ON THE AFTERNOON of 16 November 2012, Padam Kunwar stood in line at Kathmandu’s Bhrikutimandap exhibition complex, waiting to shake hands with Nepal’s former prime minister, the Maoist revolutionary Prachanda. Several marquees had been erected in the gated entertainment park, which thronged with thousands of people, including journalists, politicians, former government officials, foreign diplomats, and supporters of Prachanda’s ruling Maoist party. The function, organised by the Maoists to mark the ethnic Newari New Year 1133, had a festive air. Inside a huge tent open to the streets, Prachanda, the Maoist party chairman, sat on a stage draped with his party’s hammer-and-sickle banner, flanked by Nepal’s current prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, a long-time party rival, and by opposition leaders from the country’s centrist Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist-Leninist parties. Around 3 pm, Prachanda, a former guerrilla commander who led Maoist forces in a decade-long revolt against the state, gave a short speech stressing the need for political consensus. Afterwards, he began to shake hands with people in the eager crowd.
Kunwar had not intended to visit the event. He had only learned about it earlier that afternoon, during an idle shopping trip to the city centre, he later told me. As he haggled with a roadside clothes vendor, the 27-year-old overheard people talking about the reception, and decided to attend. Approaching the venue, amplified sounds of Maoist leaders making speeches had reached him in the street. He looked forward to meeting some of these former guerrillas, who just six-and-a-half years before had come over-ground to participate in electoral politics. Perhaps, he thought, he could complain to them about woes his family was facing. When he learned that Prachanda was shaking hands with supporters, he queued up. It would be his first chance to meet the former revolutionary—a memorable day.
While Kunwar waited in line, the country’s one-time leader greeted dignitaries and chiefs from opposition parties, and Kunwar found himself growing irritated. He had seen senior Maoists arriving at the venue in fancy cars, and they were now jumping the queue of commoners, in which he stood, to hobnob with Prachanda and other worthies. The proletariat party leader himself, it had been widely reported, was living in splendour in a Kathmandu mansion, right next door to one of his former military foes, a senior Nepal Army general and former advisor to a king from Nepal’s now dissolved hereditary monarchy. On stage, men who were once sworn enemies embraced. For Kunwar, the hypocrisy, and the prolonged wait, rankled. He tried to subdue his rising anger, but could not. Soon, he was seething.
As the commoners’ line crept along and his ire mounted, Kunwar was flooded with memories and stories from the violent uprising and civil war initiated by Prachanda and the Maoists in 1996. Kunwar’s elder brother, who had fought for the party and in 2003 helped capture a local administrative headquarters in the upland district of Myagdi in west-central Nepal, still had shrapnel throughout his body. Kunwar’s elder sister, with whom he now lived on the outskirts of Kathmandu, had been one of the most popular Maoist leaders in their home district of Baglung, several hundred kilometres northwest of Kathmandu. While organising a party meeting, she and her fellow cadres had come under attack from government security forces; two of her colleagues were killed and she was left for dead. She dragged herself, bleeding, into a small bush, where she lay wounded for three days, until another Maoist fighter, who is now her husband, found her on the verge of death. Although she served the party, and almost died for it, the party later sidelined her. The rest of their family, poor farmers who lived in a remote village in Baglung, had been brutally terrorised by the Nepal Army during the war; soldiers would forcibly enter their home, break furniture and aggressively question Kunwar’s parents about his siblings’ whereabouts. Kunwar’s mother, unable to cope with the family’s tragedies, was now suffering from a deep depression.
Kunwar himself had also become a party member. During the war, Prachanda had promised an equal society and an end to poverty. This call attracted Kunwar: like many Nepali youths, he had failed to graduate high school and had few skills or job prospects. In an attempt to support himself, he had travelled across the border to Punjab to work as a tea boy at a tractor supply company. He then moved to Kathmandu, where he applied through a local labour agency for construction jobs in the Gulf. Later, he discovered that the agency was cheating unemployed workers by charging them placement fees for positions that never materialised. Despite this setback, in 2005, he managed to join the ranks of tens of thousands of Nepalese migrants working in the Arabian Peninsula in oppressive conditions; the construction company for which he worked in Doha, for example, didn’t provide its labourers with water during lunch. In 2007, he and his 3,500 co-workers staged a strike to protest the privation, and, although an agreement was reached, Kunwar was later dismissed. On his return to Nepal in 2008, he worked odd jobs to supplement a meagre savings, and joined the Maoist Young Communist League. The party welcomed him with open arms and made him a district committee member in Baglung. But life didn’t improve: employment remained unsteady, and, eventually, his savings ran out. In 2012, following a split in the party, Kunwar quit, disillusioned, he told me, by the “difference” between the Maoists’ “words and deeds”. He moved to Kathmandu to live with his married sister and train as a chef, preparing himself for yet another gruelling stint abroad, but his frustrations and disappointments trailed him like shadows. Even though every member of his family had contributed in some way to the Maoist struggle, the party had provided them with next to nothing.
As Kunwar inched closer to Prachanda, he recalled, these frustrations returned in agonising flashes. Finally approaching the front of the line, his anger continuing to intensify, Kunwar decided to act. Soon he was face-to-face with Prachanda. He pressed his hands together to say namaste, and, when Prachanda offered him a hand to shake, Kunwar slapped the former prime minister, hard, across the face. Prachanda screamed and his glasses fell, broken, to the floor. A shock went out through the crowd. Kunwar was hauled from the stage to the ground and attacked; members of the Maoist Young Communist League kicked him in the groin and rained blows down on his head. “We should kill him! We should not spare him!” he remembered people shouting. Finally, police were able to break up the melee and drag Kunwar, his face smeared with blood, from the scene. The event dominated Nepalese television news channels for days.
“I was not afraid,” Kunwar assured me a month after the event. “I knew that I would not be able to slink away.” We met at the ramshackle offices of a new, anti-Prachanda Maoist splinter group, to which hundreds of alienated cadres were being welcomed. Kunwar had come, with his brother-in-law, to hear a speech condemning Prachanda’s policies, but said he had not known he would be attending an initiation. When I pressed him again about the November attack, he admitted: “At the time, I was worried that I might be beaten to death."
SIX SUMMERS AGO, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, arrived in Kathmandu to a hero’s welcome. Although he had been living in relative secrecy for a quarter century, the Maoist party chairman had in many ways become the country’s dominant political figure during the preceding decade of internecine violence. The relatively small guerrilla force he controlled had fought the country’s professional army to a ceasefire, and allowed the Maoists to gain de facto control over 80 percent of the country. On the morning of 16 June 2006, Prachanda, his wife Sita Poudel (whom he married when he was only 15), and his then deputy Bhattarai had been helicoptered to the Nepali capital from Sikles, a village in the Annapurna foothills, where the three had lived under the protection of a Maoist militia for the past several months. Krishna Prasad Sitaula, the home minister in a recently reconstituted parliamentary government led by the Nepali Congress president and then prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, had been dispatched to Sikles to pick them up. On the ground in Kathmandu, Sitaula shepherded the guerrilla leaders, under the escort of a Maoist security unit, to Koirala’s spacious, heavily fortified official residence.
There, Prachanda and Bhattarai held a marathon meeting with Prime Minister Koirala, Sitaula and the leaders of six other parliamentary parties, including the Unified Marxist-Leninists. Earlier that year, the Maoists and the seven parliamentary parties had warily joined together to lead a successful popular movement that displaced the country’s centuries-old monarchy, ruled by a dynastic Hindu family called the Shahs; now, the uneasy coalition was trying to lay the groundwork for a new constitution and to find a peaceful resolution to the preceding 10 years of Maoist rebellion and civil war, 25 years of failed attempts at democracy, and over 200 years of almost unbroken autocratic rule.
The uprising that Prachanda had launched in 1996 later escalated into a civil war that killed more than 15,000 people, including nearly 5,000 in its bloodiest year. In the largely remote, mountain districts that his Maoists controlled, they had set up parallel, if makeshift and capricious, public administrations, including a terrorising network of tribunals dubbed the People’s Courts. He had battled Nepal’s Shah monarchy and former democratic governments. He had called for a secular country, decrying Nepal’s enshrined Hinduism, and for the redistribution of land to the landless. He had even called for a war against India and its purported expansionism, which—he sometimes claimed—was the principal enemy in the fight for people’s rule in Nepal. Without his assent, there could be no hope of a credible peace or a lasting democratic union.
Outside the prime minister’s residence, approximately 300 local and international journalists had converged. The Maoist security contingent that had escorted Prachanda and Bhattarai to the meeting now cordoned off the building. Displaying improvised placards scrawled with messages reminding the guerrillas about the importance of press freedoms, some journalists staged an impromptu protest. By late afternoon, many were exhausted from hunger and the endless wait, but all were eager to hear from Prachanda, who they hoped would appear in front of the professional media for the first time since he had gone underground, two-and-a-half decades before.
Although rumours of previous, clandestine discussions between the Maoist leader and the prime minister were circulating, this was the first confirmed meeting between Prachanda and Koirala, the leaders of Nepal’s two parallel governments. The octogenarian prime minister was suffering from respiratory disease, and due to fly the next day to Bangkok for treatment; he was desperate to get Prachanda on board then and there. As the afternoon wore into evening, things outside the residence grew tense. Finally, around 7.30 pm, Prachanda, Bhattarai and a bevy of leaders from the other parties emerged from their day-long conclave. (The ill Koirala was conspicuously absent.) A press conference was hastily convened under a swiftly pitched canopy on the prime minister’s front lawn. Reading through a statement, Sitaula explained the summit’s outcome: a series of crucial steps had been outlined to bring the country out of civil war and create a democratic polity. The tentative ceasefire between the Maoists and the Nepal Army would be converted into a formal peace. The so-called People’s Government, which had been formed by the Maoists in their strongholds across the country, would be dissolved. Dates for elections to a new Constituent Assembly—a decades-old mainstream demand, left unfulfilled by previous regimes—would be announced. This assembly would form a fresh government, with Maoist participation, charged with drafting the constitution for a “new Nepal”.
Then it was Prachanda’s turn. Speaking without an amplifier, his face glowing from both the light of a naked bulb and camera flashes, he did not disappoint the crowd. He mocked the “Purano Satta” (Old Regime) for failing to provide electricity and derided its dysfunctional state. The marathon talk and the resulting agreement were, he claimed, an “ice break” in Nepal’s history. “We are trying to develop the multiparty parliament system in a new way,” he told the bated crowd. “In that sense, the experiment we are spearheading is not a simple political game. This is a new experiment in history. In our view, this is a great experiment."
IN THE DIFFICULT YEARS since that experiment began—years between the “ice break” and Kunwar’s angry slap—the fortunes of Prachanda and Nepal have been intricately intertwined, and, throughout the tribulations of this period, Prachanda has remained arguably the most powerful, and certainly the most polarising, man in the country. “He continues to be the key leader and a person who carries not only people’s hope, but also their frustrations,” the political commentator Bishnu Sapkota told me. Sudheer Sharma, the editor-in-chief of the nation’s influential Kantipur daily newspaper, agreed: “Other leaders are weak. Their politics revolve around reacting to what Prachanda says or does. The Maoists are the ones who set the agenda. The opposition is not in a position to offer anything new to the people.” According to Kanak Mani Dixit, the editor of Himal Southasian magazine, no one in the country can match—let alone contest—the Maoist commandant’s stature: “There’s no giant individual to take him on.”
Prachanda, however, is a giant indeed. After ten years commanding a brutal revolutionary war, he managed to bring the opposition, and his own party, to the negotiating table—not only achieving a peace that has largely held since 2006, but also forging Nepal into a democratic republic of which he was the first prime minister. At the same time, he has transformed his guerrillas, who once ruled the Nepali countryside by force, into the most popular political party in the nation: he now leads an organisation with over 300,000 members and dozens of affiliate groups. And, although he has long since lost his premiership, Prachanda continues to dominate Nepal’s as yet untempered democratic politics.
For a man at the centre of his nation’s politics, little is known about Prachanda and his journey from radicalism to power. Even his face was a mystery to the media and the general public until 1999, when the Maoist guerrilla, who is now 58, leaked a staged black and white photograph of himself to the press. Many of the stories that do circulate about his youth and the quarter-century he spent underground come from Prachanda himself. Even today, Prachanda remains largely opaque. “Their lives aren’t transparent,” Sapkota said of Prachanda and other Maoist leaders. “They are shrouded in mystery.” What can be gleaned about the man from former associates suggests that he is both canny and cunning. Indeed, despite the assurances that Prachanda made to the crowd of reporters on the evening of 16 June 2006, many observers believe that a political game is precisely what he has been undertaking—albeit not a simple one.
“His weakness is the vaulting ambition,” Mani Thapa, a former Maoist leader who is now general secretary of a small radical group, told me. “He is weak in terms of principle and belief. His politics is devoid of values. His ultimate goal is to achieve power.” Sharma took a similar line: “Prachanda’s is a utilitarian approach. He thinks that he can use all the political forces in Nepal. He thinks he is the smartest politician.” At the same time, Sharma believes that Prachanda is committed—at least instrumentally—to Nepal’s still tenuous democracy. “Instead of becoming an autocratic strongman, he wants to gain power though democratic means,” Sharma told me. “But he wants to be an absolute leader in Nepal for at least a decade. He hasn’t changed his goal, he has just tweaked the means to achieve it.”
This vaulting ambition may explain some of the transformations that Prachanda has undergone since his birth in 1954—how a rural schoolteacher, the son of a Brahmin smallholder, became the leader of a Maoist revolutionary party that held out to poor, marginalised Nepalis the promise of economic prosperity and political empowerment, while at the same time being accused of human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings and the forced conscription of minors, and how this revolutionary then became prime minister. It may also be the key to understanding how Prachanda lost that very premiership in a mere nine months—and why even that hasn’t stopped him from remaining the country’s most important political figure. Now, he faces the challenge of fulfilling the promises that were made in 2006. The charter for a “new Nepal” has yet to be written, and, in November last year, in the wake of a final missed deadline to draft one, the Constituent Assembly that Prachanda helped to create was dissolved. As was the case in 2006, without Prachanda, the republic’s other leaders may stand little chance of resolving this on-going political gridlock, which has kept Nepal, the oldest nation state in South Asia, without a stable constitution.
In the meantime, Prachanda has shifted his platform from one of communist revolution to a regional federalism based on ethnic identities. He has effectively ceded his army, which the United Nations once reckoned at over 19,000 strong; but he has now formed tentative alliances with parties representing far larger constituencies in Nepal’s rural southern plains, where over half the country’s 27 million people live, many of them from marginalised ethnic groups who have been fighting for social equality and regional autonomy for many years.
Some critics, including Dixit, have slammed Prachanda for such shifts, seeing them as evidence of his expedient breed of politics. According to Dixit, one of the Maoist leader’s most vocal detractors, Prachanda is an “opportunist” who has “used his cadre, his opponents, the international community, the South Asian neighbourhood—all with the sole goal of getting ahead personally”. Prachanda’s politics, he added, are “demagoguery”; he has only “remained top dog within Nepal by triple-speak”. “Some people call it dynamism,” Gunaraj Lohani, a former confidant of Prachanda, told me. “But it is not.” Thapa, it seems, would concur. Prachanda, he said, “has risen through conspiracy, lies and deception”. “He is a good salesman,” Thapa said. “He knows what can be packaged and sold in the marketplace of politics.”
Whether through demagoguery and personal ambition, or through a genuine desire to uplift his country, in the past few years, the Maoist chairman has begun to talk more and more about Nepal’s economic potential, especially in hydropower and tourism. Nepal, which has the lowest gross domestic product per capita in all of South Asia, and is in the lowest decile globally, also has some of the highest levels of unemployment and income inequality in the world. Its development over the years has been extraordinarily poorly distributed between groups and regions, with urban centres, such as Kathmandu, seeing the vast majority of economic progress. Prachanda has broadly outlined his vision as the economic growth and rapid industrialisation of the impoverished country, and has argued that the nation can benefit from the increasing international heft of its two gargantuan neighbours, India and China. For this to happen, one of his close aides told me, he wants to create, and then secure, a new position atop Nepal’s government; he aspires to become an executive president of the country for at least ten years.
Some observers believe that such an eventuality is unlikely. Jhalak Subedi, a Marxist political commentator who heads a think tank called the Nepal South Asia Centre, said that although Prachanda “displays a capacity to manoeuvre among the political forces of Nepal”, the ex-guerrilla “lacks a vision to guide the country”. The former Maoist leader Mumaram Khanal went further; Prachanda, he told me, is now at the beginning of a final descent. “We are witnessing his fall,” Khanal assured me. “His fall has begun and it will plunge deeper. I don’t think he will rise again from the ashes.” Although Thapa thinks that Prachanda has yet to reach a dead end in what he called the “labyrinth of Nepali politics”, he told me that the former guerrilla leader may already have squandered the historical opportunity that began to open up to him in the summer of 2006.
One of the challenges Prachanda faces in raising Nepal, and himself, to new heights is that he needs the support of Prime Minister Bhattarai, with whom he has had a rocky and at times openly antagonistic relationship. Bhattarai, who has a doctorate in development from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, is widely recognised as the intellectual powerhouse in the Maoist party, and, unlike Prachanda, he has maintained relatively close ties with India, culturally and historically Nepal’s closest neighbour. Bhattarai, too, is not lacking in ambition; he has already shown success in using his own political instincts and leverage to elevate himself in the face of Prachanda’s objections. At the same time, however, Bhattarai does not seem to have sufficient political and popular support to remain in power without Prachanda’s backing. If the two men cannot maintain a delicate balance, Nepal’s immediate chances for stability, progress and democracy may be doomed.
Although Prachanda’s perch on the summit of Nepali politics is less than secure, there are no doubts about his lofty political aspirations or the single-mindedness with which he will pursue them. Sharma, for one, believes that Prachanda still has an opportunity to transform Nepal; but the Maoist leader and former prime minister will have to go beyond mere rhetoric. “People are desperate for delivery,” Sharma told me. “His final test will depend on whether he can deliver on the promises he made during the war."
FOLLOWING HIS DRAMATIC return to Kathmandu and the June 2006 press conference on the prime minister’s lawn, Prachanda travelled across the country, speaking to local cadres about their imminent conversion from a guerrilla force to a party thrusting itself into electoral politics. He then returned to the capital, where he continued to hold talks with opposition party leaders. In order to move towards a long-lasting peace, it was agreed that a United Nations mission would be invited to monitor both the national and Maoist armies.
Though the ceasefire agreement had held since earlier that spring, the relationship between the battle-hardened Maoist forces, which Prachanda and his colleagues had styled the People’s Liberation Army, and the Nepal Army remained fraught. The Maoists had deeply wounded the army’s pride by fighting its superior force of 90,000 well armed soldiers to a stalemate. The Nepal Army, which identified itself with the country, had also long supported the monarchy; as far as it was concerned, its interests and those of the king and nation were one.
To the Maoists, the Nepal Army was among the country’s greatest forces of oppression. Like the rebel forces, the Nepal Army had been accused of significant human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and torture. Prachanda did not baulk from pointing this oppression out; at the June 16 press conference, he had provoked his military adversaries by asking: “Where did the Nepal Army show its bravery except killing Nepali people and raping our women?”
Prachanda also stated that he wanted to downsize the army to a militia of 20,000, which was to include former Maoist guerrillas. Attempting to integrate the two militaries would prove a politically treacherous task, especially given Prachanda’s outbursts, which army pressure soon forced him to retract. This should have been a lesson to Prachanda, giving him a sense of what lay ahead in Nepal’s fractious political landscape, especially where the Nepal Army was concerned.
For the time being, however, he was able to bring his party closer to the mainstream and to national power. After a further series of meetings with the seven parliamentary parties, Prachanda and Koirala finally emerged, on 21 November 2006, with an accord, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, that formalised the terms outlined at the June summit and brought an official end to Nepal’s brutal civil war.
Elections were announced for 10 April 2008. With popular slogans promising peace and a liberal constitution, and with a nationwide network they had built throughout the war while other parties had been forced to retreat from rural constituencies, the Maoists jumped into the electoral fray. Prachanda, in his underground years, had acquired a popular mystique. In Kathmandu, where he contested the election from a Newar-dominated and largely anti-monarchy hilltop constituency called Kritipur, overlooking the city, the streets were festooned with posters of his face and banners proclaiming his name. He also contested the elections from the Maoist heartland of Rolpa, a remote district in the western hills. At rallies, Prachanda spoke of old and new Nepal: his party was for the transformation of the country, which would only be possible after dismantling the remnants of the old feudal order that had been represented by the king.
Pundits in Kathmandu had predicted that the former insurgents would come a distant third; but, in an election then certified as fair by the international community, Prachanda’s party swept constituencies across the country, defeating Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist-Leninist stalwarts, and winning nearly 40 percent of the seats in the 601-member Constituent Assembly. (The legitimacy of the election has since been called into question after reports surfaced that the Maoists used intimidation tactics, and created a climate of fear, to garner a significant number of their votes.) At victory rallies in the streets of the capital, a leonine Prachanda, his brow smeared with vermillion and his neck maned with garlands of marigold, delivered fiery speeches declaring that the people, by voting in the Maoists, had given their mandate to peace and a democratic constitution.
“It was a miracle,” Prachanda told me, when I visited his spacious red-and-white-brick Kathmandu mansion in November 2012, ten days before Kunwar’s slap. “You won’t find this sort of transformation anywhere in the world. Remember, we had an army, the People’s Courts, our base areas and we joined the peace process. And then, we participated in elections and became the largest party. We had raised people’s agendas. They were fed up with the old parties and they also wanted peace.”
In the months that followed, the Constituent Assembly voted to make the country a republic, officially ending 240 years of royal rule in Nepal. A fight for control of the new government, centring on the respective powers that would be granted to the positions of president and prime minister, and on the parties that would be allowed to control those positions, promptly ensued. By August, after a series of tortuous negotiations, accompanied by threats to withdraw from the political process and hold violent street protests, Prachanda and the Maoists successfully convened a coalition government. On 16 August 2008, the Constituent Assembly elected Prachanda as the first prime minister of republican Nepal. It was a remarkable accomplishment: the former revolutionary was now at the apogee of power. Could the guerrilla commander, who had so successfully fought against the centre from the margins of civil life, now hold that centre? Or would the forces arrayed against him—including the opposition parties and the barracked but by no means tractable Nepal Army—and his own vaporous ambition haul him back down to earth?
PRACHANDA’S ROAD TO POWER BEGAN with a belief about himself. The rural schoolteacher, who had grown up dancing to Bollywood songs and reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in a farming village in Chitwan district, which borders Bihar in Nepal’s southern plains, judged himself to be destined for more. “I felt I shouldn’t spend my life as a teacher in a government school,” Prachanda told me in November. “I felt I should seek a greater role.”
Prachanda had had a high-caste but relatively modest upbringing and an unpromising youth. He graduated both his local high school and a middle-tier college with second division marks, and was then packed off by the government to teach at a remote, upland school in eastern Nepal. At the end of a five-day trek into the hills, at times in drenching rain, Prachanda, who in earlier days aspired to become an airline pilot, was told that his humble job had already gone to another teacher. In 1978, after suffering this and a number of other personal humiliations, the 23-year-old Prachanda decided to join the Communist Party of Nepal. “I think that I was sent to a remote district because there was no one at the education ministry who would lobby on my behalf,” he told me, with lingering bitterness. The communists offered something more. He was made a Chitwan district committee member, and, against the objections of his father, he plunged into underground life.
Prachanda soon ascended the communist ranks, continually choosing the most radical in a set of perpetually splintering factions. Intentionally or otherwise, his ideological commitment to revolutionary violence appears to have coincided with a savvy opportunism: whenever Prachanda switched groups, he inevitably rose. Prachanda’s climb was “unnatural”, the former Maoist leader Thapa told me. “He seems to have harboured a wish to join the ranks of top leadership as soon as he joined the party.”
“In the early 1980s, Prachanda started to assert himself as a leader,” his former fellow radical Khanal recalled. It may also have been during this period that Prachanda, who then used the alias “Bishwas” (Trust), started popularising a story about his childhood that he has often told, in various forms, to reporters and fellow cadres. The story seems to have served for the Maoist chief as a sort of personal foundation myth, explaining why he became a communist and eventually took up arms. In the version Prachanda told me, when he was 10 or 12 he used to accompany his father, Muktiram Dahal, a farmer, to a local bazaar to sell rice. On one of these trips, Muktiram pleaded with a businessman to give him a better price for his grains, but the man humiliated him. In another version, recounted to me by Khanal, who said Prachanda had told it at a 2001 party meeting, Prachanda was in his early teens, and the businessman would humiliate his father on a regular basis. In a third version, which Prachanda related to the Times of India in 2001, and which was quoted in an admiring 2008 biography of the Maoist chairman, Prachanda said that one day he saw a moneylender insulting his father. “My father fell at the moneylender’s feet,” Prachanda told the Times. “But the moneylender kicked him. It lit a fire inside me. It was a political lesson I never forgot. It changed the course of my life.” Without casting doubt on the veracity of this particular story, Sapkota, the political commentator, attacked the myth of Prachanda, insisting there was “nothing revolutionary” about the man. “Look at his life,” he told me. “It’s full of contradictions. He comes from a typical hill, middle-class Brahmin family and has carried all their conventional, traditional, unsophisticated legacy.”
By 1985, Prachanda was a confirmed proletarian radical. He had switched parties at least three times, finally joining Mohan Baidya, a soft-spoken ideologue with a deep knowledge of communist classics, in a faction advocating immediate preparations for a protracted uprising they called a People’s War. The two men were brought together in part by the realisation that their other radical colleagues “would just talk about revolution, but would never actually initiate it”, Baidya, who goes by the alias Kiran, told me in an interview this past November.
Their first attempt at armed insurgency was a risible failure, but the political consequences catapulted Prachanda to the party’s top position. In 1987, as part of a boycott on elections for members of a party-less, palace-controlled regime called the Panchayat, faction leaders in Kathmandu planned to attack police posts across the city. In the event, all the attacking cadres managed to do was pelt the police with stones, and smear soot on the face of a statue of a former king. Following the pathetic sortie, several local leaders were arrested. This sparked a row in the party over who should be held responsible for the debacle. To avert a schism, Baidya proposed that he and a few senior leaders be demoted, effectively leaving Prachanda at the top. There were other capable leaders in the faction, Thapa told me, but Baidya “sidelined them all”.
“I wanted to encourage him,” Baidya said to me of his decision to elevate Prachanda. “We had decided to launch a communist revolution in Nepal.” Following his ascension, Prachanda relocated to Kathmandu, and, jettisoning his benign alias, Bishwas, adopted the soubriquet “Prachanda”—the Fierce One. It was a name befitting his new stature: at age 35, he had gained control of a radical fringe party of 60 hard-core, full-time members, with strongholds in the remote Nepali districts of Rolpa, Rukum, Sindhupalchok and Sindhuli—all of which would serve as launch pads for the People’s War.
OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS, Prachanda held a number of military camps for his faction’s senior commanders, and travelled to a guerrilla stronghold in Bihar where he studied warfare with combatants of the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), at that time one of the largest Maoist groups in India. He also began to reach out to former comrades within Nepal; according to Thapa, the botched 1987 attack had taught the faction leaders that they could not instigate armed insurrection on their own.
In the spring of 1990, the Nepali Congress, together with another moderate party, led nationwide pro-democracy protests that forced Birendra Shah, the king, to resurrect a multi-party parliamentary system that his father had abolished in 1961. After establishing a coalition with two of his former factions, Prachanda and his party had participated in the protests, though independently of the moderates. Following the democratic victory, the old communist colleagues became deeply engaged in a debate over how to proceed under the new dispensation, which would make it possible for them to take part in elections and the formation of a government. At the time, Prachanda maintained that the change was cosmetic, and that conditions for a People’s War were ripening. When I spoke to him in late 2012, however, he claimed that he was pressured to start the war by an international revolutionary group that was supporting his coalition. “I was very clear about the need to participate in parliamentary politics,” Prachanda told me. “But our party was under pressure from the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement not to do so. They told us that if we fought elections, we will deviate from the revolutionary ideals,” he said. In truth, the Kantipur editor Sharma argued, Prachanda and his partisans “realised that armed struggle was the surest way to reach the pinnacle of power”.
In the short term, the coalition prepared to contest elections through an over-ground political wing headed by Bhattarai, then 37, who had returned from completing his PhD in New Delhi five years before. At the May 1991 polls, the communists won nine seats, making them the third-largest party in parliament. Despite their modest electoral success, the rift over instigating a People’s War grew wider as the months wore on. In May 1994, the less radical members broke away from the coalition, leaving the hardliners, including Baidya and Bhattarai, to unite with Prachanda under the banner of a new party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which agreed to move forward with Prachanda’s vision for a People’s War.
Prachanda was coming closer to achieving the conflagration, and the power, that he sought. In March 1995, he and a dozen of his lieutenants travelled to a cave outside the village of Sirubari in central Nepal’s Gorkha district, where they had secretly deposited a cache of rudimentary arms, including homemade pistols, kukris, and two .303-calibre rifles—only one of which, according to Prachanda’s biographer, could fire. They then received military training from a former Nepal Army captain—“the first challenge was to unite the party for the war,” Prachanda told me—and went back to their command posts to propagate the conflict ideology.
In early February 1996, Bhattarai, accompanied by another senior cadre and scores of supporters, handed over to the government a list of 40 demands, which included abrogation of “all discriminatory treaties between India and Nepal”, regulation of the Indo-Nepal open border, and bans on Indian number plate vehicles and “vulgar Hindi films, videos and magazines”. They also stipulated that the country should be declared secular, and that “land under the feudal system should be distributed to the landless”. If these conditions were not fulfilled in two weeks, the document declared, the Maoists “would be forced to adopt the path of armed struggle against the existing state power”.
On 13 February 1996, before the deadline on their demands had even expired, Prachanda and his comrades launched the People’s War in the mountain districts of Rolpa, Rukum, Gorkha and Sindhuli by attacking banks, police posts and even a local landholder whom they branded a “feudal lord”. When I asked Prachanda if he feared for his life, he said the preparations for the war—collecting ammunition, training, indoctrinating the cadre—had readied him for the day. “We were sure that we will either be arrested or killed,” he told me. In leaflets they distributed throughout the country, the militants declared that they were fighting to “establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, marching to communism, the golden future of humanity”. Their avowed goal was to bring about a permanent democratic revolution by abolishing the monarchy through armed struggle. “I could not sleep the night before that,” Prachanda recalled. “I was thrilled with the anticipation of the dawn of a new era.”
The war’s first casualty was an 11–year-old boy from Gorkha district who was shot dead by police. Then, on February 17, police killed six young men from a single family in Rukum. These seven deaths in less than a week scared the Maoist leaders into fleeing Kathmandu. They first sought shelter in the countryside, and then abandoned Nepal all together. One by one, Prachanda, Bhattarai and other Maoist commissars snuck across the border to the town of Siliguri in West Bengal, where Prachanda would live for the next three years, posing, according to his biographer, as a “research scholar attempting to complete his thesis” or a local schoolteacher.
This left day-to-day military operations to Prachanda’s conscripts. Of four regional commands the Maoists soon established, only one, the Kathmandu propaganda bureau, was in Nepal; the others were in Siliguri, Lucknow and New Delhi. From time to time, the Maoist leaders would smuggle themselves back into Nepal for secret meetings in remote villages, where they met with the men conducting the revolution on the ground. By way of explaining his exodus, Prachanda said that communists all over the world had used foreign soil to wage war inside their nations. “It was only Mao who didn’t have to go abroad because of China’s enormous size,” he told me. Prachanda’s former confidant Lohani, however, saw this as a turning point in the war. “The problems began after he left Nepal within months of launching the war and took shelter in India,” Lohani said. “He didn’t have firsthand experience of war until late 2004.”
In the first few years of the conflict, the insurgents focused on sabotage: they bombed factories and continued to attack police posts. Initially, the government in Kathmandu did not take the insurgents seriously, but, in May 1998, heavily armed police task forces were sent to sweep up suspected rebels in the countryside. Rural citizens were brutalised during the crackdown, and indignant locals were driven into the Maoists’ arms. In addition to these immediate grievances, and chronic unemployment, Sharma told me recruits were also attracted to the Maoists by “Prachanda’s mysterious aura” and “the power of the gun”.
As a result of this injection of fresh blood, the Maoists were able to step up their efforts. In one of their major offensives, in September 2000, they slaughtered at least 12 policemen and injured a further three-dozen in an attack on a rural police command. The Nepal Army, following a policy of non-engagement set by the palace, had refused to aid the police. It was an aloofness the army would soon be unable to maintain.
During the same period, Prachanda was consolidating his power within the party. In collaboration with Baidya, he moved to contain the growing influence of the party’s intellectual force, Bhattarai, by promoting himself from general secretary to chairman of the party, a shift that gave him unquestioned authority. It soon became mandatory for other leaders to quote him in their formal communications. Then, a more profound change occurred, one which likely alienated Prachanda from his former mentor Baidya, a relentless supporter of armed conflict: in early 2001, a five-year review of the war led Prachanda to reconsider an engagement with democratic politics, and to espouse a commitment to the idea of a constituent assembly, a body which he hoped he could leverage into Maoist control of the government. It seemed to be dawning on Prachanda that the war could never elevate the party fast enough, and that, without an initial political compromise of some sort, he could never hope to accomplish a takeover of the state.
Although Bhattarai had much to do with the ideological formulation of this new approach, the Maoist chairman made sure it would be known as the “Prachanda Path”. Inside the core cadre, however, Bhattarai received credit. “This was Bhattarai’s line, and he was very happy with the decision,” Thapa, the former cadre, told me. Prachanda and Bhattarai then began to reach out furtively to the palace, seeking a peace that would clear the way for constituent assembly elections. If they hadn’t made this decision, the Maoists “wouldn’t have arrived this far,” Thapa said. “We would have been crushed.”
In summer 2001, a cataclysmic event radically changed Nepal’s political dynamics. On June 1, King Birendra’s son, Crown Prince Dipendra, allegedly drunk, high on drugs and upset by his mother’s refusal to let him marry his girlfriend, killed his mother and father, his brother, a sister, an aunt, two uncles and two cousins. Then he shot himself. The crown prince was anointed king as he lay unconscious in a military hospital. He died two days later, and the throne passed to his bellicose uncle Gyanendra.
With the monarchy in chaos, Prachanda asked the parliamentary government to engage in talks. The administration reciprocated, and a ceasefire was called. At the same time, however, Maoist forces, now dubbed the People’s Liberation Army, were preparing for more aggressive attacks. On 21 November 2001, Prachanda, through a statement, withdrew from the negotiations, citing an unwillingness on the part of the government to engage in constituent assembly elections. The “imperialist and reactionary forces have contributed to the failure of the talks”, he declared. More likely, the Maoists’ bargaining hand was not yet strong enough to secure the political outcome they desired.
Two days later, they ended the four-month old ceasefire by carrying out their most audacious operation yet: in a pair of synchronized assaults, they opened a front against the Nepal Army. Scores of soldiers and a number of policemen were killed in the strikes, and 70 Maoist comrades were freed from jail. King Gyanendra promptly declared a state of emergency, thereby mobilising the Nepal Army for the first time since the Maoists launched hostilities five years earlier. The war rapidly escalated, and over 100 people were killed in the next three days.
Within a year, an increasingly aggressive King Gyanendra suspended the government and initiated a crackdown on civil liberties across the country; the retrenchment effectively foreclosed the possibility of a peaceful rapprochement between the combatants. This was compounded by fallout from the 9/11 attacks in the USA: Gyanendra was trying to take advantage of growing antagonism towards extremism to garner US support for his war on “Maoist terror”. Year-on-year casualties soared more than sevenfold to over 4,600.
Over the next two years, a number of Maoist leaders were arrested in India, where they lived and maintained links with Indian revolutionary groups. This finally forced Prachanda, who had been residing in New Delhi following his time in West Bengal, to move back to Nepal. “When we gathered that the Indian ruling class was against us, we decided to transform our war into a movement for national independence,” Prachanda told me. “We prepared ourselves for the eventual war with India.” Thapa, who left the party a few months after the decision, elaborated: “The idea was to dig tunnels to wage war against India, but in reality it was the old Maoist rhetoric of raising the fears of Indian invasion and cashing in on the anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal.” It was a desperate move; Prachanda must have realised that the war at home would drag on indefinitely, preventing him from fulfilling his ambition of taking over the government—but he had no one left with whom he could negotiate a way into power.
In late 2004, the chill between Prachanda and Bhattarai grew colder. Although Bhattarai was dissatisfied with the distribution of power within the party—Prachanda controlled both its military and its political activities—the dispute ostensibly centred on the identity of the insurgency’s main antagonist. Prachanda continued to fulminate against India and its alleged expansionism, and, in his hopelessness, proposed to reach out again to the palace. Bhattarai argued that domestic feudalism, represented by the monarchy, was still the biggest enemy. After Bhattarai openly criticised Prachanda, the angered chairman expelled him and his wife, Hisila Yami, from the party and sent them to a labour camp. “We took action because he violated our party’s norms,” Prachanda told me. “He should have voiced his dissent in the central committee. He shared it with the cadre.” Khanal, Prachanda’s former fellow radical, had another reading of the situation: “He cannot hear a single word of criticism”—a trait exacerbated by the fact that Prachanda “doesn’t have a consistent position”. Prachanda was now left both without potential allies at the centre, and without the strategic support of Bhattarai, on which he had relied. “It is said that he has many antennas by means of which he keeps abreast of the activities inside the party,” Prachanda’s former confidant Lohani put it. “He may have information but doesn’t have acumen to interpret it in the right way.”
Circumstance would soon bring the rivals together again. On 1 February 2005, King Gyanendra launched a full-on coup, dismissing the entire government and instituting autocratic military rule. This disconcerted the international community, and initiated yet another shift in Prachanda’s strategy, this time away from the palace. His change of tact was reinforced that April when a Maoist battalion, now under the direct operational control of their supreme commander, was brutally put down; in a humiliating defeat, Prachanda lost more than 200 fighters while trying to gain control of a hilltop army base. “We were taught to hold our head high even in the face of defeat,” Prachanda’s former confidant Lohani told me. “I was surprised to see our commander lamenting the loss.”
Having lost any political and military leverage over the palace, Prachanda was now forced to turn towards his avowed enemy, India. The country was willing to aid the Maoists in order to neutralise the unpredictable Gyanendra, who was attempting to court its major regional competitor, China. New Delhi also hoped that if the Nepali Maoists entered into a peace process, it would prompt home-grown guerrillas to follow suit. Prachanda rehabilitated Bhattarai and sent him to New Delhi, where the Indian government helped mediate talks between the Maoists and seven parliamentary parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists, that had been ejected during the king’s putsch. Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, RAW chief Hormis Tharakan, and senior government advisor SD Muni all had direct contact with the Maoists during this process. On 22 November 2005, the Maoists and the parliamentary parties struck a 12-point deal to end the armed conflict and resume peaceful protests against the king.
At the time, Prachanda couched this reversal in typically ideological terms, promising to his party members that they would now launch an urban insurrection. But the future he foresaw without a ceasefire was bleak. “Most of our leaders would be arrested and killed,” he admitted to me when we spoke at his mansion in November. “People would suffer more. They would be terrified and the beneficiary of such a situation would be the foreigners. So, we decided to forge an alliance with the parliamentary parties and fight against the king’s autocracy.”
Clandestine negotiations continued throughout the next six months, while the Maoists and the parliamentary parties geared up for nationwide anti-monarchy protests. In the spring of 2006, thousands demonstrated across the country, and, in April, nearly a million marched through the streets of Kathmandu, forcing the king to step down and reinstate the parliament that was dissolved in 2002. That June, following the success of the protests, the Nepali Congress leader, Koirala, dispatched his deputy Sitaula to retrieve Prachanda and Bhattarai from Sikles, where they were holed up under the protection of Maoist guards. In November, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed to wild applause in front of crowds at Kathmandu’s Chinese-built International Convention Centre, Prachanda invoked Gautama Buddha to explain his turn toward peace. Hard-line party members, including Baidya, felt that Prachanda had sold out; Prachanda told me that they were “too dogmatic” to accept his “groundbreaking move”.
THE EUPHORIA FOLLOWING Prachanda’s prime ministerial victory in August 2008 was short-lived. Complex allegiances within his coalition government and a constant threat that it, or the entire parliament, would be dissolved created a treacherous administrative landscape, one that Prachanda was not accustomed to navigating. “It was the first time I was heading a government,” an apologetic sounding Prachanda told me. “It was a new experience for me. Therefore, I made some mistakes which were inevitable.”
Part of the problem was that Prachanda did not know how to operate in consensus-driven political conditions that were not amenable to his authoritarian style. “After becoming prime minister, I realised how weak our state was,” Prachanda explained. “We couldn’t do anything on our own.” But this didn’t stop him from trying to push through his policies. “I tried to change everything at once,” he admitted. “It has now dawned on me that I should have effected change gradually. We tried to do everything and ended up doing nothing particularly well.”
At the top of his agenda was to integrate People’s Liberation Army soldiers into the Nepal Army, a process that was necessary to preventing further outbreaks of military violence, but was also likely to extend Prachanda’s influence among former adversaries. Barely nine months into his term, Prachanda entered a bitter row over the issue with then army chief Rookmangud Katawal, a staunch royalist on the verge of retirement who had resisted democratic control of the military. Katawal actively opposed Prachanda’s policy of integrating Maoist combatants, who had been sequestered in 28 United Nations-monitored cantonments. At the same time, Katawal defied government orders by extending the tenure of eight brigadiers (thereby ensuring a concentration of monarchist sympathisers at the top of the military hierarchy) and withdrawing army soldiers from Nepal’s annual national games. Angered by Katawal’s noncompliance, Prachanda peremptorily dismissed him.
It was an irrevocable mistake. “Katawal would have retired after three months,” Prachanda reflected when we spoke. “But we acted in haste.” The Himal Southasian editor Dixit had a more critical reading of Prachanda’s actions at the time. “The party leadership, especially Pushpa Kamal Dahal, took us through a road of devastation which continues to this day because they cheated on the peace process,” Dixit told me. “When they came aboveground, it was clear that these guys were for one-party state. The idea was that their party would take over the country and international community will be presented with a fait-accompli.”
But, in some senses, it was Prachanda who had been brought under the control of the state, and not vice versa: forming and attempting to run a coalition government had increased the Maoists’ influence at the centre, but defused their ability to get anything done. The country’s first president, Nepali Congressman Ram Baran Yadav, who was expected to play a largely ceremonial role, stepped in to reverse Prachanda’s decision. In an about-face from its recent pro-Maoist policy, the Indian establishment backed Yadav and Katawal. Prachanda claimed that Yadav’s overrule created two power centres; as a result, in May 2009, he angrily stepped down “to save the country from a bloodbath”. “If he hadn’t resigned, there could have been bloodshed and a big crisis,” Sharma, the editor of Kantipur, agreed. “He saved the country from that.”
Many of Prachanda’s supporters, however, did not see him has a saviour; they argued that Prachanda, by embracing democracy in the first place, had mortgaged the revolution. “That was when the inner struggle resurfaced in the party,” Prachanda admitted to me. “Some of our friends started to voice their position against the party’s policy of peace and constitution.” Prachanda’s former confidant Lohani put it differently. “Before launching the war, the leaders had pledged that they would not lay down the arms unless the revolution was achieved,” Lohani told me. “Prachanda not only betrayed us, but also squandered the achievement gained through the People’s War.”
Whether to maintain control within the party, or in a genuine attempt to regain power—or both—Prachanda came back around to the radical view, and once again encouraged his cadres to revolt. That summer, the party invited members from across the country to gather in Kathmandu in “a show of force” to demand “civilian supremacy”. In the capital, angry Maoist protesters waved black flags at government ministers and blocked their convoys in the streets. In a second wave of demonstrations, the Maoists shut down transport, industries, schools and colleges across Nepal. Next, they mounted a six-day nationwide strike, which reportedly cost the country’s fragile economy an estimated $300 million. The bandh was called off after widespread anger led to counter-protests. At the end of the six days, thousands of Maoist supporters gathered in an open theatre at Kathmandu city centre, where Prachanda promised to fight on. “This is only a dress rehearsal,” Prachanda warned. “We will put on a real show in the days to come.”
Despite his rhetoric, Prachanda seemed to realise the political inexpediency of the bandhs, and nothing came of his threats. “Our goal was to transform the framework of the state through the protests, but our calculations were proved wrong,” Prachanda told me. “We weren’t in a position to use violent means to transform the state.” This left Prachanda in another political limbo; once again he tried in vain to pursue a democratic path to power. In seven different rounds of prime-ministerial elections, Prachanda failed to reclaim the premiership. “The forces inside our country and outside didn’t want me to win,” Prachanda told me, in what I took to be an oblique reference to India. To the political commentator Sapkota, the existence of such forces is dubious. “It might have been necessary to identify an enemy and motivate others to take up guns during the war, but even after it ended, he has been creating imaginary enemies,” Sapkota said. Sharma, the Kantipur editor, had another explanation: “He continued to put his feet in two boats: peace and constitution, and state capture. This fluctuation severely damaged his credibility in national politics.”
Taking advantage of this damage, Bhattarai and Baidya formed an unlikely alliance to shift their party’s balance of power away from Prachanda. Prachanda would remain party chairman, but Bhattarai would be put forward as its candidate for prime minister. Bhattarai was able to garner support from the hardliners, and, through a coalition government with ethnic-Madhesi-dominated parties of the southern plains, was elected the prime minister in August 2011, a position he has held ever since. “Bhattarai was keen on becoming a prime minister and had India’s backing,” Sharma told me. “Prachanda did his best to stop Bhattarai, but the alliance between Bhattarai and Baidya proved insurmountable.” For his part, Prachanda acknowledged that Bhattarai’s growing stature was a challenge to him, but said that they complemented each other. “I asked Baburamji to get ready to head the next government,” Prachanda told me. “I needed to concentrate on resolving the divisions within the party and vying for the same position would not look good.”
Prachanda may also have remembered the crippling experience of his time in office—an experience that Bhattarai has not been spared. Ever since the general election in 2008, Nepal’s political parties have been struggling to draft a lasting constitution; in May 2012, under Bhattarai’s watch, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved after missing its final deadline. The parties could not agree on the contentious issue of dividing Nepal into federal states based on ethnicity. The centrist parties refused this arrangement, but the Maoists and Madhesis would not compromise. It was a serious blow to the Maoists—the Constituent Assembly was one of the main reasons they had been willing to give up arms—but the Madhesis are an essential ally in their bid to maintain power over the centre. “We made many compromises but we didn’t want to go to the extent where we would lose the people’s support,” Prachanda told me. “We would have lost not only our supporters but also the grounds on which we stood.” While the opposition calls for fresh elections, Prachanda is lobbying to reinstate the assembly under the current Maoist administration. A sense of urgency regarding the fashioning of the constitution, and the fact that successive coalition governments have failed to bring about the desired result, may serve to promote Prachanda’s ends, allowing him to push through provisions for the strong executive position he seeks.
But another one of Prachanda’s post-war plans has come up short. In April, clashes erupted in the Maoist cantonments after combatants accused their commanders and the party of siphoning off their allowances. Nepal Army soldiers were deployed to defuse the situation and finally take charge of the Maoist forces. Nearly 7,000 guerrillas were offered integration into the army, but only 1,500 chose to join their former enemy. The result was a massive embarrassment for the party, which has allowed the clout its militia once possessed to ebb away. “He has lost everything including the military wing of the party,” Khanal told me. “He compromised so much that he forced the fighters to accept a humiliating deal.” Prachanda agreed that the integration had not worked as he had hoped, but claimed it wasn’t a failure. He accused a recently formed breakaway faction of Maoists, led by Baidya, of inciting the violence that led to the army’s intervention. “They wanted to dismantle everything,” Prachanda said of his former colleagues. “But we knew that at some point, we would have to join the Nepal Army. We should trust the Nepal Army. We should not see it as our enemy.”
Although Prachanda’s optimism regarding the army may partly serve a rhetorical purpose, it may also mark a larger shift in his approach. In the years since his embarrassing prime ministerial showing and its aftermath, Prachanda seems to have decided that engagement with democratic politics and promoting a slowly rising economic tide in Nepal is the best way forward. “Let me tell you one thing,” he said to me. “After my resignation, I realised that our party should not remain in opposition. We would be strong only if we are in government.” In April, six years after his landmark press conference on the lawns of the prime minister’s house, Prachanda made “peace and constitution” his party’s official platform, finally abandoning any allegiance to revolutionary means.
Prachanda now presents himself as a former insurgent gingerly treading Kathmandu’s messy political terrain. “This is quite complicated,” the potbellied politician said of his time since the peace accord in 2006. “During the war, things were clear, there was an enemy and we were fighting against him. Now I have to deal with many constituencies. Instead of common people, I have to meet big businessmen, capitalists and even agency people.” (I took him to mean intelligence agencies, but he refused to elaborate.)
With these changes in Prachanda’s approach has come a change in the way he is perceived by the nation. The revolutionary mystique that once surrounded him has now faded like Kathmandu’s morning mists. The day I interviewed him, Kantipur published a dispatch from the village of Thabang, in the former Maoist heartland of Rolpa. At the height of the war, Prachanda’s face was painted, alongside portraits of the communist pantheon—Marx, Engles, Lenin and Stalin—on the walls of Rolpa’s two-storey, tin-roofed houses. But people in Thabang, Kantipur reported, had now disowned Prachanda, accusing him of selling out the revolution. Their former messiah was no longer welcome. The Himal Southasian editor Dixit, for one, expressed a sentiment with which Thabang locals might agree. “I don’t accept that it was a people’s war,” Dixit argued. “It was a Maoist insurgency. You cannot hold a knife behind your back and use others just by repeating the word that I’m for the marginalised and deprived.”
Other betrayals have occurred closer to home. In October 2011, when Prachanda’s father, Muktiram, died at age 85 at his home in Chitwan, Prachanda took advantage of the occasion. Instead of shaving his head and performing Hindu funeral rites as Muktiram might have wished, Prachanda wrapped his father’s body in a hammer-and-sickle banderole and brought several Maoist leaders to the ceremony. “That was a political act,” Prachanda’s younger brother, Gangaram Dahal, 50, told me from his home in the United Kingdom. “Where were they when he was bed ridden? Neither my brother nor the party extended any help in his hour of need. What’s the use of covering his body with a communist flag after his death?” Gangaram described Muktiram as an independent and religious person. “He was a peace-loving person,” Prachanda’s brother said. “He never endorsed violence. He consistently held views against the war.”
Prachanda may have used his father’s death to propagandize for his party, but he may also be selling out the party’s revolution (as the Rolpa villagers claim): one of the initiatives he now sponsors is Maoist Guerrilla Trek, which runs guided expeditions in regions where the former rebels fought their decade-long war. “Many countries that have emerged from war have tried to capitalise on the memory of war,” Prachanda told a crowd of 500 attendees at the company’s launch this past October. “A huge political change occurred in Nepal but we cannot sustain it unless there is an economic transformation. I hope the Guerrilla Trek will play an important role in that.”
Prachanda also appears to be attempting to capitalise on peace. In a lavish ceremony at a five star hotel in Kathmandu this past November, Prachanda, in his capacity as the chairman of a high-level government committee, signed a memorandum of understanding with Linus Xiao Wunan, executive vice chairman of the Hong Kong-based NGO Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation. Prachanda, who has no known bank account or sources of income—apart from a modest allowance from the state for fuel, security and housing—is also a vice-chairman of the foundation. Their aim is to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, into a commercial Buddhist mecca in a project rumoured to cost $3 billion. Unlike Bhattarai, who has remained close to India, Prachanda has advocated cultivating links with China as well; what he stands to gain beyond prestige in this particular project, however, isn’t quite clear.
A week after Kunwar slapped him, Prachanda appeared in public again for the first time since the incident. In an interview on Kantipur Television, Nepal’s most influential news channel, he tried to connect Kunwar’s act to the larger political process. “Personally, I haven’t taken the incident seriously,” he said, sporting new spectacles and appearing exuberant. “Soon after, I told my party colleagues that we should not take it as anything huge. It appeared that in the past, he and his family were involved in our party. He might have grievances. Therefore, I have my sympathy for him.” On December 11, Prachanda’s 58th birthday, Kunwar was released on bail. The funds were deposited by an aide of the Maoist leader.
When I met Prachanda in early November at his home, I asked him what legacy he wanted to leave. We were sitting in a spacious office adorned with images of the Buddha and Mount Everest, and with two flags—Nepal’s national double pennant and the Maoists’ crimson banner. He told me he wants people to remember him “as a person who played a role in ushering in an epochal change in Nepal.”
“Do you think that they will remember you in that way?” I asked him. “They will have to,” he said.
Correction: This article originally stated that Nepal's 1991 elections were held in November, instead of May. This has been corrected online.