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Uneasy lies the head

The Maoists, whether you believe in their ideology or not, have dragged a country still stuck in a feudal ethos into the democratic age, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2008 22:31 IST
Lalita Panicker

Kathmandu: The bejewelled crown with its distinct bird of paradise plumes is now in the custody of the Nepal government. Citizen Gyanendra, formerly known as the living avatar of Vishnu and the last ruler of the 240-year-old Shah dynasty, has been chauffeur-driven into history. The Maoists, whether you believe in their ideology or not, have dragged a country still stuck in a feudal ethos into the democratic age. So the question that both the Nepalis and wary neighbours like India ask is: what is the course that Maoist leader Prachanda and his comrades have in mind for the desperately poor nation?

Alas, the answer is as hazy as the monsoon skies over the enchanted Kathmandu Valley. The Maoists want it all: the posts of President, PM, the works. But they are prepared for temporary compromises. The Nepali Congress of the 83-yearold Prime Minister G.P. Koirala is not willing to roll over and play dead. The Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist is up in arms over the authoritarian manner in which the Maoists are going about their business. The only hope is that if the people could muddle through all these years, they will come out on top this time too.

Prachanda is quite clear that his party has the right to rule and that — eventually — he himself should take over the reins of the new republic as a French-style President. Oh, and the PM, too, will be from his party. He thinks nothing of the fact that as in all democracies the other political parties also want their share of the pie. Then there is the small matter of who has the majority in the Constituent Assembly. The Maoists certainly don’t. They make up the largest single party. But the others could easily outvote them by ganging up. It speaks of a degree of political naiveté that Prachanda feels that Koirala should assume a role akin to Sonia Gandhi in India. Either he doesn’t keep up with the politics of the neighbourhood. Or he is willing to concede a role of extraordinary power to Koirala.

The Maoists have been more than accommodative to the former king, allowing him a sprawling and gracious residence and providing suitable residences for his family members. This has been viewed as a signal that they do not intend to be vindictive. But their economic agenda is woolly and has left many confused. They have talked of raising the per capita income of Nepal where the majority survives on less than a dollar a day to $ 3,000. And how will they achieve this ambitious goal? ‘We’ll get back to you on that’ seems to be the answer. Their cadres were brought up to think that with Prachanda in the saddle, Nepal would be a communist haven. Now the Maoists, Prachanda included, have begun to sing another tune. Capitalism, unbridled if need be, is the route to communism, the cadres have been told. Many Maoist leaders, including Planning Minister Hisila Yami, seemed disproportionately pleased at the fact that the US has signalled its approval of the manner in which the Constituent Assembly proceedings were conducted. So the party is caught in a cleft stick. It has to chant the capitalism mantra to lure investors; but it can’t jettison its extreme ideology if it wants to hold its rank and file together.

The fact that they are uncomfortable with the hurly-burly of a democracy is mirrored in their policy towards the media. Time and again, top Maoist leaders have threatened the press for ‘overstepping’. The party has also gone into the media business in a big way with numerous journals and pamphlets propagating the World According to Prachanda.

The fear is that if the Maoists fumble, there is no Plan B. A return to monarchy is out of the question, the people won’t accept it. The Maoists will not cede ground to any other political formation, and neighbours who matter like India and China are maintaining a studied silence. The former elite is smouldering with resentment and businessmen are getting restless. Yet, the Maoists have gone little beyond threatening to take to the streets if things don’t go their way.

The first sign that realism has dawned on the Maoists is their reluctant acceptance that the President’s post could go to a non-political intellectual. But they add the caveat that the post will be ceremonial. It is now that the Maoists are beginning to realise that the revolution is over as is the past, and they have to put their money where their rhetoric is.