Former prime minister and ex-Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai is these days busy spreading and strengthening the organizational base of his Naya Shakti Party, which he founded in July 2016. He believes old political forces are incapable of bringing about the kind of complete socio-economic transformation that will help Nepal become a first-world country, and hence his new party. A federal MP from Gorkha, Bhattarai is also a close observer of Nepali economy and foreign policy. Biswas Baral and Kamal Dev Bhattarai caught up with him to discuss the performance of the Oli government, Naya Shakti and the recent split in Bibeksheel Sajha Party.
How do you evaluate the performance of the Oli government that has now been in place for over 11 months?
The government presented some statistics in the parliament and claimed significant progress in different areas. That could be partially true. But people expect more than gradual changes. They want a quantum leap from an under-developed, backward economy to an advanced one in the shortest possible time. By that yardstick, the government has failed.
What in your view accounts for the government’s poor performance?
There could be several factors. First, there is the question of political vision. The political leadership should have an objective and scientific vision to guide the country to a certain goal within a given time. The prime minister makes vacuous statements, and does not seem to have a concrete vision, plan and program. Second, our political leaders were good at leading political revolution and making political sacrifices. But I think they lack the expertise on economic, social and international issues in order to pursue a viable plan for the country’s development.
But even if our political leadership do not have those qualities, they should be able to mobilize the talents in the country. Why not have a team of experts to advise on crucial issues? Third, our political leaders have made huge sacrifice in their life, and spent several years in jail or underground. By the same token, they felt they had the liberty to rule as they pleased. This led to bad governance and rampant corruption. Because of these factors, the government has been unable to deliver.
Earlier you talked about making a quantum leap. Could you elaborate?
We are still a least developed country with a per capita income of around $1,000. The world average is about $10,000. We are way behind the rest of the world. To make a leap from third world status to first world status, you need rapid economic development. In my understanding you should have double-digit growth for at least two decades to make that jump. That is the quantum leap I was talking about.
But that has not been possible in the past three decades. What makes you think we can achieve that now?
Earlier, our agenda was political revolution. As we could not complete our revolution in one go, we had to make repeated attempts: in the 1950s, the 1990s and again in 2006. We spent most of the past half century on different phases of political revolution. Now, with the promulgation of the new constitution, this political revolution is over. We have an elected government with a two-third majority. Now, it is time for the political leadership to deliver on the economic front. It is possible if there are concrete vision and plans.
How do you see the emergence of new political forces like Naya Shakti, Sajha and Bibeksheel?
With the start of the 21st century, people were saying we had entered a phase of the fourth industrial revolution, brought about by digital, biological and economic revolutions. So old ideologies and political forces are not going to work. We will have to devise a new political program, and we need new political parties to carry out the new agenda of the new political era. In that sense, we are trying to build alternative political forces that will go beyond the dogmas of capitalism and communism.
With this view, we started the Naya Shakti Nepal party. Bibekshel and Sajha also came up. What happens in history is that at the start of a new phase, different tendencies and groups sprout. Ultimately either they coalesce or one of them swallows the rest. In Nepal’s case, two Nepali Congress parties were established at the same time. Ditto with our first communist forces. Even in the case of the regressive royalist party, two Rastriya Prajatantra parties were established on the same day. New alternative political forces will also follow the same rule.
Why do you think the Bibekshel Shaja Party split? Is it part of the same evolutionary process you talk about?
Yes. My contention is that Bibeksheel and Sajha were based on different political and ideological planks. Their political backgrounds were also different. In my understanding, Bibeksheel leaders were more innocent and committed youths who wanted to develop a new political force through people’s movements and campaigns. Therefore, they attracted the educated youth. On the part of Sajha, old professionals and retirees came together and thought that would be enough to create a political force. Even after the split, with good guidance, these two parties could be a part of the new political firmament, a viable third force we are trying to create.
Our party Naya Shakti Nepal started on a firm ideological and political ground, with a five-point principle of equitable development, participatory democracy, good governance, balanced geopolitics and participatory socialism. Unfortunately, since we had to face elections within a year of the party’s formation, we could not spread our organizational roots in rural areas, and in urban areas the space was already occupied by other forces. In the next election, there will be a repolarization of political forces and we will emerge as a strong alternative force to the NC and the NCP
In a separate context, the UN and some countries with representatives in Nepal have come up with a joint statement on the TRC process. What is your take?
Our TRC is basically a home-grown process based on political consensus. It stands on the back of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the interim constitution and the new constitution. But yes, it is about time we completed the protracted peace process.
As a member of the Maoist movement and an active participant of the peace process, I am also concerned about the delay. But I wonder why the international community issued such a statement in haste. I think there was no need to get worried that way. We are on the right path.
There are voices that the TRC Act should be amended in line with the Supreme Court order.
We should be guided by the CPA and the new constitution. They are the main documents. Thus the TRC process should be completed within their framework. The role of the judiciary and other bodies is only to interpret these provisions. If there are loopholes, there is the parliament to plug them. There is no other way: you have to go by the constitution and the CPA. And this is the right path. Otherwise, there is a danger of the whole process falling apart, with serious consequences for the country.
As a former finance and prime minister, can you tell us why the national economy is in such a bad shape?
The government lacks clear thinking. When I spoke in the parliament, I told them you should dare to discard the garb of communism. I still believe in Marx and many of his principles, especially his critique of capitalism. But he was critiquing a post-capitalist society. Nepal is in a pre-capitalist stage and transitioning into capitalism, and in this phase you have to promote private investment, both internal and external, and industrialize rapidly. This is the root of the problem. Nepal’s communists have to recognize it.
Do you think the Oli government’s foreign policy has been on the mark?
I think it has been quite immature. Given our geopolitical reality and the fast-changing regional and international dynamics, we need a new foreign policy suited to the current context. That means a policy that takes into account the interests of India, China and the US. These three major forces have considerable interests in Nepal and these interests are likely to clash in coming days. We should formulate our foreign policy with this on mind.
Of course, we should have good relations with all three countries. We should follow a pacifist policy that promotes national, regional and world peace. Maybe we can even propose Nepal as a peace zone. Though this issue had been raised by King Birendra, there was no question of peace in an autocratic system. Now, if we pursue this policy sincerely it is achievable. It will also be the best way to preserve our sovereignty and independence, and to embark on the path of peace and prosperity.