The Maoists have benefited greatly from the political disarray in Kathmandu. And they seem to be using the time to re-strategise while waiting for the Congress's internal crisis to play itself out, and perhaps prepare for what Baburam Bhattarai calls their "decisive offensive".
They need a big push at this time to avenge the massive defeat in Khara in which the army says at least 200 guerrillas were killed. Then, there is the need to carry out something spectacular near Kathmandu to force the government to give up its surrender-before-talks stance. It has become pretty clear to the Maoists that overrunning an army garrison in the far-west does not make the powers-that-be in Kathmandu sit up and take notice.
Security sources tell us that captured Maoists have been speaking of preparations underway for major attacks on military or infrastructure targets. The shootout in Changu Narayan on Tuesday in which six alleged Maoists were killed was one of the most serious skirmishes inside the Valley so far. Reports from the hinterland confirm that there is assembly-line manufacture of improvised explosives, and massive forced recruitment from every family of one young man or woman. Thousands of boys and girls have fled to the towns and Kathmandu in the past month.
The Maoists appear to have decided that the time is ripe for their "war ki par" (do or die) moment. Baburam Bhattarai himself hints as much in his interview with the Maoist paper Jana Awaj on 9 April, where he said: "It is likely that the decisive leap forward can be taken in the next
One contributing factor to this is the political infighting, which is coming to a head, and the polarisation among parliamentary parties. Mao Zedong said "hit the enemy when it is in a crisis," and his Nepali proteges have memorised that line. It is conceivable that the Maoists will wait to make one last attempt to stop the escalation of the conflict to a dramatic new level. The Koirala faction of the Congress has re-opened back channels with the Maoists, and the Maoists, in a classic two-track strategy, have kept the door to negotiations open. Prachanda's last statement on May Day, hinting at negotiations , was one of the most conciliatory he has ever made. But by repeatedly rebuffing these offers, Deuba's government has come out looking hardline. And although Britain, the United States and India have supported the government's stance, the Europeans now seem to think there is no reason why there shouldn't be secret talks.
The Maoists also face increasing internal pressures. Hardliners in the military wing are impatient, and ethnic militant allies like the Khumbuwan Mukti Morcha have split over whether or not to stay with the Maoists. The militia is feeling the heat from the security forces, and also losing local support due to its extortion, food looting and forced recruitment. All this could indicate that the Maoists have decided that it is now or never.
Mulyankan editor Shyam Shrestha says this actually presents an opportunity for peace, and that the run-up to the elections could be when the Maoists and the government might reach a compromise. His four-step peace plan goes like this:
1. Lift the emergency;
2. Declare a ceasefire to provide space for political activity and let the economy recover;
3. Start the process of dialogue for socio-economic reforms and lasting peace; and
4. Have an all-party caretaker government to oversee elections, in which the Maoists may also participate.
"These actions may bring the Maoists into the political process," Shrestha told us. "Otherwise the elections may not mean anything." For their part, the Maoists seem convinced that the government will not willingly create these conditions, and are therefore consolidating their forces for an offensive.
The Maoists were considerably encouraged by the ease with which they razed the garrison in Gam, and may have figured that they are now ready for conventional battles against the army. However, the defeat at Khara two weeks ago proved that the army's night-time air support and the quality of command can easily tip the balance against them.
The Maoists may feel that they have reached the "Strategic Balance" phase of their struggle. In their analysis, the Shining Path and the Colombian revolutions failed because they let Strategic Balance drag on for too long. In Nepal, the Maoists think a quick push when the state is vulnerable will take them to victory. But they don't seem to have reckoned with some other factors.
The security forces are now banking on superior intelligence, and have also launched a psy-war campaign with posters, pamphlets, television programmes and even an exhibition of captured Maoist artefacts at Tundikhel. The idea is to portray the Maoists as anti-people and unpatriotic. And India is the wild card. The Maoists know that their big push will not be successful if the Indians continue their crackdown on their
cadre in India.
Nepal is now polarised between the revolutionaries and the reactionaries, and both could invite outside interference. But Nepalis have a third choice: side with forces of democracy, and press for progressive reforms.