Friendly advice for Baburam Bhattarai

Friendly advice for Baburam Bhattarai

History has given the Maoists a second chance to lead the Government of Nepal in three years. The new Prime Minister, Dr Baburam Bhattarai, assumes leadership of the nation with a mixed reputation — but on the whole, with high respect and great anticipation. In public opinion polls, he scores a much higher rating than any other current political leader of the country. Many Nepalis, especially the younger generation, hold him in high esteem as a highly educated, intelligent, competent and clean politician with a vision.

But Bhattarai also carries a baggage as a dour and dogmatic ideologue. While recently he has tried to brand himself as a progressive moderate who stands for peace, democracy and constitution, he has not hesitated to make strategic alliances with leaders of the most hard-line faction of the UCPN-Maoist. Whether he can liberate himself from the clutches of the hardliners, and rise above his own Leninist opportunism, will determine his success and, to some extent, the future direction of the country.

It should be noted that while the Maoists came to power, promising profound historical transformation, they squandered the opportunity the first time around by acting in an impatient, immature and inconsistent manner.

The Nepali people had given a finely calibrated verdict in the Constituent Assembly polls in 2008. Three factors contributed to the Maoist victory in the CA election: a) a genuine appeal of the Maoist agenda for socio-economic change, b) a vote against the older parliamentary parties because of their poor track record, and c) a combination of fear and intimidation unleashed by the Maoists, and people´s hope that they would moderate their behavior if they were in power.

The Maoists misinterpreted this fine-tuned people´s verdict as blanket support for their agenda. Instead of trying to win over the large segment of Nepali population — as well as the international community — that remained skeptical and suspicious of Maoist intentions, the government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” engaged in many unnecessary and provocative adventures.

Instead of focusing on the really big and important issues that would have garnered popular support, Dahal got bogged down in controversies, including his effort to fire the Chief of the Nepal Army without following due process; the attempt to tamper with the process of appointing the priests of Pashupatinath temple; and unleashing the party´s unruly trade unions, YCL and such rogue ministers as Matrika Yadav and Gopal Kiranti to engage in destructive temper tantrums and “revolutionary” antics.

With Baburam Bhattarai as the new Prime Minister, the Maoists have an opportunity to rectify some of their past mistakes and miscalculations, and chart out a new path of genuine social transformation and political change which might appeal to ordinary Nepalis and not just the radical Maoist cadres and activists.

Whether Bhattarai can and will rise to the occasion will depend on his courage and wisdom to make some tough choices. He must stop playing the old Leninist duplicitous game of saying one thing and doing the opposite. In this age of open communication, he cannot get away with saying one thing to the core constituency of his ideological followers (as he did in a long interview in October 2009 to the UK-based World People´s Resistance Movement -WPRM) and another thing to the Nepali people, civil society and opposition parties as well as the international community. While with the followers, Bhattarai and Dahal have sought to reassure that the revolutionary ideals are intact, with the rest they claim to be a progressive Scandinavian-like social-democratic party given to genuine democracy with social justice.

The Maoists continuing refusal to renounce violence as a method of political change; their diversionary tactics to delay the peace process under various pretexts; and their opposition to pluralistic democracy as clearly spelled out in the official draft “Constitution of the People´s Federal Republic of Nepal, 2067” prepared under Bhattarai´s convenorship in May 2010, are enough to dispel any illusion about the party´s commitment to genuine democracy. Yet, giving further benefit of doubt, we all hope and pray that the new prime minister will be bold and wise enough to chart out a new course of progressive transformation for himself, his party and for Nepal.

Here are 10 essential things Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai must do to succeed:
1. Reassess the relevance of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology in the 21st century. Baburam and other Maoist leaders say that they have learned from the mistakes of other communist parties which led to the spectacular collapse of communist regimes around the world. But UCPN-Maoist´s actions indicate otherwise. More than any other Maoist leader of Nepal, Bhattarai has the intellectual capacity to undertake a genuine, self-critical analysis and help reinvent his party to make it relevant in the 21st century. He needs to be bold and honest enough to do so.

2. Be faithful to the original Chunwang commitment. Baburam´s leadership was critical to get the historic Chunwang consensus within his party that paved the ground for the end of the civil war, winning the confidence of other democratic parties to conclude a peace agreement, leading to the end of autocratic monarchy and promises of progressive transformation of Nepali society. But the UCPN-Maoist has since gone backwards with its Kharipati and Palungtar resolutions. Although Baburam issued some “notes of dissent”, he needs to be bolder and avoid forging opportunistic alliances of convenience that undermine the Chunwang spirit.

3. Dare to renounce violence as a method of political change. A logical extension of the above commitments would be for the UCPN-Maoist to formally abandon its militarist past and become a truly civilian political party, which would send an electric message across the country and to its long-suffering citizens. That would earn the party — and Baburam as its leader — greater legitimacy and genuine national and international respect. Although it might lead to some hardliners deserting the party, that will be compensated by the support he would get from many other moderates in and outside the party.

4. Emphasize rule of law and good governance. At this point, the greatest desire of the Nepali people is for establishment of the rule of law and good governance. If Baburam were to succeed in instituting the rule of law, starting by taming his own party´s unruly trade unions and other activists, he would acquire instant popularity and, ensure his political longevity.

5. Give genuine priority to economic agenda. The people are fed up and disenchanted with the hyper-politicization of Nepali society. Bhattarai should abandon Maoist dogma and emulate Deng Xiao-Ping by giving genuine priority to pursuing an ambitious and pragmatic economic agenda of national reconstruction and development. Where he would have to go beyond Deng is to do all of this within the context of the open society that Nepal is.

6. Focus on what unites Nepalis instead of what divides them. Great leaders always focus on what unites their people around common aspirations rather than what divides them. But much of Maoist rhetoric and actions focus on what divides Nepalis. Their need for class enemies, and their attempt to divide Nepalis into, feudals vs progressives, nationalists vs foreign lackeys, Madhesis vs Pahadis, Bahun-Chhetris vs Janajatis and Dalits, is a recipe for sowing the seeds of hatred in Nepal´s body politic. In the context of federalism, Bhattarai should emulate Nelson Mandela who rejected the establishment of economically disastrous “Bantustans” and wisely insisted on creating a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, where there would be no second class citizens in any part of the new South Africa.

7. Look to the future, not to the past. Much of the Maoist rhetoric harps on endless analysis of the injustices of the past rather than practical proposals for building a brighter future. While we must definitely address real as well as perceived historical injustices of the past, Bhattarai ought to inspire Nepalis with his vision and specific proposals for inculcating a new sense of unity for shared prosperity for all by harnessing the richness of our cultural diversity, and capitalizing on the positive power of globalization.

8. Learn from Nepal´s own success stories and replicate them. Contrary to their rhetoric, the Maoists have hardly built anything exemplary, while they specialize in denouncing and destroying what they do not like. Fortunately, Nepal has many success stories of innovative development programs, and others led by the private sector. Bhattarai should boldly encourage creative public-private partnerships for national development replicating many Nepali success stories.

9. Restrain family members and friends from corrupt practices. Many great leaders, who may be personally clean and uncorrupt, are often compromised by their family members and friends who try to take advantage of their access to power. Bhattarai will do well to protect his reputation by restraining some of his friends and family members who are known to dispense favors and engage in corrupt practices even when spouting revolutionary slogans.

10. Protect yourself from being a Khieu Samphan or Robert Mugabe. Bhattarai reminds me of Cambodia´s Khieu Samphan, a bright, progressive leftist who wrote a PhD dissertation calling for radical land reform and revolutionary transformation of Cambodian society. But circumstances led him to be the tool of the extremist and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Zimbabwe´s Robert Mugabe was initially a progressive freedom fighter, who ended up ruining his country and his own reputation by following divisive and vengeful tactics in the name of social justice. Bhattarai needs to protect himself and his country from similar destructive impulses.

The people of Nepal have been waiting and longing for a truly visionary leader to rescue the country from the current malaise and morass. Baburam Bhattarai has the potential to be such a transformative leader, but it will not come without democratic vision and courage to go with it.

Published on Republica Daily, 2011-08-29