Interview with Shyam Shrestha: This leftist electoral alliance will move towards unification

When KP Oli stood against the unofficial blockade that India imposed on Nepal, his public approval soared. This is the sort of thing that the public can relate to and appreciate

Dec 11, 2017-Shyam Shrestha is a highly respected left-leaning thinker who earlier was the editor of Mulyankan Monthly, a magazine that provides a widely followed forum for leftist and democratic debate. In this interview with Mukul Humagain and Kamal Dev Bhattarai, Shrestha makes clear his belief that the new government of the left alliance will usher in a new era of economic development that others have failed to achieve. Shrestha, however, cautions the left alliance government that development should not come at the cost of social justice and democracy. One piece of advice he has for the new government is that a decision regarding the amendment that is currently on hold in Parliament should be expedited so that the Madhesi issues don’t stand as an impediment and the minority population doesn’t get the feeling that the new CPN-UML-CPN (Maoist Centre) government is insensitive. 

The UML and the Maoist Centre (MC) have both performed well in the recent elections for the federal parliament and the provincial assemblies. Can this performance be attributed to the formation of a left alliance just before the elections?

Past instances show that Nepal has a tendency to lean towards the left. Let’s take the elections for the Nepali Constituent Assembly in 2008 as an example. There was considerable infighting amongst leftist forces while contesting for elections, yet they still managed to attain 62 percent of the votes. In the following elections in 2013, despite continual disagreements between leftist forces, they still managed to get 52 percent.

Now the formation of a leftist alliance has also put forward an image of stability. Nepalis desire a stable government. We have seen ten government changes since 2008. People are of the view that perhaps with parties forming an alliance and possibly uniting, there will be more stability and less changes of government. 

On top of all of this, the Nepali Congress (NC) did not present the public with a clear cut agenda that could have garnered them support. Perhaps if the late Sushil Koirala was the president of the NC, it would have been enough to sway the public. However, with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba at the helm, the public were a bit wary of casting their votes for the NC. His past has been less than stellar, with the monarchy wresting control from the state under his premiership. 

The fourth reason is that, despite having had the most state control out of all the parties, the NC has still not managed to make any concrete progress. In contrast, the leftist parties had state control for about nine months, yet they managed to make some positive changes. For example, the country was experiencing power cuts that lasted 18 hours a day, and it was under the state leadership of the leftist parties that this problem was dealt with and constant electricity was provided. And when KP Oli stood against the unofficial blockade that India imposed on Nepal, his public approval soared. These are the sort of things that the public can relate to and appreciate. 

Do you think that this alliance between the leftist forces will eventually lead to a unification of the concerned parties?

If either the UML or the MC had undermined each other in any way during the elections, then it would have created a rift. For example, there was a distinct possibility that the UML supporters would not vote for the MC candidates and vice versa. However, this did not occur and the relationship was only strengthened by the electoral support shown to each other. 

It also seems that there is minimal opposition to the unification of the two leftist forces from within the parties at this point. Of course, some are not in favour of this unification, but dissenting voices are few and far between. So I feel that this alliance will move towards unification. 

What could be the issues that could stand as obstacles for the larger left unification?

The major issue to unification will be the ideology behind the two forces. On the one hand, the UML seeks to uphold an ideology based on the theory propounded by Madan Bhandari that is called People’s Multiparty Democracy. On the other hand, the MC seeks to propound the ideology of Prachanda Path as an enrichment of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism. So how the two forces will assimilate these two ideologies will be a major issue to contend with. There are differences between the two forces, and so they will have different views on the path to take for progress in Nepal. 

Another big issue is that of the management of party forces. Cadres have to be managed by the leadership in a way that there are no disagreements at the ground level. If this is not given due consideration, then unification will be in jeopardy. 

The history between the two forces has also been one peppered by violence. Both parties have suffered in the hands of each other. In order for unification to truly occur, this history must be put in the past and both parties have to settle their grievances to move forward in unity. 

Power sharing is also an important issue that had to be addressed if unification is to be achieved. leftist forces will have to formulate a means to share power that satisfies both parties. 

Is the issue of ideology secondary to power sharing at this juncture?

Ideally, ideology should be the main basis under which parties function. However, in this scenario, power sharing definitely trumps ideology. That is the reality of Nepal. If the issues of power sharing and ideology are addressed, then everything will fall into place. 

The left alliance promised the Nepali public stability and prosperity during the elections. Do you think they will make good on their pledge?

This pledge of stability and prosperity is easy to make but difficult to uphold. Now that the left alliance has obtained a majority, it is time for them to show that they are committed to their pledge. Former governments have brought prosperity, but not in an inclusive manner. Villages and rural areas, and the poor and marginalised have been left out of the agenda for prosperity. 

Nepal functioned as a feudal system for centuries, and it is no easy task to depart from this way of functioning. For the country to truly turn into a federal, secular republic with a democratic system of governance, it will take time and work. And this government has to figure out how to realise this system at all levels. 

I am hopeful that progress will occur. Particularly because KP Oli is a figure who, despite his many faults, makes good on his promises. If he says he will do something, then he delivers. And Pushpa Kamal Dahal can make extremely bold decisions. Such leaders are necessary if developments are to be made. 

The manifestos of the left alliance have various pledges that are impossible to achieve. For example, the pledge to produce 15,000 MW of electricity within 10 years. However, there are others that can be accomplished. For example, an agricultural and industrial revolution, development in villages, and boosting employment in Nepal. But in order to achieve these visions, the government has to be committed. 

It will be difficult for the leftist forces to deliver on these promises, but it is possible. They will be assisted by various things. For one, Nepal’s intelligentsia can help with development to a huge degree, and they are willing to do so. For another, the Nepali people are incredibly nationalistic and resilient. This was shown by the way they stoically bore the difficulties presented by the unofficial blockade imposed by India.

And finally, our two neighbours, China and India, both have a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate that is above 7 percent. If we can establish a stable and mutually profitable relationship with both these countries in a balanced manner, then we can benefit in a great many ways. 

There are fears in some quarters that the left’s aggressive pursuit for growth could lead to serious compromises on social justice. There is also a fear that if the alliance holds for a long time, it could result in an authoritarian rule.  

I have no worries in this regard. The leftist forces afford civil liberty as much, if not more, importance as the so-called democratic alliance does. They helped to establish this civil liberty, and if they do anything to impede it now, they would be undoing decades of their own struggle. And another thing is that in-party democracy in the leftist forces is greater than that in the NC. For example, in the NC 50 percent of the candidates are picked through elections and in the leftist forces, 100 percent of the candidates are picked through elections. The leftist parties also allow a greater voice for cadres within their party. I believe that the leftist forces are actually more democratic than the NC. So I have no fear that democracy will be impinged by leftist forces. 

While I don’t see our government turning into an authoritarian one, I do see a possible problem in the arrogance of leadership within the leftist forces, particularly with Prachanda and Oli in power. However, the leftist forces have to understand that there are many other knowledgeable and capable leaders who can help in the running of the state. They have to solicit advice from such leaders regardless of their party affiliation if they truly wish for the country to progress. For example, Pradip Giri is in the NC, as is Gagan Thapa. Both could offer great assistance. 

As the leftist forces come into government, they have a number of long-standing issues to contend with. Madhes-based parties and many minority leaders within the large parties, for example, still want amendments to the Constitution to address issues of inclusion. How can this particular problem be addressed?

The new government has to address issues raised by minority groups as soon as it assume office. Whatever has happened in the past should be left in the past; the new government should start on a clean slate and quickly make inroads to establishing participatory democracy.

The UML refused to back the constitution amendments that would have allowed greater inclusiveness. They now need to rethink their stance. If they refuse to do so, conflict may arise in the future. The Madhesi forces believe that there is a division between the Tarai people and the hill caste groups. They believe that those in the hills seek to tamp down the rights of those in the plains. Madhesi rights activists such as CK Raut will not be silenced. If their grievances are to be addressed, the state has to address problems of inclusion and institute participatory democracy. Dialogue has to be opened between the government and the Madhesi forces to push constitutional amendments.

The issues raised by these minority groups, whether they be from Janajati, Madhesi, Tharu, or Muslim communities, are about greater political space. And they should be given this political representation on a basis that is proportional to their population. 

We are now formally in the process of realising a federal republic system of governance. That clearly means our government and political parties will have to move towards uncharted waters. What are the biggest challenges before them now?

Corruption is the biggest problem in Nepal. It has to be addressed. The general public, political parties, bureaucrats and leaders all have to tamp down on corruption. Now, instead of looking for economic gains, we have to work towards upholding democracy. Governmental mechanisms such as the Commission for Investigation for Abuse of Authority (CIAA) have to be put into the hands of strong people with morals and integrity, who are committed to democracy and upholding the constitutionally stipulated rules and regulations.

Second, a consistent foreign policy that all parties are on board with has to be established. Successive governments have been at odds with foreign policy priorities, and so very little progress has been made on this front. If consistency is established, then great inroads can be made. 

On a related note, now that we have a government with a leftist-majority, do you think our proximity with China will deepen at the cost of our ties with India, as sections of the Nepali population believe? 

Our southern neighbour has made it clear that it does not view the leftist alliance in a particularly favourable light. Now, there are rumours circulating that China pushed the two leftist parties to form an alliance. However, this is not true. This alliance was formed because the parties themselves realised the necessity of doing so. 

Both India and China are ramping up trade. Now that China has introduced the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), it is looking to expand its trade worldwide. And if Nepal wishes for development of its infrastructure, such as hydropower, roads and railways, then being a part of the BRI will most certainly help. India has to understand that Nepal will do what is most beneficial for the Nepali state. And just because Nepal has develop closer relationship with China, it does not mean that India will be given any less of a priority. Nepal wishes for cordial and mutually beneficial relations with both China and India, but ultimately we will have to do what is in our best interest.

Published: 11-12-2017 07:51

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