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A Maoist’s Burden in Nepal

Ten summers ago in Nepal, the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal emerged from hiding just as the decade-long insurgency he had directed was pushing the country’s monarchy to its knees. The rebel chief was picked up by a government helicopter, then whisked to the prime minister’s residence in Kathmandu to begin official peace talks.

By that time, after more than 20 years in hiding, he had become a legend, widely known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, meaning “the fierce one.” Few knew what he looked like. India’s restive Communist circles came to extol and emulate his tactical prowess. He had started the civil war, which took more than 16,000 lives, with two rifles from among those dropped by the C.I.A. for Tibetan rebels three decades earlier. The brutal war finally ended when 19,000 Maoist fighters drew an almost 100,000-strong state army into a stalemate and were close to realizing their audacious demand to end the monarchy, which had ruled the country since its birth some 250 years ago.

But already Prachanda was showing signs of what some considered pragmatism and, others, capitulation. He had promised a revolution, but he delivered compromises with Nepal’s older political parties. They dropped their support for the monarchy; in return, he accepted democracy.

In November 2006, a few months after his emergence, Prachanda signed a peace agreement with G. P. Koirala, then the prime minister, formally concluding the war. Together, the former Maoist guerrilla and the tenacious elder statesman kicked off a historic transition to a federal democratic republic, to be enshrined in a highly anticipated new constitution. Two years later, the monarchy fell and Prachanda was elected prime minister in the Constituent Assembly, a tumultuous term that lasted just a few months.

Last Wednesday, Prachanda became prime minister a second time. Now there is little excitement and loads of skepticism, for this has been a volatile decade both for the man and the nation.

Indeed, Prachanda’s track record in open politics has been dismal.

His slide began after he led the Maoist party to its surprise victory in 2008. During his short stint as prime minister, tales spread of his nepotism and newfound wealth. The poor and landless felt he had done little to redistribute resources. Thousands of people continued to leave the country looking for work. He was accused of muzzling the press. He attempted to sack the army chief, alienating an already doubting military establishment and its ally, India. Prachanda eventually resigned, furthering instability and eventually sending the party to electoral defeat.

For his supporters, the deepest betrayal came last September, when he was leader of the opposition during the Constitution’s highly fraught promulgation.

Nepali society is diverse. Nepali politics has always been exclusionary. The new Constitution was meant to resolve this impasse. Since Prachanda had played a key role in the political awakening of Nepal’s historically marginalized communities, he carried a unique personal burden to deliver to them an inclusive constitution, a reconciliation between the upper-caste peoples of the hills, who have always monopolized state power, and the peoples of the southern plains, treated as a fifth column because of their cultural ties to India.

However, just before the current Constitution was signed, Prachanda turned his back on his opposition supporters and sided with the dominant parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), to back a document that reversed even the basic gains on inclusion achieved over the past decade, including its addition of discriminatory citizenship provisions against women. It was surely no coincidence that all three parties were led by upper-caste men of the country’s hills.

When I met Prachanda in January, and again last month for an interview, I asked him why, at the 11th hour, he had abandoned his core principle of inclusive, identity-based federalism. Prachanda replied, both times, that the first Constituent Assembly had failed in 2012 and he had not wanted the second one to meet the same fate.

The passage of the Constitution last year incited a six-month movement by residents of the plains along the southern border with India. The protesters, with tacit Indian support, blocked the huge flow of supplies from the border to generate pressure on the new government led by K. P. Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). Kathmandu’s leaders responded by amending the Constitution to broaden representation in the Legislature, but refused to revise federal boundaries to give communities greater autonomy. They also built a climate of ultranationalism, branding India interventionist and the protesters its pliable agents, and pivoted to China for support. Power games in Kathmandu used to be Delhi’s exclusive domain; it suddenly had competition.

So Delhi encouraged Prachanda to withdraw support from the Oli government. The Nepali Congress, the leading opposition party, chose to back him, seeing it as their only way to return to power.

As prime minister, Prachanda has pledged to amend the Constitution to address the grievances of the protesters in the plains. And given the size of those communities — about one-third of the population — he knows that only when they approve the Constitution can it be fully implemented. This would involve first holding local elections, after which Prachanda has promised to hand over the reins to the Nepali Congress, as part of a power-sharing deal, in order to hold national and provincial elections.

Nepali Maoists rose to power because they persuasively fused class and identity and promised to address the country’s multilayered discrimination based on caste, gender and geography. Prachanda turned his back on that message last year by allowing the Constitution to pass in its current state.

He has been given another chance to help build a more egalitarian, federal, multicultural Nepal. It is, he told me, his “last opportunity” to make up for the past.

By Prashant Jha

The writer is the author of “Battles of The New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal,” and an associate editor at the Hindustan Times.