One can look at the present deadlock in the peace process as both sides circling each other warily, magnifying their power and reach, and build up bargaining positions ahead of forthcoming negotiations.
The past two phases of the talks have been used only for making contact, agreeing on confidence-building measures, and promising to abide by a mutually-agreed Code of Conduct during the truce. That both sides have blatantly flouted provisions of the Code is another story. The nitty-gritty issues have not yet come up in the talks, and that is the reason for the muscle-flexing before getting down to substantive political demands. Hence the delays, playing hard-to-get, the vanishing act, and sounding belligerent one day and conciliatory the next. One surefire way to put pressure on the other side is to threaten to go back to the jungle. The Nepali public has reason to be confused, and worried.
The truth is, neither side really wants to go back to war. Even the hard-nosed militaristic types on both sides know this is not a winnable conflict. But they aren't that keen on talks either, because talks are about compromise, and compromise means both sides giving something up. But neither side is prepared to do that. They don't want to derail the talks either, just delay it.
The Maoists have finally replied to the letter from the member of the government negotiating team. That letter was taken by Ram Bahadur Thapa to the leadership Delhi, and the reply took another seven days to come, probably because there must have been some discussion in the hierarchy about it. The demand to meet the king face-to-face, and follow previous agreements is a genuine attempt to make sure that the negotiations take on momentum.
The Maoist leadership is against going back to war, but it needs to keep its impatient cadres in line, as well as ensure that they are fed and occupied. So they have to sound aggressive while bending over backwards to clarify that they are committed to the peace process.
The Maoist move last week to close down the liaison office smacks of immaturity. Among the reasons given was that military intelligence was carrying out surveillance of the premises. Actually, it would be surprising if the security forces didn't have a stakeout at Anamnagar. Then, the security chaps acted in a typically ham-handed manner by abducting Bharat Dhungana, blindfolding him, and asking him silly questions. The only plausible explanation is that it was in response to complaints from well-known businessmen that the Anamnagar office was being used as a collection point for extortion.
The Maoists opened their office after they came above ground as a public relations exercise and to establish legitimacy. They really didn't need PR anymore, so the office was expendable. Besides, closing it would send urgent signals that the talks were in jeopardy and portray the government as the side that was dilly-dallying.
It is important to understand why the Maoists agreed to the truce six months ago. The Royal Nepali Army's assertion that the Maoists sued for peace because they were under pressure from its offensive is a bit hard to swallow. Of the 21 major battles during the emergency period last year, the Maoists were routed in only three: Khara, Rumjatar and Terathum.
There was some other reason, and this can only be international pressure. Internationally, the Maoists have analysed that they have to deal with three main forces: India, US and Britain. India and the United States have never seen eye-to-eye on Nepal, even without the Maoists trying to drive a wedge between them. The British, who are much more intelligent about these things, know that New Delhi and Washington working at cross-purposes would be disastrous. So, they have taken the lead in trying to forge a common position, hence the appointment of Sir Jeffrey James, the British special envoy.
It is in response to international pressure that the Maoists have shown some ideological flexibility, at least verbally, by saying that they are pro-free market, support multiparty democracy and human rights. After the last plenum two months ago, the Maoists also subtly changed their goal from 'Maoist New Democracy' to '21st Century Democracy'. However, this course-change didn't stop the extortion, intimidation and threats at the grassroots. Hence, the exceptionally strong statement by the powerful Industrial Security Group on Monday warning Maoists to stop extortion and harassment of schools, intimidation of development projects and hospitals. The group consists of the bilateral chambers of commerce and embassies of the US, UK and India and what they have to say must be taken seriously by the Maoist leadership.
Wherever the Maoist standing committee and high command is meeting presently, it is probably discussing these developments carefully. It must be re-evaluating how, although Mao Zedong's 'longterm war' has only worked in China, Mao-style socialism was a disaster there. The present strategy of frontal longterm armed struggle is obviously not going to be successful, and there will be a school of thought within the movement that this may be the time to cash in on the gains to obtain maximum concessions. If the party leadership is responsible and sensitive to public opinion, they will take that decision and start the process of rejoining the mainstream. If they don't, they will be taking this country further down the path of total ruin and anarchy.
The Maoists will have also realised by now that the Nepali monarchy has strong support from regional and international powers. It is this support that gives the king the strength to resist not just the Maoists but also pressure from the political agitation.
Every revolutionary movement in history has to deal sooner or later with the contradiction between an ideological leadership that sees the larger picture and moderates its stance as the revolution progresses, and a youthful, hardline and impatient cadre base that wants to strike while the iron is hot and damn the consequences.
Presently within the Maoist leadership, there exist three strands of opinion:
1. Look for a safe landing through a peaceful movement, give up arms if necessary.
2. Agree to change the nature of the struggle, but build on successes so far and keep the armed option open.
3. Deliver ultimatum to the government on demands and resume war if not met.
Moderate politburo members from an ideological bent would back Option One, while a majority would probably support Option Two, and there will be hardliners representing the cadre base which will want to go for Option Three.
These contradictions are usually patched over when a revolution is on track and there are military successes. But in times of crisis or uncertainty, fissures open up. It all depends how the top leadership handles the disagreement. Sometimes, as in the Philippines, there are violent internal purges of moderates. The nature of the response from the Maoists this week shoes Option Two won out.
This commentary has been translated from the Nepali original. Puskar Gautam is a former Maoist commander.