toll. If one were to discern a pattern, whenever the two have worked at cross-purposes, the party and agenda has suffered. More specifically, whenever Prachanda has not listened to Bhattarai on broader politics, he has regretted in the future and had to return to Bhattarai’s line. In Rolpa in 2004, he punished Bhattarai but had to later adopt his line of working with the parties against the king. After winning elections, he antagonised Bhattarai and went along with Kiran in Kharipati to declare India and NC as the enemy; four months later, he was no longer PM. He called for the May strike despite Bhattarai’s reservations and had to pull back. In Palungtar, he decided to take on Bhattarai’s line of engaging with India; he had to reverse gears again. As they struggled to reach equilibrium, the political process remained stuck.   

The Maoist calculation at the beginning of the peace process was that they would use the system to advance their goals. Their opponents had banked on the fact that the system would transform the Maoists. What has happened is a mix of both. The Maoists have got tamed. They are not as arrogant as they were during Prachanda’s PM-ship, and will not cross certain red-lines. But they have not yet given up all their goals, particularly regarding state restructuring, due to pressure from their base. At the same time, they do not represent a threat to existing order as they once did, which is why there is a higher comfort level with their continued stint in power among business chambers, military, and world capitals.

The Maoists still offer more hope to Nepal’s poor than any other party, but that hope is rapidly diminishing. That is the success of the “mainstream”, and the tragedy of new Nepal.

(Next week’s column will focus on the Nepali Congress as the other pillar of the peace process)

Posted on: 2012-12-19 08:45

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