Everyone, barring the monarchy, has welcomed the successful conclusion of the election to the Constituent Assembly in Nepal. This has formally ended a civil war and terminated a good-for-nothing monarchy. But the measure of happiness at the outcome is not equal. There are many, especially in India, who feel somewhat uncomfortable at the size of the Maoist victory. In their view, a more balanced outcome could perhaps have been a better way of socialising the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) into the culture of democracy. Instead, we are confronted with the fact that for all practical purposes, the erstwhile insurgents are headed from jungle to the palace in one big leap.
There are some who worry about a Marxist victory in itself. The CPN(M) or the Maoists are a wonder of sorts. Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and three since the end of the Maoist dogma in its homeland, China, an orthodox Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party has come to power in a country. The final act of the drama may have been played out over the ballot box, but the instrument that brought them here was the one that took the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and China to supremacy — the barrel of the gun. The Maoists have won their seats in the Constituent Assembly through a free and fair ballot, but it was their gun and street power that set the stage for the election, including the interim abolition of the Nepal monarchy.
Baburam Bhattarai, the Indian educated number two in the Maoist hierarchy, says that his party has “learnt” from the experiences of the CPSU and the CPC and that his party was a 21st century entity, fully conscious of the need to function in a multi-party democratic environment. His statements and that of the leader of the party, Prachanda, stress the party line that it is against feudalism and not capitalism and that it welcomes foreign investors. Yet, in the very scale of the success of the Maoists could lie the seeds of potential calamity.
Orthodox theory, beginning with Lenin’s April Theses says that the bourgeois system will not create the Marxist utopia. For that you need a different kind of a power structure — based on the supremacy of the communist party. Marxist-Leninist parties have followed this model through history. A joint front comes to power, the communists insinuate themselves into the system and soon capture all power. This was the sorry modern history of Russia, China, Cuba and other socialist paradises. After seizing power, almost every successful Marxist-Leninist movement has its Pol Pot moment. The Soviet Great Purges and the Cultural Revolution in China are examples of processes that destroyed entire cultures and societies in the name of revolution.
Prachanda and Bhattarai promise to change all that, but can they change their DNA ? As of now the two have a firm grip on their party. But once in government, they will simply lack the time to run the party and the government. Through the election campaign and after, the activities of the Young Communist League indicated that it is not easy to change the character of the party.
With the end of the monarchy Nepal stands on the brink of enormous change which, for the better or the worse, will be steered by the Maoists. Any new government will be confronted with the mass of accumulated problems left over by the monarchy. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and already under considerable environmental stress.
But the immediate challenges will be political. First, in dealing with the Royal Nepal Army. The war between the Maoists and the RNA may not have been long or very intense, but it did feature a great deal of brutality and killings on both sides. In 2003, the Maoists had termed the RNA as “the traditional support base of monarchy and of late a pampered darling of US-British imperialism”. Now they say that the 20,000 strong-guerilla force must be merged with the 40,000-strong RNA. Bhattarai has said that the overall size of the army will come down, and if there is a disproportionate reduction of the RNA element, the Maoists could gain effective control of the army as well.
Second, most of the history of the country was of brutal suppression of the people and grinding poverty, akin to slavery. Land ownership is a major issue, as is the ethnic imbalance in the possession of land. If the Maoists are even moderately successful in providing a federal government and land reform, they will be bringing on a revolution of sorts in the lives of the ordinary Nepali. Given the accumulated grievances, this could become a violent process, compelling the Maoists to take recourse to the tried and tested methods of a Marxist-Leninist organisation rather than a party functioning in a democracy.
Third, is the issue of India. Nepal has a long border with China and ties of friendship, but geography has locked Nepal into India. New Delhi has been used to doing business with the Nepali Congress for a long time, but the Maoists no longer have the shock value they once had. New Delhi cannot expect the quality of the relationship to remain static. Bhattarai’s recent interview suggests that, to start with at least, the Nepalese agenda will be nationalistic rather than revolutionary. He has spoken of the need to enforce some kind of border controls on the virtually open Indo-Nepal border and a renegotiation of the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty. Neither of these should worry India much. Both are related to a greater assertion of Nepalese nationalism, rather than any revolutionary project. Such a Nepal could be irredentist, but the idea holds little traction among the people of Nepalese origin living in India.
India can live with a nationalistic Nepal, but not a Leftist one driven by ideologues, who will become homicidal sooner, rather than later. Besides eliminating the elite — land and property owners and associates of the monarchy —such a government would almost certainly give far more encouragement to the Maoists across the border in India.
The Maoists’ stand that their party is firmly committed to multi-party democracy and their relationship with Indian Maoists is purely ideological could be merely a tactical statement, or it could reflect the dominant line of the day. Nepalese Maoists have in the past participated in the coordination conferences with their Indian counterparts. We know a great deal about Prachanda and Bhattarai’s views, which are quite remarkable for their reasonableness, but we know little about those of the second and third rungs of the party. Circumstances pushed the CPN(M) to alter its line in 2003; a changed situation could well lead them to revert to the old path tomorrow. Dialectics, as any student of Marxism-Leninism will tell you, can explain everything.
This article first appeared in Mail Today April 23, 2008