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J. Sri Raman: A Prachanda as a Prime Minister

A Prachanda as a Prime Minister


by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

No one quite knows what his official name will be as the prime minister of Nepal. Media reports have so far referred to him as "Pushpa Kumar Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre of Prachanda." Wikipedia calls him "Pushpa Kumar Dahal (alias Prachanda)." The Nepal government's web site stays noncommittal. Click on "The Prime Minister's Office," and you are directed to a page that says: "under construction."

Also under construction, we may say, is a new image of the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) or the CPN (M), elected by an 80 percent majority in the country's interim parliament on August 15, 2008. Originally Pushpa Kumar Dahal, he adopted the name of Prachanda (the Fierce One) presumably for two reasons.

In the first place, as he has stated more than once before, the original name identified his caste, the highest in Nepal's social hierarchy, though perhaps not the most affluent. Secondly, and more importantly, Prachanda appeared an obviously more proper nomenclature for the chief of a guerrilla army.

A name that can strike terror may not exactly be the one that gives a nation confidence in its elected leader. We must wait and see whether the new prime minister renames himself. But then, as he and his colleagues may counter, what's in a name? Far more important will be steps to allay persistent misgivings about the Maoists and their readiness for a different, peaceful and democratic role.

This will be the first and foremost of the many challenges before 53-year-old Prachanda, as he sets about forming a coalition government to frame a new constitution for the country over the next two years and to serve as a legislature meanwhile.

When the Maoists under Prachanda won the elections to the Constituent Assembly (CA) in April 2008 with a mandate that surprised veteran observers at home as well as the outside world, some of us could see the struggle ahead. Even much earlier, we warned in these columns (New Nepal Versus Old Order, January 2007) that the ruling elite never parted with power easily and peacefully in such revolutionary situations. In Nepal, it did not.

Fierce resistance from forces dethroned along with King Gyanendra delayed formation of a new government under the CPN (M) by four full months. The resistance must be expected to resurface and reassert itself in the period ahead. And it will have to be met with methods that the former insurgents may not be fully familiar with.

The first post-election challenge came from die-hard royalists, who even threatened an armed revolt. Lack of popular support did not let the threat grow beyond a few stray bomb blasts. The challenge became more serious, however, when the royalists and their allies foment and fuel ethnic agitations based on grievances acknowledged even by the Maoists as genuine to a significant extent.

The Madhesi People's Rights Forum (MPRF), asking for a better deal for the farming people of mainly Indian origin in the fertile Terai plains of southern Nepal, mounted a major offensive including shutdowns and blockades. Other ethnic groups, such as Chepangs, Tamangs and Limbus threatened to follow suit.

While the new rulers in Kathmandu were willing for talks with the MPRF, what made matters worse were the unconcealed links the far right in India forged with sections in the Madhesi camp. The agitation had also received some undiplomatic support from former US Ambassador James Francis Moriarty.

Interestingly, the MPRF is now the third biggest constituent of Prachanda's coalition, the second being the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or the CPN (UML). Among the 16 smaller parties supporting the coalition is the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), identified as staunchly royalist until the other day. The reliability of these groups as the Maoist's partners in power remains to be seen.

More directly related to the image problems of the Maoists and Prachanda were the differences over the defense portfolio, which threatened at one point to stall the negotiations among the coalition partners. The Nepali Congress and its outgoing Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala created an issue over the allocation of the ministry to the Maoists, and the cue was taken by the CPN (UML) and others. The main point made was that Prachanda could not be the prime minister and the chief of the People's Liberation army (PLA), which waged a decade-long civil war from 1996. Koirala and others argued that the Maoists could not have their own military wing and hold the defense ministry as well. Another issue raised in the context related to the often violent activities of the Young Communist League (YCL), the CPN (M)'s youth wing.

The Maoists have now agreed to disband the YCL. But they have only announced that Maoist leaders in the government will not hold posts in the PLA as well. They are still for integration or absorption of at least a sizable part of the guerrilla force into the Nepal Army. The issue can snowball into a potential coalition breaker, if the integration of the two armies is indefinitely delayed.

The challenges before Prachanda - and indeed his landlocked nation just liberated from a feudal monarchy - are not only internal. External policy issues, especially one of relations with India, figured prominently during the elections and have continued to be raised since then. The question of Madhesi links with India provides only a measure of the importance of the India factor in Nepal's politics and polity.

The Maoists have promised annulment of the unequal and outdated India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship (1950), which treats the Himalayan state as part of the "security zone" of its outsized neighbor. Whether Prachanda can keep the promise without creating fresh problems for himself will depend upon the degree of his success in appearing even-handed and "equidistant" between India and China. Beijing - which Gyanendra billed "an all-weather friend" and which berated the CPN (M) once for "tarnishing the name of Chairman Mao" - now seeks to befriend the Maoists as a party working to meet "the aspirations of the poor people".

Since the time of Moriarty, the stand of the "strategic partner" of India's Manmohan Singh regime has changed somewhat in this part of the world. Four months ago, Washington was trying to attribute the Maoists' electoral victory to violence alone. Evidently, this was an excuse for refusing to recognize the poll result. Former US President Jimmy Carter found the excuse "embarrassing." Today the US administration says it is ready to work with the new government - but has refrained from uttering a word about removing the "terror tag" pinned on the Maoists in predemocracy days.

The most serious challenge to Prachanda is the one from the force most disgruntled by the allocation of the prized defense portfolio to the Maoists - the force known not long ago as the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). Just days before Prachanda's election as the prime minister, Army chief Katuwal Rukmangad was reported to have called on Koirala and urged him to avert what both of them considered an impending calamity. Is the subsequent silence of the two on the subject ominous?

A section of Maoists in India has warned not only against routine challenges to Prachanda, but also against the possibility of Chile's repetition in Nepal. Will the new prime minister prove the warning unwarranted?

*************

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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