PM hints at stepping down
By Rajeev Sharma
Thus far, Baburam Bhattarai the India-educated Prime Minister of Nepal has resisted the temptation of making statements to the effect that he would like to step down and make way for someone else, to lead a national unity government. But last week’s announcement by the cabinet to go back on its earlier decision to legalise the insurgency years land acquisition deals by the ‘Revolutionary Council’ has definitely hurt the Prime Minister’s ego.
One should read his weekend statement to the effect that he was willing to make way for a national unity government in this context. Is Bhattarai feeling cornered? After all, his own party cadres are attacking him and so is the opposition. Not only has the opposition’s attack been substantive, it also deals with many issues relating to the future of Nepal. Therefore, the Prime Minister of Nepal is faced with opposition that is unlikely to relent unless a new way can be thought of to complete the process of Constitution writing and peacemaking in the given time frame.
On several occasions in the past, Prime Minister Bhattarai has tried to push through controversial matters and confidently asserted that he is here to stay. But on the present occasion, Bhattarai seems to have indicated that he is willing to move out if a national unity government could be formed. This has two implications; first it means that Bhattarai does not want to immediately want to give up office. The idea is that as and when a national unity government can be formed then he is willing to step down. The second implication is the fact that Bhattarai is in the chair, courtesy the Unified Communist Party of Nepal—Maoist and if there is a clamour, as one is presently witnessing, for his replacement, it may well happen. The latest outburst from party hardliner Mohan Baidya is only adding to that chorus. But he is not the only one to have voiced this view!
That the chairman of the UCPN-M Pushpa Kamal Dahal should choose just this moment to speak about internal party unity and formation of a national unity government says a lot of things. The aim of Prachanda’s statement is to claim that the internal party strife is not so serious as to bring the government down. Just a few days ago, the Maoist hardliner faction had demanded Prime Minister Bhattarai's resignation over the cabinet decision to put on hold its previous decision on legalising war-era land transactions, but this is a constant ideological battle between party factions that has its roots in the direction taken by the party under the leadership of Dahal.
Prachanda’s remarks on the national unity government were made while speaking to reporters after attending a training programme organised by the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Peasants Federation where he said that ‘minor disputes and differences are not new in the party’ and that the government would not collapse because of the fresh dispute caused by the withdrawal of the decision to legalise the land transactions during the ‘people's war’. He further stated that the party had settled bigger disputes and rifts in the past and that the current dispute would also come to an end. Prachanda also referred to the decision of the party’s standing committee of taking the initiative for a national consensus government and said that dialogue had already started between the parties for formation of such a government.
Therefore, it appears that while not actually admitting it, the UCPN-M has also decided that it is time for Bhattarai to go. Prachanda said “Bhattarai is the best candidate for the formation of a national unity government which has also been backed by the party’s central committee but yet if that does not happen or is not allowed to take place then his party was even ready for the formation of such a national unity government under the command of any other party”. Does that mean that the Maoists would be willing to accept the Nepali Congress (NC) as the leader of a unity government?
To drive home this point, Prachanda added that “The NC would be the best preference as the UML and the Maoists have already steered the government in the past.” So, what Prachanda appears to be doing is seeking a mandate for the NC with the aim of ‘giving them a chance’. Does that sound real? Or is Prachanda sending a veiled threat to Bhattarai? The latter seems more likely given the timing and location of this statement. It was made in Biratnagar, on February 3, 2012 and Bhattarai was seated next to Prachanda!
Chairman Prachanda, who often speaks in two voices to suit the political convenience of the situation, is also suddenly singing paeans about party unity. Even hardliner, Mohan Baidya sharing the same platform as Prachanda said that the Maoists were capable of forging unity. Are we to assume that Prachanda and Baidya have made up at the cost of Bhattarai? This is also a distinct possibility given the political turmoil in Nepal and one may soon see Mohan Baidya in the Prime Minister’s chair!
Clearly, no one in the NC believes the statements being made by Prachanda. The NC is clear that there priority is not formation of a form a national unity government at this juncture, “when the peace and Constitution-drafting process deadline is just three-and-a-half months away.” This is the observation of the NC Vice President and Parliamentary party leader Ram Chandra Paudel. There is a realistic assessment that if the NC gets into government it will be faced with the unenviable prospect of finalising the Constitution making and peacemaking which at the current pace looks a distant dream. Failure to achieve these objectives will create a bad public image for any political party.
Therefore, the NC position on the matter is that they will neither support the Maoist leadership nor will it make a haste to join the government until army integration is completed and the weapons in 8th Maoist cantonments are handed over to the government.” The NC leadership assesses that if the party lays claim on the government leadership before the Maoist combatants’ integration process begins, it will weaken their stance on the peace process.
At the end of the day, the choices before Bhattarai are quite unenviable. Running government and yet achieving the tasks of Constitution writing and peacemaking are not easy tasks. Therefore, Bhattarai might well take the easy path and make way for another leader. But that would give political shibboleths the option of making the situation even more uncertain. Basically, Nepal’s political parties have thus far failed to form a national unity government because of their limited political stakes in the Constituent Assembly. And this is unlikely to change quickly. The option is to stay on course till the most important missions are achieved and after that a national unity government can be formed to ensure completion of the formation of a system of governance that has at its foundations parliamentary democracy for Nepal.