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“Twenty million out of twenty-seven million Nepalis are with the Maoists”: Interview with Prachanda

February 17, 2010

(This interview of Pushpa Kamal Dahal by me appeared in the Nepali Times a few days ago, along with another report.)

A conversation with Maoist supremo Prachanda this week not only brought out the party’s new line, but also offered a glimpse into his analysis of current politics and future strategy.

The root of the problem, according to Prachanda, is that the 12-point understanding was ‘tactical’ for everyone who signed the agreement. “The other side felt they could get us into the mainstream and weaken us. We thought we could use the process to create a new mainstream, which would include political competition.” Neither side got what they wanted, entirely. This paradox has forced the parties to make a more fundamental strategic choice. “This was inevitable and we are now heading for a crisis climax.”

The army issue is key. Neither side feels it lost the war. Prachanda concedes that no one won the war in material terms, but believes the Maoists won the war politically. “It was the then Royal Nepalese Army’s mandate and goal to protect the monarchy and block a republic,” he says. “They failed, and the PLA played a big part in bringing about this change.” The way forward for these “recognised and legitimate” outfits, he says, is “sticking to the peace accord, democratising the army and professionalising the PLA.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Prachanda candidly admits he may have mishandled the army issue while in power. “It was a time when the army was also a bit confused. The king had gone. I could have dealt with the army more maturely. I went to the army HQ a few times and saw the officers, especially the younger lot. I was impressed with their energy. I think there is still some space to make them pro-change.”

On the India relationship, the Maoist chairman recognises the need for a working relationship with the Indian establishment. He says, “I have told them the relationship has to change according to new realities. We cannot and will not be like the NC or Surya Bahadur Thapa and it is not in their interest also. They agree in principle but in practice, they cannot give up their control mindset, which leads them to prop up people here.”

The Maoist calculation is that the ‘nationalism’ campaign has served its purpose. It has led to greater awareness about India’s role inside Nepal, says Prachanda, and it has positioned them as the only force capable of challenging interference. He believes it has actually led to Delhi becoming more open to engaging with the Maoists.

Most contemporary media coverage has focused on the Maoist leadership’s recent utterances and dismissed them as madness. But for the most part, there is a method in this madness – be it to garner mass support, send a message to rivals and constituents, energise the party organisation, or even to set the agenda for the next elections.

More importantly, the rhetoric may be hardline but party actions over the past month have been fairly accommodating. Perhaps there is a connection between the two. The discharge process is moving ahead smoothly. On integration, the Maoists have agreed to the setting up of a secretariat that would be notionally in charge of the PLA and will subsequently implement any agreement. Parliament is open, the government is introducing bills and the Maoists have played along on key issues like the VP oath. On the constitution, views may differ but the process has not been obstructed. And their agitation has been confined to relatively peaceful protests, within the rules of open politics. Blame the Maoists for irresponsible statements, but they are on board in the larger political process.

The Maoists appear to have a multi-pronged strategy. Use the system, monopolise the opposition space, stoke internal feuds in other parties, remain internally consolidated and sort out organisational matters, reach out to their mass base, travel across the country, play the hero and victim by turn, and create a context – by raising the nationalism pitch but also transforming slowly – that will force India to develop a closer relationship with them.

Prachanda is upbeat about his party’s prospects. “Believe me, we have done a careful ground assessment and feel that 20 million out of 27 million people in the country are with us. A two-thirds majority is definite.” This may sound like hyperbole, but this sense of having overwhelming mass support has given the Maoists the confidence to be flexible in the peace process.

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