What the Left can right
From relatively small beginnings on 13 February, 1996, the Maoist "People’s War" has, to use their own phrase, "moved from peak to peak". The Maoists have marked this achievement by christening their revolution the "Prachanda Path", and the government by the formation of an armed police force. For the first time in the last half a century "development" is gradually being pushed to the back seat. In a very unexpected way, the Maoists have provided the most telling critique of the relevance of the mode and meaning of "development" practised in Nepal over the past decades.
The People’s War is Nepal’s first home-grown insurrection with an explicit ideology and a pan-Nepali coverage. Over the past five years the Maoists have built an impressive, functionally efficient network of decentralised area-based guerrilla organisations capable of mobilising hundreds of youth at the local level. These organisations appear to be built on the base of poor peasants and the occupational caste groups, something no political organisation in Nepal had attempted at such a scale before. The mass of aspiring, partially educated and unemployed youth have been the breeding ground for Maoist recruits. The strength of the Maoists has been the historic weakness of the Nepali state. They have capitalised on centuries of isolation and underdevelopment of the remoter regions. Ideological cooption, extortion, loot, and appeasement of the peasantry have all been used to good effect to mobilise local financial and combative resources to allow them to procure arms and ammunition from outside Nepal and maintain a reliable cadre base. The brutal strategy "liquidation" of "informers" and other "dubious" elements has in the short term nullified the danger of subversion from within. The logistical capability of the Maoists in terms of propaganda, recruitment, training, deployment (both for combat purpses and for propaganda) and "hiding within the masses" has, by all accounts, been remarkably effective. Whether the Maoist force can continue doing so in the event of an all-out war declared by the state is really a moot question.
The Maoist leadership has its share of problems. A decentralised command structure can breed local "strongmen" particularly when ideological conscientisation, political and financial accountability, and reconstructive development at the local level remain weak. Maoists also appear to be plagued with problems of organisational, tactical and politico-strategic nature. But the fact is that the central government bureaucracy appears to be losing its tenuous hold on the Nepali countryside. If there were an election in the near future it is doubtful whether full (not to talk of fair) elections could be held in the Maoist-affected districts.
The Maoist People’s War has radically altered the balance of political power within Nepal, and by implication, called into question the entire political and economic development strategy of the country. The issue is not whether the Maoists will prevail, the issue is whether the questions—of equity and social justice, of access to resources and opportunities for better livelihoods—that they have raised can continue to be ignored. One may disagree with the Maoist methods of "revolution", but it is hard to disagree with the legitimacy of the questions that have been raised. The on-going squabble and stalemate in the national legislature makes an interesting, and indeed ironic contrast to the larger ramifications of the Maoist People’s War for the prevailing political, economic and social status quo in Nepal.
The government’s response to the Maoist insurgency, instead of bringing a paradigm shift in development thinking—political, economic and social—has not been serious, not constructive, and not innovative. The debate the Maoist People’s War should have initiated within ruling circles has unfortunately been limited to the search for a symptomatic rather than a systemic treatment of the issue. The violence and terror perpetrated by Maoists as well as the government forces need to be deplored and all effort needs to be made to end it. But the "quiet and sustained violence" endured by Nepalis because of degrading poverty, of inhuman corruption of political, social and economic exclusion and exploitation also needs to be addressed.
The creation of the armed police force signifies a fumbling resolve to meet force by force. This can only lead to the perpetration of violence at a much larger and intensified scale. It conveniently sidesteps the central issue of the need for a deeper structural change in the body
politic. There is political procrastination and bankruptcy in economic policies and programmes. This is hardly surprising in a government wedded to market reforms, indiscriminate liberalisation, and "mobilisation" and "empowerment" of communities under the "benign" watchful eyes and guiding hands of the donors; the Maoist insurgency is simply a meaningless irritant in the otherwise smooth road to capitalist "development". Clearly, even the mindset to deal with the crisis is absent.
Unfortunately, it is the response of the moderate left to the Maoist People’s War that has been the most enigmatic. They have consistently called for "structural changes in the political and economic system", and, at least in theory, the left has remained vocal in the struggle for a society free of exploitation, and in championing the cause of the underclass, the poor, the deprived and the dispossessed. "Societal transformation" has been their main ideological plank. They want Nepali nationalism strengthened to withstand the onslaught of "Indian expansionism". But all these points are central also to the Maoist agenda, and one would have expected a fitting response to Maoist extremism from the political left, a response that would go beyond the rhetoric, and outline an alternative political and economic agenda and actions to achieve those ends. Instead, the left political parties have proved to be dumb, confused spectators caught between friend and foe.
If any political formation in Nepal has the capability to pull the carpet from under the feet of the Maoists, it is the organised left with its roots in civil society. That capability has to derive from a clear understanding of the possibilities of structural change within a democratic system. Such a political, economic and social agenda and programme would provide the basis for political action both within and outside parliament. This would, of course, demand a return to a politics based on ideology, a commodity rare in Nepali left politics today.
The Maoist People’s War has fundamentally questioned the credibility of Nepal’s mainstream left. It is doubtful whether a dialogue devoid of an economic and political agenda would really contribute much to the resolution of the Maoist insurrection, and it would be up to the left political parties to make a singular contribution by negotiating such an agenda, and bringing the nation back from the brink of a civil war in which there would be no winners.
(Pitamber Sharma a former professor of geography at Tribhuvan University.)