The Maoist ‘postponement’ of the general strike has drawn diverse reactions. Ruling parties have projected it as a victory of democracy, constitutionalism, and law and a massive defeat for the Maoist ‘politics of blackmail’. Sections of the media and civil society that had urged the Maoists to pull back feel it is a result of popular pressure exerted by the peace rally on Friday morning. And while some Moist leaders and cadre are reported to be confused, demoralized, and angry at the leadership for letting go, others are hopeful that this will pave the way for an agreement on peace and constitution.
The responses are naturally shaped by one’s own location on the political spectrum. But what it ignores is that there is a complex set of factors that led to the Maoist decision. The non-Maoist euphoria also glosses over the fact that the strike was not the problem; it was only a symptom of the problem. And while the strike is off for now, those underlying issues remain unresolved.
The Maoists made four miscalculations.
One, Prachanda appears to have thought that getting hundreds of thousands on the streets will generate enough moral pressure on the government to resign. They did not realize that a government that has not been elected by the masses, and is not infused with a sense of responsibility towards citizens, would not really bother if the country stays shut – NC-UML’s only option was to stay tight and they did that.
Two, Maoists thought the disenchantment of the Kathmandu populace against the government can be translated into support for the Maoists, and the increasing frustration due to the bandh will be directed against Madhav Nepal. But resistance against a government is high when the oppression by the government is high. The present government is ineffectual and lame, but it is not dictatorial this giving people no immediate reason to rebel. In fact, many of Kathmandu’s locals had suffered due to the hidden violence of the Maoists during the strike. The party also failed to communicate the purpose of the movement effectively, and even potential sympathisers were left wondering why there was need for such a massive movement right now. By relying on the middle class for support, the Maoists essentially forgot their own principle that this class is ‘vacillating and opportunistic’.
Three, they calculated that a prolonged deadlock will force the international community, particularly the Indians, to step in and stitch a deal giving space to the Maoists. And four, the ‘military-bourgeoisie’ alliance, manifested in the consolidation of all non-Maoist political forces, president and army would fracture; there would be fissures within both NC and UML eroding the government’s strength. On these fronts, the Maoists under-estimated the resolve of the Indians as well as domestic political forces not to allow the Maoists back in ‘till they change’. Last year’s Katawal episode has been a turning point in hardening attitudes against the Maoists. And the more the Maoists continue with militant mass politics, the tougher the non-Maoist camp will get. Maoists also relied too heavily on non-regional international actors (US, EU, UN) but none of them could be supportive of a crippling strike and exerted pressure on the Maoists to change the form of the protest. And anyway, when it comes to crunch time in Nepali politics, these actors fade away and India is the decisive factor. And Delhi had made up its mind not to let Maoists, especially Prachanda, win this round.
Add to this the internal fissures within the Maoist party itself, where Dr Baburam Bhattarai’s heart was not really in a movement of this nature. He had agreed with the need to protest, but also recognised the need to build bridges with other parties and classes instead of sharpening the polarisation.
So the Maoists analysed the objective conditions, saw the strike was reduced to a proposition with diminishing returns, recognised that too many forces had ganged up against them, and opted for a ‘tactical retreat’.
Prachanda was confident he could convince the cadre, which he partially did with an inflammatory speech at Khula Manch on Saturday. The Maoists are now trying to make the best of a bad situation, by acting magnanimous; putting the onus on the government; earning some brownie points with the internationals; and winning public sympathy for being sensitive and responsible party. The top leaders feel this is a battle that could go on till May 28 and beyond. Sustaining a strike till then would be difficult, and so this could serve as a breather to regroup and re-strategize like they used to do during ceasefires during the war. But they also know that it would be difficult to mobilize on the same scale in a short time-span again, and so are continuing with the movement; shuffling cadres (sending some back, getting people from other corners); and relying on the almost 70,000 plus Kathmandu party members.
The non-Maoist parties are smug, which is fine for this is a temporary victory in narrow terms. But the ‘democratic’ camp needs to figure out what is their core objective. If it is only weakening and humiliating the Maoists, then they can sit tight and wait for the Maoists to get more desperate. The Indian strategy to deal with the Maoists is a classic approach they adopt in their own country with groups in Kashmir and Northeast – engage, coerce, co-opt, frustrate the cadre, divide, weaken, give nothing and then repeat the cycle. NC, UML and Madhesi parties can continue to be domestic instruments to implement this Indian strategy. This will leave the Maoists with either no choice but to give in to all the demands made by the ruling alliance or unleash their destructive prowess (which was held in check last week); the possibility of the latter happening is higher. And the Maoist organisation and ability to mobilize masses, as demonstrated through last week should give an ample warning to the others about the risks involved in this approach.
Alternately, the NC and UML can now begin an earnest process of engagement and reciprocal concessions with the Maoists and convince India this is the best way to go. The Maoists have to give up their double game on integration and put the PLA under the Special Committee in practice (a promise made by Prachanda last year in front of the combatants in the fourth division in Nawalparasi). Numbers and process have to be agreed upon. On property return, informed sources tell us that almost all the land has been returned in the eastern, central and western region; the Maoists continue to hold on to confiscated property in mid-west and far-west which they have to be pressurized to return while initiating a simultaneous exercise in land reform. Issues that have to be addressed in the longer term are YCL and contentious constitutional matters.
In turn, the other parties have to concede two things – extension of the CA, which the Maoists desperately want despite the rhetoric of declaring a constitution from the streets; and a national unity government. The leadership of the government is a contentious issue, but mid-level Maoist leaders privately say that if there is an agreement on the issues, they can create an environment in the party to force Prachanda to be flexible in the larger interests of the process.
C K Lal, the respected political analyst, often says that patience after Gaur (where 27 of their activists were butchered) gave the Maoists the peace process; restraint after Dang (where seven Maoists were killed a day before the polls) gave them the CA and election victory. Resilience and courage to make difficult decisions at this critical juncture will make them politically unassailable.
[First published in the Nepali Times.]