In the middle of negotiations over cabinet formation and the future of the Maoist combatants, Nepal’s new Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai took time out for an exclusive interview to The Hindu on Friday afternoon at his office in Singha Durbar, the government secretariat. He spoke about the political challenges, the roadmap to achieve his stated objectives, and relations with India. Excerpts:
You had consistently argued for a consensus government, but are now heading a majority government. Why did efforts at forging a national consensus fail?
I am still for a consensus form of government because according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim Constitution, we need to take major decision through consensus. The Special Committee responsible for the integration process has to function through consensus and the constitution has to be adopted through a two-thirds majority. So to complete major tasks of peace process and write a new constitution, we need a broad consensus among the major parties. If we have a consensus government, it would facilitate those two processes. That conviction still prevails. But unfortunately, since that could not happen, the second choice was to start with a majoritarian and work for a consensus government. Even though I was elected by a majority, my efforts are directed towards forging consensus. Immediately after my election, I reached out to the Nepali Congress, UML and other parties. I hope it will bear fruit soon.
But how will this consensus come about?
I want the support of the major parties basically for the completion of the peace process, especially integration and rehabilitation of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cadres. We have already chalked out a time frame of one and a half months. If we reach broad consensus, we can implement it and stick to the one and a half month deadline. By that time, NC and UML will also join the government and this government will take the shape of a national consensus government. That has been my effort.
Many have termed the Maoist-Madhesi alliance as ‘unnatural’, since the Madhes movement had a strong anti Maoist orientation. What is its basis?
It is my conviction that Maoists and Madhes based parties are natural allies because on many cardinal principles and political line, there is common ground between these two forces. The agenda of the Maoists is restructuring of the state and society. And the Madhes based parties came forward with the agenda of the federal restructuring of the state. These are the basic issues, which the earlier traditional NC and UML could not address. Maoists and Madhesi parties came through People’s War and People’s Movement and have common agenda. This should have happened much earlier. I am confident that this natural alliance has brought a new dawn in Nepalese politics.
Given the tensions in the past, are you confident of the support of your party chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’?
I have full support of my chairman, comrade Prachanda. Though we have gone through series of ideological and political struggle, we have been in the same party committee at the leadership level for the last twenty years. We know each other. Despite our differences, there are a lot of commonalities. Our personal capacity is also more in the nature of complementarities, rather than competitiveness. We need each other. I need the chairman and the chairman needs me. Ideologically, politically and personally, continuity between two of us has been prevailing and will prevail in the future. I am fully confident of the full support of the chairman.
What about the third component of the party, senior vice chairman Mr Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’? He has already opposed your decision to handover keys of the arms container.
There was some confusion about this so called handover issue. This is a part of the integration process. It is implied in the CPA, and the earlier schedule worked out by the Special Committee. It is not a question of handover, but taking the process forward. Formally, it had already been decided that the PLA and cantonments would be looked after by the Special Committee but in practice, there were some difficulties. After formation of my government, I took the initiative in consultation with major parties and practically handed over the PLA, cantonments and cadres and weapons to the SC. In that SC, both PLA and Nepal Army are there. It is not a question of surrendering to the state, but handing over to the SC which is a joint committee. So some of our cadres were misled and resorted to opposing the formal decision of the government and the party. The party chairman has issued a statement fully supporting the decision of the SC. I am confident that an overwhelming majority of the leaders and cadre of the party will go along with the decision of the government.
But this goes beyond the key issue. There seems to be a school of thought within the party which is opposed to the whole process. Can they obstruct it, or potentially cause a split?
There has been a consistent two line struggle in the party over the political line followed since 2005. A section of the leadership within the party has had some reservation about the line pursued so far, but the overwhelming majority of the leadership and cadre are firmly behind this political line which has charted out a unique path of political transformation in Nepal. In a communist party, two line struggles are natural and we have successfully managed it so far and we will manage it in the future. I don’t see much obstacle. Even if some leaders and cadre may oppose or some splinter groups may move out, even then it won’t make much impact on the political line followed by the party.
Peace and constitution
What is the meeting point on the contentious issues regarding the future of Maoist combatants?
We have been discussing the basic issues of integration, but have not reached a final agreement. First, as far as modality is concerned, we have more or less agreed that a separate directorate will be created under the Nepal Army. Second, on norms, we have proposed that international norms of security forces will be obeyed by all members to be integrated. But there will be certain concessions on age, education, marital status etc. Third, on ranks, we have proposed that our senior commanders will be brought back for political work and junior commanders can be adjusted. A technical committee consisting of members from both sides can resolve the issue. The fourth issue is package for those opting for rehabilitation or voluntary retirement or golden handshake. We are working out an honorable settlement.
And the last issue is numbers. Once you decide the package going for voluntary retirement and rehabilitation, then those left out with automatically determine the numbers. That way, we proposed a figure between eight and ten thousand. In our agreement with Madhesi parties, the number agreed to is around 7000. Other parties have come to about 6000. We will finally settle around 7000; that should be the compromise number. If that happens, we can immediately start the process of regrouping which can be completed in one month. And then, within two weeks, we should be able to complete the process of integration.
Your party has asked for a combat function for the directorate, while the other parties want to restrict it to relief and development work. What should be the mandate of the force?
Whenever you integrate into an army, then this combatant and non comabatant issue becomes a non issue. The international definition of the army should apply here also. There is no point in raking this issue up. The basic norms and qualifications for the army should apply to everybody.
There is suspicion that a part of the money given to the combatants as ‘golden handshake’ will be used to fill in Maoist coffers.
It is time to get over this kind of mistrust. The Maoist party, being a principled party based on firm political and ideological convictions, does not believe in duping people. The package will be utilized for the welfare of the PLA cadre. There is no question of the party taking away money from them. The main point is whether the state can bear that burden. So we have proposed that the amount can be paid in installments of they can be paid pension. This type of modality can be applied and we are open to it.
One of the points in the agreement with Madhesi parties is withdrawal of cases against all those accused during the war and movements and general amnesty. Isn’t this a grave travesty of justice, and won’t it lead to impunity?
There is already an agreement in the CPA for withdrawal of cases against political leaders and cadres stamped by the old state during the insurgency and People’s Movement. We have only said that we will implement the earlier agreement. Maoists and Madhesi parties have come through struggle and movement. So naturally pending cases should be withdrawn. It happens everywhere. This has nothing to do with human rights issue. We are fully committed to obey human rights. And this does not mean impunity for criminals. This is a question of political cases, and I don’t think there will be any problem in it.
NC has asked for the formation of a state restructuring commission while your party and Madhesi front has rejected it. How will the discussion of federalism go forward?
Since the CA committee on state restructuring has already given a report, forming another commission will be a waste of time. We have instead proposed there should be a committee of experts that can assist federal restructuring. We have opposed it on technical grounds. In principle, we are not opposed to SRC but it is too late.
Is the three month extension of the CA enough?
Three months is not enough. If you go by the schedule of the CA, we need at least six to nine months. Three months is not enough, so we will need another extension. But let us try our best to take this process forward in the next three months and then, if need be, we can extend it again.
Your party has often criticized India for its role in domestic Nepali politics? What was the Indian stance during the government formation process this time around?
Nepal is sandwiched between two huge states of India and China. Historically, our sovereignty and independence has been maintained by having well balanced relations with these two big neighbours. Practically, we are more closely integrated with India, with an open border and closer economic ties. So we have more interaction with India and more problems also, which sometimes creates misunderstanding. The Maoist party and I am personally convinced we need to work more closely with India. Practically, we have to do more business with the government and people of India. Despite certain misgivings in the past, I am confident we will have a very good working relationship in the future. As far as India’s role in government formation is concerned, I don’t think there is any role for any outside power in making and breaking governments in a sovereign country. But at times, certain misgivings arise. My own conviction is that the political process in Nepal should be decided by the people and political parties of Nepal. But we need the goodwill and good wishes of the neighbours like India.
What will be your approach to India’s security concerns that officials usually bring up, like fake Indian currency notes, the use of the open border by militants, lack of movement on extradition treaty?
There are security concerns of both India and China in Nepal. We are sensitive to those genuine concerns and we will address those concerns of both sides. I am confident I can win the goodwill of both our neighbours.
Indian investors in Nepal have often complained of harassment and attacks by the Maoists. What is your stance towards the investors and how will you protect their investment?
Our party’s public position is that we need foreign direct investment in Nepal though the priorities will be decided by the Nepal government. There is no question of blocking the economic investment by Indian businesses or anybody else. Unfortunately, during this transition period, there have been certain misgivings and certain undesirable and unfortunate incidents have taken place. That is not in consonance with the official position of the party. I would like to assure all the foreign investors, both in India and elsewhere, that you are most welcome to invest in Nepal and the government will provide full security. Recently, we have passed a legislation for an investment board to facilitate investment within the country and I am trying to expedite that process.
Are you in touch with the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in any way?
No, no. There is no question of our having relations with other revolutionary movement elsewhere. Ideologically and politically, there can be some commonalities. But we don’t have any direct or indirect relation with the ML movement.
China has recently proposed a wide ranging security treaty with Nepal. Will you take that forward?
We will look into all the proposals put forward by both neighbours, India and China. There have been certain treaties and agreements pending for some time. And we will have a fresh look into it, keeping in mind the mutual interests of Nepal and our neighbours. I am very open. With India too, there are certain agreements pending for some time. We will look into it and try to finalise it.
What is your expectation from policymakers in Delhi?
I would like to appeal to our friends in India that Nepal is not anti-Indian. We want to have good friendly relations with India. Historically, we have had very good relations with the people of India. I myself studied and spent 12-13 years in India. There is a lot of room for cooperation between the two countries. I would like to assure that Nepal won’t jeopardize any genuine interest of India in Nepal, security or economic or otherwise. What I expect is we need cooperation to stabilize peace, democracy and development in Nepal. Being a sovereign, independent country, we would like to maintain balanced relations with all our neighbours. And that should not be seen as being anti-Indian. We have no intention of being anti-Indian and want to be good friends with India.
On a personal note, you mentioned you studied and spent many years in India. Any fond memories that you want to share?
I have a lot of fond memories. Firstly, I went to Chandigarh to study architecture in 1972 under the Colombo Plan scholarship. I spent five years there. In 1977, I came to Delhi and did my masters in town and country planning from the School of Planning and Architecture. In 1979-80, I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University and stayed till 1985 to complete my PhD. What I am today is because of the academic qualifications and political training I got. I will never forget those good experiences, especially those formative days in JNU where we used to have heated and intense political and ideological debates. That played a big role in charting my political career. I will always carry fond memories of my association with JNU.
(Click here to read the abridged version of this interview that appeared in print editions)