Communist curse on Nepal's developmentNepali communists need to transform themselves and prove that they are not anti-development.
On February 4, 1996, when the Maoists were all set to go underground for the "people's war", Baburam Bhattarai, chairman of United People's Front-Nepal, then the legal face of the Maoist organisation, presented a list of 40 demands to the government then headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba who, incidentally, is the current prime minister as well. Along came an unequivocal ultimatum that if the government did not take "positive initiatives by February 17, 1996", they would "be forced to adopt the path of armed struggle". The demands included the abrogation of the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty, ban on all vehicles with Indian number plates from entering Nepal, ban on Hindi films, stoppage to "invasion of colonial and imperial elements", elimination of corruption, and the practices of middlemen, among others.
No one, including the front itself, believed that the then government would be able to fulfil these impossible demands within the two weeks given to it. That was not the objective either. Even if some of the processes had been initiated in good faith, the Maoists' plan of resorting to guerrilla war would not have been averted. The subsequent series of political events that unfolded in recent times blatantly exposed the lack of moral ownership of these demands on the part of the presenters themselves, and represented sheer phoniness and political chicanery.
Since the Maoists joined mainstream politics after signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006, the party has never been out of power, either by leading the government or being part of a ruling alliance. The chairman of the Maoist Party Pushpa Kamal Dahal became prime minister twice, and Bhattarai once. But the implementation of these radical socio-political agenda never became part of any government they were part of. Even today, the Maoist Centre is the second-largest constituent in the left-democratic ruling alliance. Nobody wants to even remember those 40-point charter of demands, though. This indeed is the vindication of the fact that those demands were never meant to be fulfilled, but deliberately designed as hollow demagogy, a crude publicity stunt and instruments to posture the group as a "grand nationalist" outfit.
On October 18, 1994, the then general secretary of the Nepal Communist Party (UML) Madhav Kumar Nepal wrote a letter to the World Bank expressing "serious reservations'" on the ready-to-launch 402 megawatt Arun III hydroelectric project. The timing was such that the bank's board of directors was reaching a final decision on the project in 15 days, on November 3 that year. The pretext was that the country was nearing the midterm elections, and the UML wanted a thorough review of the project if elected to government. It did form a minority government the following month, and the project was cancelled ultimately. Sensing a politically unconducive atmosphere under the communist government, the bank took refuge in the so-called findings of an investigation report with politically correct "conclusions" to cancel it.
This was a huge loss to the country as the grant and soft loan component of the $1.08 billion project comprised about two-thirds of the cost. Germany alone had pledged $125 million in grants, a part of which was later diverted to the Mid-Marsyangdi project. The Arun III project was expected to be immediately commissioned and completed within eight years. In addition to the lost opportunity in power generation and the ensuing opportunity cost to the country (given the fact that the project is yet to complete), the UML's decision greatly dented Nepal's credibility as a genuinely development-seeking nation. Since then, apprehensiveness among development partners on a possible communist backlash while launching large development projects became a staple phenomena, and the blocking of such development projects has remained synonymous to the left-sponsored politics of hyper-nationalism.
The Upper Karnali Hydroelectric Project developed by India's GMR Energy since 2008 till date has been facing impediments of a different scale and nature mainly from one or the other splinter group of the Maoist outfit. (Of course, the unusually protracted delay in project implementation has other problems too.) But the unpredictable nature of politically-motivated obstructions still remains a real risk to the project, even if the developer wades through other impediments like financial closure and power purchase agreement with potential buyers.
Needless to say, the latest (almost near) casualty of the "communist curse" is Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $500 million proposed United States grant compact with Nepal to construct a key cross-border electric transmission line with India and extend some strategic roads. Even this time around, the main spoilers of the MCC broth are the same figures—Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal who are the most critical stakeholders in the Deuba-led government. Unfortunately, though, the same anti-development demagogues have ruled the roost in Nepali politics for such a long time, and the Nepali people proved themselves incapable of summarily replacing them through democratic due process. On the contrary, the number of communist outfits continues to grow whose main political sloganeering, without exception, continues to be pseudo-nationalism.
The repeatedly thwarted development prospects at the hands of communists of different hues have given rise to some fundamental questions that need a comprehensive national approach to address them once and for all. First: Is over-dominance of communist ideology, cumulatively, in Nepali politics proving to be an anti-development curse to Nepal? Second: Can Nepal bring her objective devolvement discourse back on track, which now has been effectively hijacked either by paid agents of interested competing parties or diehard supporters sharply divided along political lines? Third: How soon will Nepal be able to pursue her development strategy based on her own rationalisation of the priorities, independent of geopolitical meddling and rivalry?
Undoubtedly, Nepali communists not only need to transform themselves into a credible democratic force, but an additional responsibility they have is proving that they are essentially not anti-development either. Of course, with an exponentially increased global strategic clout of our northern neighbour China, the conventional geopolitical balance is bound to alter, but the same cannot be a permanent hindrance to Nepal's development ambitions. This certainly warrants a thorough recalibration of Nepal's foreign policy stance so as to enable it to simultaneously engage a communist China and the democratic West. Regardless of anything, however, the Nepali political leadership must exhibit its mettle to make the right call in the national interest, at the right moment. The MCC episode must serve as a litmus test for them.