Unity of a kindThough history serves as no sure guide to how the UML-Maoist relationship will evolve, the surest bet is on a falling-out sooner than later
The country was taken by surprise with the sudden announcement a couple of weeks ago of an alliance between the UML and the Maoist Centre. Equally surprising was the fact that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, with the entire state apparatus at his beck and call, appeared to be equally in the dark about the communist shenanigans until the last moment. Since then Deuba and the Nepali Congress have scurried to cobble together a coalition of ‘democratic’ forces in opposition to what appears to be a communist behemoth. Hardly a dull moment in Nepali politics and things are beginning to look even livelier.
As happens elsewhere, with so many in the electoral fray, the logical way forward would be for political parties to form pre-electoral alliances that subscribe to particular visions of where they want to take the country. This is likely to provide some stability to our politics even if there is nothing to prevent any constituent party from detaching itself and joining another grouping. But, more importantly, it could lead to well-informed battles at the level of ideas, something that is sorely missing in our politics. Having experienced the current crop of leaders over and over again, this might sound like no more than wishful thinking. But if there is any political system that allows the scope for correction, it is democracy, even one like ours, contaminated by the presence of these same leaders.
All of that is for the future. The fact is the UML and the Maoists are now together and bruising for a fight with the Nepali Congress and whoever it is able to line up on its side. Whether, as declared, the alliance will eventually be consummated by a merger is at least a couple of months into the distance. And, a lot can happen by then, as we saw with Baburam Bhattarai walking out in a huff just days after the show of unity.
Much has already been written about the possible reasons for this coming together of the country’s premier communist parties and what it might portend for the country. But, how these two parties have intersected in the years since 1990 is equally interesting.
We have to go back to the early period of the insurgency. According to a report in Kantipur, the UML-Maoist partnership was the result primarily of a friendship forged between the UML Vice-Chair, Bam Dev Gautam, and Prachanda. The report goes on to state that Gautam proposed friendship at a meeting held within a year of the Maoists’ taking up arms in 1996, a sentiment that was reciprocated by Prachanda. In Gautam’s words: ‘There never was any kind of obstacle in the Dahal-Gautam friendship that began 21 years ago. We have remained good friends.’
Certainly, there is reason to believe that Gautam relied on that profession of friendship when he travelled to Rolpa in 2005 to meet the Maoist leadership and convince them to collaborate with the mainstream parties against the king who had usurped complete power. But, to claim that the friendship was never under strain may be a bit far-fetched. For, it was in 1997 that Gautam, as deputy prime minister and home minister in the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-UML government, made every attempt to enact the Anti-Terrorist and Destructive Crime (Control and Punishment) Act as a means to grant greater leeway to the police against the still-budding Maoist movement.
As scholar Mary des Chene writes about the events around the effort to pass the Act and the civic opposition to it: ‘One of the most puzzling aspects of the efforts to pass the A-T [anti-terrorist] bill was that Bam Dev Gautam…was the most vocal and insistent government spokesperson in favor of its passage…After intellectuals of other left parties, and many UML parliamentarians and workers expressed opposition, the party leadership changed its tune, suggested perhaps the Act was not immediately required and finally decided not to push for passage in its current form and in that session of parliament. Nevertheless, Bam Dev Gautam continued to heavily pressure for and publicly speak in favor of passage to the bitter end.’
Des Chene writes further that a civil society member reported: ‘That such powers would, if history is any guide, almost surely be used against one another as well in times when a given party is out of power does not seem to disturb any of the players. When this point was made to Gautam…he acted like it had never occurred to him.’ With friends like these…
Try until you succeed
Later, in 2001, during the first ceasefire between the government and the Maoists, Prachanda convened a meeting of top communist leaders in Siliguri in India. The Maoists floated the idea of a pan-left alliance to oust the monarchy but the proposal was rejected by all the others, including the UML (although it did receive some favour with Gautam, who then headed the breakaway CPN-ML).
Talk of a tactical alliance between, if not an outright merger of, the two parties have surfaced now and again, with Prachanda himself cryptically hinting at the latter on various occasions. But the diametrically opposed positions between the two parties during the first CA proved too much of a hurdle. Having faced a rather humiliating defeat at the hands of the Maoists, KP Oli remained outside the first CA but his proxies ensured that the Maoist agenda of radical socio-political change was stymied at every instance. It was only after the UML came back in strength in the second CA and the Maoists reduced to has-beens and lurched further to the right that the UML-Maoist bonhomie began in earnest, including in a coalition government with Oli as prime minister.
When, in 2007, Girija Prasad Koirala decided to award the Maoists the same number of seats as the UML prior to the convening of the Interim Legislature-Parliament, the latter was livid at being put on the same footing as a group that had last faced the electoral test more than 15 years earlier. In the parliamentary election in 1991, the United Left Front, the political wing of the Maoists, had managed a bare nine seats as opposed to 69 by the UML. Considering its strong organisational base, the UML’s concession of 40 percent of the seats to the Maoists in the upcoming elections is rather generous even allowing for: i) the Maoists having won 229 seat compared to just 108 by the UML in the 2008 CA election; and ii) the Maoists possibly performing better than in the 2013 CA election with so many of the splinter factions having come back to the mother party.
History serves as no sure guide to how this relationship will evolve although, along with many others, my bet is on a falling-out sooner than later. Both parties trace their origins to the mid-1970s and there have been a lot of insults traded in the four decades of separate existence. That is part and parcel of communist existence all over the world. More significant though is the fact that the Maoists are joining hands with a party full of individuals who suffered long years at the hands of the insurgents during the conflict. A full merger also seems quite improbable since the Maoists are already top-heavy on the leadership front, and the UML cadre would be quite resistant to being foisted new leaders from an outfit with whom the only common factor is the symbolic reverence of communist icons.