Prachanda and companyPrachanda has no need to fear how history will view him for achievements since 2006 but he could still bungle it.
In an interview some weeks ago, fellow columnist CK Lal waxed cynical about Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s then just-realised prime ministerial ambition. Lal contended that history books would remember Prachanda simply as someone who led the “People’s War”. Every other achievement would be credited to a third person: republicanism to Girija Prasad Koirala, federalism to the Madhesh Movement personified by Upendra Yadav and Mahanta Thakur, and the new constitution to Sushil Koirala. Lal’s view was that major elements of the Maoist agenda such as inclusion and identity having had to be shed by the wayside, Prachanda’s best bet for any lasting political legacy was to grab power—and only for its own sake.
Perhaps I misunderstood Lal, but I certainly would not be dismissive of what the Maoists have achieved. None of the elements he reeled off—a republican Nepal, a federal Nepal and the Constituent Assembly-drafted constitution—would have been possible but for the Maoist revolt (and some help from a love-crazed crown prince and a hapless king who believed destiny had more in store for him than he bargained for). At least, not when these happened.
For we know what the other parties were doing even as the insurgency picked up pace in the late 1990s—playing the age-old game of musical chair of power politics. It was only after they were forced to reckon with the fact that the Maoist movement was slowly proving a threat to the state and themselves that they began to respond with any seriousness. The stance of the political parties and successive governments underwent a transformation, recognising the need to adopt a progressive reform agenda.
I thus take a more indulgent view than Lal and argue that Prachanda has no need to fear how history will view him. Many of the achievements since 2006—and there have been quite a few—will squarely be credited to him, his comrades, and his party. The problem, of course, is there have been many failings as well and his party, and most spectacularly, Prachanda himself have much to answer for.
I provide but one example below. But, first, a little bit of context.
Tale of two Acharyas
The self-immolation by Prem Prasad Acharya in front of the Parliament building in late January suddenly caught the attention of the nation. As dramatic was his suicide, perhaps it was his long post explaining the reasons for taking his own life that had many of us thinking. It resonated with many since it told the story of the Nepali everyman and everywoman—one of struggle, hope and failure in a continuous cycle of resilience on one side with the inevitable predation and betrayal on the other.
On the day Prem Prasad succumbed to his burn injuries, the headline story in Kantipur was about another death. It did not get the same kind of traction but is worth recounting. It involved the arrival from the Gulf of a former guerrilla in the Prachanda-led People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a coffin at Kathmandu airport. A section commander in the PLA, Tilak Bahadur Karki of Jumla had enlisted while he was in Class 8. Injured during the insurgency, he still carried pellets in his body. He could not afford the expensive surgery to remove them. He waited for 18 years for the party to do something for people like him. And then last year went to Saudi Arabia after taking out a loan of Rs300,000 at 24 percent interest. His monthly salary of Rs35,000 was barely enough to cover the loan payments and sustain his family. He died in his sleep. His story was so reminiscent of “Pir”, the music video by Prakash Saput that had the Maoists seeing red last year.
About a month earlier, there had been a story about Baburam Rai “Bibash”, another PLA fighter, who was lying in a hospital bed in Biratnagar. According to the news report, Bibash was a veteran of numerous battles and jail stints. His wife had been killed on the battlefield, and he himself had been severely injured by a mortar shell, regaining consciousness only after 26 days. He had been brought into the hospital emergency. The news quoted his associate as saying that he had been advised surgery, but they did not have the money even to cover the daily expenses.
These are different aspects of Nepali life that make it to the news now and then. The hope was that the end of the conflict and the advent of a New Nepal, these would be stories of a past long gone. Instead, we are treated to episodes like the one played out in Biratnagar in the early January—while Tilak’s body lay in a mortuary, Bibash struggled to finance his operation, and Prem Prasad would have been contemplating ending his life.
The cast of characters in this case was the top brass of the Province 1 Maoist party who had been tasked with finding suitable candidates to send to the provincial cabinet as part of the ruling coalition. Seven names were submitted for consideration with six of them leaders with a long history of struggle and sacrifice, and the seventh, a youngster. When the names were finally announced, to no one’s surprise, among the two chosen was the young one, Jeevan Acharya. The old-timers were resentful about the outcome yet there could do nothing but accept it since Prachanda had foisted Acharya, a son-in-law, upon them.
Now, I have nothing against the youth taking up leadership roles, and in fact, do myself rail against the grip of the gerontocracy in all the parties. What was wholly unpalatable was that the single qualification for a ministerial position was Acharya’s having married into the Dahal family. At the same time though, I cannot escape the feeling that I am perhaps being naïve since it appears that the extended Dahal family is blessed with some really very exceptional individuals who are up to all kinds of challenges possible.
Dahal, Dahal and Dahal
As a Facebook post from 2019 detailed it for that time, these gifted folks who happen to be related to Prachanda were as follows: Renu Dahal (second daughter, mayor of Bharatpur), Arjun Pathak (Renu’s husband, adviser to his wife), Sagar KC (first son-in-law, personal secretary to the Speaker of the House of Representatives), Ganga Dahal (youngest daughter, personal secretary to Prachanda), Khem Bhandari (brother-in-law, chair, Bharatpur Hospital), Narayan Dahal (cousin, chair, Province 3, Nepal Communist Party, and now a member of the National Assembly), Chudamani Khadka (Renu’s brother-in-law, Member of Parliament), Mahesh Dahal (nephew, ambassador to Australia), Bina Magar (daughter-in-law, minister for water resources), and the same Jeevan Acharya (adviser to the vice-president).
There were others, too, that Prachanda was able to turn to for help with affairs of state during his first stint in 2008: a nephew, a brother, a son-in-law and his late son, among others, in various official capacities. (For the record, the other top Maoist leader at the time, Baburam Bhattarai, also had the good fortune of having some talented relatives he was able to bring into various government positions.)
The famous ending from Orwell’s Animal Farm could not be more apt here: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” I guess as a nation we are all facing the same conundrum.