By Maila Baje
Above everything else, the surprise agreement between the government and Chandra Kanta Raut, president of the Alliance for Independent Madhesh, must have come as a punch in the gut to Nepal Communist Party (NCP) co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.
Okay, not the 11-point agreement per se, perhaps, but surely Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s characterization of Raut’s abilities as being akin to that of the former Maoist supremo.
In the dozen years after the decade-long ‘people’s war’, Dahal & Co. have been the subject of colossal historical revisionism. In terms of the tripod of republicanism, secularism and federalism that carries Nepal today, you can’t probably say the ‘people’s war’ was a monumental waste of time. But, then, what good could it have been if those three legs turned out so wobbled at birth?
Still, the Maoist insurgency broke out and spread amid a pronounced public desire for change. Five years of restored multiparty politics had failed to address the aspirations of People’s Movement I. Novel exercises in constitutionalism and economic restructuring had begun during those years, but the popular imagination was almost singularly scarred by public corruption and the impunity that surrounded it.
The Maoists may not have had the best answers but they did at least represent a widespread quest for course correction. It was only when they compromised with one half of the status quo they rose up against in an ill-defined roadmap for national renewal that they began to lose their shine.
The landing was safe enough for the Maoist personally but their legacy was far from secure. Perpetual adjustments to ground realities provided a survival strategy for a while but factionalism and splits ensured that the ex-rebels had exceeded their shelf life. The bulk of them simply dissolved themselves into a larger communist party.
Raut’s agenda of Madheshi separatism hardly enjoyed the kind of across-the-board off-hand approbation – if not outright embrace – the Maoists did. Raut’s diehard supporters, too, must have wondered whether his agenda was viable beyond a slogan. Even if an independent Madhesh were to emerge, could it survive? More to the point, would it be allowed to survive by an India always apprehensive of fissiparous tendencies.
Even if outright amalgamation into the Indian Union were palatable to some advocates of a Free Madhesh, wouldn’t India first weigh the cost to the benefit of maintaining its traditional direct leverage in a territorially intact Nepal? Moreover, in the fluidity of the region’s history and geography, what’s to say that our own Greater Nepalis would not have seen greater legitimacy to their brand of give and take?
If non-Indians perched farther afield are actually behind Raut’s agenda – as many do suspect – how long would they have carried him? In his own way, the Dalai Lama has been asking himself that question since 1959. The imperative of a Sino-Indian concord on Nepal now being acknowledged by more and more Nepalis, maybe Raut was astute enough about his political future.
From Naya Shakti coordinator Baburam Bhattarai to Rastriya Prajatantra party president Kamal Thapa, the 11-point agreement has raised questions galore. The ruling NCP and the main opposition Nepali Congress have produced more than enough critical voices. One pesky issue in particular has confounded everyone across the political spectrum. Did Raut seek – and the government acquiesce to – a referendum to settle the Free Madhesh question?
If so, doesn’t that keep the Free Madhesh issue alive, contrary to the government’s insistence that this brand of separatists have been fully and formally mainstreamed. Or does that ambiguity merely serve to cover a larger one?
The Madhesh in Raut’s mind does not conform to Nepal’s political map today (which, in retrospect, the government appears to have released very conveniently). A referendum would require the enactment of appropriate legislation, a process, given political passions, that would easily wade into uncharted waters. If a province decided to go its own way, would the remaining provinces have to provide their imprimatur as well? If a Free Madhesh incorporated territory running from east to west across provinces, how many worms would wriggle out of that can? (Take another look at the demeanor of the people pictured above.)
Does the ambiguity really matter? In 2005, the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance did not jointly sign the 12 Point Agreement in New Delhi. Subsequent developments validated that document as the core of their common commitment to change.
Upon reflection, as galling as it might be, Comrade Prachanda, Oli may have a point.