One thing we have come to learn about the Maoists is that despite their doctrinaire approach, the leadership appears to make dramatic shifts in its demands depending on the evolving political situation.
For instance, a year-and-half after vilifying King Gyanendra, hurling insults, calling him "fascist", and even refusing to use his correct surname, Maoist supremo Prachanda has suddenly changed his tune. For the first time, he has indirectly accepted the role of the monarch by asking for a roundtable meeting with him and the political parties. The details of such tri-partite talks were not spelled out, but the statement created ripples in political circles in Kathmandu.
This, of course, is nothing new. True to the adage that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, the Maoists had earlier cosied up to political figures that they used to pour scorn on. And people like Girija Koirala have been in the past only too happy to reciprocate: Koirala was a sworn enemy of the Maoists while in power, but has been playing footsie with them when out. He has not hesitated to flex some republican feathers after the palace became friendly with his nemesis, Sher Bahadur Deuba. And when the king ended up sacking Deuba, the conspiracy-minded Koirala has been shouting about a "grand design". Koirala had been led to believe by his contacts in the rebel movement that the Maoists would never talk to the monarchy. Prachanda's statement is therefore a smack on his face. It is also an insult to the Chand government, which Prachanda has bypassed by going straight to the king.
To be sure, Prachanda's 25 October statement doesn't suddenly make the Maoists monarchists. But this tacit acceptance of the king's role is a fundamental departure from their previous stance and must be seen as positive. It was true King Gyanendra had a public relations problem after 1 June 2001, but the Maoists had made a blunder by denouncing him and refusing to accept him as king for the past year-and-half.
"Our door for talks and dialogue is open for a positive and progressive political solution," Prachanda said in his remarkably conciliatory statement, but in case anyone got the wrong message, he added: "there is no alternative to a decisive and historic struggle if suppression continues."
The part that is more difficult to explain is that on 15 October, Baburam Bhatarai gave a more orthodox analysis of the monarchy in the internet edition of the Maoist mouthpiece, Jana Awaj. Bhattarai said that a country like Nepal could either have an absolute monarchy or a republic, there was no place for a constitutional monarchy. And he laid out his not-so-convincing arguments to support that thesis.
So, is Prachanda right or is Baburam? Or both? Are Maoist tactics just keeping pace with the rapidly evolving political landscape after 4 October, and they have no real fixed position?
Since last year, the Maoist divide-and-rule strategy has been to try to convince the political parties that if they climb down to accepting a republic they will come up to accepting multi-party democracy. The only question is: is this just tactics, or is it a strategy for a soft landing?
One of the reasons for the discernible softening of the Maoist approach could be increasing pressure from India, and also a fear that there are secret contacts between the palace and the Indians and this could sideline them in any future governance structure.
So far, the Maoists have been calling the shots. They hold a large part of the countryside under their sway, there has really been no reason for them to negotiate, or be moderate. This had forced the government and military to be reactive, and respond to their initiatives. Now, suddenly, there is someone decisive in Kathmandu who is setting the agenda and being proactive.
So the Maoists keeping themselves busy driving a wedge between the political parties and the monarchy, and try to isolate both from public support. Prachanda, by inviting the king directly to the table, has also thrown the fractious political parties into confusion about their next move.
Three months ago, the Maoists declared that they had achieved "strategic balance" with the army, and they were poised to go on a "strategic offensive". Since then, they have suffered several reversals, including the last one in Okhaldhunga. But the royal move of 4 October has strengthened their political position, and they are confident enough to use the political path as a parallel strategy.
The Maoists also appear to be preparing the ground to take their struggle to a nationalistic level in case the Indian support for the monarchy becomes more overt. For this they will try to invoke patriotism from the political parties to oppose foreign expansionism. India is by definition a part of the equation because the Maoists are using Indian territory for training and supplies.
The Prachanda statement could also be a ploy to further delay the promised military hardware for the army from Europe and the United States. Human rights pressure and the pro-Maoist roadshow in major European cities starting next week are expected to increase doubts in donor capitals about supplying expensive weapons to one of the world's poorest countries. By offering an olive branch now, the Maoists are hoping to sow more doubt and delay delivery.
The biggest failure in all this has been the role of the political parties. They should have been trying to bring the two forces that they think are acting extra-constitutionally-the monarchy and the Maoists-within the constitutional mainstream. But the parties are immersed in their own petty games, and are not playing a proactive role as a cementing force.
The Chand government has said it is waiting for a response to his offer for talks. Well, the response is now here. How is he going to react? The prime minister could declare an amesty for rebels, and formally call the Maoists to join a roundtable meeting. This would pull the rug from underneath the political parties.
At the table, the main subject will have to be the formation of a constituent assembly under certain conditions: preservation of the constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, a meaningful ceasefire and safeguarding of civic rights.
The road ahead will not be easy. We can expect strong disagreement between the political forces and even with in the Maoist movement between hardline and moderates over republicanism, and also about whether the "peoples' liberation army" should be inducted into the army. There may even be a regression to violence. But we have to start somewhere.
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