The legacies of the People’s WarThe Maoists find themselves in a paradoxical situation twelve years after they laid down arms. On the one hand, much of their agenda has come to fruition. Their ideas have pervaded the political sphere so extensively that hardly anyone now remembers where they originated.
The Maoists find themselves in a paradoxical situation twelve years after they laid down arms. On the one hand, much of their agenda has come to fruition. Their ideas have pervaded the political sphere so extensively that hardly anyone now remembers where they originated. A republic was established a long time ago, and no one even thinks that the monarchy could make a comeback. The Maoists’ idea that a Constituent Assembly (CA) directly elected by the people should draft a constitution once appeared utterly radical. But two CAs have now been elected and completed their work. Hardly anyone now remembers how controversial the Maoist demand for it once appeared. Having declared autonomous ethnic states during the war, the Maoists pushed for the transformation of Nepal into a federal structure after entering the peace process. And after hard negotiations on its specific form, this country’s primary focus is now on establishing federal structures of governance.
And yet, on the other hand, the Maoists appear as a spent force, their popularity greatly diminished and future under question. Granted, the party is still a key political player, but it lags significantly behind the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML. Had it not been for their electoral alliance with the UML, their vote share would have been even more diminished. The Maoists have by now been forced to abandon almost everything that they once stood for. The promise of liberation they offered marginalized social groups gradually turned against them. A widespread nationalist backlash emerged against this agenda, as witnessed in the rise of the UML, and the Maoists were forced to retreat. The party that appeared so strongly organized in the early years of the peace process gradually fragmented into several groups. Large numbers of the rank-and-file quit politics altogether in disillusionment.
Faced with the conundrum of reinventing themselves, the Maoists have chosen two opposing strategies. The party led by Prachanda, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), has adopted the pragmatic path, seeking to adapt itself to the existing political system and trends. There is nothing really ‘Maoist’ about this party anymore. No longer a party of rebellion, the CPN-MC is trying to reinvent itself as a regular party in the parliamentary game.
The opposing strand led by Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’, meanwhile, rejects the entire constitutional process. Biplab argues for a revival of the armed movement and a continuation of revolution. In his worldview, the path of protracted people’s war was the correct one. Much would have been achieved had the Maoist top leaders not betrayed the party, deciding to enter the peace process at a time when they should have continued to fight for a dictatorship of the proletariat. As a true Maoist believer, Chand is intent on reviving the Maoists’ parallel governments and army.
In fact, both of these paths are suboptimal and unlikely to lead to any improvements to the Nepali politics and governance. The Maoists did once play a major role in transforming the state, and Prachanda remains a highly skilled survivalist. But both his group and Biplab’s have now hit an impasse, revealing in the process several crucial weaknesses in the Maoist ideology and strategy itself.
During the conflict, the Maoist leadership sometimes said that they were waging a ‘total war’, by which they meant that all their energies and resources were channeled towards toppling the Nepali state and acquiring power. In a few cases they did make a genuine effort to improve the livelihoods of the people who lived in territory they controlled, such as by establishing cooperatives or redistributing land. But even these efforts were primarily intended to expand their power. Maoist leaders repeatedly told their most committed followers, among Tharus and Dalits for example, that they would have to wait until the Maoists won a total victory—established a naya satta–for their lives to improve. Until then, the party expected their unconditional support for the party’s cause.
But then the leadership continued to make the same argument even after the war ended. During his first term in power in 2009, Prachanda hardly made any effort to make concrete improvements to governance and policy implementation. He instead kept telling his supporters in the Maoist military wing that he intended to capture power and spent much of his tenure in a conflict with the Nepal Army. The promise of liberation was once again deferred to a future period when the Maoists would establish near-total dominance over the political sphere. It was during this time that some of the most committed supporters of the party started to become disillusioned and abandoned the party.
Biplab is currently on the same route that Prachanda was previously. His primary focus is on the revival of parallel governments and the Maoist army. He too promises a naya satta, a new dawn when the entire population will be liberated. But focused excessively on the original Maoist dream, he has nothing to say regarding contemporary political concerns. During the protests against the constitution in 2015, for example, his group did not even seek to address the grievances of Tharus or Madhesis. In his opinion, to have done so would have been to lend support to identity politics and the constitutional process—both of which he rejected. He chose instead to make abstract appeals for the populace to join his movement to overthrow and overhaul the Nepali state. But for members of groups like the Tharus, many of whom supported the Maoists in the past, Biplab’s call no longer resonates. He no longer speaks to their concerns. His promises are too vague and set too far into the future.
Prachanda, meanwhile, no longer has any vision for the future at all. At least partially, this is because of the Maoists’ rather crude theory of politics and the state, which no longer has much to say about existing political reality. In accordance with the traditional Marxist view, the Maoists held that all states were simply dictatorships of particular classes. Parliamentary democracy was a sham, a mere façade for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Social transformation could occur only when the proletariat took over power.
To an extent, the Maoists have managed to expand political representation to a wider group than previously. But since their stance against the parliamentary system was previously one of wholesale rejection, they now have no idea on how to improve such a system now that they are themselves a part of it. They are too weak and lack the desire to implement a radically redistributive agenda, as they had once planned. Nor are they interested in strengthening institutions of governance or tackling corruption. Notions such as the rule of law or the separation of powers have never had a place in the Maoist theory. As they once believed that the state has always existed to be exploited by powerful groups, they see no problem with the fact that they are the ones now taking advantage of political power.
So we have the Maoists today caught between an unviable utopianism and a mere survivalism. Neither Biplab nor Prachanda can be expected to offer ideas for the regeneration of Nepal’s political culture and institutions. Any such attempt will have to look for ideas in sources that lie beyond the Maoist canon.
Adhikari, former Op-Ed Editor of the Kathmandu Post, is the author of The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution