As Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ takes over as Nepal’s Prime Minister on Wednesday, for the second time in seven years, he can look back at a remarkable life - of accomplishments and failures, of joy and frustration, of receiving adulation and being the object of hatred, of inflicting violence and striving for peace.
Prachanda was born in the family of a farmer, with marginal landholding, in Nepal’s mid-hills. Like many other hill-origin families, they moved to the Tarai, in his case Chitwan, for better prospects. He went on to study agriculture, and work - ironically enough - in a USAID-funded project, but his heart was in left politics.
He slowly rose up the ranks and when his one-time mentor and later ideological rival, Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’, led a failed revolutionary bid, Prachanda took over as the party’s general secretary in the mid 1980s. Kiran told this writer a few years ago, “I saw revolutionary young talent in him.”
Prachanda’s career can be divided into his war-time avatar and the open-politics avatar.
Four things stand out about Prachanda’s revolutionary insurgent politics, till 2006.
One, he led the party through the People’s War. Managing factional feuds, ideological rivalries, long-distance operations, an adverse external situation, and confronting onslaught from the army, he remained firmly in control. His leadership experience stretches over three decades now.
Two, he was underground - hiding mostly in India - and few except his closest associates had met him. His colleague Baburam Bhattarai was far better known. This gave him an aura.
Three, even as South Asian communists are known for fragmentation, through the war, Prachanda presided over a unified party - and expanded its organisational and military strength. In fact, the Indian Maoist factions - PWG and MCC- are understood to have got inspired by Nepali Maoist experience and united in 2004.
Four, he displayed what the party called ‘strategic rigidity’ and ‘tactical flexibility’. Prachanda was a master at playing on contradictions within the existing mainstream polity. He had an unwritten alliance with the monarchy first - they shared the common goal of weakening the democratic centre. He first battled the police - being careful not to antagonise the army and lulling it into complacence - and then attacked an army barrack when he wanted to escalate the war. He switched between war and talks - using the latter to regroup and reorganise. And when he recognised the limits of the war, he went along with Bhattarai’s advice and allied with India and democratic parties and India against the monarchy.
The Prachanda of peacetime is different. Or maybe it is just that Nepalis and the international community now know him better.
In over two dozen conversations with this writer over the years, Prachanda has come across as warm, sharp, charismatic, charming - but also inconsistent and insecure. Five features stand out about his new avatar of the last 10 years.
For one, despite having waged a war and made peace, Prachanda is remarkably indecisive at key moments. There were two broad ideological schools in his party after entering the peace process. One, led by Bhattarai, advocated firm commitment to democratic process, keeping to their promise of eventually doing away with the parallel army, and keeping warm ties with India. Another more radical faction, led by Kiran - Prachanda’s one time guru, was in favour of using open politics to establish party hegemony, taking on India and those perceived as close to it within the Nepali polity, and ushering in a ‘people’s revolt’.
Prachanda kept vacillating between the two schools. His decision to sack the army chief when he was PM derived from his turn towards radicalism. He later turned back to peace process. A more recent example of this indecisiveness was when he pulled out of the K P Oli government in May, only to return the following day. His credibility has dipped and he has the reputation of being unreliable.
Two, Prachanda has displayed poor judgement at key moments. He has admitted to three big mistakes - breaking his alliance with Nepali Congress in the initial years of the peace process, attempting to sack the army chief, and not doing enough to push a constitution through the Constituent Assembly in 2012 when Maoists were stronger. Add to it his delay in resolving the issue of integration and rehabilitation of his combatants, his swing between a pro and anti India stance, and his decision to turn back on the agenda of inclusion and the marginalised communities - something he had maintained was non negotiable.
Three, Prachanda did not change Nepal’s mainstream political culture as Nepal’s mainstream political culture changed him. When he was Prime Minister, and when he was the power behind the throne, Prachanda did little to show to Nepalis that he was committed to transforming lives through effective development and welfare interventions. In fact, he is understood to have got enmeshed in networks of corruption. As Bhattarai, who worked with him closely through this period, told this writer, “He surrounded himself with crony capitalists. If he wants to be successful as PM this time, he must avoid that.” A resounding electoral defeat in 2013 was a result of popular disillusionment and the failure to deliver change.
Four, Prachanda is no longer the uncontested leader of the unified party. The Maoists have now faced two serious splits. The radical faction first walked away in 2012, accusing Prachanda of revisionism. After the constitution last year, Bhattarai walked away saying it was time to start a new force which went beyond Maoist politics, and spoke to the people’s aspirations for change. Some radical leaders have returned but a key faction led by a younger leader, Netra Bikram Chand, now poses a serious threat and may resort to armed rebellion. Prachanda is a much diminished figure of a much smaller party today.
And finally, Prachanda has become deeply insecure. Six months ago, he suspected India was hatching a conspiracy to kill him. He is constantly looking over his shoulder, worried he will be ensnared in a corruption case. But what worries him most is the prospect of war crimes and its resolution. He suspects that, supported by western human rights community, his rivals in Nepal aim to take him to an international tribunal for war time atrocities.
This is not on the cards - but just these calculations and fears have begun impinging strongly on Prachanda’s judgment. In this tenure, one of his major priorities is concluding this element of the peace process by addressing these cases under a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with prosecution only in a fee emblematic cases of heinous crimes.
A long career in public life means that citizens are attuned to the strengths and vulnerabilities of a leader. In the next nine months, Nepalis will keenly be watching which qualities of Prachanda come to the fore.