With Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s resignation on Sunday, India’s role in Nepali politics is once again being debated. So is the role of CPN (Maoist Center) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Republica’s Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal askedPradeep Gyawali, CPN-UML Central Committee member and a close confidante of PM Oli, on what his party made of the hasty exit of Maoist party from government and India’s alleged hand in it.
How do you see the Maoist decision to pull out of government? Was it expected?
You need to see this in a context. This government was formed amid unimaginable adversities. In light of these adversities, the new government sought to balance Nepal’s geopolitical relations. This was not to the liking of some internal and external elements. First they tried to prevent the formation of this government and when it was formed they tried to make sure that it failed. Against this backdrop, I wouldn’t say the efforts to displace Oli government were unexpected. But the timing of the Maoist pullout was really unexpected as the two parties had decided to walk together for a long time. But the Maoists decided to breach this trust all of a sudden.
Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Center) have clearly said that they were unhappy with the Oli government as it had failed to take the Madheshis into confidence, to expedite reconstruction and to control black-marketing, among other charges. How do you respond?
These allegations are fabricated and exaggerated. You again need to take into account the context in which this government was formed and the unique challenges it faced right from the start. For the first five months of its existence, the government’s hands were effectively tied by the border blockade. Nonetheless, it tried to somehow tide over the challenges posed by the blockade and the Madheshi agitation.
The prime minister visited both India and China to take these important bilateral relations to new heights. Slowly but surely, we dealt with external challenges and were in the process of sorting out the internal challenges. When the government had barely got back to its feet after the blockade, our coalition partner stabbed us from the back.
Why do you say the Maoists stabbed you on the back? Didn’t they have legitimate grievances against the government?
I have participated in many meetings with senior Maoist leaders. For about a week in May, we discussed remaining issues of peace process and how to amicably sort them out. We then discussed the national budget. So there have been extensive discussions between the two parties in recent times.
We thought everything was going well when one fine evening Prachanda came to us and said Congress had proposed to make him prime minister. We were aghast. The Maoists were plotting the demise of their own government. This was strange.
It is said the Maoists decided to quit after UML refused to honor the 9-point agreement, most crucially the deal on transitional justice.
What you have to bear in mind is that the 14-point agreement provided the rationale for UML-Maoist coalition government?
UML has completely abided by this agreement both in letter and spirit. If we believed that Maoists would abandon us midcourse, we would not have agreed to give them vital posts like Speaker and Vice-president. Likewise, we agreed to give major portfolios in the cabinet to the Maoist party. All this was done on the basis of the 14-point agreement at the start. But the UML was clear on its stand on peace process even during the signing of the subsequent 9-point agreement two months ago.
We were aware that we had to abide by international norms and conventions of transitional justice. We were aware we could not give out a message to the outside world that there was impunity in Nepal. Yes, our focus was on reconciliation but we never agreed to amnesty for grave abuse of human rights from conflict period.
What in your belief motivated the Maoists to pull out of government?
I would mostly attribute it to internal factors. First, the Maoists were unnecessarily spooked by the prospects of prosecution for wartime crimes. No party wanted to revive war-time cases with the intent of singling out Maoist leaders. It seems some force emotionally blackmailed Maoist leaders by raising the specter of past crimes. They must have been told that wartime cases would be revived. The Maoist leaders blinked.
Second, there is the case of misuse by Maoist leaders of the money sent to Maoist cantonments. When you have made mistakes you fear the consequences.
Third, the Maoists seem to have reached an erroneous conclusion that two left parties cannot work together. Continuing with the alliance with UML as its junior partner, Maoist leaders perhaps feared, would be detrimental to their interest at a time the UML party was steadily gaining in popularity.
Fourth, the unpredictable and ambitious nature of Prachanda was also to be blamed. The deep-seated Congress prejudice against UML added fuel to his fire. UML’s popularity in these months had gotten into Congressi nerves. It feared that going to elections with UML popularity intact could prove counterproductive.
Finally, there were forces that didn’t want this constitution to be implemented. They want to change the fundamental nature of this constitution in order to ensure perennial instability.
You had visited India on the eve of constitution promulgation. What was the main Indian concern?
I was there to clear some illusions they had about Nepal’s constitutional process and why we couldn’t further delay it. I told them that delaying the process would not be in anyone’s interest.
But there is a feeling among Indian establishment actors that Nepal is under India’s influence and India must have its stake in every political process in Nepal. This mindset is not ready to accept Nepal as an independent sovereign state with powers to take decisions independently. The Indians are not ready to accept that they can only offer advice to Nepal but cannot dictate terms. This is why India was unhappy with the 16-point deal among the four major political forces.
But India is not a monolith, is it? Aren’t there different actors with different agendas there?
Yes, ruling BJP and its RSS represent one India. Their interest is to revive Hindu state in Nepal. Some of them even want to restore monarchy. Then there are Indian intelligence agencies that want perpetual instability in Nepal. There is India that represents security concerns. This section is alert about the possible security threats to India by open and porous border. But there is also an overarching theme: the feeling among Indians that India has somehow been left behind by China. So when Nepal tries to get close to China, the Indians react furiously. In May, China sent goods to Kathmandu through an international freight train. This was a symbolic gesture. But it created such a hue and cry in Delhi. This shows how India is guided by an inferiority complex vis-à-vis China.
Thus various Indias I discussed have their own understandings and interests in Nepal. What is common to them all is they do not want to see Nepal set its political course independently.
How do you see the role of Indian intelligence agencies in government change?
As the Maoist insurgency in Nepal was gaining momentum and as India started to feel a threat, the then Indian National Congress government delegated Nepal affairs to Indian intelligence, bureaucracy and security agencies. Nepal issues were never taken up at the political level. Political engagement with Nepal broke down after India’s relation with the then King Gyanendra soured. We had thought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Nepal visit would go some way towards restoring political ties. His address to the Nepali parliament also gave that impression. This seems to have deeply unsettled intelligence agencies for they would not be able to carry out their policy to destabilize Nepal if political ties were restored. So security and intelligence factors could have thwarted India’s political engagement with Nepal.
Some say Modi felt betrayed because Nepali leaders promised him something and delivered a completely different thing.
That cannot be ruled out. Prachanda and Sher Bahadur Deuba have not made public what they had promised with PM Modi during their India visits, both in July, 2015. But during my visit the Indians complained that “your leaders promise one thing and do the opposite.” This makes us believe Prachanda and Deuba had promised something.
They could have promised to Indian leaders that they would take agitating Madheshi leaders into confidence. Or they could have promised to restore Hindu state or at least remove the word secularism from the constitution.
Three days before the constitution was unveiled I was in a high-level meeting with Indian officials. I told them that the constitution process had already been needlessly prolonged and that there would be no more delays. That if we stopped the process back then, we might never have a constitution. I was speaking on behalf of the major stakeholders of the constitutional process. They took no heed of this and sent S Jaishanker as special envoy the next day to stop the constitutional process. By then it was too late.
But India continues to maintain that all it wants in Nepal are peace, stability and an inclusive democratic polity.
It is strange to hear Indians says that the Nepali constitution is not inclusive. In matters of inclusiveness and social justice, Nepal’s constitution matches the best constitution in the world. Even the chief justice of India accepted that Nepal’s constitution was among South Asia’s “promising” constitutions.
From what you have said so far it appears that you believe it was India which unseated Oli government and the Maoists were used only as pawns?
No, I still hold the Maoists responsible. If they had not allowed themselves to be used, India on its own would not be able to change the government. This is the government that did not bow down before India even during the blockade. India should also take note of this. If it thinks that it can coerce actors in Nepal into doing its bidding, it is mistaken.
Some of them seem to believe that the recent agreements with China will be shelved and Nepal will once again start completely depending on India. This is misguided thinking. We are always in favor of good relations with India, one that is based on equality.
Earlier you suggested that India feared Chinese influence in Nepal. How was China’s relation with Oli government?
China has a consistent policy on Nepal, irrespective of who is in the government. It stands for stability. China does not see India as its competitor. It looks at the US as its main rival instead. China wants to establish itself as the preeminent economy in the world in next few years and become a superpower by 2050. That is China’s goal. So China is not interested in fishing in dirty waters in a small neighbor like Nepal. China is trying to expand its market by connecting with around 65 countries with its One Belt One Road initiative. In this, it is trying to connect around 70 percent of global population. China is concerned about Tibet, but chiefly its focus is Nepal’s development. You cannot think of China trying micromanaging affairs in Nepal.
What kind of role will UML play, for instance on implementing deals with China and implementation of the constitution?
We will be a strong and effective opposition. Our concern will be on five key areas. First, we will look to ensure that the three sets of elections take place in the next 20 months, as mandated by the new constitution. Our second priority will be to preserve national pride, sovereignty and self dignity. We will not let the development initiatives of our government lapse. We will also continue to expert pressure on the government to expedite post-quake reconstruction.
Third, we have tried to balance Nepal’s relations with India and China. We signed deals with China to diversify our trade and minimize absolute dependence on India. Maoist party and Nepali Congress seem keen to dilute the agreements with China. We won’t allow this. We are open to revising boundaries of federal provinces. However, we are against the idea of Madhesh as a separate nationality. We are against the idea that Madhesh must be separated from the hills in the name of creating one or two Madhesh-only provinces.
These are non-negotiables. Except this, we are open. Let us now wait and see how the new government hopes to resolve the federalism dispute. UML will not be a hindrance to an amicable solution. But like I said, it will never compromise on our key principles.