‘We are aware of India’s interests’: Jhalanath Khanal
Interview with Nepal Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal.
After seven months of living with a caretaker government, Nepal’s Parliament on February 3 elected Jhalanath Khanal, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), as the Prime Minister, with the support of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). He spoke to Prashant Jha at the prime ministerial residence in Kathmandu on February 10. Excerpts, as first published in The Hindu:
What’ll be your priorities?
My first priority is to complete the ongoing peace process. Second, my aim is to help complete the Constitution-writing process. Third, I’ll strengthen the institutions of governance, improve law and order, and guarantee security to the common citizens. Fourth, my focus will be on taking the country towards an economic revolution through development, reconstruction and socio-economic transformation.
Your predecessors had similar priorities, and had pledged to complete the peace and constitutional process. What’s different about your government?
From the outset, I’ve focussed on the mission, and not on power. This government was not an effort to get power, but to complete the mission. Our main aim is to finish the peace process and write the Constitution. I’ll make all efforts to build a consensus. Without a consensus this is not possible. The support that I’m getting now gives me the hope that I’ll be able to succeed in the mission.
You mentioned consensus, but the seven-point agreement you signed with the Maoists before getting elected has already generated distrust and opposition. Can you tell us why you signed it?
The country was in a political deadlock for seven months. To resolve this, it was essential to have an agreement between the key political forces. This is the background. One, it broke the prolonged deadlock. Two, it gave the country a new government. Three, it has given me an opportunity to deal with the challenges. Four, we’re now very close to a two-thirds majority. Five, the formation of the government has increased the prospects of consolidating peace and writing the Constitution. There are issues which have become controversial, but we can resolve them and move forward according to the spirit of the agreement.
One of the controversial issues is the provision that either a separate force of Maoist combatants, or a mixed force of Maoist combatants and personnel of other security organs, can be created. Critics say this would allow the Maoists to retain a parallel structure.
Nepal is not the only country to have gone through a conflict. In the process of conflict-management and transformation, many models have come up across the world. In our case, what can be the basis for the integration of Maoist combatants is an important element of conflict-management and transformation. Out of the many modalities, the seven-point agreement discusses two. But we can decide on another modality. This is a mere proposal. Unless there is an agreement in the special committee with all the other parties, we cannot resolve these problems.
What are the next steps in the peace process? Have you thought of a timeline?
The Maoist combatants are now under the state. This is a big achievement. First, those who go for integration and those who go for rehabilitation have to be regrouped. This regrouping has to finish in 30 to 45 days. Second, we’ve to decide on a modality of integration. Third, we’ve to decide the criteria for those combatants who will be integrated. And finally, we have to implement the process of integration and rehabilitation.
Can this happen before the May 28 deadline to write the Constitution?
If we move actively, this can be done within 75 days.
The Nepal Army has been a sensitive issue. The Maoist Prime Minister had to resign when he tried to dismiss the Army chief. What will be your approach to the Army?
The Army is the strength of the nation. We’re committed to taking it forward in a proper, professional, prestigious, and correct way. The Army was earlier under the king. But now it’s under a democratic government. When it was under the king, there may have been political influences on many issues. But now the Army has to be based on professional values and norms. We also have to respect the sentiments and sensitivities of the Army. We’re currently in the process of restructuring according to the principles of the democratic state, and the Army has to be an active element of that restructuring.
Do you think you could face challenges in reconciling the interests of the Army and the Maoists, especially their military apparatus?
The Maoist army combatants are under the state now. The other day, during the PLA handover at Shaktikhor, the Maoist combatants saluted the Army chief, General Chhatraman Gurung. Keeping this in mind, we’ve to respectfully integrate them. That’s when the process of conflict management and transformation will end.
Another controversial clause in the seven-point deal is the reference to rotational leadership between the two parties. How do you reconcile your emphasis on consensus with such a power-sharing deal that many feel would lead to a polarisation between the Left and other forces?
First, Nepal is not in favour of any polarisation. The Nepali people and Nepali political forces do not see the need for such a polarisation. All those forces in favour of a democratic republic have to move forward in the spirit of unity, understanding, and cooperation. Neither Left polarisation nor a right wing nor the so-called democratic polarisation benefits the country. As far as rotational leadership is concerned, this is an agreement based on a principle. It’s not merely between the two parties, but [among] all the parties who are and will be a part of the alliance.
The last government was perceived to have been formed in order to isolate and bar the Maoists. There is a fear that your government is one that is aimed at isolating the Nepali Congress. How can you move forward without them?
We’re not in favour of isolating any party. Even today in Parliament, my primary emphasis was on a broader unity. I’ve appealed to other parties to join the government. The past experiment of isolating one major force has proved unsuccessful. We’ve to learn our lessons from there.
But let alone national unity, even the Maoists have said they wouldn’t join the government. They’ve accused you of backtracking from the seven-point agreement. Do you see a resolution?
I’m confident this is only temporary. They asked for the Home Ministry and decided to stay out because that demand was not met. But I’m confident I can convince them through negotiations. There can be some give and take. We’ll be firm on major policies and principles, but flexible on practical issues.
Do you think the Constitution can be written by the extended deadline of May 28?
I believe that by May 28 we can complete the Constitution-writing process, because the 11 thematic committees in the Constituent Assembly have given their reports to the Constitutional Committee. The Constitutional Committee now has to examine the reports and prepare a draft. The basis for writing the Constitution has already been created. To create a draft it’ll not take the specialists more than three months — they can do it before that. We’ll then have to take the draft to the people, consult them, and take their advice. On that basis, we’ll prepare the final draft and the Constituent Assembly will promulgate it. These steps can be completed in three months.
If it is not done, is there a chance of another extension?
It’ll not be wise to think of that right now. We’ve to move honestly and with integrity. If people feel we are committed and working hard, then on the basis of unity we can think.
So the option of extension is open?
Yes, the option will be open.
On foreign policy, what will be your approach towards India?
I’ll work to strengthen relations with the rest of the world in the new context. This’ll begin with neighbours. Among neighbours, we share an extremely close relationship with India. My aim will be to develop this relationship and deepen the cooperation with India.
One of the points in the seven-point deal is the emphasis on ‘national independence’? Is it targeted at any country?
This is not targeted at anyone. Any citizen of a country cherishes the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of his country more than his life. We in Nepal are the same, and the agreement between our two parties reflects that sentiment.
Many Maoist leaders have said they supported you because India did not want you as the Prime Minister. Did you ever feel that India did not want you or was trying to block your prospects?
Nepal is small. When there’re conflicts internally, there’re suspicions. That is not unnatural. But I firmly believe that Nepal’s problems can be solved only by Nepalis, through a Nepali way, a Nepali process. Our neighbours, or other countries, may have an interest. They may enquire, they may also give reactions, but these are contextual. If we Nepalis focus on developing our country, we have a vision, programme, and work plan of our own, then we do not need to panic because of any comments emanating from other countries.
Do you have any message to Indian policymakers about their Nepal policy?
It’s up to the Indian policymakers to review their Nepal policy, how is it conducted and how much India has benefited from it. What I want to say is that our bilateral relations are deep and friendly and there should be cooperation across sectors. But while doing that, we should respect each other’s independence, sovereignty and interests. We may be small or big, but we are equal. That has to be the guiding principle and sentiment in building the relationship. If we move forward like that, then the anti-India sentiment that is sometimes seen in Nepal will disappear on its own.
What will be your approach to India’s security interests?
We never forget we are in the middle of two big neighbours. Some of the criminal acts that we see here in Nepal may be related to India’s interests sometimes. We’re aware of India’s security interests. During my tenure, I’ll try my best to address these concerns.
Do you see a challenge in balancing Nepal’s relations with India and China?
We want to take Nepal forward independently. We cannot copy anyone. India and China are Nepal’s very close friends. We’ve to learn a lot from both the countries. But Nepal will chart its own independent course and move forward in that spirit.