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Rise of the red rebel

A red star has risen over Nepal. From being a guerrilla leader fighting bush battles, Prachanda, who is poised to be Nepal’s President, may well change the contours of subcontinental geopolitics, writes Anirban Roy.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2008 04:40 IST
Anirban Roy

A red star has risen over Nepal. A party that was underground until two years ago, waging a bloody ‘people’s war’, looks all set to rule the Himalayan country. The leader of this political force, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the man most likely to take over as president, is Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

But despite the global attention on this rare feat by a Communist party in this post-Berlin Wall world, he is a leader about whom little is known. Dahal, known better to the world by his nom de guerre Prachanda (meaning ‘the fierce one’), was born in December 1954 in Dhikurpokhri village of Kaski district. Hailing from a Brahmin family that traces its roots to the Chitwan district, he holds a BSc degree in agriculture and has worked briefly on a USAID project. He became the general secretary of his party in 1986, when the outfit was called the Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal). But this is where the personal information peters out. But there is a lot that can be said about the effect he has had on the region’s history.

Coming up for breath

The Maoist insurgency began with just two countrymade guns and a dozen-strong cadre. It expanded exponentially by waging a janayuddha (people’s war) that took advantage of Nepal’s poor governance, its feudal agrarian structure, and continued economic backwardness.

The radical reforms suggested by the Maoists struck a chord and the movement came to control nearly 80 per cent of the country.

During the years of the janayuddha, the price on Prachanda’s head was higher than that on Osama bin Laden’s today. King Gyanendra announced a reward of Nepali rupees 5 million (About INR 31 lakh) for his capture, dead or alive. For five years, the then Royal Nepal Army and the Interpol hunted for him — but with no success. Prachanda stayed underground till he finally surfaced on June 16, 2006 of his own volition, after King Gyanendra had been deposed.
At the time he surfaced, the police did not even know what he looked like. The only photograph of his in their files was more than a decade old.

Change of heart

Today, Prachanda has a chance to radically reshape his country’s polity and economy. Will he really follow the Maoist agenda he earlier propounded? The matter is of immense importance to India. One of the key demands in the 40-point charter Prachanda had presented in 1996 to the then prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, was abrogation of the 1951 Indo-Nepal Treaty, which he felt was inimical to Nepal’s interests.

But Prachanda has shown a capacity to accommodate other viewpoints. Not many had expected his truce with the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), which has come to rule Nepal after Gyanendra was forced to step down, to last even this far. Ideologically, his Maoism has little in common with parties like the Nepali Congress. But the truce has endured yet.
When there were differences, such as the one over the electoral system to be followed, Prachanda and prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala resolved them across the table.

Prachanda probably realised that the only way to get a foothold in Kathmandu — even though he controlled most of the countryside — was with the support of the mainstream parties, and not by taking them on.

It was Gyanendra’s shortsighted belligerence in taking over absolute political power in February 2005 that paved the way for the Maoists and the mainstream parties to fight together. While signing the 12-point pact with the SPA, the Maoists even changed their strategy from revolution to democracy. It’s not yet clear whether it was a genuine change of heart or a tactical move for seizing the moment.

What’s known for now is that while the other political parties were busy running the interim government and savouring their power, Prachanda and other senior Maoist leaders silently continued to work closely with the poor and the dispossessed of Nepal, setting up party units in every village and preaching the doctrines of radical socialism. This sustained indoctrination of rural Nepal has now yielded its results at the hustings.

His country, his way

That day is not far when Gyanendra and his family members will be commoners. Moreover, Nepal has also transformed itself into a secular state. And, everyone is eulogising Prachanda for democratising the political set-up and giving Nepal a new vision and a new political structure.

There was a time when the Pakistani ISI approached him with the proposal to “support” the movement. But the communist soldiers did not acknowledge the Pakistani offer, and continued with the struggle unaided and with paramount intricacy. Prachanda’s extension of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in Nepal’s political context is known as ‘Prachanda-path’. For now, that seems to be the way ahead for our Himalayan neighbour.