Interview with newly-elected Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai.

In the middle of negotiations over cabinet formation and the future of Maoist combatants, Nepal's new Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai took time out for an exclusive interview with Prashant Jha on Friday afternoon at his office. 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 (CPA) and the Interim Constitution, we need to take major decisions through consensus. The Special Committee (SC) responsible for the integration and rehabilitation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cadres has to function through consensus and the Constitution has to be adopted through a two-thirds majority. If we have a consensus government of major parties, it would facilitate those two processes. But unfortunately, since that could not happen, the second choice was to start with a majoritarian and work for a consensus government.

Immediately after my election, I reached out to the Nepali Congress, the UML and other parties. I need their support on the peace process. We have already chalked out a time frame of 45 days for integration and rehabilitation. If we reach broad consensus, we can stick to the deadline. By that time, the NC and the UML will also join the government, and it can then take the shape of a national consensus government.

What is the basis for the Maoist-Madhesi alliance, which many have called ‘unnatural'?

Maoists and Madhes based parties are natural allies because on many cardinal principles and political line, there is common ground. The agenda of the Maoists is restructuring of the state and society. And Madhes based parties came forward with the agenda of the federal restructuring of the state. These are basic issues which the traditional NC and UML could not address. 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 the full support of my chairman, comrade Prachanda. Though we have gone through series of ideological and political struggles, 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 complementary, rather than competitive. We need each other. I need the chairman and the chairman needs me. Ideologically, politically and personally, continuity between the two of us has been prevailing and will prevail in the future.

What about the third component of the party, senior vice-chairman Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran'? He has already opposed your decision to hand over keys of the arms containers.

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. 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 and practically handed over the PLA, cantonments, cadres and weapons to the SC. In that SC, both the PLA and the 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. The party chairman has already issued a statement fully supporting the decision of the SC.

But there seems to be a school within your party opposed to the whole process. Do you think they can 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 has had some reservations, 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. Even if some leaders and cadre may oppose or some splinter groups may move out, it won't make much impact on the party's political line.

What is the meeting point on the contentious issues regarding the future of Maoist combatants?

First, for modality, we have more or less agreed that a separate directorate will be created under the Nepal Army. Second, 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, our senior commanders will be brought back for political work and junior commanders can be adjusted. The fourth issue is package for those opting for rehabilitation or voluntary retirement or golden handshake. We are working out an honourable settlement. And on numbers, we proposed a figure between 8,000 and 10,000. With Madhesi parties, there was an agreement of around 7,000. Other parties have come to about 6,000. We will finally settle around 7,000; that should be the compromise number of those to be integrated. We can then immediately start regrouping, which can be completed in one month. And within two weeks after that, we should be able to complete the process of integration.

One of the points in the agreement with Madhesi parties is withdrawal of cases against those accused during the war and movements. Isn't this a travesty of justice?

There is already an agreement in the CPA for withdrawal of cases against political cadres stamped by the old state during the insurgency and People's Movement. We only said we will implement that agreement. The Maoists and the Madhesi parties have come through struggle. So, naturally pending cases should be withdrawn. It happens everywhere. This has nothing to do with human rights issues. We are fully committed to obey human rights.

Is the three-month extension of the CA enough?

Three months is not enough. If you go by the CA's schedule, we need at least six to nine months. 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 criticised India's role in domestic Nepali politics. What was its stance during the government formation process this time around?

Nepal is sandwiched between the 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 and 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.

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. The political process in Nepal should be decided by the people and political parties of Nepal. But we need the goodwill of neighbours like India.

How would you respond to India's security concerns in Nepal?

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 by Maoists. What is your position on foreign, especially Indian, investors?

Our party's position is that we need foreign direct investment in Nepal, though the priorities will be decided by the Nepal government. Unfortunately, during this transition period, certain unfortunate incidents have taken place. That is not in consonance with the official party position. 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.

What is your expectation from policymakers in New 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. 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 jeopardise any genuine interest of India in Nepal, security or economic or otherwise. We need cooperation to stabilise peace, democracy and development. 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.

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