November 16, 2016
Since 1990, when Nepal adopted a multi-party democracy, there have been 24 prime ministers – basically a new prime minister annually for the last two-and-a-half decades. It’s hardly a recipe for a stable government, let alone a nascent democracy.
The shift has been a violent one. In 1996, a communist insurgency was launched by a little known Maoist group led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, (his nom de guerre). Prachanda rapidly amassed an army of armed rebels, who fought the government’s security and military forces for the next ten years. More than 15,000 Nepalis died. The government put a “wanted dead or alive” $64,000 bounty on Prachanda’s head. By 2005, it became obvious that Prachanda’s “People’s Liberation Army” would never defeat Nepal’s army. So he joined hands with the country’s bourgeois parties to bring down the enormously unpopular King Gyanendra.
In April 2006, a country-wide uprising called the “19-Day Revolution” forced the king to step down, clearing the way for Prachanda and his Maoist party to enter into the legitimate political arena. In 2008, national elections were held and to the surprise of almost everyone the Maoists won the elections. Prachanda became the first prime minister of the newly named Democratic Federal Republic of Nepal.
Prachanda’s tenure lasted but nine months. He resigned on 4 May 2009 after he failed in his attempt to sack the army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal.
In the interim, six prime ministers have come and gone. In August of this year, Prachanda was once again elected prime minister. This time, the challenges of ruling Nepal were, perhaps even more daunting than during his first tenure: He inherited the task of rebuilding a Nepal that had been ravaged by the horrendous earthquake of 2015.
Five days ago, 12 November 2016, I had the opportunity to be the first American journalist to interview Prime Minister Prachanda since he came to office. It was at his Kathmandu residence, Baluwatar.
DUNHAM: Thank you for fitting me into your busy schedule, Mr. Prime Minister. For the last four days, Americans have been preoccupied by one thing and one thing only: the U.S. election resulting in the victory for President-Elect Donald Trump. I have to admit that Trump’s success came as a complete surprise to me, as it did to most Americans, including Republicans. The divisive tone of the long campaign, the anger and the aftermath has forced Americans to re-think what their country represents. All bets are off as to what will happen next. But the dramatic shift in government is going to have an impact on the entire world. How would you characterize Nepalis’ reaction to Trump’s victory?
PRACHANDA: Thank you very much. It is not only surprising for all the media and intellectuals of America, but people all over the world are surprised by the results of the American election. As the prime minister, I have already congratulated Donald Trump. As a curtesy. It is my duty. Anyway, as you say, the result of the American election is not only concerning for Americans, but also all over the world.
It clearly indicates some sort of new trend going on in the world. The traditional democratic status quo is going to be – according to my analysis – it is going to become a narrower, more nationalistic reality. Something like that. It is going to be along the lines of a more conservative era. In that sense, it is neither a positive nor an encouraging development. That is my observation.
DUNHAM: First, we witnessed Brexit, and now this, and in France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party sees Trump’s victory as a sign of new hope for her party. Likewise, the far right Netherlands leader Geert Wilders sees Trumps’ victory as an omen for his personal success – not to mention the undercurrent of Neo-Nazism in Germany and a far right movement in Italy. It does appear this pattern is making headway throughout the Western world.
PRACHANDA: Exactly. And I am saying that the pattern is emerging not only in America and Europe, but everywhere, including in South Asia.
DUNHAM: South Asia?
PRACHANDA: Yes. The pattern in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, everywhere, we can see that this kind of trend is developing, which indicates a narrow nationalistic conservative movement that is gaining momentum.
DUNHAM: Your country suffered a tumultuous earthquake in April 2015. I was here at the time and saw the devastation firsthand. Many Americans were deeply moved by the catastrophe. They really cared. And even if they didn’t know much about Nepal – home of Mt. Everest, end of story – they did empathize with the strife and damage they saw on TV and donated money to help rebuild your country. But a big question for donors is: Why has it taken so long for the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA) to distribute relief aid? What is behind the delay? And now that you are back in power, how can you facilitate the process, get it moving forward?
PRACHANDA: This is a very sensitive issue, you know. First of all, I want to convey our heartfelt greetings to all those who supported us in that devastating earthquake. Not only this or that country, but all over the world – they have supported us in our relief and rescue operations and even in the reconstruction process.
But unfortunately, here in Nepal, we could not manage to accelerate the process of reconstruction. According to my observation, the major problem we are facing is the political transition, you know. We are in an historic period of transition. Just last year, we declared the new constitution through the Constitutional Assembly and we are facing the problem of implementing that constitution. And the political stability has not been achieved fully and completely. Therefore, the political situation was made more difficult by the earthquake.
Immediately upon assuming the role of Prime Minister, I tried to focus my attention on the reconstruction process. And I gave a deadline that, within 45 days, the first round of support should be disbursed into the hands of the people, the victims of the earthquake. My observation is that the indications are now positive. I think that things will soon change in a positive direction.
DUNHAM: So you think that the international community will see progress by the beginning of next year, January 2017? Will we see substantial distribution of funds and aid?
PRACHANDA: I think so.
DUNHAM: Also, there were a lot of countries that pledged money but – as of yet – have not followed through with handing over their pledged donations. That’s very disappointing.
PRACHANDA: Yes. We are in continuous discussion with those countries that pledged help but have not yet delivered. We may make some changes in our regulations, norms and values for the reconstruction. I’m in the discussion and I am very much hopeful that, within this interaction, we will be able to create a more positive and enthusiastic atmosphere for donors.
DUNHAM: Let’s talk about the new constitution. This morning, I read that on November 15 you plan to table the amendment, which has been holding up a full-fledged implementation of the constitution and really needs to be done in order to move forward with the democratic process. In terms of time restraints, you only have fifteen months to get all of this accomplished.
PRACHANDA: Yes. Yes.
DUNHAM: It’s a tremendously complicated situation that Americans don’t understand. There are almost 300 laws that have to be passed before the implementation can be completed. You have to delineate the local and state boundaries. You have to hold elections. You have to appease the Madhesi political parties, which is another big hurdle. How realistic is the fifteen-month time-table? What are the main challenges you face in order to get all of this accomplished?
PRACHANDA: Yes, the situation is more complicated than people might think. It’s not so easy to accomplish these three rounds of elections within fifteen months. There are many challenges. But I believe that we can organize the election and accomplish the implementation of the constitution within the fifteen-to-sixteen-month timeframe. Later today, I am going to have a final discussion with the parties in power and even with the opposition party and other small parties, and I intend to finalize the draft of the amendment of the constitution. Whether or not there will be an agreement, I’m going to register the resolution for the amendment. And through this process, I believe the Madhesi, Tharu and other peoples who are demanding the amendment of the constitution will support our efforts, although they may not agree completely, although there may be some reservations and notes of dissent. And ultimately, the amendment will pass through parliament, at which time I will declare the local elections first.
DUNHAM: Let me ask a cynical question: Do you think that parliament is really motivated to pass this as soon as possible? New elections may result in them losing their seats in parliament.
PRACHANDA: I think they are motivated. But, even if parliament cannot pass the amendment by a two-thirds majority, Madhesis and Tharus and janajati will participate in the election. That has already been agreed upon. Therefore, I am very much hopeful that I will be able to organize the election of the local bodies, to be held in March or April of 2017. And I’m planning to have the provincial and national elections held at the same time. It is not impossible. It can be achieved. It can be organized.
DUNHAM: You are optimistic.
PRACHANDA: Yes, we’ll have only two rounds of elections – first the local elections and next the provincial and national elections – and there is sufficient time. No problem. And as you asked earlier about the election-related bills, some of them have already been passed and others are in the parliamentary process. Therefore, there will not be a law-related problem.
DUNHAM: As you may know, I started coming to Nepal in the late 1980s –
PRACHANDA: Yes, and thank you very much for your positive concern about the whole political, economic and cultural aspects of Nepal. I want to thank you for your concern.
DUNHAM: It’s been continually fascinating to watch the changes in Nepal. In 1990-91, for instance, I witnessed the big shift from the panchayat system to the multi-party democracy. Then the aches and pains of implementing a democracy, followed by the Maoist insurgency, the resultant power-grab of the government by the then-King Gyanendra, followed by the Janaandolan II of 2006 [the “19-Day popular uprising], followed by the ousting of the king, the declaration of a republic in 2008, and now the promulgation of a new constitution.
I think most Americans have the idea that, if you want to establish a democracy, it’s more or less a matter of flipping a few switches. As I’ve witnessed in Nepal, it takes a lot of hard work and it takes many years for a new democracy to run smoothly. And the obstacles are not just always internal ones. Throughout this process, Nepal also has had to contend with the needs and wishes of its powerful neighbors, China and India.
Take India, for example. Of particular interest is the build-up of Indian security forces along the southern Nepali border. Would you say their build-up is justifiable?
PRACHANDA: The question you have raised is a very sensitive and delicate issue one. First of all, I agree with you that there are so many ups and downs and twists and turns in the last two decades that Nepal has passed through. It is also something very unique. We had an insurgency for ten years that took thousands and thousands of lives. And that created a tremendous historical political change in Nepal – from autocratic monarchy to a federal democratic republic, in political terms.
Sometimes I say that it is a miracle. As the leader of the insurgency, I took part in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). I signed the agreement. And I participated in the competitive democratic election. I became the leader of the single largest party. And I became the first prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal in 2008. This was surprising, you know. This was something very unique and just like a miracle.
In my first term as prime minister, I had very little experience about this multi-party democratic competition and all the dynamics of this democratic system. According to my judgement, it took me nearly one decade to understand the dynamics. Now, I’m fully confident that I can move ahead and understand the dynamics of the system.
At the same time, (as you raised the issue of Nepal’s relationship with India and their presence along the border area), we have a very unique geopolitical situation, which you understand very well. We are in between India and China, two giants. And we are landlocked. Not exactly landlocked, but India-locked from the east, south and west. Because of that, we must have a good understanding and working relationship with India. Without it, it very difficult to safeguard our independence and move forward to economic prosperity.
At the same time, we should have to work on new options and alternatives for Nepal. If we are solely reliant and dependent on India, it will not help us, ultimately. We are trying to create a conducive atmosphere to have some new alternatives with China and other parts of the world. There should be some trade, transit, whatever possible with countries other than India.
DUNHAM: Last year, Nepal signed an agreement with China to buy a significant amount of petroleum. Has that agreement been completed?
PRACHANDA: The agreement has not been completed. We are trying to develop the protocol of that agreement. The process is moving forward. I am for moving forward and completing that agreement.
At the same time, we are trying to have a good understanding with India. Without having a good diplomatic understanding with India, it is very difficult to balance all these things. Previously, when I was in the insurgency, I was leading the “People’s War”. At that time, India deployed their SSB [border security force] along the border area. Now that we entered into peace process, we have witnessed a huge democratic transformation. But unfortunately, the Indian deployment along the border has not been withdrawn.
DUNHAM: Has the Indian deployment increased?
PRACHANDA: Not exactly increased. It is as it is. But we want to have a good understanding with India and through different channels, we are in interactions. I am very hopeful that, ultimately, we will have some sort of new agreement about the border issues and problems. These will be solved by mutual understanding. Recently, for instance, I visited Delhi and had a very good interaction with the leadership of India. I am very much hopeful.
During that same trip, I visited Goa for the BRICs and BIMSTEC summits. [In economics, BRIC refers to Brazil, Russia, India and China, which are all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development. BIMSTEC is the acronym for The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, an international organization comprised of
Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal]. I experienced a very positive and fruitful discussion in Goa.
But to answer your question: I am hopeful that within a short span of time, we will be able to create a more positive and trustworthy atmosphere along the Indian border area.
DUNHAM: In terms of international relations, I don’t think India helped its image, when it imposed a strangling embargo on Nepal right after the 2015 earthquake. I experienced that firsthand. I was working as a consultant for an American NGO called Operation USA, based in Los Angeles, which is building a school in Fyakse –
PRACHANDA: Where is that?
DUNHAM: Fyakse is in Dhading District. The school is almost finished. Operation USA –unlike many NGOs helping in the reconstruction of Nepal after the earthquake – had no problem pursuing a project that was away from the Kathmandu Valley. This was important to me because I wanted to select an isolated area otherwise overlooked. I was here trying to facilitate the construction of the school at the time of the embargo and saw – up close and personal – the additional hardship this put on the Nepali people: On top of all their other problems, now they faced the cutting off of petroleum imports, which created a multitude of problems including getting materials to sites that were undergoing reconstruction. My point is that there have been many instances in which the Indians have been very heavy-handed when dealing with Nepalis. They certainly haven’t won the hearts of most Nepali people.
But some of their concerns with Nepal are, I think, understandable. They are concerned about Pakistani terrorists coming through Nepal in order to enter India illegally from the north. Also, there are indications that, from time to time, suspected Pakistani terrorists have been spotted in Nepal. Do you think the Indian government needs to be concerned about the possibility of Pakistani “bad players” – of using Nepal as their transit country?
PRACHANDA: I think that in the whole of South Asia, the relationship between India and Pakistan is very sensitive. And it has implications throughout South Asia. Always, we are very much concerned about it. We want to create the atmosphere of trust and confidence between all the nations here in South Asia. I think that India may have some serious and genuine concerns over their security issues. We have always tried to address that genuine concern. But Nepal can’t be blamed. Always it is asserted that terrorists are coming from Pakistan and through Nepal. We cannot say like that. We are also having good relations with Pakistan. This is their job and we do not want to be engaged in that issue.
I will say this: We do not want to let our soil used by any terrorists, whether they be from Pakistan or from any other country that might be against either India or China. We want to create a positive atmosphere to address that genuine concern of India and China. Do you understand?
DUNHAM: Yes, I do understand. And in terms of the northern border of Nepal, you have beefed up security up there. To prevent people from crossing out of Tibet into Nepal. You are having to play two games at the same time. The one in the south and the one in the north. You’re trying to maintain a peaceful relationship between India and China.
PRACHANDA: Exactly. That has been dictated by our history and geography.
DUNHAM: You can’t redraw the map.
PRACHANDA: Exactly. You understand this very well.
DUNHAM: One last question. Do you have upcoming plans to visit China as Nepal’s Prime Minister?
PRACHANDA: I’m in discussion with China’s leadership about that. But first I want to invite and welcome the President of China here, in Nepal. The last time that I had the opportunity to discuss this with him, I invited him, not only in the diplomatic and delegation setting, but also during our one-to-one conversation. He said that it was possible that he might come as early as January or February of next year. And I am always ready to visit China.
DUNHAM: Thank you very much for taking time out to meet with me, Mr. Prime Minister.
PRACHANDA: Thank you very much for your positive concern for the overall development of Nepal. And you love Nepalese people. For a long time. This is great.