Manushi Yami Bhattarai was in a jeep up in Gharwal on Saturday afternoon when she got a call from her father, the Maoist ideologue and Nepal’s former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. He told her did not want her to get a shock after hearing from other sources - and broke the news. He would, in a few hours, quit the Maoist party and resign from parliament.
Manushi was stunned. The Maoist party was not just a regular party for the Bhattarai family - it was their life. The family was underground through the years of the Maoist insurgency, moving around small towns and big cities in India and sporadically spending time in base areas in Nepal, living separately to avoid to being spotted. Her mother, Hisila Yami, was a prominent leader and a former minister. Manushi herself took on other identities when she went to small schools in the Indian hills, and college in Delhi and had been active in student politics. This was a big moment.
Bhattarai called a press conference on Saturday afternoon and announced he was quitting the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), a force he had helped build, as well as resigning from Parliament. He said an era had ended with the constitution, but he was deeply regretful that Madhesi and Tharu concerns had not been addressed. A constitution through the CA had been a political line he had pushed but the fact that half the country was not celebrating the promulgation had dampened the occasion.
An academic revolutionary
Bhattarai is one of the most striking figures of Nepali politics; his story is the story of the last twenty years of Nepali history.
Bhattarai got increasingly radicalised during his time in India, while studying in Chandigarh and later in Delhi’s JNU, when he saw the state of Nepali workers in India. He organised the students and working class, got involved with Nepali extreme left platforms back home against an autocratic monarchy, even as he finished a PhD on Nepal’s underdevelopment in the 80s.
While Bhattarai participated in the 1990 movement for the restoration of democracy, he and his then party objected to the constitution that emerged as a compromise between the king and democratic parties. Instead, they demanded that the constitution must be drafted by a Constituent Assembly and monarchy be given no space.
Subsequently, Bhattarai joined another radical left party led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. The two men together decided to launch a People’s War in 1996. Its political and economic rationale was laid out by Bhattarai in a seminal text where he documented how Nepal was ‘semi colonial’- under the political and economic grip of India - and ‘semi feudal’, and only a revolution could liberate the oppressed.
Such a political project was dismissed as a fantasy in a post Cold War World but it came rather close to fruition.
Prachanda was undoubtedly the mass charismatic figure, the organisation builder, the supreme leader and the man who commanded the loyalty of the Maoist fighters on the ground. But Bhattarai was the political mind who drew up the party documents, conceived of the need to expand the party base by including the issues of oppressed ‘nationalities’ or ethnic minorities and Madhes, and build relationships with those outside the party fold in the media, civil society and international community. The two men had more than their share of tensions, but recognised they complemented each other.
The party grew, but Bhattarai was the first to recognise that a traditional style communist republic was not feasible, and war alone would not lead to the republican political transformation he sought in Nepal. Even as large sections of his party, including Prachanda, flirted with the idea of allying with an autocratic monarch, Bhattarai pushed the line of a ‘democratic republic’ - the party would give up the war, adopt constitution through a CA as its primary line and republic as its core goal. In this quest, he deepened relations with other parliamentary parties and India.
When the king took over absolute power, and Maoist suffered a military setback, Prachanda came around to this view. And the roots of a peace process were planted.
This much can be said with reasonable certainty. If Nepal was able to arrive at a peace settlement and manage a respectable political deal to end the conflict, Bhattarai deserved a large path of the credit for conceiving it.
A new phase began as the party emerged overground. Bhattarai was now key to building relations with the international community. He helped draft the peace accord and the interim constitution of 2007. In 2008, Maoists won a surprise victory and Bhattarai became the finance minister and won accolades for his performance.
But there was another ideological battle to wage. One section of the Maoists may have entered the peace process, but still entertained hopes of a ‘people’s revolt’ and mass uprising to establish hegemonic rule. They saw India as the main enemy and adopted ultra nationalist rhetoric. They wanted to get rid of the CA and engineer a regime crisis or a regime takeover. Prachanda often flirted with this school of thought - and his attempt to sack the army chief in 2009, which led to the collapse of the Maoist government, was an attempt to cater to this constituency.
But Bhattarai could see the pitfalls of this approach. He disagreed with the ultranationalist line - for he saw the future of Nepal in good ties with India. He was committed to peace an constitution line - for he saw this as the way to create an inclusive political order and then work on economic prosperity with equity. For a substantial part of the last decade, Bhattarai fought the adventurists in his own party - and tried to get Prachanda on board.
Eventually, he succeeded and even became the Prime Minister with the support of the Madhesi parties. The peace process - integration and rehabilitation of former combatants - was concluded under him. But the CA failed to draft a constitution and he resigned to pave the way for a neutral election government.
The resentment and future
The Maoists did badly in the second CA elections. But Bhattarai managed to become the chair of the critical CA committee on political dialogue, with all top leaders as members. This was a unique vantage point to manage the constitutional process.
The constitutional debates in Nepal deepened over the past year on both process - issues like form of government and federalism - and substance - whether to go consensually or two third majority. The Maoists and Madhesis were in an alliance and pushed the consensus route. But a deadlock persisted.
The earthquake changed everything. Prachanda used the tragedy to alter his politics, broke the alliance with the Madhesi parties and signed on to a political deal where the question of federal demarcation was postponed. Bhattarai too was an active part of this deal. He later claimed in a conversation with HT that he had held out till the end, and wanted to bring the Madhesi parties on board - but was overruled. The fear that the constitution itself would get jeopardised prevented him from pushing harder.
In fact, this has been Bhattarai’s argument for the past month. As the constitutional process moved forward, he - as the head of the key CA political committee - actively participated in it. Yet, he expressed reservations at the nature of the constitution which entrenched elite rule and discriminated against Tharus, Madhesis, women, Dalits and other groups.
I asked him repeatedly in this period why he was not asserting himself vocally. Bhattarai felt that as someone who had pushed the CA line, he could not be seen as preventing its success or walk out at the climax. The fear that he would be held responsible if something went wrong may have also weighed on him, since he was at the helm when the CA-1 had failed. He also thought it was important to institutionalise the republic and secularism. Marginalised groups did not buy the argument.
Bhattarai did not celebrate when the constitution was promulgated even though Prachanda said it was Deepawali. He told HT on Wednesday many mistakes had been committed - including by his party for not standing up for the agenda of the marginalised as strongly as it should have. Bhattarai wanted to visit Janakpur in Madhes to express solidarity but Madhesi parties told him he would be greeted with deep hostility, for he was seen as a part of the bloc of leaders which had signed the constitution and even pushed its adoption, the regrets notwithstanding. If he wanted to come, he should quit the party. Bhattarai’s support base also comes from the Madhesi MPs in his party who were angry at Prachanda’s stance.
The immediate crisis has of course come in the backdrop of Bhattarai’s long running tensions with Prachanda - who last week told an interview only he knew how he had ‘tolerated’ Bhattarai for 30 years. Prachanda appeared to view Bhattarai as someone with a superiority complex because of his education but little political weight; the latter viewed Prachanda as a petty pragmatist an opportunist with no ideological spine. But both also needed each other. And it was a remarkable competitive-collaborative partnership as long as it lasted.
It also comes in the backdrop of Bhattarai floating a debate about the need for a ‘new force’ - for he strongly feels that the relevance of the Maoists as it exists is now over, especially with the end of the CA. Inclusive democracy and economic prosperity are his new slogans. During a recent visit to Delhi, Bhattarai made it a point to meet Arvind Kejriwal to think of ways of doing alternative politics.
Bhattarai’s decision also comes in the backdrop of a fresh debate on nationalism in Nepal, on the question of relations with India. Bhattarai believes in resisting Indian overreach, and at the press conference, criticised any unannounced blockade by Delhi to push its views on the constitution. But he is also committed to ‘progressive nationalism’ rather than jingoistic and hypocritical nationalism that pervades much of Nepali polity where politicians abuse India in public and seek favors in private.
Quitting a party and setting afresh is not easy for any leader. Bhattarai’s decision is also at a time when Nepali politics and society is deeply polarised - and it is both a challenge and opportunity for him to become a bridge. But the real historical significance of Bhattarai’s decision is that an era has ended in Nepali politics. The Maoist party, as we have known, is over.