Uncategorized | Columnist Service

Opinion

NEPAL: A PRAGMATIC MAOISM

This column is available for visitors to the IPS website only for reading. Reproduction in print or electronic media is prohibited. Media interested in republishing may contact romacol@ips.org.

KATHMANDU, Sep 22 2008 (IPS) - Ever since he launched a guerrilla war to topple Nepal’s monarchy 12 years ago, Nepal’s Prime Minister Prachanda used to regularly denounce “American imperialism and Indian expansionism”. In an interview in 1998, he even said his Maoist guerrillas were prepared to fight off an invasion by the Indian Army and that Nepal’s revolution would spread “to India, and then to the world”, writes Kunda Dixit, editor and publisher of the Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu. On September 18, Prachanda returned from an official visit to India, stayed overnight in Kathmandu and immediately left for the United States. Dressed in a smart business suit and tie, Prachanda met top Indian leaders and industrialists to tell them they could trust the Maoists and that Nepal was open for big Indian investments in hydropower, manufacturing and infrastructure. Chief Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai is finance minister and a former Maoist guerrilla commander is defence minister. On September 19, Bhattarai unveiled the government’s eagerly-awaited budget. Everyone was looking for signs that the Maoists would be trying to implement their slogans of revolutionary land reform, populist handouts to the poor and hefty taxes on property and luxury goods. But although the $4 billion budget was an ambitious 30 percent bigger than the previous year’s estimate, it was a much more economically pragmatic document than most expected.

On September 18, Prachanda returned from an official visit to India, stayed overnight in Kathmandu and immediately left for the United States. Dressed in a smart business suit and tie, Prachanda met top Indian leaders and industrialists to tell them they could trust the Maoists and that Nepal was open for big Indian investments in hydropower, manufacturing and infrastructure.

The former guerrilla leader is now in New York to address the UN General Assembly, and also have one-on-one with senior State Department officials.

Prachanda’s Maoists launched an armed struggle in 1996, making rapid military gains. In 2005 he forged an alliance with parliamentary parties to successfully sideline the monarchy. The Maoists emerged as the largest party in elections in last April and lead a new coalition government. Only two years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that Nepal would have gone from monarchy to republic without bloodshed, or that Prachanda would become the first Maoist in world history to be elected as a national leader.

Chief Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai is finance minister and a former Maoist guerrilla commander is defence minister. On September 19, Bhattarai unveiled the government’s eagerly-awaited budget. Everyone was looking for signs that the Maoists would be trying to implement their slogans of revolutionary land reform, populist handouts to the poor and hefty taxes on property and luxury goods. But although the $4 billion budget was an ambitious 30 percent bigger than the previous year’s estimate, it was a much more economically pragmatic document than most expected.

Faced with a resource crunch, stagnant tax revenues and a sluggish economy the Maoists seems to have decided that this was not a time to be dogmatic. A hefty chunk of the Maoist finance minister’s budget is going for the reconstruction of infrastructure and government buildings that his guerrillas themselves destroyed during the war. Indeed, Prime Minister Prachanda may actually find that waging war may be easier than fulfilling some of the utopian promises he made during the revolution.

Still, most Nepalis are willing to give the Maoists a chance. Bhattarai’s economic blueprint is to create jobs through huge investments in infrastructure to jumpstart the economy. He plans to increase hydropower generation tenfold in ten years, boost annual economic growth to 7 percent and double digit by 2011, take per capita income -currently $320- to $3,000 in 2020, attain universal literacy in three years, build an east-west railway artery, a new international airport and boost tourism.

The Maoists’ challenge, however, is simply to provide economic relief. More than half of Nepal’s population of 28 million lives below the poverty line, there is a huge food shortage, inflation is running at 20% for foodstuffs. The government can’t afford to subsidise petroleum products and people have endured two years of long queues at gas stations. The government needs to find jobs for the 450,000 Nepalis who enter the labor market every year. About half of them currently emigrate to find work every year, mostly to India, the Gulf states, Malaysia and South Korea. None of this is going to possible without political stability, which is necessary to woo foreign investors.

The Maoists have been addressing meetings of businessmen in Nepal and India for the past month, saying they respect the free market and private property and inviting them to invest in Nepal. Not everyone is convinced. The Maoists’ youth wing is still extorting businesses, and labour militancy has spooked multinationals in Nepal.

Despite these problems, it does look like the Maoist leadership believes in the Deng Xiaoping model more than Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. The Maoist-led coalition’s final challenge is to ensure the coalition stays intact so that the 601 member Constituent Assembly that was elected in April can start drafting Nepal’s new constitution. The peace process and ceasefire needs to be kept on track until the 19,000 Maoist guerrillas in UN-supervised camps across the country are either demobilised or integrated into the national army.

Over the next two years, the Assembly will also have to figure out how to turn Nepal’s governance structure into federal units so that political and economic decision-making is decentralised. These are enormous challenges, but given the smoothness with which the dramatic political transformation of the past two years was carried out, there is a good chance Nepal’s Maoist-led government can do it. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
Republish | | Print |

Related Tags