The latest statement by Maoist Chairman Prachanda tells us three noteworthy things:
. If the government is willing to sit down and resume talks, the Maoists are also ready to come back to the table anywhere, anytime.
. They also appear willing to consider taking part in elections, provided there are provisions for an interim government, and on mutually agreeable election procedures.
. The Maoists are ready to forge a working partnership with all "pro-people" forces against retrogression for the complete democratisation of the Nepali polity, and to join the political mainstream.
What Prachanda doesn't say clearly in his statement is whether the "agreed election procedures" should be for a constituent assembly, or for parliament. The Maoists themselves must give the authentic and final explanation about what they mean. But I believe that since they have recently declared their readiness to drop the proposal of a constituent assembly for now, they will settle for the government agreeing to an interim government and a referendum.
This is the first time that the Maoists have been so positive on the question of elections under the present regime. This is a sign that Maoist tactics have changed since their plenum in early July. However, this is not the first time the Maoists have hinted that they are willing to put their demand for a constituent assembly on hold. That was the message in a letter to all seven major political parties before the dissolution of parliament. They said that they were willing to come to a common agreement if all parliamentary parties agreed to bring the army under the command of the elected government, in order to make the present bourgeois democracy "fully" democratic. Prachanda's 18 July statement appears to be a continuation of that line of thought.
The Maoists had also suggested a constitutional provision might be needed to conduct the referendum. This could mean that the Maoists may now consider in a very positive light the insertion of a referendum amendment in the constitution. This is the Swiss and Scandinavian model, where any provision of the constitution can be changed at the will of the people. It could provide a basis for taking the country forward through a democratic political process. This will make the Nepali people truly sovereign, which the Maoists believe they are not now.
It also shows that if other political parties agree to this change and make it their main election platform, and if the government can assure free and fair elections, there may be hope of a peaceful end to the present political crisis.
All these factors would also force the Maoists to reconsider their stated objective of destroying parliament, and instead be forced to look upon that institution in a more constructive light.
Before the dissolution of parliament there was the possibility of dialogue in parliament with all political parties which had been trying to find a way out of this quagmire of violence. But because parliament was hurriedly dissolved (perhaps because the government got wind of such a dialogue) the emerging alignment was pushed to the backburner.
The dissolution of parliament brought the new possibility of elections to the fore, but it also dispersed the emerging alignments between political parties. The most recent Maoist overtures may therefore be motivated by a desire to bring to the fore and restart the process that was sidelined. The other factors that must have weighed in on the Maoists decision to make the conditional offer for talks could be a change in India's attitude towards them, and the possibility of the American military turning Nepal into a proxy zone.
With elections in November, Nepalis are in a Catch-22 situation. The country would lose by not letting the elections take place, but the likelihood of being able to hold free and fair polls does not exist.
The government's presence is non-existent in more than half the country, making it impossible to set up polling booths. Even if they were established, the possibility of people coming out to vote is slim.
These developments make it necessary for the parliamentary parties to take the recent Maoist proposals seriously. The rebels have committed serious mistakes in the past, but this is an opportunity for peace that politicians of all hues must grab. The conflict can only have a negotiated political solution; there is no military way out of this. Such a decision could open the doors through which the nation can be steered towards peace. The cost of not taking this chance could be very high. The Maoists have bent a little, the political parties must respond in kind.
But the government has rebuffed the Maoists\' overtures. The big question is: Does the government have its political ownership in its own hands? Its demand that the rebels hand over their arms and apologise is unrealistic, and demonstrates a desire to continue to wage war, for any reason. No strong rebel group in the world would sit down for talks after surrendering weapons. And why would the government talk with a rebel force that has already surrendered its weapons? Although the Maoists may be feeling the pressure of the security forces' actions, they do still hold sway over large parts of the country.
The UML could have an important role to play here. Unfortunately, the UML has taken the status quo stand that parliament should not be re-instated, and naively believes that the security forces can ensure a free and fair election for them. The UML leadership is under the illusion that despite the dissolution of parliament, the dismantling of local bodies, and suspension of civil liberties, it can still win a majority.
The only way to defend the achievements of the 1990 people\'s movement, stop retrogressive and foreign reactionary forces in their tracks, and seek peace and progress through talks would be for the UML, the institutionalised faction of the Nepali Congress, the political parties of the dissolved parliament, as well as the Maoists themselves to be united as a single struggling force.
It would have been up to the UML to forge such an alliance. That would have been the true test of its leadership: a visionary role of carving a path out of this crisis. But the UML has shown that it is opportunistic and incapable of looking beyond short-term power interests. It must rise above such pettiness at a time when democracy and the country's future are under severe threat.
(Shyam Shrestha is the editor of the monthly magazine Mulyankan.)