Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' is the central figure in the country's political process. In a wide-ranging interview to Prashant Jha at his residence on Friday afternoon, he talked about the peace process, the constitution and relations with India. Excerpts:

Till a few years ago, you were the supreme commander of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at war with the national army. Now, you have handed over control of the PLA to the army it fought against. How has this journey been?

It is not about handing the PLA to the army it fought against. The war was against the Royal Nepalese Army; now integration is happening with the Nepal Army (NA). That was a royalist army; this is a republican army. That is a qualitative difference. We are a political party that through the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, through the democratic process, emerged as the biggest party. As a party now leading the government, the way we view the NA and the PLA has changed. The NA is also a national army, and the PLA which is going for integration is also going to get a chance to be a part of the national army. This is a matter of pride, and a happy moment. As the chairman of the party which led the process, I feel I got an opportunity to fulfil my responsibility. The journey that began in Delhi with the 12-point agreement has now arrived at a conclusion.

There is criticism that you made the decision not out of commitment, but compulsion, since there was discontent within the PLA.

To say that I acted out of compulsion is completely baseless. For the past one year, out of my own initiative, I have taken the peace process forward. I was protected by PLA security personnel and weapons. I sent them to the cantonments, and came under state security. When the Baburam Bhattarai-led government was formed, we took a decision to start regrouping combatants. Now I felt I had to take a bold decision and conclude the process. If I was under compulsion, I could have said the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) did not agree to integration, that they tried to stir up trouble in the cantonments, and that we should get ready for a movement.

But wasn't there trouble in the cantonments?

There was some trouble in two cantonments. But I saw it as provocation by those who wanted to derail the peace process. Yes, there was some dissatisfaction among combatants regarding their future. But primarily, it was penetration by the reactionary and royalist elements who thought that if they could derail the peace process, then there would be no constitution and then they could re-establish themselves. They were aided in this by rightwing elements within parties, those who do not want change, want anarchy, and a small elite class. That is why I concluded that delaying peace process now would derail the 12-point agreement.

Your own party colleagues say this is ‘surrender.' How do you respond?

Those from the Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran' faction within the party have accused us and even burnt my effigy. I don't see it as surrender at all. A rebel army is integrating into the NA; this is a matter of pride.

A little while ago, Kiranji had come home. He said, “you have given up everything.” I said, “I haven't left anything, this is transformation.” I have learnt from negative experiences of communist history, and we came to the peace process and competitive politics as a matter of commitment — not out of tactics. I told him taking your path would lead us towards the situation of either Myanmar's Karen rebels, or communists in Malay, or more recently like those in Peru. There is a difference in our understanding of the world, balance of power, the level of economic development, and the international communist movement. I said my outlook is more realistic, scientific, pragmatic, while yours is classical.

Others criticise you for not having done this earlier and wasting the country's invaluable time.

Sometimes, when you pick and eat a fruit which is not ripe, then it is bad for health. If you take a decision without completing a certain phase of struggle, it can be negative. As leader of the party, and of the peace process, if I had not come through this path, I could not have taken this decision. Launching a decisive attack, at a time when the situation is not ripe, can be counterproductive. This also has to do with Prachanda's working style — for instance, I took more than a year-and-a-half when we decided to enter the peace process and accept competitive politics even while the war was on. There is a need to create basis for any decision, that's my working style.

The Maoists are seen to be pushing for blanket amnesty for war-time atrocities. Don't you think this is injustice for the families of victims?

It is not true that our party has pushed for blanket amnesty. Those leading the government or the army during the war, as well as Maoist leaders involved, have a common concern in finding a solution. It is about taking victims into consideration and their rights. The discussion is around providing them compensation, reparation, education for children, employment, as well as expression of regret by the perpetrator, creating a situation where victims themselves forgive, and there is reconciliation for sustainable peace.

Constitution

What is the meeting point on the form of government in the new constitution?

It is more or less resolved. An all-party taskforce submitted a proposal that there should be a directly elected president, and a PM elected by Parliament — with power sharing between the two. This is the meeting point.

What's your party's official view on the shape of the federal structure?

In principle, there is an agreement that identity and capability should be the basis for federalism. In the present context, among the two, identity is primary. The second issue is the number of provinces. There is an official 14-state proposal by the CA committee. But we are ready to show flexibility on that. The NC and the UML have also come around to accepting that identity has to be recognised. So there will be an agreement. But we will not accept a constitution without federalism. If the Maoists compromise on federalism, or leave the issue of identity, the identity of the Maoist party itself will be finished.

Will there be a national unity government soon?

We have been saying all along that if there is a national unity government, it will help the process. Now that the peace process has moved forward, a national unity government will be formed. Our claim is that it should be led by Baburam Bhattarai, and that should remain till the peace process is concluded and the fundamentals of the constitution are agreed upon. On the day of constitution promulgation itself, we do not have any objection to even an NC-led government.

India

How do you see India's role in recent months?

From the 12-point agreement to CA elections, India's active help was important in taking the process forward. After a government under my leadership was formed, there was a chill in relations and ups and downs. In the past year-and-a-half, there is a certain freshness, and a greater understanding of each other's concerns. Right now, India wants the conclusion of the peace process, the writing of a constitution, political stability and wishes to see Nepal on the path of development. I don't see India having any other motive. I have also reviewed the past, both positives and negatives, and am keen that we have good relations with our neighbours, especially India. And I am committed to finishing the peace and constitution process. I don't see any problem right now; instead there is a spirit to help each other.

What was the turning point?

All of us reviewed the situation. I presented a document in my party last April stating that the 12-point agreement must be the basis, and we must conclude the peace and the constitution process. India then changed the way it viewed Maoists, and realised it must help the process succeed. It was a realisation that we must revert to the environment of trust that existed during the 12-point pact.

Would it be right to say that Nepal's peace process and the constitution would not have been possible without Indian support?

Definitely. Saying that the 12-point understanding was signed in Delhi means that there was India's active support — otherwise it was not possible. CA elections would not have been possible. There could have been problems with the declaration of a republic. Now also, to take peace and the constitution to a logical conclusion, without Indian support, it will be very complex and difficult.

What is your vision of the economic engagement with India? The government led by your party has approved a major hydropower project with China, yet the ones with Indian companies remain stalled.

I want to add a political preface to this. India should totally remove this perception of thinking of other parties as closer to them, and the Maoists as being a bit distant. There is a closer economic relationship with and higher dependence on India. India's support is necessary for our development, be it hydropower, infrastructure, industries. But we also need to get Chinese support. An appropriate balance is important, but we have a special relationship with India. I have advised the PM that regarding the upper Karnali project, let's have one round of discussions and take it forward. On Sutlej, a PDA is being worked upon, let us finish that soon. And on Sunkosi, an Indian company is interested. I have told the Energy Minister to take it forward so that it does not appear that there is an imbalance. I have conveyed to the Indian Ambassador that we need and expect Indian support in our economic development and mega projects.

You are the chair of a national committee on Lumbini. What is your aim? Could you also clarify the role of a Chinese INGO which expressed interest in the project?

The government has formed a national steering committee for the comprehensive development of Lumbini; the aim is to make it a world peace city. I am very clear that without the active help of neighbours, this is not possible. Indian involvement is particularly important. Buddha was born here, but received enlightenment there. Places like Gaya, Kushinagar and others are very important and ultimately, we must create a network. Then we need cooperation from Buddhist countries. China also has a large Buddhist population.

I have had this thought of developing Lumbini for a long time, and had got involved when representatives from China, Thailand, Taiwan and Australia approached me and said they want to mobilise international help for Lumbini. But now that there is a national steering committee, the role of any INGO is irrelevant. As the chair, I have talked to India, China, and the U.N. There is now no need to raise any questions about my previous involvement.

A personal question. You have been out of official positions for some time. What is your political ambition now?

In this period, I am not interested in official power positions. I did contest for elections for PM in Parliament seven times in 2010. But then I reviewed my role, and I felt that I should concentrate my energy on concluding the peace process and constitution writing. If I started aiming for official positions, then the peace process would only get more complex; and my relationship with the Nepali people, parties, the international community — especially neighbours — would not be good.

But this is not to say that I will never go after power. I have a comprehensive vision to take the country forward, and after the peace and constitutional process, I want to get a chance to serve the Nepali people. I want five-10 years to implement my vision to take Nepal forward.