Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s salvation lies only in changing Nepal’s power structure. Otherwise the oppressed will remember him as a tyrant
In the movie Gladiator, the ailing Caesar of Rome confides to his most trusted soldier: “I am dying Maximus. When a man sees his end, he wants to know there was some purpose to his life. How will the world speak my name in the years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant? Or will I be the emperor who gave Rome back its true self?”
The other day I was wondering if Pushpa Kamal Dahal—‘Prachanda’ of yesteryears—has abandoned his purpose. Can a man who once dreamt of establishing ‘People’s New Democracy’ by staking his life and waging a war against the state give up so easily? The assimilation of CPN (Maoist-Centre) in the fold of CPN-UML suggests otherwise. But he may just be biding his time.
Few leaders in contemporary Nepal have captured the imagination of the nation for so long as Dahal. During the war, he along with Baburam Bhattarai loomed in our collective conscience like a colossus. Books have been written about Dahal. Prashant Jha, in The Battles of the New Republic, for example, calls Dahal a master tactician, pragmatic politician, charismatic but mysterious leader, all rolled into one.
From a young communist worker of the 1970s to the leader of the movement that was instrumental in displacing 240 years dynastic rule to the joint head of the largest party of Nepal, his journey has been long and arduous but never devoid of adventure. Risk taking is his innate ability. While some risks worked in his favor, others proved costly. For instance, a bid to dismiss the army chief Rukmangad Katwal in 2009 caused grievous repercussions to his political career. History could have taken a different course without it.
After mainstreaming of Maoists, his ability was tested and one could see through his many vulnerabilities. A movement of that scale was bound to unleash passions of unmanageable proportion and he seemed to lack acumen to tame them. Dahal soon realized being a war-time general was far easier than being a peace-time statesman. By the end of the first Constituent Assembly, his status had diminished from an icon to a rabble-rouser.
Multiple splits occurred within his party and the believers and sympathizers who once reposed faith in him began abandoning him. The politics returned to status quo. The same dominant party in the election of CA I, apparently was a hissing snake pit of egomaniacs. With a distant third position in CA II, Dahal was ossifying into a legend incapable of action.
After the devastating earthquake of 2015 that necessitated the promulgation of the constitution, Dahal neither had incentive nor the option to hold to the issues his party once raised. He had to flow with the tide even by swallowing his pride. Or else he would be labeled an unforgivable sinner.
Post-constitution promulgation, KP Oli emerged as a leader of stature by whipping up anti-India sentiments. By the time the results of the local elections were announced, it became clear that Maoists would be a distant third party again. Dahal sensed his importance now lay only as a supporting actor and his legacy was in danger. Slowly but surely, he once again geared for the revival of his party by persuading his former comrades who had strayed with Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya.
Dahal may lack the intellectual sophistication of his former colleagues Bhattarai and Baidya but he also lacks their rigidities. He sees himself as a man of action and realizes the importance of being flexible. Out of nowhere he first formed the electoral alliance with CPN-UML—the party of ‘comprador bourgeoisie’, he had vowed to fight against, and later went for party unification.
On the surface it looks like circumstances forced him to choose between humiliating submission and courageous defiance. But he may have sensed an opportunity here. For a man whose worldview is shaped by likes of Marx, Stalin and Mao, giving up on one’s purpose is akin to stopping the quest for power.
Call it a conspiracy theory, but I see Dahal’s latest moves in sync with Mao’s Red Book, which in turn reflects the ideas of a war theorist Sun Tsu. One of the Mao’s dictum is avoiding a strong force is not cowardice but wisdom. By allying with UML in elections, he not only avoided direct competition that could prove costly to his party he was also able to use the strongest party to his benefit. In a battlefield where ballots reign supreme instead of bullets, Mao’s maxims can still be valid, albeit with some modifications.
The clairvoyant in me sees wily Dahal manipulating PM Oli to create opportunities for easy victory and lulling him into untenable position with the prospect of gain. The signs are already there. Despite having less than half strength of UML, Dahal managed to get a respectable deal in unification process. Immediately after unification, he ‘used’ the government to free Bal Krishna Dhungel, a convicted criminal from his party by using presidential pardon, much to the chagrin of the civil society. Such transgressions will obviously tarnish PM Oli’s image.
As long as PM Oli is busy hogging limelight, he can silently pursue his tactical goals. With two-third majority of the current government, talks have started about amending the constitution to make way for directly elected president—Dahal’s one of pet projects—before the next election.
Judging by what he had set out to achieve, Dahal still has miles to go. Dominant history may be kind to him since he compromised for the sake of much needed political stability. But his salvation lies only in changing Nepal’s power structure. Otherwise the oppressed will remember him as a tyrant. The “violence of the oppressed” he unleashed upon the nation was too costly and is etched in our collective conscience.
With PM Oli already old and frail and the unified party sorely lacking another leader who can match Dahal’s charisma, five years is not a time long enough to abandon his purpose. Another one of the Mao’s maxims that even the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had internalized during war era and looks valid for Dahal is: “a revolutionary army must stay unified with the people it fights, who can then provide the recruits, supplies, information that the army needs, and can be politicized at the same time. Revolutions then come about not after and as a result of victory, but through the process of war itself.”
As the nature of war and weapon changes, so must the archetype of a warrior. Dahal is probably able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Amen.