One of the defining characteristics of the Nepali left has been its propensity to split into factions. They fragment easily, but it seems they can re-unite just as easily. The differences are personality or power-driven rather than ideological, and are easy to patch up.
On the extreme left are the Maoists, wth whom the rest have ideological differences. But its meteoric rise into the national arena in the six short years of violence and threats has forced everyone else to take them seriously. That is why all the leaders of the moderate left trooped over to Siliguri in India for audiences with Chairman Prachanda over the past ten days. On return, they have been tight-lipped about the discussions, but it is clear that the moderate left now sees two options: unite, or be picked off one by one.
So the main opposition Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) is now trying to get remarried to the Marxist-Leninists (ML) after a four-year divorce. A monolithic left party would be a formidable force in next year's local elections, and it could also woo back some cadres who've strayed into the radical fold. Since there are scant ideological divisions, it may be fairly easy to achieve.
"Theoretically, there's a great possibility of unifying with the Marxist-Leninists who, like us, believe in people's multi-party democracy," says Raghuji Pant, a UML MP. "Talks have also been positive with the Nepal Communist Party United."
On the national front, the UML is also cosying up to the Nepali Congress government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, and managed to get him to push for a freeze on land sales prior to a land reform law. Both the Nepali Congress and the UML appear to be hoping that this will take some of the wind out of the sails of the Maoist agenda at talks. What they may not have anticipated was the huge backlash from the smaller parties and a major crisis of confidence in business. As pressure builds up, and parliament is stalled, Deuba has hinted privately at meetings with his party's lawmakers that they needn't worry since the bill will never be allowed to pass.
On return from Siliguri, UML supremo Madhav Kumar Nepal said he had made it clear to Chairman Prachanda that his party was not interested in establishing a republic. Neither was it interested in forming a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. One senior party source told us: "What we said was this: if you want changes in the constitution let us form a committee then we can have an interim government to hold elections.Let's do it the democratic way."
Anyone left out?
Nepal told Prachanda that his party was prepared to bring about radical reform within the present constitution and he would work with the Maoists only if they abandoned the armed struggle and sought a peaceful political solution within the present constitution. Prachanda is said to have stuck to his gun: an interim government, a new constitution and the new republic.
Given the pressure from within his own party, Nepal was bound to say what he did. Interestingly, the ML and other smaller left parties who also went to Siliguri agreed to the constituent assembly idea.
Nepal's self-professed priority now is to urgently forge left unity with whoever is willing to join, but he will want to have Bamdev Gautam's ML on board. He firmly believes that alone will allow parliamentary parties to stick together behind the constitution and counter the Maoists. "Without unity this country is headed for political economic and social ruin," he said this week.
The UML has taken the initiative to spearhead the negotiations which have been intense and long-drawn. In letters sent to its left counterparts, the UML said left forces that shared common principles, thoughts and a working policy should unite. The letter also stressed the need to form a united left forum on issues of common interest.
While a UML-ML remarriage appears inevitable, left watchers say the closest the other satellite communists will agree on is to be more nice to each other and agree on issues like price rise, the citizenship bill and land reform. The smaller left parties are ideologically closer to the Maoists than with the moderate UML/ML combine. They accuse the UML comrades of abandoning communism, and also the left's main mantra of republicanism. Left leaders who went to Siliguri told us privately that Prachanda was even agreeable to climbing down on his call for a "peoples' republic" (like China) and settle for a "bourgeoise republic" (like India). And he thought it may be feasible since the public mood towards the monarchy and had become ambivalent after the royal massacre.
The more hardline of the moderate left like Lila Mani Pokhrel's Samyukta Janamorcha (United Left Front), Chitra Bahadur KC's Rastriya Jana Morcha (National Left Front), Comrade Prakash's Ekta Kendra (Unity Centre), Mohan Bikram Singh's Masal, and Narayan Man Bijukchhe's Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party believe in a republic. But they are critical of the path of armed struggle of the Maoists. They would probably find the idea of a "bourgeoise republic" a worthwhile concept. After all, it's not going to happen immediately they all just want "to work towards it".
The ML and UML still stick to the Madan Bhandari formulation of an ideology of janata ko bahudaliya janabad (people's multiparty democracy). Left analysts say it is therefore logical and just a matter of time before reunification. The ML has got weary of being in the political wilderness (it does not have a single seat in the Lower House despite having received over three percent of the national votes in the 1999 elections). Bamdev Gautam knows his party doesn't really have a future without coming to some kind of an agreement with the UML. The bargaining now is what is each side willing to give in and give up. A tight-lipped Gautam told us: "I'm not saying anything now. We have given a three-member committee our party's mandate to talk to the UML. They would know better."
The ML at present, is a national party with little political clout, and has nothing to lose but everything to gain by reuniting with the UML. The UML on the other hand needs the ML's radicalism to become a more influential political force for fighting the increasing influence of the Maoists. Both also have their eyes on next year's local elections and the general elections thereafter when they should be big enough to face the Nepali Congress on the one hand, and the Maoists on the other.
But there are still the clashes of ego and personality differences to contend with. Leaders in both parties are also wary of how reunification will affect the balance of power among the various factions in the UML. Nepal and his deputy KP Oli who don't see eye-to-eye on many issues are competing to woo Bamdev Gautam. And on the ML side, some of Gautam's supporters who think the UML has sold out communist ideology are none too happy with all this talk of reunification. Both parties would also need to take into account what their powerful student wings think. The ML faces an even bigger challenge of its students defecting to the Maoists as has happened in places like Terathum.