Kathmandu’s elites cannot seem to understand who these people are. But talk to the cab driver, waiter, vegetable seller, small shopkeeper, slum dweller or construction worker and you will get an idea of who may dominate the streets from Saturday.
There has been coercion in the process of mobilisation. But the Maoists have essentially tapped into the three core contradictions of Nepali society – ethnicity, class, and space (Kathmandu versus the rest). They have deployed their cadres; capitalised on the rage of those on the periphery; and channelised popular discontent against inflation, power cuts, corruption and insecurity, for which Madhav Nepal has been projected as solely responsible.
The party leadership knows that violence will invite a backlash and they have tightened up the command structure. Their assessment is that if they can cripple the country for 4-5 days, influential elites and residents will pressurise the government to go. Other assumptions include NP and APF being worn out, NC and UML not having the stomach for a prolonged stalemate, NA staying in their barracks, and India intervening in favour of consensus. This would then totally stamp out the possibility of a right-wing drift post-May 28, which the Maoists are genuinely concerned about.
For its part, the government has framed this as a question of protecting the state’s integrity, constitutionalism and democracy. They have highlighted Maoist extortion, use of violence, and portrayed the movement as one aimed to ‘capture the state’. The idea is to sound reasonable – look, we are willing to give up, but the Maoists are not committed to democracy.
A core group of ministers, which includes hardliners like Bijay Gachhedar, Bhim Rawal and Bidya Bhandari, will monitorthe situation and respond accordingly. A tough cop, Ramesh Kharel, has been given charge of Kathmandu. And NA has been asked to be prepared.
The government’s initial premise was that the Maoists were bluffing and would not be able to mobilise. Now, their assumption is that these are only party workers and not the general public; citizens will turn against the Maoists for disrupting their lives; and the Maoist base of daily wage labourers will soon tire. If the state can stand firm for a few days, this argument goes, the Maoists will be ‘exposed’ and have no choice but to compromise.
In reality, the government is on the back foot. Unlike the Maoists who have reached out to social groups directly, the government has relied on the media to put forth its version. Madhav Nepal’s suggestion that there should be a third candidate instead of Prachanda or him has given the Maoists a major perceptual and psychological advantage, for implicit in the statement is the PM’s lack of faith in his own government. The carefully constructed case that the Maoists must transform before they can be allowed back to power lies in tatters, and the non-Maoist camp rhetoric is reduced to ‘anyone but Prachanda’.
If NC-UML stays inert, the Maoists will claim victory. If they act strongly through NP and APF, the Maoists will cry repression. If they call in the army, they will be overshadowed by a strong military establishment which will come out after credible guarantees from Delhi. And if they do a deal right now, the Maoists will have the upper hand. The strategic short-sightedness of the ‘democratic camp’ is truly astounding.
The Maoists do not have it easy either. They will struggle to find a right balance during the agitation. They have to escalate sufficiently to generate pressure on the state, but if they go too far, it will invite a full-blown conflict that they do not want either.
The party will have to answer some very difficult questions internally and externally. How much will be enough? What if the government doesn’t blink for a week – do you turn more violent? How do you arrive at a consensus, which will involve giving up certain demands, when street passions are at their peak? If a non-Prachanda led government is the only solution even then, what was the utility of the movement in the first place? And what if NA joins the fray?
The ideal scenario is a package deal by Friday or even Saturday night, that allows Maoists to convert the crowds into a victory procession and send them back home. Positions will only get more entrenched as the movement progresses. But perhaps a round of limited confrontation is inevitable, to break the stagnation and stabilise the balance of power.
[First published in the Nepali Times.]