Plenum fiasco

Plenum fiasco

While the recent meeting of Nepal's Maoists was supposed to offer clarity and energy for the party's future strategy, it did neither.

In the aftermath of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)'s sixth plenum, held in late November, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the party's chairman, claimed that the exercise had been a grand success. 'It is absolutely wrong to say that we have come out with the same, confusing political line,' he said, blaming the media for spreading falsehoods. For Dahal, the week-long plenum, held in the village of Palungtar in central Nepal, where over 6000 cadres expressed their opinions, was 'historic, extraordinary and a great exercise of internal democracy'. He said internal disputes were natural in any vibrant communist party, and that the leadership had come out of the experience with new vigour and enthusiasm, having resolved all intra-party policy disputes.

Party insiders say the reality is just the opposite, however, suggesting that the top leadership continues to be divided over the party line, except that now the divisions are public and permeate the party rank and file. The issue at hand is not so much the internal power struggle but the direction of the party and the ongoing peace process. Unable to reconcile their longstanding ideological differences, the three leaders presented separate political documents during the plenum, none of which was endorsed – a first for Dahal, and a situation that thrust the party into ideological confusion. In fact, the ideological divide among the three central leaders – Chairman Dahal, Senior Vice-Chairman Mohan Baidya and Vice-Chairman Baburam Bhattarai – has become so wide that the party now faces an imminent danger of splitting.

A month after the Palungtar plenum, on December 15, the party Central Committee (CC), bowing to the resurgent hard-line camp led by Baidya, adopted the tactical line of 'people's revolt', a program aimed to 'seize' state power. In addition, the party identified both India and 'domestic reactionaries' as the party's principal enemies. The latest move of the party has, however, threatened party unity and severely affected the prospect of completing the peace process.

The root of the current debate goes back to the mid-1990s. In 2005, the Maoists decided to forge an alliance with the parliamentary political parties against the monarchy and push for the formation of a federal democratic republic at a full CC meeting in Chunwang, in western Nepal. This party line is widely credited to Bhattarai. At that time, Baidya was in jail in West Bengal, detained by Indian authorities while in Siliguri for eye treatment. Since the 'Chunwang line' was adopted in his absence, Baidya has been attempting to turn this process around, terming it – and the outlines of the current peace process – a deviation from the ideological goals of revolution.

Party insiders believe that Dahal's moves at Palungtar also contradicted the Chunwang line. By proposing to declare India the party's principal enemy, Dahal clearly tried to win over Baidya's support, while cashing in on the cadres' anti-India sentiment. Since Dahal and party hardliners believe that Bhattarai is being assisted by India, Dahal could have simultaneously tried to weaken Bhattarai's position in the party. Bringing in the India factor was also Dahal's bid to counter the perception (in and out of the party) that he simply vacillates between Bhattarai's and Baidya's political lines. Dahal thus used the opportunity to project himself as a visionary leader.

Another of Dahal's objectives was to turn the cadres' attention toward India at a time when his popularity among the party rank and file is believed to have declined. Indeed, the Maoist leadership is being alienated not only from the masses, but also from its own cadres. This is partly because the top three leaders represent three different classes of cadres: Bhattarai represents the educated and urban youths, Dahal has the backing of those who are now politically and financially benefiting from the party, while Baidya has the support of the poor cadres from the villages, who lost near and dear ones during the conflict. Baidya's supporters have repeatedly raised the issue of the 'bourgeois lifestyles' of the leaders and the birth of the 'nouveau riche', born under the chairman's tutelage, in the party. These cadre take these emerging trends as proof that the party has been going off the revolutionary track.

Following serious objections from Bhattarai and differences with Baidya, Dahal's political document failed to garner enough support, and the plenum ended without endorsing a clear policy. 'Adopting the Chunwang line, the party achieved the goal of republicanism, federalism and secularism,' observed a senior Maoist leader close to Bhattarai, 'but the party is now at a complete loss.' The plenum was thus a wasted effort, as the representative body could not synthesise the documents of the three leaders and instead passed the responsibility back to the CC. And the CC meeting on 15 December adopted the line of 'revolt', which meant a victory for Baidya.

Personalities and ideologies
How does one explain this growing factionalism? It seems Baidya is not eager to seize the party leadership at this moment, but wants the party to abandon the Chunwang line of a 'federal democratic republic' in Nepal. In addition, Baidya wants to launch a 'people's revolt' to establish a 'people's federal democratic republic', the line passed by the party national conclave at Kharipati, in the Kathmandu valley, two years ago.

Faced with the resurgent hard-line camp at the Kharipati meeting, Chairman Dahal had agreed to add 'people' to the Chunwang line of a 'federal democratic republic', a clear attempt to woo Baidya. While Baidya demanded an implementation of the Kharipati meeting decision to seize state power through an 'immediate revolt', Dahal and Bhattarai argued that the party should rather work to institutionalise the political achievements achieved thus far, and empower the people through a forward-looking state restructuring and a progressive constitution. Thereafter, the party, Dahal and Bhattarai argued, could make another attempt to seize state power and complete the revolution. But Baidya doesn't buy that idea. He says the party should go for a 'people's republic' in order to establish a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and eliminate the 'reactionaries' – the feudal class and the parliamentary parties. Baidya rejects the party's official document 'Evolution of Democracy in the 21th century', which concedes that communist regimes worldwide have collapsed because they stood against political competition, and pledges not to commit the same mistake in Nepal.

Baidya is of the opinion that the party should complete the revolution in one go, while Dahal and Bhattarai say the revolutionary process should unfold gradually. If Baidya holds Bhattarai largely responsible for dragging the party into parliamentary politics, the latter considers Baidya's ideas as outdated. There are clashes of personality as well, especially between Dahal and Bhattarai. Bhattarai sees the chairman as obsessed with power. Dahal, on the other hand, paints Bhattarai as a leader promoted by India, local 'reactionaries' and the media. These clashes and the growing factionalism were reflected in the plenum. The cadres close to the Baidya camp thus accused Dahal of misusing financial resources to maintain his hold on the party, while those close to Dahal accused Baidya of being an 'ultra-leftist' hell-bent on spoiling the party's political achievements. Similarly, the cadres close to Dahal accused Bhattarai of being a revisionist, while those close to Bhattarai accused Dahal of being a leader bereft of political vision.

The intra-party factionalism and  the competing strategic visions of the top three leaders have had serious repercussions on the peace process. In private, Maoist leaders accept that the future of the peace process and constitution-drafting has become uncertain due to the ideological confusion on the part of the party, which is the largest in the Constituent Assembly (CA). The CA has been unable to deal with the outstanding constitutional issues due to sharp ideological differences between the Maoist and non-Maoist parties. The Maoists seem determined to push for a 'revolutionary' constitution; as a result, the non-Maoist parties have increasingly become suspicious of Maoist intentions and commitment toward a democratic constitution. The latter thus widely believe that the Maoists want an undemocratic political system without constitutional provisions such as separation of power and constitutional checks and balances. As such, there is a tacit understanding among all the non-Maoist parties that they will unite to counter the Maoist design.

The Maoist moderates, led by Bhattarai, want an alliance with the 'liberals' of other political parties to push for a 'progressive constitution', but the growing re-radicalisation of the Maoist party and inter-party political polarisation seem to have come in the way of such a compromise and nobody is sure about what shape the current trend of political polarization will ultimately take.

Fang on the side
The political parties have failed to elect a prime minister for the past six months; this delay has also hampered the constitution-drafting process and the integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants. The Maoist leaders argue that their army should be 'integrated, not dissolved', and talk of 'civilian control over the national army' in the abstract, which is the reason why non-Maoist parties suspect that the Maoists will not cooperate in the integration and rehabilitation process without ensuring that the combatants remain loyal to the Maoist party.

The Maoist leaders are reluctant to pursue the signed agreement with the other parties in which a commitment was made to integrate part of the 19,000-plus combatants into the security forces, including the army, armed police force and civilian police, and to send back the rest into society with appropriate compensation. This agreement for integration and rehabilitation, indeed, forms the core of the Nepali peace process and on its successful completion hinges the fate of constitution writing. It is unlikely that the other parties will agree to negotiate and promulgate the new constitution unless the process of integration and rehabilitation is completed and the 28 combatant cantonments are emptied.

The Maoists and the government were supposed to complete the integration and rehabilitation process before the CA elections in 2008. But the Maoists, especially those from the hard-line camp, are against separating their army from the party. For them, an army loyal to the party is necessary to prevent any possible counter-revolution after effecting radical socio-political changes in the country. In the words of one hardliner leader: 'Any Maoist party without its army is like a snake without fangs.' Even during the nine months of the Maoist-led government, Dahal took no concrete move to complete the process. The reason was clear: pressure from the hard-line camp not to 'dissolve' the party's army. In the meantime, many Maoist leaders want to integrate most of the 19,000-plus combatants into the security forces, mainly the national army, a proposal the non-Maoist parties vehemently oppose.

The Maoists now argue that they will not allow the completion of the integration process without first ensuring a 'progressive constitution'. But for the other parties, constitution drafting makes little sense without completing the integration process. This is also related to the protracted deadlock over the formation of a new government, which has been lingering since late June. The parliamentary parties say they would support Dahal's bid for prime ministership if the latter first agrees on a specific number of combatants to be integrated into the Nepal Army and cooperates with the integration process; but Dahal argues that the integration process should be completed only after a Maoist-led government, led by Dahal himself, has been formed. Maoist insiders, meanwhile, suggest that Dahal is desperate to lead the government – not because he is eager to complete the integration process, but because he wants to control the party's resurgent hard-line faction by offering them a lion's share in a new government.

Rough waters ahead
It came as a complete surprise for most Maoist leaders when Dahal, with the backing of Baidya, who has been pushing for a forceful capture of state, got his political document endorsed by the CC on December 15. Dahal's declining political support among the party rank and file and the role being played by India to 'prevent him from becoming the prime minister' best account for his sudden U-turn. Sources claim Dahal took the decision after his attempt to gain Delhi's support for government leadership in Nepal failed even after holding a series of secret talks with the agents of India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

Of the 148 CC members, Bhattarai has the support of 40, and the group is registering its dissent in the party headquarters, explaining why the party's current policy is wrong and outlining the 'correct path of revolution' in a country like Nepal, sandwiched between the two economic giants – India and China. If a 'people's revolt' has now become an immediate priority for both Dahal and Baidya, it is only the last resort for Bhattarai, who is of the view that not only is the forceful capture of state impossible in Nepal, but that it is also impossible to sustain a capture given the adverse geo-political situation. Further, any urban resurrection, Bhattarai argues, should have the support of the middle class, but the Maoists have only antagonised the Kathmandu middle class over the years, and they may even rise up in retaliation against such moves taken by the Maoist party.

The vital question of the day is whether the Maoists will really launch a revolt. If Dahal launches one, how will the Bhattarai camp respond; and if Dahal does not, what will be the reaction of the Baidya camp? It seems Dahal has fallen into a trap either way. The Bhattarai camp is now in wait-and-watch mode. If the revolt fails to garner momentum, Bhattarai will try to remove Dahal from the leadership, blaming him for the party's plight. If the revolt goes out of control, the Bhattarai camp is likely to dissociate from the party, blaming Dahal and Baidya for the ensuing chaos. Finally, if Dahal doesn't go for one, Baidya has already threatened to split the party.

Five years after they entered mainstream politics, Nepal's Maoists, who waged a decade-long insurgency before joining the peace process in 2005, are at a crossroads. And they seem to be
utterly confused.

Post Bahadur Basnet is a reporter and writer with the Republica daily in Kathmandu.

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