If Baburam Bhattarai musters the courage to admit mistakes, his New Force party would be on a much surer footing
For most Nepalis the high-profile launch of Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti (New Force) party resembled the unveiling of a new brand of cosmetics. Indeed, some of the full-page jacket ads (below) in national dailies on Sunday morning were followed the next day by similar false covers promoting a new detergent.
The irony of it was that both were makeover exercises. The washing powder in question (coincidentally also named ‘Shakti’) was taking on a new name. And the New Force party was trying to airbrush away its association with Baburam Bhattarai’s violent past.
Ever since he split off from the Maoists, Bhattarai himself has been repositioning his public persona from a proponent of political violence to a benign technocrat. For someone who had told us in an interview in 2001 — while conducting a war in Nepal from a New Delhi suburb — that the Khmer Rouge genocide was ‘western media propaganda’, he has done rather well for himself. Bhattarai’s metamorphosis, as with several of his comrades, has meant deliberately (and conveniently) forgetting words and actions from the past. Good thing we have Google.
His Maoist party has now broken up into no fewer than five pieces, although Pushpa Kamal Dahal has managed to reunite some of the splinter groups under the newly renamed CPN-Maoist Centre. A loony fringe led by Comrade Biplav has been trying to burn taxi drivers alive and torching telecom towers across the land.
All this helps Baburam Bhattarai, who can now tell the people: I parted ways with them because they are all either fanatical, or have become power-hungry and corrupt. I am the one who has the country’s future all figured out, hence my slogan — ‘The Way Out: Economic Development’.
Being the political chameleon he is, Bhattarai has dropped any mention of the ‘M’ and ‘C’ words from his party’s manifesto lest we recall he was once a fervent Maoist communist leader.
To be sure, successive opinion polls over the years have shown Bhattarai to be head and shoulders above other politicians in terms of popularity. People generally tend to give the Doctor the benefit of the doubt, and they even want to forgive him his misguided justifications of past violence. With his PhD he is seen to be far more intelligent than the current Prime Minister, who is only a high school graduate.
As Prime Minister from 2011 to 2013, Bhattarai engaged in public relations gimmicks — like driving around in a ‘Made in Nepal’ Mustang car, travelling in economy class once when he flew to New York, and taking the media along for his sleep-overs with peasants. Many in the capital pooh-poohed these as publicity stunts (which they were) but they were advantageous in branding Bhattarai as a man of action. Kathmandu citizens grumbled about corruption, but they still gave him credit for the road-widening drive in Kathmandu. Other leaders just made speeches, they said, at least Baburam tried to do something.
The slick advertising that accompanied the party launch at the National Stadium on Sunday was much talked about, and speculated upon. Many wondered on social media where the money came from. But most were impressed, and seemed willing to believe that Baburam Bhattarai had changed his spots. The urban middle class, which is the New Force’s target vote bank, is fed up with the current crop of politicians, all of whom goofed up multiple times when given the chance to set things right.
We do not want to write Baburam Bhattarai off just because of his past, or because he has been less than transparent about who bankrolled his expensive party inauguration. Let’s wait and see what he will do. If it looks like he can fulfil even half of the promises he has made about economic transformation in the next 25 years, it will have been an achievement. In fact, this is not a difficult target, assuming there is integrity, efficiency and accountability in government, but that is perhaps asking too much.
Bhattarai has unveiled a do-able blueprint: unleash job creation with an all-out campaign for infrastructure development, reduce outmigration, and create economic multipliers once the hydropower, highway, irrigation and transportation projects are completed.
Still, Bhattarai is haunted by the ghosts of his past, and hobbled by the stigma of being seen as an Indian puppet, his unwillingness to recant some of his more bizarre justifications of murder and mayhem in the name of revolution, and the vainglorious reputation his wife has earned for herself.
We understand it is hard for a born-again Maoist to renounce beliefs once held dear, or admit mistakes and apologise. But if Bhattarai could muster the courage for all that, his party would be on a much surer footing.
The new farce, Foreign Hand
May the force be with you, David Seddon
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