Maoist Overture to Enter Nepal’s Mainstream Politics?

NEW DELHI – While India denies that its security agencies helped arrange meetings between a top Nepali Maoist leader and its political establishment, analysts welcome dialogue with the rebels as a key to ending a seemingly intractable crisis in the neighboring Himalayan kingdom.

According to S.D. Muni, a widely acknowledged expert on Himalayan affairs, engaging the Maoists is "a good idea."

He pointed out that India’s ruling elite had initially shied away from the communists, who are in an armed struggle to create a kingless republic, because of pressure from various right-wing lobbies that "are working on behalf of Nepal’s King Gyanendra and his coterie."

Speaking to IPS in an interview, Muni – who teaches international relations at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University – identified these lobbies as "the Indian Army, the United States [with which New Delhi works closely on the Nepal crisis] and members of India’s high society, some of whom have blood ties with the Nepalese monarchy."

Yet another lobby that has been vocal in supporting the king against the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) are Hindu fundamentalists that belong to various organizations affiliated to the powerful Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that leads the national opposition in India’s Parliament.

Prominent BJP leader and chief minister of the western state of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje Scindia is only one member of India’s erstwhile royalty that has blood ties with Nepal’s royal family.

Apart from the compulsions of domestic politics, India has strong grounds to fear the spreading of the violent Maoist insurgency – which has gripped its northern neighbor since 1996 and claimed more than 11,000 lives – across the porous borders and into its own poverty-ridden states, where left-wing extremists are active.

The Maoist insurgency, and the failure of Nepal’s democratic governments to deal with it, provided King Gyanendra the pretext to do away with democracy altogether. On Feb. 1, he dismissed a party-based government and began ruling directly, imposing emergency rule and severely constricting political, civil, and press freedoms.

The international community, led by India, decried the coup and imposed tough sanctions. The king partially relented and on April 29 rescinded emergency rule, though political and press freedoms continue to be restricted.

But Nepal’s Maoists have the sympathy of India’s communist parties which, after the last elections in May, emerged stronger than ever before and are influential for the fact that they lend critical outside support to the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance ruling coalition.

Last week, when India’s leading newspapers reported a secret meeting between top Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai and Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Marxist Communist Party of India (CPI-M), it drew every shade of reaction from open approval to outright condemnation.

India’s External Affairs Ministry led the condemnations. "There is no change in respect of our policy with regard to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). We unequivocally condemn their terrorist and violent activities that have caused enormous suffering to the people of Nepal," spokesman Navtej Sarna said at a press briefing on Thursday.

"Durable peace and stability in Nepal can only be achieved through a political settlement, which, among other things, requires the Maoists to forswear armed struggle and lay down their arms," added Sarna.

Sarna’s reaction followed published criticisms by analysts like C. Raja Mohan who said India’s flip-flops in foreign policy sent some very confusing signals. He pointed out that New Delhi’s position on the global war against terrorism was actually supporting an absolute monarchy, in a neighboring country, that just dismantled democracy.

News reports suggesting that Indian security agencies had escorted Bhattarai – who’s on Interpol’s high security risk list – to a meeting with Karat did not elicit a response from Sarna. The spokesman just repeated Karat’s earlier denial.

For his part, Karat carefully denied the role of Indian security agencies but steered away from categorically denying any rendezvous with Bhattarai.

According to Muni, Bhattarai, and Karat needed no help from Indian security agencies if they wanted to meet each other since they were both students together at Jawaharlal Nehru University during the 1970s. "No solution to Nepal’s problems is possible without taking the Maoists on board although unfortunately the fact remains that official India, especially the External Affairs Ministry has refused to touch them with a barge pole," said Muni.

Muni said that the episode had to be seen in the context of a move by Kathmandu to discredit Bhattarai, who advocates better coordination between the Maoists and mainstream Nepalese political parties in order to isolate the king.

On May 19, the Royal Nepal Army released at a press briefing a dated videotape showing the elusive Maoist supreme "Prachanda" telling his cadres that he had divested Bhattarai of all his responsibilities since he was too close to India.

Apart from discrediting Bhattarai on charges of being an "Indian stooge," the army has also been keen on highlighting differences between Bhattarai and Prachanda – with added claims that the rift has deeply split Maoist cadres.

But, according to Muni, the fact remains that New Delhi will eventually have to win the confidence of the Maoists if it wants to have a role in brokering peace in Nepal.

Other analysts, including Hari Roka, a Nepali student working for his doctorate in Jawaharlal Nehru University agree with Muni’s assessment.

"The fear that Nepal’s political parties could forge an alliance with the Maoists was a restraining factor with the hawks in the New Delhi-Washington-London axis," said Roka, who has been critical of India’s dogmatically repeated official line that stability in Nepal rested on the "twin pillars of a constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy."

Said Roka: "The reality is that stability in Nepal now depends on the twin pillars of multiparty democracy and the mainstreaming of the Maoists."