Factional feud in the open

Nepal Maoist rebel supporters gather to listen to rebel leader Prachanda, unseen, at a public meeting in Katmandu, Nepal, Friday, March 16, 2007. Nepal's government and former communist rebels are negotiating to set up an interim government that would include ex-guerrillas for the first time. (AP Photo/Binod Joshi)   | Photo Credit: BINOD JOSHI

When Nepal's Constituent Assembly (CA) was extended for three months on May 28, political parties agreed to “finish the fundamental tasks of the peace process” and prepare a “draft constitution.” Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal agreed to “resign to make way for a national unity government.” Despite a promising start, there has been little movement on any of the fronts. Parties still do not have a deal on the modality and nature of integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants. Differences persist on major constitutional issues. And a fresh power-sharing arrangement which would include all parties is not on the table yet.

The primary reason the process has been held up is the rift within the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Since the extension of the CA, chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' has faced an unprecedented challenge from all other top leaders of the party. And all his focus has been on managing intra-party differences.

Changing stance

The factional feud among the Nepali Maoists has been an open secret for several years now. Senior vice-chairman, Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran' has emphasised that entering the peace process was essentially a ‘tactical' step, not a ‘strategic' shift. The party should remain committed to completing the ‘revolution' and prepare the ground for this by “sharpening the political polarisation.” But vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai believes that the main task for now is to institutionalise the “federal democratic republic,” which requires close collaboration with all other parties, especially the Nepali Congress.

Between 2006 and 2008, Mr. Prachanda worked very closely with Dr. Bhattarai — they even lived in the same house — to enable the entry of the Maoists into open politics and push for a republic. This alienated Mr. Kiran who felt the party was getting trapped in “bourgeoisie politics.” As Prime Minister, however, Mr. Prachanda incorporated several elements of Mr. Kiran's political line; his failed attempt to dismiss the army chief is attributed to pressure from dogmatists. Last year, Mr. Prachanda and Mr. Kiran agreed on a common political line, declaring that the revolution's principal contradiction was now with India and its “brokers,” and the party would prepare for a “people's revolt.” Dr. Bhattarai was sidelined.

But just before the constitutional deadline of May 28, Mr. Prachanda shifted track and allied with Dr. Bhattarai. The chairman declared, including in his interview to The Hindu, that there was no looking “left and right,” and that the party would now move forward to complete the process of integration and rehabilitation and writing a constitution. In principle, the Maoists accepted the modality proposed by the Nepal Army (NA) to create a mixed force under an NA directorate. Dr. Bhattarai supported the chairman's political line of “peace and constitution,” while Mr Kiran felt “betrayed” at Mr. Prachanda's “u-turn.”

Unlikely alliance

After the CA was extended, the Maoist chairman, as a gesture of good faith, sent the PLA soldiers protecting Maoist leaders back to the cantonments, relying only on state security personnel. But Mr. Kiran and leaders from his faction termed the move a “sell-out,” and maintained the “dual security” arrangement.

Even as Mr. Prachanda was facing a challenge from one faction, the other group decided to strike. Dr. Bhattarai changed track and focussed on internal party management. During the war, he had challenged the culture of building a “personality cult” around the chairman. Dr. Bhattarai harboured resentment at being branded an “Indian agent,” and also felt Mr. Prachanda blocked his chances of becoming the Prime Minister last year.

This was the game-changer. Two factions, which had long fought an ideological battle, came together because they felt Mr. Prachanda had maintained his strength by playing them against each other. Mr. Kiran and Dr. Bhattarai insisted on a fresh “power-sharing” arrangement within the party, with greater responsibility to other leaders. Another vice-chairman, Narayan Kaji Shrestha ‘Prakash,' and party general-secretary Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal' supported this campaign.

Mr. Prachanda continued to command the loyalty and support of all top PLA commanders. They argued that this was not the time to weaken the chairman since only he could complete the peace and constitutional process. They pointed to the “unnatural” alliance of Mr. Kiran and Dr. Bhattarai. Over three weeks, the two groups engaged in a bitter debate on how to break the impasse.

Tentative compromise

Last Saturday, the party's warring factions arrived at a compromise. Mr. Prachanda would continue to be the party chairman and parliamentary party leader. However, he agreed to make Dr. Bhattarai the head of the parliamentary party board and propose him as the party's official prime ministerial candidate to lead a unity government. Mr. Kiran was to be made the head of the party's organisational and disciplinary departments. Mr. Badal would be given charge of the party's military affairs. And vice-chairman Prakash would be sent to the present government as the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, replacing the present incumbent. A new team of Maoist Ministers representing all factions — giving an equitable share to women and the marginalised communities — would be sent to the present Cabinet.

The chairman's political proposal was also ratified by the central committee on Monday. The Maoists have demanded that the leadership of the mixed force under the NA directorate be given to a former PLA commander; this force should have a combat role; and the entry of combatants should happen ‘unit wise.' The party has said it is willing to complete the task of regrouping combatants by August 31. And while it would strive to form a Maoist-led national unity government, till that point, the present Jhalanath Khanal government would be strengthened.

A potentially positive outcome of the episode would be for all factions among the Maoists to feel that they have a stake in the process, and act responsibly. But the intra-party deal has caused complications in negotiations with other parties.

This is particularly true with regard to the reshuffling of Ministers. The opposition, NC, has asked for the Prime Minister's resignation as per the five-point agreement signed when the CA was being extended. It sees the present Maoist proposal to change its Ministers as a violation of the agreement. Prime Minister Khanal, too, is reportedly unwilling to change his Cabinet, and has asked the Maoists to focus on the peace process instead. Maoists argue that they are within their rights to change party representatives in the government.

If the Prime Minister reshuffles the government, the move will increase the mistrust with the NC, which will see it as a consolidation of the ‘left alliance.' If the Prime Minister refuses to do so, his relations with Maoists will deteriorate and the fragile internal Maoist compromise may break.

What next?

Instead of getting bogged down in changing Ministers, what makes sense for the Maoists is to focus on arriving at a detailed deal on integration and rehabilitation. Powerful constituencies both in the NC and the ruling party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), have said they are willing to accept Maoist leadership if it takes a step forward on the peace process.

There are substantive differences between the Maoists and other parties on who would lead the new force, what would be its mandate, the standard norms, rank harmonisation, and form of rehabilitation packages and cash handouts. In the best case scenario, the parties should aim to bridge these differences and initiate the process of regrouping combatants before August 31. Concluding it by then is impossible. But even beginning it would signal that the peace process has moved to an “irreversible stage,” and reassure the others that the Maoists are getting detached from their coercive apparatus.

If this happens, it will re-energise the discussions in the CA on contentious issues like the form of government, electoral system, and federalism. It will create a climate for a Maoist-led national consensus government. And it will provide the basis for another limited extension to complete the actual integration and rehabilitation of combatants and write the constitution. If there is no progress in the next one month, extending the CA will become an increasingly difficult proposition. As the biggest party and the dominant ally in the ruling coalition, the onus is on the Maoists to get their house in order and push the process forward.

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