National consensus a must to keep the nation strong, independentNepal’s politics took a familiar turn on Wednesday morning with the news of an imminent change in government.
Nepal’s politics took a familiar turn on Wednesday morning with the news of an imminent change in government. The UCPN (Maoist) issued a statement, where it clearly said that it was going to lead the next government with the help of the Nepali Congress and other parties. But within 48 hours, the party backtracked and ended up signing a nine-point agreement to give continuity to the CPN-UML-led government. The subsequent moves were even more swift and shocking. By Friday the Oli government had cancelled President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s visit to New Delhi and recalled Nepal’s ambassador to India, Deep Kumar Upadhyay—in an apparent reaction to ‘Indian involvement’ in a bid to bring down the Oli government. Kamal Dev Bhattarai and John Narayan Parajuli spoke to Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a senior Maoist leader and a key interlocutor during his party’s negotiations with the NC and UML, about back-door negotiations, Maoist change of heart, the deal with the UML and role of the neighbours.
For the past two months, there had been political manoeuvrings to change the government. What was your role in all this?
The UCPN (Maoist) was one of the major forces in the formation of the present government. Still we always believed that a national government with the Nepali Congress (NC) on board would have been an ideal scenario. We have been critically evaluating the government’s performance and we are not very satisfied with how things are moving, especially with regard to the conclusion of the peace process. Before pledging support to Prime Minister Oli, we had clarified it to him that concluding the peace process is of utmost importance for us. He had assured us that he would take full responsibility for it. But since he took office, things did not go accordingly. .
So about two months ago, we had sent an official letter to the CPN-UML expressing our concerns and the need to have a dialogue. But the UML did not respond. In the meantime, the NC and its new leader Sher Bahadur Deuba approached us with the proposal to withdraw our support to the UML to form a coalition government under his leadership. We made it clear to Deuba that completing the peace process is our main agenda, as without it the constitution cannot be fully implemented. Also, as we are one of the major partners of the process, if we were to break our coalition with the UML then the new government should be under our leadership. But we had clarified that for all this to materialise, an understanding with the UML was necessary.
Deuba agreed to give us the leadership if we were to break our coalition with the UML. Thus, we went and informed the UML about the evolving arrangement with the NC and asked them for their support. We had a discussion with them and after considering all the factors and risks with breaking our alliance with the UML immediately, we decided to stick with the current coalition. We then signed a 9-point agreement with the UML to address our concerns.
There are speculations that with your current understanding with the UML, your party will get to lead the government after August. How true are these speculations?
The understanding reached between the UCPN (Maoist) and the UML is the 9-point agreement. To my knowledge, no other agreement exists.
However, we explained to the UML that if the NC is ready to support us to lead the government, they should too. The UML affirmed that they would not have any problem with us leading the government at some point. But we have not set a time frame for any change in government.
Are you aware of India’s role, if any, in all this?
We have always been cautious about not creating space for foreign interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. If there are symptoms of such interventions, we should be capable of rejecting them. But as far as India’s role in recent events is concerned, I am not aware of it.
How true are allegations that your party betrayed the NC?
These allegations are baseless. Neither did we approach the NC to form a new government nor promised Deuba the position of the PM. In fact, it was the NC that made us an offer, which we would have taken if we were only concerned with the post of the PM. Completion of the peace process is our main agenda and we were considering forming a new government to that end. However, we had not reached a conclusion as we also wanted the UML on board. So when we talked to the UML, they were able to take us into confidence. But we hope that our understanding with the NC will last beyond this episode.
We only have 20 months to conduct three elections, but the political parties seem busy playing games. How serious are they about implementing the constitution?
We are very serious about the implementation of the constitution and other pressing tasks. So we have prioritised them above our personal gain. We could have quietly been part of the government without criticising its performance or we could have accepted the NC’s offer. But we did not do that. The constitutionally mandated elections are definitely one of our goals. We have maintained our coalition with the UML to attain these and to minimise the kind of foreign interference that happened after the constitution’s promulgation.
Your party had signed a 14-point accord with the UML while forming the government. The recent nine-point agreement reached between the two parties is not much different from that. What then is the progress?
The major difference between the two agreements is that the earlier agreement had only one point regarding the peace process while the new one has more. The new agreement also prioritises the reconstruction process and dialogue with the agitating parties.
There seems little development in the dialogue with the dissenting parties or in the resolution of the federalism debate. How can you still be hopeful that this government will be able to achieve its goals?
The credibility of this government is definitely up for debate due to its weak performance. But as we are part of the government, we need to hope for the best and work towards making it successful. For this, the support of the NC and other political parties is crucial. We truly support the present government’s stand on national independence and dignity. But to keep the nation independent and strong, we need to forge a national consensus, which the present government has failed to achieve. The PM has not been flexible in negotiations with the dissenting parties and we have criticised that. Now our efforts will be to resolve the political stalemate between the government and the Madhes-based parties so as to create a favourable environment for the implementation of the constitution.
Some accuse the major political parties of having enough time to plot a change in government but not enough to address important issues like the Madhesi demands. Do you agree?
Such accusations are justified to some extent as the government has not performed very well. But our party was sincerely trying to address the issues raised by the Madhesi and other marginalised parties. Even before the promulgation of the constitution we were trying to get the dissenting parties on board. We had warned the NC and the UML that if we endorse the statute without the support of marginal groups, there will be protests. And since the endorsement, we have been pressing for constitutional amendments. The dialogues with the disgruntled parties have not moved ahead well but we genuinely want to address their issues.
You mentioned earlier the NC wanted to obstruct the release of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Could it have anything to do with the recent agreements between Nepal and China?
Not being able to release the budget would be a huge failure on the government’s part, which would create space for the opposition to rise. As for the recent accords between Nepal and China, the NC has officially supported them and we should not make assumptions to the contrary. Obstructing the budget presentation is a political move. And this is exactly what we are trying to explain—political interests should not trump national interests.
Some consider the present coalition of the UML and UCPN (Maoist) as anti-India and pro-China. How would you respond?
We are not anti-India; anyone who loves this nation cannot be against India with which we share such close ties. We believe in maintaining good relations with both our neighbours. We stand for our liberty, national integrity and sovereignty; and we will address the genuine concerns of our neighbours without compromising our independence. The claim that our recent move is against India could not be further from the truth. We had only expressed our reservation when we felt that India was trying to micromanage our affairs, but we sincerely believe in keeping good relations with India. Of course, Nepal wants to maintain good relations with China as well.
The President’s visit to India was called off on Friday, and the Nepali ambassador to Delhi was recalled. What do you make of these events?
I have not explored these issues in detail yet. But I think the President’s visit was cancelled due to technical issues. It would have been better if it had not been cancelled at the last minute as it has created space for suspicions. Recalling an ambassador is a serious decision and we need to look into the matter thoroughly.