Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, and Baburam Bhattarai, former prime minister of Nepal, discuss the recent political developments in Nepal and India-Nepal relations.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Baburam Bhattarai, thank you very much for talking to The Wire. We want to discuss Nepal’s recent political developments as well as India-Nepal relations, and I want to start with going back two years – September 2015 when the constitution was finalised. You were chairperson of the Constitution Committee that settled the final draft. That should have been a moment, when the document was finalised, that should have been a moment of great celebration but we saw very quickly that there were protests, divisiveness and an entire period of instability also ensued. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, do you think things ought to have been done differently? What went wrong and how would you have handled things if you had a second chance?
Baburam Bhattarai: I fully agree with you. It would have been a great moment of triumph and happiness for me to promulgate the constitution through the constituent assembly because within the Maoist movement, I was the one who pushed forward the tactical line of making the constitution through the constituent assembly to achieve the objective of republicism, federalism, secularism and inclusive democracy. But unfortunately, in the first constituent assembly, we failed to make the constitution. And in the second assembly the power equation was changed. The old forces were in favour of all this progressive agenda, they were in the two-third majority. So I as a chairman of the Constitutional Committee, I had the privilege of trying to reach out a consensus among top party leaders. But unfortunately, because of the number game I couldn’t succeed to achieve consensus on all the issues. On certain issues, we reached an agreement, but on the major issues of federalism we couldn’t reach an agreement because federalism was an issue basically raised by the Madhesis and Janajatis, the two groups who were basically excluded from the state system for about 250 years. So these people wanted real federalism with identity and autonomous states. For this I tried my best, but ultimately, I would say, I failed to create any consensus, so on this issue I kept my reservations and immediately after the promulgation of the constitution I resigned from the assembly and I am championing this cause and other issues especially the directly elected presidential system. I still believe given the electoral system we have adopted in Nepal, parliamentary system plus the proportional representative system, this hodge-podge won’t give any political stability. That’s why I wanted directly elected presidential system. On this issue also I had my reservations.
SV: There are lots of positive aspects in the constitution that was finalised. Without a doubt, in many ways, a very advanced document. But the question of federalism remains unresolved, even a year and a half later. If I come to the present, the government of Prachanda, your erstwhile comrade, your erstwhile party leader as it were. He is now in power and he formed the government with the promise of resolving the federalism issue, passing the amendments that the Madhesi people want to be passed – that hasn’t happened yet. Now we have local elections announced for the middle of May. Do you think that in the face of the boycott that many of the Terai political players have said they will enforce these elections will go ahead? Or do you think it’s wise to go for elections before the amendments, or should some effort be made to pass the amendments first?
BB: In fact, the federal restructuring of the state is one of the core issues raised during the Maoist insurgency. In Nepal there are three major clusters of nationalities. One is the Madhesi Tharus, the other one is called the Janajatis and the Khasariya groups. These three are almost one-third in population. But in the power sharing arrangement, more than 80% of power is dominated by the Khasariya groups. That’s why the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis want real restructuring of the state, which is justifiable. So Maoist insurgency raised this issue, later on the Madhesi movement supplemented it. But it is very unfortunate that comrade Prachanda, who was my erstwhile comrade, at the last phase of the constituent assembly he virtually changed his stand and sided with the Nepali Congress and the UML [Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)], and on this issue I differed with him. I still believe without taking the Madhesi, Janajatis and the Tharus on board, which constitute about two-third of Nepal’s population, we can’t have stability and peace in the country. So in that sense, without bringing these people on board by amending the constitution to cater to their demands, I don’t think it will be possible to hold the election and it isn’t desirable also.
SV: Many Nepali political analysts say that as a result of a political backlash to the demands of the Terai-Madhesi people, leaders like K.P. Oli of UML have become very popular and that in some ways they are pandering to the idea that federalism will weaken Nepal’s unity and integrity and is somehow an anti-Nepali demand. How do you see Oli’s rise in the political firmament? What do you think are the key sources of his political strength today?
BB: You see there is disturbing phenomena all over the world. Anti-inclusion agenda has been monopolised by certain section of the ruling elite in many of the countries, including the USA, and Mr. K.P. Oli, under a left banner, is pursuing the most rightist, regressive agenda in Nepal. See, he’s just pandering to the passion, or the so-called insecurity of the ruling elite who refuse to share power with the excluded sections, the Madhesis and Janajatis. He’s trying to consolidate the Nepalese elite who feel leaderless after the abolition of the monarchy. So that way he may gain. But ultimately, it will prepare a ground for continued instability in the country which will be very harmful and dangerous, so that’s why people like K.P. Oli need to be discouraged and politically confronted.
SV: In a very crowded political landscape in Nepal, you took the bold step of pushing for a new party, Naya Shakti. You say this represents a new kind of politics, a new kind of initiative in Nepal. What made you choose this path as opposed to fighting for your line within the Maoist party, or seeking to influence existing parties? Why did you feel that the creation of a new party was necessary?
BB: There are two or three things that led to this conclusion. Firstly, all over the world, the old ideology of the left and right is not working. Both neoliberalism and the state socialism are under tremendous crisis, and there is a search for alternative ideology and political thought all over the world. Although in Nepal also the old binary of left and right is not working, so we want to find a new political thought or ideology which is suited to the 21st century and the current condition of Nepal. That was one of the points I thought was important. And the second point was that Nepal being a country basically divided into three clusters of nationalities, we need to unify all the three nationalities to maintain the integrity of the country and have peace. For this also the old political parties have virtually degenerated into a chauvinistic group pandering to the passion of the ruling Khasariya groups. And the two groups, Madhesis and Janajatis, have been marginalised.
So I thought… I myself coming from the Khasariya background, I should take the initiative to take all the sections together and maintain the integrity of the country. And thirdly, after the political change in the country, now people are aspiring for economic development. Nepal’s contradiction right now is the advanced form of democratic rights and the retarded form of economic development. That is the major contradiction. Until and unless we embark on a path of rapid economic development in the country, we cannot fulfill the aspirations of the people. Rampant poverty and unemployment is the biggest problem in the country. So to do away with the economic development and prosperity needs to be raised and put in the focus by the political party. And fourthly, the politics and politicians have been degenerated into a quagmire of corruption and misgovernance all over the world, particularly in the South Asian region. So in Nepal also, corruption and misdeeds are rampant in political parties. That’s why we wanted to provide a clean government which will fight corruption. So keeping that in mind, we floated this Naya Shakti party.
SV: Now though the development of the Maoist movement and struggle, including the arms struggle, are obviously an integral part of Nepal’s recent history, and one could argue that the constituent assembly and constitution, and all the progress that has happened in the past seven to eight years wouldn’t have happened without that struggle. There are many people who say that they are attracted by Naya Shakti, and by your leadership, but they want you to in some ways repudiate your past, repudiate your People’s War. One has even heard some liberals say, “Baburam must apologise for People’s War”. What’s your comment or response to these kind of demands?
BB: In the context of Nepal, the Maoist movement in Nepal needs to be judged separately. It was not just a class-based movement. In the condition of Nepal, democratic revolution was not complete even by the end of the 20th century. So to do away with the feudal order led by the monarchy, we had to organise an insurgency, and Maoist tools, at least for me, was more desirable and useful to do away with the monarchy and complete the democratic revolution.
To that extent, the Maoist insurgency or Maoist People’s War was the need of the hour to fight against the autocratic system. People, at times, have to take to arms. That has happened elsewhere also, in Nepalese history also. Nepali Congress raised arms against the Ranas. And the UML raised arms against the panchayati autocratic system led by the monarchy. So Maoists had every reason to raise arms against the monarchy. That is one different phase of the movement. That is now over. So instead of repenting on that, or repudiating that, we should preserve the democratic gains of that movement. Because of that we have got this republicanism, federalism, secularism and inclusive democracy. We should move ahead. That’s why.. but the new agenda I just told you of good governance, development and inclusiveness, for this Maoist ideology I don’t think will be useful anymore. That’s why this needs to be developed further. I would say not abandoning it but developed further to suit the conditions of the 21st century and the conditions in Nepal.
SV: Turning now to India-Nepal relations, we noticed around the time the constitution was finalised, fairly negative reaction from the Indian government side. Was this largely driven by the fact that the Madhesi demands for federal structure that included them fully was not recognised or do you think India was responding to the enshrining of secularism as a principle in the constitution? Explain to us what your understanding is of the Indian policy in the months after the constitution was adopted in Nepal. Why was there such a negative reaction?
BB: During my current visit to New Delhi, I had tried to make a point strongly with my friends I had met in New Delhi. Times have changed. But the political thinking both in New Delhi and Kathmandu has not changed. It is the time to review the overall gamut of relations between India and Nepal, and to restructure our relationship to suit the demands of the 21st century. So Nepal should know the core aspiration or need of India. And India should also realise the core aspiration of the Nepalese people. So in my understanding, India’s core concern is security and strategic issues and Nepal’s core concern doesn’t fully accept or respect the sovereignty of Nepal and doesn’t contribute towards the economic development of the country. So if that is so, which I believe is true, then both sides should sit down and resolve this issue.
SV: Which is why you have this formula. Recently you said that Nepal should look after India’s security interest and India should look after Nepal’s economic interests. Concretely what does that mean though? We know for example that the Indians will say Nepal should be more receptive to hydro-electric projects which will benefit Nepal and will benefit India, which Nepal has traditionally resisted. So concretely what is this formula you are proposing? How would it operate?
BB: So one point I was trying to make was because of this trust deficit between these two countries, minor issues like the timing of the promulgation of the constitution or particular person heading the government in Nepal, have been raised by India and has been rightly seen as an interference in Nepal’s internal matters. Instead of doing that, New Delhi should focus on the broader strategic issues, policy issues rather than the minor macro-management issues. And Nepal should also be sensitive to the genuine security and other concerns of India. So that’s why I suggested India being an aspiring regional power and a future global power would have a certain strategic and security aspirations from Nepal.
So Nepal shouldn’t hesitate to give a clear-cut commitment on that because we have to deal more with India though we are a sovereign and independent country. We should have good relations with both our neighbours India and China, but everybody knows we have to deal with India more. So if that is so, without antagonising China or taking due care of the genuine security interest of China, we should be more sensitive towards the genuine security interest of India. So from Nepal’s part, we should be able to do that. And from India’s part, Nepal being an independent, sovereign country for so long, India shouldn’t be seen as hesitating to respect and honour it. They should do it. And then mainly the current aspiration of the Nepalese are rapid economic development, for that India’s cooperation in the development of hydropower and other resources, and investment needs to be duly taken care of by India.
SV: The allegation that some Nepal political leaders make pretty much from all the mainstream UML, Maoists, maybe even Congress that the Madhesi movement is instigated by the Indian government; that India is trying to use the Madhesi card to weaken Nepal’s sovereignty. How much credence would you give to these kinds of accusations, or do you think it is just part of the right-wing nationalist narrative within Nepal?
BB: The federalism issue was raised firstly by the Maoists and then the Madhesi political parties, later on supported by the NC and the UML. So it has occurred from within Nepal. It has been the agenda of the political parties within the country. But when they failed to resolve it, then India was seen as supporting this cause. So this was used by a section of the political parties in Nepal to brand all these progressive agendas as ‘India-driven’. So in my opinion, I think this is not true. This agenda of republicanism, federalism, secularism and inclusive democracy are the Nepalese people’s agenda raised by the political parties, and India should not be seen as instigating it, and India should not instigate it as well. Because if India’s core concerns are security and other concerns, they should come out frankly with its interests. Instead of doing that, India should not been seen backing one group against the other. So I think that needs to be corrected by India. And from the Nepalese side, our internal issues should not be sidelined and accused as if they were raised by outside forces. I see this tendency of branding all the progressive agenda as ‘anti-national’ and ‘foreign-inspired’ is very harmful to the country.
SV: My final question Mr Bhattarai, we’ve seen in the last week the victory of the Bhartiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh and the election of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of UP. Obviously this is an internal matter of Uttar Pradesh and India, but to the extent to which Yogi Adityanath has been quite active in raising certain Nepal issues, he’s been a backer of restoration of the monarchy, he’s been a backer of the idea that Nepal should be declared a Hindu rashtra. Do you feel that the influence of Adityanath may be felt across the border in Nepal now that he’s chief minister?
BB: I don’t think it will be proper for me to comment on the internal political electoral issues of India. Even if chief minister Adityanath had some otherwise thoughts about Nepal, that won’t prevail because on foreign policy matter, the Centre takes the lead. And I think the state government will have to follow that. So I don’t think it will have any major impact. Personally, people can have different opinions. In a democracy that happens. But I don’t think that will have any serious fallout or ramifications in Nepal.