Fortune favours the brave, they say. Civil war-era (1996-2006) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda displayed high-calibre leadership in orchestrating the insurgency campaign successfully against the state till his commanders fumbled and after India came to assist the Royal Nepal Army in resisting the Maoist challenge.
Shifting from bullet to ballot showed Prachanda’s politico-military acumen that enabled him to win the first post-conflict election. His party captured votes that outnumbered the combined tally of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or CPN-UML.
Inexperienced in hardcore politics, Prachanda’s first term as Prime Minister in 2008 was short-lived as he attempted to subvert institutions of the state. For the next decade, Maoists remained in the wilderness as the No. 3 party after the NC and the UML. Prachanda tried every trick to eclipse his Left rival, former PM KP Oli’s UML, but failed as the Maoist decline was in free fall.
Prachanda got his second term as Prime Minister in a power-sharing arrangement with NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba in 2016. His presumptive third term remained a mirage as Oli refused to honour a power-sharing pact which led to the collapse of the grand Left alliance and a court intervention that ordered that Deuba be appointed Prime Minister. This restored the Democratic Alliance with Prachanda, repeating the trapeze act in realigning with Deuba.
Last November’s elections saw Maoists retain their kingmaker role, but with their lowest tally ever of 32 seats. But Prachanda claimed that he had the winners of 60 seats on his side. When Deuba dithered over the top job, Prachanda immediately jumped ship to join accidental-friend-eternal-foe Oli to become Prime Minister till the inevitable collapse of the government due to differences over the presidential candidate. Prachanda backed NC candidate Ram Chandra Paudel over Oli’s nominee Subas Nembang; the latter was defeated last week. Prachanda has held on to the Prime Minister’s chair, supported by the Deuba alliance. For Prachanda, politics is war by other means.
The developments underline the determination and desperation of Prachanda and the Maoists to stay relevant and claw back to the position of political vantage. India’s twin-pillar policy of constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy changed to mainstreaming the Maoists and democratisation of Nepal.
The modus vivendi emerging now is a more stable and battle-hardened alliance of eight parties: NC, Maoists, Madhav Nepal’s CPN (Unified Socialists that split from the UML), Janata Samajwadi Party, Loktantrik Samajwadi Party, Janamat Party and Rashtriya Janamorcha. The Rashtriya Swatantra Party, which voted for Paudel, will likely join the Deuba alliance once the passport/citizenship cases of its leader, former Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane, are resolved and he is re-elected. Oli is left with Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which stands for restoration of monarchy. It is not clear how the aspirations of Deuba (to become PM for the sixth time) and his ambitious wife Arzu Rana are to be met.
Sources indicate that Prachanda, Madhav Nepal and Deuba are to take turns as Prime Minister. Nepal has witnessed two Prime Ministers in a government, but never three. But as a seasoned Nepali journalist told me: “This is Nepal, anything can happen.”
What will haunt Prachanda is the recent Supreme Court show-cause notice regarding long-pending cases of war crimes against the Maoists. He will have to reactivate the Commission of Truth & Reconciliation and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons to meet the demands of transitional justice. Last month, while Maoists celebrated the 23rd anniversary of People’s War (many are repudiating this appellation), former King Gyanendra Shah issued a long and jumbled declaration on Democracy Day, urging the government to work with the monarchy and restore ‘Hindu Rashtra’. This year’s call is notably strident as it was made in sync with the rise of the RPP. India’s role in helping the King reclaim his aura and image will be discreet as it is beneficial for the BJP’s and RSS’s vision of a Hindu India.
The Vice-President’s election, for which all but one of four candidates are Madhesis, will be held soon, after which the Election Commission’s embargo on cabinet expansion will be lifted. Prachanda is likely to do it after obtaining the vote of confidence in Parliament. He will then reside in Baluwatar, confidently starting a new innings.
The geopolitical contest between the US and China for space in Nepal is prominently visible. US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland met Prachanda in January and praised him. Other US officials who paid visits after she hit the headlines in the Kathmandu media. Prachanda has been invited to speak virtually at the US Democracy Summit in March-end. China’s new Ambassador Chen Song celebrated the new Left alliance of Oli and Prachanda, meeting both leaders several times till the alliance crumbled, which was a big setback for China.
Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, who was Ambassador to Nepal till last year, was also in Kathmandu and met various leaders. For a change, Nepalese commentators are saying that unlike the US and China, India did not interfere in the elections; the charge of interference is traditionally levelled against it.
Prachanda has emerged as the winner because he had a clear aim: to be the Prime Minister. The lesson was learnt after the failed battle of Khara (2005), which was the turning point of the civil war and his darkest hour. He has risen from the ashes to become a charismatic leader of Nepal, admired by its youth. Prachanda could be destined to lead for full five years in the interests of Nepal’s stability.
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