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    South Asia
     May 5, '14

Path forward unclear for Nepal's Maoists
By Manish Gyawali

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Since a rather mediocre showing in the November 2013 national elections, Nepal's largest Maoist party has appeared to keep a low profile, emerging only when challenged. Only a few months ago, its leaders liked to trumpet the fact that they were the country's strongest political force, and it appeared to many that the Maoists might get even stronger and fundamentally change the country.

Those fears, or in some cases hopes, now appear to have been wildly overblown. In hindsight, it is easy to see that the Maoists

had steadily been losing supporters and popularity. The question now becomes: where do they go from here?

It is easy to write the Maoists as a spent force and consider their impressive showing in the first Constituent Assembly elections, in 2008, as a fluke. Yet in those days, there was genuine excitement about the Maoists. Even those people for whom the idea of communism was repugnant would talk about how they ought to be given a chance so that they could do something. This feeling was actually quite common and even cut across class lines. Early Maoist supporters included many middle class Kathmandu denizens who were convinced that "something" would happen once that party came to power.

The Maoists' strident anti-Indian sentiments fitted in perfectly well with their expectations. The Maoist leader Prachanda had perfected the art of blaming his country's giant southern neighbor for every misfortune that befell it, and in this way he amassed bona-fide nationalistic credentials among a section of Kathmandu society that saw India's hand everywhere in Nepal. Indeed, there was a time when it seemed as if Prachanda had fully made the transition from communist to ultra-nationalist, thus further cementing relations with the middle class.

But the budding romance could not be sustained because after having cornered middle class Kathmandu to his side (or so they thought), the Maoists wanted then to consolidate an ethnic support base. Why the Maoists remained so concerned with ethnic issues remains an enigma today. After all, when they made that impressive electoral showing in 2008, ethnicity was hardly on the agenda. In fact, immediately after winning, Prachanda talked of an "economic revolution" that clearly hinted that class was going to be their main agenda.

Yet, at some point, class gave way to ethnicity as the Maoists' main ideological driving force. Perhaps the Maoists fell victim to their own grand ideas about restructuring the country. The Maoists were very enamored of the idea of a "New Nepal". For them, it was not enough to come to power. One had to make drastic changes to the political makeup of the country so that the old "feudal" power structure could be dismantled completely. Only then could a truly "New Nepal" emerge.

Their formula for restructuring the country was on ethnic lines but this quickly proved to be contentious. The Maoists clearly had thought about "restructuring" in an abstract way that would prove to be very difficult to implement in modern-day Nepal. Their simplistic, textbook notion of "ethnicities" just could not account for the complex social makeup of modern Nepal.

The Maoists are currently holding a conference in the southeastern town of Biratnagar in which they hope to sort out the issues that have bedeviled them ever since the elections. At the conference, which started on Friday, Prachanda made the remarkable claim that it was time for like-minded parties to come together as no single party could dominate electoral politics. That was a candid admission. It seems to have sunk even in with Chairman Prachanda that his party's heyday is over.

Earlier, Prachanda was certainly not someone to downplay the importance of his own party. At the same time, a challenge to his leadership from within finally seems to be crystallizing. His deputies Baburam Bhattarai and Narayan Kaji Shrestha have doggedly trained their guns on him for some time now.

While they are unlikely to get anywhere in the near future - Prachanda's grip on his party is still thought to be very tight - gradually chipping away at that support for a few more years could take its toll. It is also interesting to note that the two deputies have attacked Dahal for different reasons. Bhattarai's main argument against Dahal is that the party is not "democratic" enough.

Shrestha, on the other hand, has made ideology his main point, arguing that the party has "deviated" too much from its original agenda and could soon turn into another run of the mill "capitalist" force.

It is these issues that have preoccupied the Maoist party of late; while still paying lip service to "ethnic federalism" - an item really seems to have slipped off their radar screen as of late. For a party that had staked so much on that one idea even a few months ago, the turnaround is bound to be jarring.

Ordinary workers particularly must be wondering what is going on with their leaders who just seem to be stumbling and grasping at ideas without any clear enunciation of what they stand for. Little over a year ago, at the Hetauda conference, the Maoists publicly embraced "growth oriented capitalism" as their underlying policy.

Now, one of the party's most important leaders has publicly attacked the idea. What are the party workers to make of it? A party that started off claiming the mantle of ideological purity and which used to dismiss others as lightweights now finds itself without any sort of principled core. It is now widely regarded as the "do anything, say anything" party.

Will the Maoists ever go back to being a major political force? It is very difficult to see how they can. In the past, people were willing to vote for them because they appeared to be different; yet it quickly became apparent that the only thing that was different about them was that they had a much greater ability to use violence and to create chaos.

None of their ideas was aimed at resolving current problems in a way that would cause minimum friction. For that reason, the pragmatic Nepalese voted them out. Unless they too become similarly pragmatic, Nepal's Maoists now appear to be on the path to further marginalization.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Kathmandu University and commentator on social and political evens on Nepal and South Asia in Nepali newspapers.

(Copyright 2014 Manish Gyawali)

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