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Coming round the mountain

The irony of the impending Maoist electoral victory in the Nepalese constituent assembly led by this man, Prachanda, never ceases to amaze, writes Amaresh Misra.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2008 22:35 IST

He was once criticised by his party for his fondness for momos. Along with the regular Gregorian calendar that we all follow, he also uses the Hindu Shaka calendar. He is a Maoist who has beaten all Marxist-Leninists to emerge as the leader of the world’s first elected far-Left party.

The irony of the impending Maoist electoral victory in the Nepalese constituent assembly led by this man, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, never ceases to amaze. This was a force that every communist and democratic formation of the subcontinent had written off as a ‘bunch of anarchists’. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) — the CPN(M) — was, in fact, painted as yet another terrorist outfit.

But Nepal had not yet given its verdict. The pro-democracy movement in 1990 had ushered in the concept of a multi-party democracy in this landlocked, feudal country where bourgeois impulses were weak and where monarchy flourished. But as years went by, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) — CPN(UM-L) — the two mainstream parties in the country, were unable to address the people’s concerns. The power of the king was curtailed, but a move to impose constitutional monarchy was shot down as the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) became ambitious and the king too became a willing tool in the hands of the United States, which was keen on building Nepal as a buffer between India and China. The RNA-backed monarchy started clawing back to power in a bid to regain privileges lost during the pro-democracy movement. The pro-democracy mainstream parties, with no armed cadre to respond to the violence unleashed on the Nepalese people by the Palace-RNA combine, felt helpless.

It was at this point in 1996 that the Maoists stepped in. Realising that pro-democracy parties had been taken for a ride and were becoming irrelevant in the new situation of counter-revolutionary offensives, they retired to the villages, jungles and hills to mobilise the Nepalese peasantry. At first, the Maoists did not have weapons either. During the 1990 pro-democracy movement, they were part of the general ‘Left impulse’, which had laid emphasis more on mass movement than on armed struggle.

Adopting classic Maoist tactics of capturing arms from the enemy, Nepal’s Maoists captured the Dang barrack of the RNA. Now they had enough arms to last for four years. In February 2005, when the bloody palace coup installed King Gyanendra on Nepal’s throne with covert American and overt RNA backing, democratic rights and the parliamentary process were suppressed. The people of Kathmandu and those of Nepal’s villages were overwhelmingly against the official version that Prince Dipendra committed the massacre. As pro-democracy parties vacillated, the Maoists came up with the firm political slogan of abolishing the monarchy, restoring democratic rights and setting up a national people’s republic. This stance struck a chord as it was widely believed that Gyanendra was a usurper. The monarchy had lost the reverence and support of the people like never before.

The Maoist strategy worked. In the post-February 2005 situation, Maoists were the only power taking the RNA and Gyanendra head on. Yet, this was clearly not enough. Despite leading a backward, feudal-bourgeois State, the Nepalese ruling clique was part of the new post-9/11 global environment. The Nepalese ruling clique, fighting against the Maoists that the US perceived to be a ‘terrorist group’, had the support of Washington in terms of arms, material and ‘advice’. The sounds of fights in the hilly villages of Nepal between the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and RNA forces echoed in India and even in Washington.

But Nepalese Maoists were fighting a different kind of ‘people’s war’. Following the new far Left path of Prachanda, the CPN(M) and the PLA stopped being confined to isolated areas and the grassroots. Their anti-feudalism had a village-level character as well as a national-mainstream character. The restoration of democratic rights and the removal of the monarchy remained the final political target of the armed struggle. The CPN(M) was also being perceived as a ‘patriotic force’ by a growing number of Nepal’s people.

Prachanda declared a unilateral ceasefire when in 2006 Gyanendra was going to address the United Nations. The move robbed Gyanendra off propaganda value against the Maoists. After that, the Maoists showed tactical flexibility in suspending their armed struggle, and started engaging the mainstream parties in a dialogue. In the process, they started to show a willingness to become part of the mainstream democratic process, proposing a whole range of options including participation in direct elections to a new constituent assembly, and even the merger of the PLA in a new Nepalese army.

Within the overall ambit of abolishing monarchy, the Maoist position kept changing as per the demands of the situation. They even accepted to be part of an interim government under the present king. This assured middle-class support. Criticising VHP leaders from India like Ashok Singhal for visiting King Gyanendra in the name of ‘firming up Hindu glory’, the Maoists appreciated the anti-Gyanendra stand of the UPA government. When Prachanda visited India in 2006, several far-Left organisations actually believed that he was here to cut a deal with the Indian government.

Prachanda and his cadres have a long-term strategy in mind. The CPN(M) states that the major reason behind the collapse of the Left movement in the 20th century was the failure of various communist parties in power to guarantee constitutional-civil rights to the people. Thus in Marxist terminology, the CPN(M) while retaining its militant character, stood for a ‘strategic commitment’ to a competitive multi-party democracy even after the revolution.

The implications of this innovative and yet orthodox strategy can be huge in our neighbourhood. Nepal’s electoral results have caught many in India — the government and our own communist party leadership included — on the backfoot. For India, the strengthening of democratic traditions in Nepal can only augur well. Never mind the pessimists who will hedge their bets by saying that ‘it is too early to say’.

Amaresh Misra is a historian and political analyst