Prashant Jha’s much awaited book Battles of the New Republic will be launched in Kathmandu next week. He spoke
to Nepali Times about the background to the work.
Nepali Times: What prompted you to write Battles of the New Republic?
Prashant Jha: While I was writing my weekly column on the Tarai and later Nepali politics in Nepali Times, sometime in 2009, I realised I had a lot more to say. I had a story to tell about the people of the plains – Madhesis, Tharus, Muslims, Dalits, Pahadis – and their place in the Nepali state structure, their angst and churning. I realised that Madhes could not be seen in isolation from the political history of the country – of the Panchayat years, of the 90s, the Maoists, India’s role, and the larger peace and constitution process. The book continued to expand and take a life of its own, eventually emerging as a personal account of the entire political transition.
Were your interviewees open in answering questions?
I remained a reporter and commentator through the process of writing this book. So a lot of my journalism over the past six years or so has fed into the book. I was fortunate enough to have access to almost everyone across Nepal’s mainstream political spectrum (except the former king, though I did speak to his aides) and key officials in the Government of India – both in MEA and RAW. This helped in providing diverse accounts of the same episode, enriching the book. I deal extensively with the Maoists, and conversations with Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai at key moments are littered across the book; so are testimonies of Madhesi leaders and activists. Some interviewees were reserved, many were open.
You write about the role Indian intelligence played in micro-managing events in Nepal, but some may say that on balance the book sanitises their role?
That is an unfair criticism. If Nepal’s ultranationalists are expecting this to be a blind India-bashing book, they will be disappointed. And if India’s cheerleaders expect the book to turn a blind eye to Delhi’s role and mistakes, they would be disappointed too. I think the book carefully chronicles India’s role, including that of the agencies. But I don’t think RAW can be looked at in isolation – it operates in a complex political eco-system and Nepali politicians are enmeshed in it; it is also only one of the stakeholders in a complex Indian governance framework. I have tried to bring out new details about why RAW – according to officials serving then – was engaging with the Maoists even when the government termed them terrorists; I have documented RAW’s role in government formation processes. I have been critical of India’s policy at key moments. But I have also recognised India as a central actor in Nepali politics, which has enormous leverage, which played a hugely positive role in 2005-06, which is often dragged in to domestic battles by our own netas, army, media houses, and business lobbies.
What would be your advice to the Maoists in order to reinvent themselves?
The key reason for the Maoist decline is they got sucked into the same political culture they ruthlessly criticised through the 1990s. Central Kathmandu’s hawa is toxic – you start doing the rounds of Singha Durbar and there, the same factional fights, the same corrupt deals, the same lust for ministerial offices infect you, at the cost of everything else. And you lose touch with the base and with the aspirations which brought you to power in the first place. This happened to both Maoists and Madhesis, who suffered from one additional problem – the permanent establishment was deeply hostile to them, and was waiting to entrap them.
Readers may feel pessimistic about Nepal's future. But would it be correct to say that you are actually optimistic?
You are right. I am optimistic. Nepal has gone through multiple transitions – from monarchy to republic, Hindu kingdom to secularism, from unitary to a potentially federal state, from an exclusivist sense of nationalism to inclusive citizenship, from an army under the king to an army under civilian government in principle – in a compressed period of time. Yes, the day to day governance paralysis is utterly depressing. And the emerging conservative backlash is worrying. But I believe that the big story of the last ten years has been the deepening of democracy.
Times of war and peace Anurag Acharya