The Teflon Maoists

The Teflon Maoists

by Kul Chandra Gautam

The Maoists are gleeful that the US government has just lifted the “terrorist” tag on them. They never acknowledged or expressed any regret that they had ever used terrorist tactics. They claim that either it was all a “misunderstanding” of their pro-people activism misconstrued as terrorism, or a “conspiracy” by the world leader of capitalist-imperialist powers to defame a progressive nationalist movement fighting for social justice. In any case, the standard Maoist defence is that if they ever committed any violent excesses, it was their “compulsion”, not their “choice”. Now, the Maoists argue that the Americans have finally corrected “their” mistake!

The Americans – including the new US Ambassador to Nepal – would surely understand the Teflon phenomena. An American company, DuPont uses the brand name “Teflon” for a “non-stick” chemical in cooking pots and pans, much favoured by America’s housewives and chefs. In politics, the term Teflon is used to describe a person to whom even valid criticism does not seem to stick. Ronald Reagan was called the “Teflon President” as he seemed to easily get away with all kinds of gaffes and mis-statements. Even some scandals that would have been great embarrassment and ruined other politicians’ careers, did not stick or hurt Reagan. He was a lovable actor and people forgave him for mixing up certain facts and figures. After all, those were minor “details” which one did not expect a great President to remember.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to enjoy similar Teflon characteristics as many ordinary Russians overlook his authoritarian tendencies in their quest for progress with order and stability. Nepal’s Maoists, and especially their leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, also seem to have acquired an amazing Teflon characteristic.

Many Nepalis now recognize the deceptive nature of Maoists’ Orwellian terminology when they speak about “people’s” democracy, “pro-people” Constitution, progressive transformation (agragaami paribartan), and even “peace, inclusion and social justice” as their guiding principles. These days we hear a lot of cynicism about these terms among ordinary Nepalis. But curiously, many Western friends of Nepal seem to continue to give the Maoists very generous “benefit of doubt” even in the face of blatant and overwhelming evidence. Consider these examples:

“Official” Extortion and Corruption

When the UN Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) started verifying Maoist combatants, the Party flooded the cantonments with nearly 32,000 cadres, many of whom were freshly minted “combatants”. Quite a lot of their hardcore combatants were kept outside the cantonments as members of their “civilian” Young Communist League, some of them on “double duty” – registered in cantonments but serving in various party functions outside. UNMIN did disqualify some 10,000 fake “combatants” and verified some 4,000 as child-soldiers and late recruits. But the Maoists never acknowledged that they had done anything wrong, much less apologizing for their willful lying. On the contrary, in a recorded videotape at Shaktikhor camp, Maoist leader Prachanda gloated with pride how they had fooled the UN into accepting 19,000 as certified combatants whereas their actual number, he acknowledged, was 7 to 8,000 only. UNMIN’s response to this disgraceful deception was not an outrage but a plea that we had to “understand” the Maoists’ statement in a “certain context”.

Although UNMIN confirmed that nearly 3,000 combatants in cantonments were child-soldiers, and the Maoist leadership tried to negotiate big cash grants from donors in their name, the Party has never officially acknowledged that they ever recruited anyone under the age of 18 in violation of international conventions. On the contrary, the Maoist leaders often incited these youngsters to protest against the UN labeling them as “disqualified” which they claimed was a “misunderstanding” by ill-informed foreigners. For two years, the Party leadership delayed the release and rehabilitation of these youngsters giving them false assurance that “somehow” in the end the Party will either ensure that they are integrated into the Nepal Army or given very generous allowances. In the end, these poor kids were suddenly dumped by the Party with a rather poor package, when it became clear that they were no longer useful as bargaining chips with the international community.

Then after four years of dilly-dallying tactics, the Maoist Party showed “extraordinary flexibility for the sake of peace and Constitution”, which was much heralded by many Nepalis and the international community. During physical verification of the combatants to ascertain their interest in integration, rehabilitation or voluntary retirement with a handsome package, it turned out that many thousands of combatants were either “phantoms” or had deserted the cantonments long ago. But the Party and its commanders were collecting their allowances regularly with fake signatures. The compulsory “levy” collected from the meager allowances of these poor combatants had mostly gone to a mysterious “Party Headquarters” and was never accounted for. Credible reports indicate that the Party leadership has thus extorted from the government treasury, billions – not millions – of rupees, without counting similar amounts extorted from businessmen and ordinary people over many years.

Today the UCPN (Maoist) is Nepal’s richest but least transparent political party in terms of its financial dealings. After an uproar from within its own ranks, the Party has constituted investigative committees to look into personal property and finances of its leaders and commanders. The “agragaami” fanfare with which these committees were created, packed with the Party leaders’ henchmen, will predictably come up with some “dramatic” findings absolving the Party’s top leadership but finding a few middle-level leaders and apparatchiks guilty as “sacrificial lambs”. And once again, many will cheer the glorious Party’s courage and self-critical “openness” compared to the opaque nature of other corrupt “traditional” parliamentary parties.

Teflon Logic

How is it that in this day and age, a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist Party that has not given up violence as a legitimate method of political change, “state capture” by any means – through bullets or ballots – as its ultimate objective, with all the irrefutable evidence of its hypocrisy and corruption on a massive scale, can still project its image as a Teflon-coated “progressive and pro-people” force?

Besides its following among many simple and poor folks or genuine victims of oppression who are looking for a savior to whom the Maoist rhetoric can be very appealing, there seem to be two main reasons:

a) Many of Nepal’s ethnic, regional and political activists, some civil society leaders, journalists and commentators are persuaded that despite some of their excesses, the Maoists are or can be genuine agents for progressive change. Some tend to believe that even if the Maoists are insincere, they can be “used” to neutralize traditional conservative forces to bring about progressive social change. Interestingly, this logic corresponds to the Maoists’ own design and calculation in the old Stalinist tactic of using independent intellectuals as “useful idiots”.

b) After the end of the Cold War, Western countries are no longer worried about the “Communist menace”, which has now been generally replaced by Islamophobia. So, progressive-sounding dissident movements tend to enjoy a certain romantic appeal. And in their external relations, Nepal’s Maoists have been relatively successful to project their image as being like Scandinavian social-democrats, who are grossly misunderstood.

Trust but Verify

It is interesting to watch how certain groups of Nepali intelligentsia and analysts tend to have a deep impact on the thinking of international progressives. Buttressed by the writings of some Western-educated anthropologists and sociologists who present all of Nepal’s problems as a simple case of the traditional Bahun-Chhetri Hill elites wanting to perpetuate their privileged position by opposing all progressive change that would empower Dalits, Madhesis, Janajatis, women and other marginalized groups, this combination of forces tends to unintentionally support the Teflon Maoists, offering faith-based solutions like ethnic federalism rather than genuinely progressive affirmative actions that have a proven track record in most prosperous and democratic countries.

Now that the more vocally extremist Mohan Vaidya group has split from the UCPN-Maoist, it is very convenient for many potential “useful idiots” to say that the “mainstream” Maoists are truly progressive social-democrats. Never mind that the UCPN-Maoist too has officially kept “all options open” as a revolutionary party that believes in the dictatorship of the proletariat.

None of this is to justify that the Maoists should never be given any benefit of doubt. Credit must be given where credit is due. True democrats must be open to all peaceful dissenting views, but always with the wise caution of the old Gipper: “Trust but verify”.