“Who was it, a Hindu or Muslim?” was the first question a shocked and agonized Lord Mountbatten, the first Governor-general of free India, asked when he was informed that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. He was horrified by the probability of deadly Hindu-Muslim clashes and riots in case the assassin was a Muslim. The panic and grief stricken Briton, who was also a friend and admirer of Gandhi, sighed with relief when he learnt that the assassin was a Hindu. Honest politicians fear social conflicts, while deceitful ones fuel them.
Prachanda may not have read the works of Mahatma Gandhi or, for that matter, even that of Mountbatten the way he has read the teachings of Marx and Mao. That is why he asked the activists of ‘single ethnic identity based provinces’ (SEIBP) to retaliate when they visited him a few days back to press for their demands. They had gone there to seek the Maoist chairman’s support to federalize the nation along mono-ethnic lines, naming each state after a single ethnic group. In response, Prachanda urged them to counter the people agitating against the concept of SEIBP. At a time when communities are bitterly polarized on the issue of SEIBP and when both sides are agitating, the duty of a leader - possibly the only one capable of influencing the situation – should be to call for restraint. Unfortunately, he did just the opposite.
Although Prachanda also added that the counter should be ‘peaceful’, it wasn’t enough to make his provocative remarks any less damaging, given his focus was on confrontation. It seems that Prachanda, a rebel leader who launched a decade-long bloody guerilla war that claimed over 17,000 innocent lives, hasn’t changed much either in mindset or method. He is still suffering from a hangover of the conflict. He may have been successful as the leader of a regimented, secretive and underground revolutionary party, but he has a long way to go before he can become fit to be the leader of a pluralistic order and of a heterogeneous people with divergent interests, aspirations and claims.
If Prachanda truly believes that since SEIBP is his party’s agenda there is nothing wrong in toeing that line, he is wrong for several reasons. First, with a large number of people cautioning against the dangerous consequences of SEIBP (such as perpetual inter-ethnic clashes and the eventual disintegration of the nation), he should have reflected on it with a cool and non-partisan mindset. Second, the fact that an overwhelming majority of people are against SEIBP (as revealed by all opinion polls and public discourse) should have been an eye-opener for him and his party. Despite this, if Prachanda, for tactical reasons, wanted to side with the lobbyists of SEIBP, he should have assured them of his support and at the same time advised them to lobby with Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML as well. Along with that, he should have urged them to show restraint and respect the rights of the rival group. Had he done so, he would have won their support without antagonizing the other side. He, however, missed the opportunity.
Prachanda has proved to be a shrewd politician; he fooled not only the likes of King Birendra and Girija Prasad Koirala but also the Indian establishment, and benefited a great deal. His craftiness, however, has often proved counter-productive and his recent advice to Janajati activists is likely to be one in that series. In a free society and open political order, merely the skills to be able to trick others are not enough or even warranted; people expect their leaders to talk and act responsibly. They don’t expect the most central and influential leader of the country to urge an agitated lot to counter another restless group, especially in front of TV cameras. Prachanda, during the last few years, has been acting with an eye on the chair of the President of this country. Therefore, even if it was an election game rather than an unintentional slip of tongue, the calculation will cost Prachanda dearly. For example, if thinks he can afford to forgo the anti-SEIBP lobby or Khas vote-bank to secure the votes of Janajati and Madhesi communities, as the two along with his party’s vote-bank will guarantee a comfortable majority for him, he is mistaken.
First, such a polarization will prolong, if not perpetuate, the dangerous ethno-communal divide now emerging in the country. This will not be in the larger interest of the nation or society; and, in the long run, will certainly not be in the interests of Maoists either. Why should the communities that covet to be rulers by liberating themselves from the ‘240 year long rule of the Khas elitists’, vote for an ethnic Khas Bahun like Prachanda? Why they should not have their own candidate for the high office? And when there is someone from their own community contesting, they will certainly vote for him/her - typical of identity politics. When two major communities - Madhesis and Janajatis - go with their own candidate, Prachanda has little chance of winning any election. With respect to his party’s internal dynamics, even if he succeeds in securing the support of his arch-rival Mohan Baidya, which is extremely difficult in the first place, he won’t be able to do the same with hardliners like CP Gajurel and Netra Bikram Chand. Their faction is almost certain to announce a parallel candidate, even if the party miraculously escapes its inevitable split before the election. The faction is also likely to boycott any poll, whether it is for the President or Parliament. In either case, it will severely downsize his vote.
When communities are bitterly polarized on issue of ethnic federalism and both sides are agitating, the duty of a leader should be to call for restraint.
The Baidya faction suspects the party establishment will not honor its commitment towards SEIBP. In fact, this faction would want this to happen sooner than later so it can seize the opportunity and get the support of various ethnic fronts of the party. There is no denying that during the latter half of their armed rebellion, the Maoists reaped great benefits from identity politics which they founded and fuelled to revitalize their ‘people’s war’ that was getting weaker. Therefore, however disastrous the course, they cannot backtrack easily for fear of backlash. You reap what you sow - as the saying goes - which is what will eventually happen with the Maoists. There is every indication that the politics of identity they sowed will now go beyond their control. Inter-party caucus of Janajati Parliamentarians has been dictating major political parties on matters pertaining to state restructuring.
Maoists have been fuelling these developments but however, once the state restructuring is complete, such tactics will be used by the ethnic lobby against their party leadership. They will be able to dictate Prachanda on every issue. Similarly, the unruly and violent nature of the recent 3-day long strike called by various pro-SEIBP groups in which even the powerful media industry was targeted, was an early sign of this symptom. Violence, particularly inter-ethnic, doesn’t spare anybody. Maoists may soon be at the receiving end of the threat. Prachanda should recall what happened to his cadres in Gaur, back during the Madhes uprising.