Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Lost opportunity



Amidst the fanfare, the UML may be missing a significant element in its convention.

The competition over the posts has assumed all the attention. That is important because it will determine the direction and longevity of this government, have an impact on the nature of the constitution, influence the democratic and left movement in the country and will shape the future of the party.

But the key question UML should have been pondering this week was: why has this been a lost decade for them? The party has been in power multiple times, but always as a junior partner. It has an image of swinging from one extreme to another rather than that of a responsible force that protects the middle ground. It has been insensitive to rising ethnic aspirations, so visible when the UML crowd booed Rajendra Mahato's Hindi speech. It has been reacting to events rather than setting the agenda. But the biggest weakness of the UML is that it is seen to have betrayed not only the communist movement, but broader left ideals as well.

There may have been a complex set of factors that gave rise to the Maoist movement, but the UML's failure to channelise the aspirations of its original constituency of workers, peasants, Dalits, left activists and students from remote regions ranks as a primary cause.

Krishna KC is now a Maoist central committee member. But he began his political career as a student activist for the UML in Baglung before moving to Kathmandu and becoming the central secretary of the student front. But during the mid 1990s, he increasingly felt that the party would not be able to effect a "fundamental transformation".

He got disillusioned with the leadership's corrupt ways, and the constant number game in the house. The breaking point was the Mahakali treaty which he saw as a sell-out.KC moved to the short-lived Bamdeb Gautam-led CPN (ML).But when Gautam got back to UML, KC along with many others from the party switched to the Maoists. He subsequently became the vice president of the student front and Kathmandu-in-charge. He was also picked and tortured by the army.

The Maoist nominated MP and analyst Hari Roka's political career followed a similar trajectory. He was in the UML and shuffled between being Khotang district in-charge and looking after the central office. But Roka was dissatisfied with Madan Bhandari's political line, which he saw as a compromise with the Westminster system. For a party activist with no income, who went to jail for seven years during Panchayat, the party's easy co-option into the system came as a shock. Mahakali was the breaking point for him too. He moved to the ML before becoming a Maoist-leaning analyst. In Roka's home district Khotang, UML won all seats in the 1991 and 1994 elections. This time, the Maoists took both seats.

Man Bahadur Tamang is a mild-mannered farmer from Kabhre's Mangaltar. An old UML supporter who was harassed by the Maoists during the war, Tamang ended up voting for the Maoists this time. "I am still with UML, but they didn't do anything for us. So I thought let us give the Maoists a chance."

What ties these stories together is the obvious disillusionment with UML. The party's leaders spend most of their time being smug about how the Maoists had to finally come back to the system, and how that is a victory of their political line of accepting multiparty democracy. They should listen to the rankling disappointment that led so many of their supporters away.

The party's choice in Butwal is to elect a person more conservative than NC hawks (Oli), or a master reconciler who has already got his chance and blown it (Nepal), or a person with weak inter-personal skills who seems willing to be a junior partner of the Maoists (Khanal). None of the three will create the new hope and energy the party needs. It will not fundamentally alter the 1990s culture of middleman politics that has seeped into the party. It will not win them new members or wean back old comrades.

And that is why the eighth convention, too, may go down as a missed opportunity.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)