"Inclusion must be ensured to avoid conflicts"

Bhai Raja Pandey is a political adviser to Naya Shakti Party Nepal Coordinator Baburam Bhattarai. He had served in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for almost three decades before retiring from the service in 2011. Pandey, who holds a Master’s degree from Yale Law School, had worked in various capacities for the UN agency in Thailand, Pakistan, Iran, South Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Angola, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Ram Kumar Kamat of The Himalayan Times talked to Pandey about the prospects of the NSPN and some other socio-political economic issues. Excerpts:

Why did you choose to join Baburam Bhattarai-led Naya Shakti Party Nepal?

I joined NSPN because it is a new party and it is led by a seasoned politician like Baburam Bhattarai who has dedicated his life for the betterment of the country. The country needs a new direction as the old political forces have failed to address the issues the nation faces.

Bhattarai was my classmate at Amrit Science College (1970-72).  He was also one of the most brilliant students to step into that College.  We had become friends after we met in Delhi where we both pursued postgraduate studies. He had the reputation of being one of the best finance ministers.  I also knew him as one of the most courageous and dynamic prime ministers during his short tenure. So I thought he ought to be my natural ally if I wanted to influence policy making in the country.

When I floated the idea of collaborating with Baburam to help reshape the destiny of this country, sceptics seemed to appear from nowhere.  Conspiracy theories were enunciated that were ruthlessly accusative. I could hardly recognise a nation — the birthplace of Buddha — where one would think fair play would be the norm. Charges of him being an Indian (RAW) agent, of having killed thousands of people, of deserting the Maoist Party, were glibly levelled as if they were the truth. I noticed that speculation, suspicion and character assassination had become a national pastime. It made me sad, but convinced me to join the Naya Shakti Party Nepal for the simple reason that it was new and therefore offered unlimited possibilities, including that of clamping down on the now highly developed national psyche of irresponsible rumour-mongering, thought and action.

There is too much negativity and polarisation in the country, and if these are not checked in time, they can only create rifts in society.

NSPN,  so far, is synonymous with its founder Baburam Bhattarai. It is established that he is one of those willing to die for the country. Baburam is different. He had the chance to choose whatever he wanted in life anywhere in the world but he chose to come and fight for the country and took on the establishment including the then Royal Nepal Army.  He has miraculously survived.  Evident in his persona is an unparalleled courage and dedication to the task of nation building. If he was concerned about his own well being, he could have lived in luxury because he had the whole world open to him.

A track record of this man deserves closer scrutiny. He took decisions that no one in Nepal had dared in demolishing structures in Kathmandu that belonged to the rich and the powerful. He built roads that made Kathmandu more liveable.  This is said to have directly saved thousands of lives during the last earthquake.

How do you look at the transition of Bhattarai who fought an armed insurgency for a decade and now follows a totally different ideology?

Bhattarai believes the agendas of Maoist insurgency have been fulfilled as we have established a republican order and we have been able to give power back to the people. There is not much left in Maoism to achieve now. If you look at China and Vietnam, you find that they too are semi-capitalist countries. So Bhattarai realised that was the end of the road and he left the Maoist party. He now follows the agenda of inclusion, good governance and progressive socialism and he now believes these are goals worth pursuing.

Some view Bhattarai’s advocacy of the rights of marginalised communities, particularly of Madhesis and Janajatis as divisive. What is your view on this?

These groups need to be heard as they have been ill-treated by successive governments of Nepal. Without inclusion, we cannot move further. Modern conflicts have been fought on ethnic grounds, so inclusion must be ensured to avoid conflicts. If we fail to take the marginalised communities into confidence, we will have internal strife.

Many criticise NSPN and Baburam saying they too are the same old force? How do you respond to this?

Baburam’s vision for the country is outlined in the Naya Shakti Website.  The vision is based on what he thinks should be the party’s goal in the immediate future.  The goal of economic prosperity for all is perhaps not very unique as this will be the goal for all political parties that will contest the coming elections. Only Baburam, however, has a track record to claim the ability to deliver on the promises he makes, including that of economic development.

The second aspect of his vision relates to proportional representation.  This is unique to NSPN and also its biggest strength. Most modern day wars are fought on the issue of non-inclusiveness.

The civil war in Somalia that I witnessed first hand was fought due to the exclusion of some ethnic groups by the then president Saied Barre.  The Civil War in Syria was also fuelled by the exclusion of majority Sunni population by the Hafiz Al Assad regime.  The examples are endless.  In Nepal, given our geography and our ethnic diversity, we have no choice but to include everyone in the task of nation building however difficult it might prove to be.

The third goal is that of good governance. Governance is a serious problem in Nepal.  People in the government have always given the impression that they are the bosses and the people they serve are the slaves.  This is the experience of anyone who has been to a government office to get anything done.  Corruption too is endemic and has been institutionalised.  It is nearly impossible to get anything done without paying bribes.

The fourth goal is to protect Nepal’s independence and sovereignty.  This would normally not be an issue except for the fact that the country is geographically placed between two hugely powerful countries — China and India. India believes that Nepal is within its sphere of influence and therefore has the right to exercise control over it. China, on the other hand, is much more of a global player and is quite happy to leave India in-charge in Nepal, except for its economic interests represented by the One Belt One Road policy.

Nepal’s days of playing India and China against one another are over.  The result is that Nepal has to use all of its political and diplomatic skills to keep both countries at bay. Stupidly, the Nepali hill population has been taught to look down upon Indians to emphasise Nepali nationalism. This attitude has negatively enveloped the people of Indian origin in Nepal.

The fifth goal is progressive socialism that probably translates to mean avoidance of extreme disparity in the incomes of people. Nordic countries in Western Europe fall under this category. They pay very high taxes and are among the happiest people in the world. The importance of this objective requires no elaboration.

NSPN has given the slogan that prosperity is possible in our lifetime. How can the party achieve this goal?

If there is a goal that we cannot achieve in our lifetime then it is not worth pursuing. We are the country that was left behind. Our neighbours have taken off. We can achieve a lot if we ensure inclusion and check corruption. Inclusion restores harmony and prepares grounds for economic development as it integrates communities. I am for punishing those who use derogatory terms against another community. Even labelling anybody as pro-India or pro-China should be punishable. Racial remarks should also be punishable.

Corruption is endemic in our country. If we can check corruption, our country will automatically be able to achieve a lot of socio-economic goals.

There are some who say NSPN has the same old faces and hence it cannot act as a new force. How do you respond to this criticism?

NSPN’s attraction is precisely what its name suggests — it is the new power.  It is a hope for the future. It is open, and inclusive.  It takes risks. It has a vision that is unique in that it will forever change the destiny of this country. It is founded on commitment beyond any doubt. It will follow through its pronouncements at all costs. It is young, dynamic and vibrant. It will be an inspiration to all those that approach it.  It is not constrained by the past of its individual members. Neither is it bound by the signs and symbols of the past. It will find innovative ways to meet all the present day challenges.  It will accommodate all new comers provided they too leave all their past behind.  It will remain new eternally.

How does NSPN want to address some specific concerns of the citizenry in an innovate way?

Youngsters in our country, anxious about jobs, are leaving the country in droves as slave labourers to the Middle East and South and South East Asia. Our girls, similarly, are escaping to an uncertain future in India, Africa and the Middle East. To control this exodus, there is need to facilitate the start-up of small businesses, particularly those in IT sector and provide them with tax holidays, help enhance productivity, invest in innovation, design and build public houses especially for the poor and displaced and subsidise skill development for the unemployed.

As far as health services are concerned, the services are external-dependent, the health information system is overloaded and there is a problem of retaining health workforce in rural areas.

NSPN will decentralise health services to the local health authority. We will ensure safe pregnancy and make medicines available. The emphasis will be on community public health programmes which will reach all at an affordable cost.

Health services will be made less reliant on external funding and more dependent on domestic resources.

As far as energy issues are concerned, we are an energy-starved nation.  Lack of energy has hampered our overall development. We have harnessed less than 1 per cent of Nepal’s electricity potential.  The consequences of this on Nepal’s economic and social development have been disastrous.

The NSPN undertakes to work towards ensuring the equivalent of 35 KG LPG for cooking per capita per year from liquid and/or gas fuels or from improved supply of solid fuel sources and improved cooking stoves. This will move us above the poverty line in energy. We will improve the conditions for private investments in power plants and fix tariffs that encourage efficient electricity use.

As far as education is concerned, NSPN will insist on higher attendance and retention of girls in schools, allocate more resources to education and make teaching career respectable by making the pay comparable to engineers and doctors.

NSPN will also provide heavy emphasis on e-learning. This is ideal for Nepal since not all children can attend regular schools. They can study at any time from home or in libraries, or community centres. Internet environment also allows students to enroll in foreign universities.

As far as the environment is concerned, Nepal faces major environmental challenges due to deforestation, urbanisation, overgrazing, indiscriminate use of pesticides, population growth, river and air pollution.

As far as empowerment of the marginalised communities is concerned, NSPN will ensure implementation of laws against discrimination, enable the discriminated with access to resources, protect their language and culture, ensure their representation at all levels of decision-making and allow for the control of territories and resources in their areas of origin.

Similarly, public service has become synonymous with corruption and inefficiency.  Qualified and talented individuals are choosing other professions.

NSPN will seek to attract dynamic and young professionals to public service. We will make the service rewarding for them in terms of emoluments and social standing, particularly if they are willing to go to rural areas and provide service to the nation.

Nepal’s roads and topography makes travel difficult, dangerous and expensive. This affects rural population in remote areas who need to physically travel to the cities to access government services.

To redress the situation, NSPN will move the country towards digitisation so that government services become available to the rural population online. This will do away with the need for individuals to travel to government offices and will make decision-making faster, more transparent and will reduce corruption.

Why do you think the CPN-Maoist, which gave the slogan of empowering the marginalised community, suddenly gave up this agenda?

I think they believed that they could not sustain their agenda. The international community was also against the party and there was too much fighting within the party. These are the reasons why the CPN-Maoist Centre gave up  much of what they fought for.

The CPN-UML  appears to be championing the old form of Pahadi nationalism and Madhesis fear that this will victimise them. What is your view on this?

They have a well-founded fear. It is very easy to blame our neighbouring countries or Madhesis.

There are many who easily link Madhesis’ struggle with India. We cannot blame India for everything. Madhesis are demanding their national rights and therefore it is unfair to blame Madhesis. Madhesis have not demanded anything different from what the communities demand in other countries.

What are your views on identity based federalism?

We cannot have one Madhes province because a powerful India can influence that one Madhes province, but all other issues relating to identity such as language and culture should be addressed.

They rightly say that representation should be based on population because they want to come to power and there is nothing bad about it. Those who believe that India wants to promote Madhesis are wrong.

Since we have India on our southern border, we need to have dialogue with India on the key concerns they have. I think they are concerned about the possibility of our open border being misused by wrong elements.

Are you satisfied with the role of the intelligentsia in politics?

Not at all. They criticise people all the time. It is easy to criticise, but the most important thing is you become part of the change. They should take up the call and join politics.

Bhattarai often emphasises harmony among the three major ethnic groups — Madhesis, Janajatis and Khas Arya group. What is your view on this?

That is the right approach. If we fail to live in harmonious relations, foreign forces will play one group against another. Things could have been different if the framers of the constitution had taken more time to finalise the draft of the constitution.

We could have taken a few years more to promulgate the constitution.  Had that been the case, there could have been no or very little resentment against the constitution.

I see a danger of ethnic strife if the constitution is not rectified. The Constituent Assembly should have formed a group of experts to draft the constitution. Those who prepared the draft were not competent to do the job.