Narayan Kaji Shrestha has been closely involved in the national political process as an emissary of the main Maoist party—now known as CPN (Maoist Center), a key ally of the current KP Oli coalition government—since rejoining the party in 2009. The former deputy prime minister and foreign minister talked to Republica’s Biswas Baral and Ashok Dahal about recent rumors of government change and upcoming elections, among other things, in this extensive interview.
There has of late been a lot of speculation about the Maoists pulling out of Oli government. Can you clarify the Maoist position on this?
We have been saying that in order to complete the first phase of the implementation of the new constitution we need national consensus, which in turn can be the basis for a government of national unity. When I speak of the first phase of implementation of the new constitution, I mainly hint at the need to complete all three levels of election—local, provincial and federal—in the next 20 months, as envisioned by the new constitution. We have in fact been raising the issue of a government of national unity since the time of Sushil Koirala as prime minister. Yes, there can also be national consensus on policies; and not everyone has to be a part of government. But when you look at our political culture, it will be difficult to establish such broad consensus without a government of national unity.
We fear that if the elections cannot take place on time there will be serious questions over the legitimacy of the new constitution. This is one reason we want a government of national unity: to hold these elections on time. The other reason is that we do not feel this government has completely honored the spirit of the 9-point agreement that saved it. It is for these two reasons that we have been advocating for a unity government.
Does the Maoist party want to see immediate formation of government of national unity or is it prepared to wait for a while?
We believe that if we are serious about our national interests, there should be no delay in formation of such a government. But I want to clarify that our priority right now is not government-change but progress on key national issues. There are four main issues.
One, we need to complete the remaining tasks of the peace process. We have already completed integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants. With the promulgation of new constitution, we have also institutionalized the political changes. But the third component of the peace process, that of transitional justice, has not made desirable progress. If this last part of the peace process is left incomplete, it will raise a big question mark over the sanctity of the whole peace process.
Two, we need meaningful talks with the protesting Madheshi and Tharu communities, again to create proper environment for the three sets of elections. Three, there has not been satisfactory progress in helping earthquake victims. Four, we need to strengthen the base for our national sovereignty and then take the country on the path of peace and prosperity. It is for all these reasons that we want a unity government.
I would also like to clarify that we are open on who gets to lead such a government. If Congress says it is ready to form a unity government under KP Sharma Oli, we are okay with it. If CPN-UML says it is ready to join a government of national unity under Congress, we are okay with that too.
What we are saying is that given the difference between Congress and UML, it is practical to ask the leader of the other major stakeholder in the peace and constitution process to lead such a government. But again, we are open to other possibilities.
On the basis of what you have said, can we infer that your party won’t look to replace this majority government with another majority government?
Again, I want to clarify that the above-mentioned agendas are our priority. That being the case, only a government of national unity will help us achieve those goals. I also want to clarify that we are not in favor of changing government for the heck of it. The country has already witnessed enough political instability due to constant government changes. So we will continue to work towards a unity government.
But if under no condition can a unity government be formed, we will be forced to explore other alternatives. But right now we are not in favor of these alternatives. Right now our focus is unity government.
Some senior Congress leaders say the Maoists need to first withdraw its support to Oli government to show that they are serious about government change this time. Congressis were given a rude shock last time, weren’t they?
As I said, our focus is not replacing this government at any cost. We are more focused on national agendas. That is why we are telling Congress leaders not to think of a new government that excludes UML party. We are telling them that we are ready to join a unity government under Congress if the UML also agrees to it. We are requesting Congress to be open to the possibility of a government that includes at least the forces that were responsible for bringing the new constitution. What did or didn’t happen in the past is thus really immaterial.
Concerning the concern of Congress, what made your chairman make a U-turn from his decision to unseat Oli government?
I believe there has been some misunderstanding. At no point did our party say that it was looking to form a government under its leadership. What we instead said was that since Congress was now ready to form a government under Maoist leadership, it would have been nice if UML also supported such an initiative. This is what we told UML leaders. Likewise, we told Congress leaders that we would get absolutely nowhere if we alienated UML and that the UML party also needed to be taken into confidence.
When we later sat down with UML leaders, they expressed their total commitment on completing the peace process and working towards formation of a government of national unity. So we decided to continue to back the current UML-led government.
Like I said, we are still in favor of at least the political forces behind the new constitution to continue to work together for its implementation.
Congress decided that it would no longer work with us. If we alienated UML too, we were worried the whole constitutional process would come under jeopardy. So it was a question of priorities.
Senior Maoist leaders claim that along with the 9-point official agreement there was also a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with UML. What was that gentleman’s agreement?
I find it strange when the so-called ‘gentleman’s agreement’ is discussed publicly. If everything could be written on paper and openly said, why did we need the gentleman’s agreement? And if there was a gentleman’s agreement, why speak about it in the public rather than quietly work towards its implementation? So I don’t want to create hurdles towards implementation of formal, informal agreements by openly speaking about the gentleman’s agreement.
There are rumors that UML will hand over government leadership to the Maoist party after the passage of the annual budget in the parliament.
Even if we go by what top UML leaders have said in public, UML is not averse to a government under Maoist leadership. They have said that if Congress is ready for Maoist leadership, UML too is open to the idea, especially if it paves the way for the formation of a unity government. This being the case, I don’t know why we should endlessly discuss the gentleman’s agreement.
As you said, the issue of transitional justice is important for your party. Would it be right to infer from this that top Maoist leaders are afraid of being prosecuted for war crimes?
That would be a wrong way to understand the issue. It’s not about whether individual Maoist leaders are under the risk of prosecution. It’s more about whether the Nepali state is ready to once and for all end the protracted peace and constitutional process and move to a new phase of lasting peace and economic development. What you also have to understand is that the issue of transitional justice didn’t suddenly appear in the recent 9-point agreement. We had also emphasized this when we decided to first support UML-led government. But it is true that we were not completely satisfied with progress on transitional justice. Since the signing of the 9-point agreement we have seen some progress on transitional justice, but there is still some way to go.
It is said that Pushpa Kamal Dahal cancelled his scheduled Australia trip as he feared arrest there for war crimes. Was that the case?
That is not true. He didn’t go for a different reason. What you have to understand is that in today’s day and age, you can lodge a legal complaint against someone virtually anywhere in the world. So maybe some force that is against the Maoist party filed a legal complaint in Australia as well. That does not mean the Australian government had completed all legal procedures and decided on arresting our chairman. Let us not blow the issue out of proportion.
One reason the Maoists backtracked from their decision to unseat PM Oli, some said, was because there was an agreement between UML and Maoists to go into next electoral cycle by forming a formal alliance.
Even before the promulgation of new constitution on September 20th, 2015 there had already been an understanding among the four major parties that government leadership should go to UML after the constitution was finalized. This was why we were morally bound to support KP Oli’s claim to prime ministership. It would not be right to infer from this that we are thinking of a formal electoral alliance with UML. Our priority right now is completing the first phase of implementation of the new constitution and we are ready to work with political parties of all persuasions, not just communists. Moreover, we are yet to come up with a concrete electoral plan.
Talking about elections, there are now so many communist forces in the country, including that of Baburam Bhattarai. How will CPN (Maoist Center) try to differentiate itself while asking for votes?
I don’t think any other party can match our progressive credentials. Nepali Congress has always been hung up on parliamentary democracy. UML, too, cannot own up recent changes. In fact, PM Oli recently admitted that federalism was not a UML agenda. Our party on the other hand is the main force behind the progressive changes that have now been institutionalized by the new constitution. Republicanism, federalism, secularism, proportional representation and social justice: these are all our agendas. So we will now go to the people asking for their continued support in order to further strengthen these progressive agendas.
Second, if you analyze party support based on class, the core constituency of Congress is comprised of the hereditary, traditional feudal classes, bureaucrats, crony capitalists and upper echelons of the middle class. UML, likewise, is a communist parliamentary force, whose core constituency is comprised of some portion of the traditional elites, upper middle-class and a portion of the downtrodden classes. For us, our core constituents are laborers and peasants, plus a section of the middle class. So all three major parties have their core constituencies.
On Baburam Bhattarai’s new force, he has abandoned the Marxist path. If he thinks his agenda of national prosperity will find many takers, he is mistaken. Because there is already a section within the Congress party championing the same agenda. Likewise, there are plenty of social democrats in UML. Meanwhile, those from the civil society who are now associated with the new party have all been tried and tested. So what’s new about it?
For all these reasons, our party is different and it still is a formidable electoral force.