Monday, October 31, 2011

NC shifts strategy to counter ‘misperception’

KATHMANDU, NOV 01 - A series of positive statements on the peace process in the past one month reflects a tactical shift in negotiation and public relations (PR) strategy adopted by the Nepali Congress, which, the party leaders hope will counter the party's 'obstructionist image.'

The new approach stems largely from conviction among the NC leaders that a generally positive approach in public presentation on matters related to the peace and statute drafting processes will help claw back the party's 'unfavourable' image.

NC leaders say they have now realised that the Maoists have all along handled themselves extremely well before the media, when in fact they were pushing for tough bargain in the actual negotiations. This has led to the grand old party, which prides itself in leading the charge in 'numerous democratic struggle', being presented in negative light.

"We will be extremely amenable to fulfil the public aspirations for peace and constitution," said NC President Sushil Koirala, speaking briefly at the Maoist tea reception in Kathmandu on Monday--hours after attending negotiations among the three major parties.

The remarks are part of NC's careful strategy to get the public messaging right in a bid to avoid being seen as a 'status-quoist,' according to NC leaders.

"We are very serious about completing the peace process," said NC leader and a member of the Special Committee, Minendra Rijal. "But we haven't done enough to present ourselves favourably in the press. So we thought this is the right time to be proactive."

The new efforts come amid a growing perception that the Maoists were doing more to complete the peace process despite strong opposition from hardliners among them. This has earned the former rebels some accolades among the international community--especially after the Maoists handed over the keys to arms containers on September 1.

"In our meetings we have been telling NC leaders to be more amenable," said a Western diplomat last month.

A February 2009 US embassy cable dispatched from Kathmandu on the eve of US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher's visit to Kathmandu also sheds some light on how the NC was perceived even among countries that had been critical of the Maoists in the past.

"The GON (Government of Nepal) has made little progress on the wider peace process, and bickering within and among the political parties has not helped matters. The opposition NC party complains about the Maoists' lack of implementation of previous agreements, especially returning seized land and reigning in the YCL, and other parties even within the ruling coalition share the complaints. Nevertheless, the NC tends to appear as obstructionist more often than not."

NC leaders say that they are aware of these perceptions and that they are now doing more to counter it.

"Our public presentation of the peace process has been flawed for quite sometime," admitted NC leader Gagan Thapa, who along with others, has advised the party leadership to do away with "too much negativity" in public remarks. "It has done quite a lot of damage to our public standing."

NC President Sushil Koirala is said to be convinced that adopting a 'non-obstructionist' approach on the peace process coupled with an increase in engagement with the Maoists will ultimately help the NC's image. A semblance of progress in the peace process also provides a useful diversion from NC's internal problem for Koirala who is under strong pressure from the Deuba camp for unilaterally dissolving the party's sister wings.

However, NC leaders make clear that the positive vibes in the media, in part, come as a reciprocation of the Maoist gesture rather than a 'unilateral action.'

The party president's point-man on the peace process, Krishna Sitaula, argues that it is the 'change of heart,' among the Maoists, particularly Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai that drives his party's response.

Even party President Sushil Koirala feels that Dahal and Bhattarai will have to be encouraged to take the peace process forward. Koirala has publicly prodded Dahal to act as a statesman and take risks to take the peace process forward. If the peace process is concluded, NC, too, gets the credit, and if polarisation within the Maoists leads to a split within them, the party benefits equally, goes the thinking, according to some NC leaders.

"If you look at the negotiations, there hasn't been any substantive change in our positions," said NC leader Rijal. "Maoists say they are serious about completing the peace process. Even if it's their bluff, it is high time we call their bluff."

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