August 29, 2011
On Sunday, Nepal’s parliament elected Dr. Baburam Bhattarai – the Maoists’ second-in-command – as the nation’s newest prime minister. He is the fourth to hold the position since the 2008 national elections.
Bhattarai received a clear majority. He garnered 340 votes in the 594-member parliament – reduced from its original 601-seat membership because of recent deaths and certain MPs being stripped of membership on grounds of corruption – and his party clinched the deal by securing the last-minute backing of a bloc of five ethic parties from Madhes.
According to AFP, Dr. Bhattarai greeted his victory with a vow to prove naysayers wrong: “The country’s future is very bright and we can accomplish the task of constitution-drafting and complete the peace process.”
Nevertheless, Bhattarai’s immediate challenges are huge. In addition to creating a coalition government (235 votes went to Nepali Congress candidate Ram Chandra Poudel), and completing the new constitution (a deadline which is likely to be extended for the third time on August 31), the new PM is tasked with how to integrate the thousands of former Maoist rebels into the national army, a magic-hat trick that has yet to be effected by previous administrations, including the one lead by Maoist Supremo Prachanda. Prachanda stepped down from the prime ministry after only nine months. During his brief tenure, he reneged on returning properties captured by the rebels during the ten-year civil war, he failed to reverse the culture of impunity that protected his youth league (YCL), and perhaps most significantly, he failed to oust Chief of Army Staff General Katawal, the one man who kept the ex-rebels from turning the national army into a politically tainted organization.
Over the years, it has been Prachanda who has reaped the lion’s share of Western media reportage. But the international community should understand that Dr. Bhattarai has wielded very significant power from the very beginnings of the Maoist party.
Brief Biography of Dr. Bhattarai
As a young man, Bhattarai thrived in the academic world. He garnered the highest score in the National School Leaving Certificate (SLC) in 1970. In 1972, he came in first in the Intermediate Science exams. He received his Bachelors in Architecture (Honors) in 1977 from Chandigarh, India, and his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) in 1986. His doctorate thesis on "The Nature of Underdevelopment and Regional Structure of Nepal- A Marxist Analysis" was later published by Adroit Publishers (Delhi 2003). He has a number of other books to his credit and has been a regular contributor to both Nepali and English periodicals.
No less impressive is his reputation as a superlative chess player. Prior to his ascendancy in the political realm, when the World Chess Federation (FIDE) president Max Euwe gave a simultaneous exhibition in Kathmandu, Bhattarai played him: He beat Euwe, the ex-World Champion, in 23 moves with what is remembered as “a brilliant queen sacrifice.”
On February 4, 1996 Bhattarai, acting on behalf of the Maoist party, presented the Nepali government, then led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, a list of 40 demands, threatening civil war if they were not met. His demands included:
1) The end of the "domination of foreign capital in Nepali industries, business and finance”
2) The abrogation of "discriminatory treaties, including the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty"
3) The confiscation of "land under the control of the feudal system”, to be “distributed to the landless and the homeless."
When the government dismissed the 40 demands, the Maoists declared the “People’s War”, which would eventually change the political system in Nepal from a monarchy to a republican regime.
In 1996, Dr. Bhattarai went underground for almost eight years. The Maoist revolt began in the mountainous hinterlands of western Nepal but quickly spread to most of the country. In May 2002, the Nepal government announced a bounty on his head—dead or alive--of $64,000--a vast fortune in Nepal.
In February 2003, he was designated by the Maoists to head a five-member negotiation team in peace talks with the government to end the ongoing People’s War.
In 2006, the rebels gave up their revolt and joined the current peace process under United Nations supervision.
In 2008, the national elections were held in which, to the surprise of almost everyone, the Maoists received a plurality, thus ensuring that Prachanda would become the first prime minister of the Republic of Nepal. Bhattarai was elected to the Constituent Assembly from Gorkha and became Finance Minister in the Cabinet formed by Prachanda.
Dr. Bhattarai is married to Hisila Yemi, a Newari girl met at university. Today she is a political leader in her own right. Together they have one daughter.
I have interviewed Dr. Bhattarai on three separate occasions. Each time I have found him attentive, exceedingly bright, polite and very well informed. In Nepal, he is regarded as the moderate face of the Maoists, something that has been used against him by the more radical faction of the Maoist Party. He is often criticized as being pro-India, for instance: Maoist opponents are fond of expressing their distaste for his stellar Indian education – as if a degree from the subcontinent automatically cast a shadow over his loyalty to Marxist dogma. I sensed nothing of the kind in my second interview with him in November of 2007:
DUNHAM: Define Marxism and explain how 21st century Marxism differs from 20th century Marxism?
DR. BHATTARAI: Marxism is the science of revolution. Society is never constrained. It is never static. If you look at the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were huge changes in Europe and America -- war, revolution, capitalism, industrialization, democracy – all of these things were introduced. But in the rest of the world -- especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America – feudalism, autocracy still prevailed. We study Marxism because Marxism is basically a science that deals with history – the 19th and 20th century particularly – we in Asia were innocent of what was going on in the rest of the world. A revolution that took place in a remote area far from Asia – we were unaware of that.
Today, the basic laws of Marxism remain the same. But it must be developed with the times. Today, we have to make revolution in a different way than it was made in the 20th century. Globalization. The world is now much more closely related from one country to the next. Because of tremendous surge of information available in the 21st century, the activities that occur in one part of the world make an impact on another part of the world. These days, while making a plan for a revolution, you will have to make a global plan as well. If you don’t have a global strategy, if you don’t understand the balance of global forces, you will have a difficult time establishing a revolution in your own country. In that sense, making revolution in the 21st century is more difficult than in the 20th century.
And in my view, “globalization”, at least in Bhattarai’s context, centers primarily on how the party manages to deal with India.
Several days ago, Prashant Jha wrote a piece for The Hindu in which he set down the challenges India faced with Nepal, particularly should the Maoists come back into power:
Some appear to be in favour of encouraging Madhesi parties to side with Dr. Bhattarai in order to give the Maoists a ‘last chance’ since keeping them out would paralyse the process. This school argues that there will be enough leverage to pull back support from such a government if the Maoists do not deliver; there will also be a strong opposition outside to keep pressure on the Maoists. Other policy-makers however insist that Maoists cannot be ‘trusted’; they will continue to retain ‘weapons and combatants’ and thus a ‘democratic alliance’ must be engineered to bring together the NC, UML and Madhesi parties.
The more fundamental question for policymakers in India is whether they are committed to the 2005-06 political settlement that they helped facilitate between the Maoists and the parties.
If India still wants to see the framework succeed, it should not try to block the Maoists from forming a government by influencing the Madhesi parties against them. The Maoists have said they would move forward on the regrouping of combatants immediately and hand over the weapons as soon as their government is formed. They can be held accountable for these commitments, and the threat of allies withdrawing support would generate additional pressure on them. The choice of Dr. Bhattarai should be reassuring since he has consistently pushed the ‘peace and constitution’ line within the party. And to think that if they get government leadership, the Maoists can ‘capture the state’ or impose a ‘communist dictatorship’ is a grave misreading of the political reality. There are innumerable checks within the plural Nepali political landscape to prevent such a scenario, and the former rebels themselves are increasingly enmeshed in the existing political-business ‘mainstream’.
The fundamental problem in Nepal is internal. The dishonesty and overwhelming ambition of the Maoists collides with the fear and insecurity of the status quoist older parties. The internal rifts within each party make inter-party compromises even more difficult. But as Nepal chooses a government which will have an impact on the peace and constitutional process, India could be helpful by letting the political process take its own course rather than allow its suspicion of the Maoists be the only principle of its Nepal policy.
For the moment, the Maoists have reclaimed power over Nepal’s beleaguered democratic process. If they falter as they did in 2008-9, pointing their fingers at India is a given. But they should also take stock of the internal rivalry within their own party. The question is: Will Dr. Bhattarai be able to put his own stamp on the Maoist-led Constituent Assembly?
One way or another, his opportunity for real leadership has finally arrived.