Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, will be returning as Nepal’s prime minister after 87 months. As a commander of the dedicated and ruthless guerrillas during the 10 years of insurgency that ended in early 2006, after the Maoists joined the peace process, Prachanda was a hero, almost a legend. He was a symbol of hope and efficiently managed affairs when he was first elected as Nepal’s prime minister. His party was the largest group in Nepal’s first constituent assembly cum parliament, but the Maoists lacked absolute majority. Things began to fall apart when his coalition partners disapproved Prachanda’s sacking of the then chief of Nepal’s army, Rookmangud Katawal. The events following Katawal’s ouster led to Prachanda’s unceremonious exit in 2009.
Katawal was reinstated by the then president of Nepal, Ram Baran Yadav following organised pressure from non-Maoist parties. Prachanda saw, in this act, a conspiracy by external forces and their local “puppets”. He tried to remain true to his revolutionary image by asserting, “I choose to bow out rather than stick to the post by appeasing the external lord”. It was not difficult to understand who he was referring to as the “external lord”. Prachanda was in pursuit of his vision of a revolution that would succeed only when “hegemonic India” was defeated and the feudal institution of monarchy overthrown.’
But that marked the beginning of Prachanda’s downhill journey. There were at least five splits in his party, he had to make a series of compromises in his approach . That included retracting on the “enemy status” to “hegemonic India”. Finally a debacle in the second election to the constituent assembly relegated the Maoists to the third position — from being first — with no chance of heading the government in normal circumstances. But a quirk of destiny has catapulted Prachanda to power. The biggest party in Nepal’s parliament, the Nepali Congress, chose to support him after K.P. Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist lost the trust vote in the house.
Nepal’s army chief, Rajendra Chhetri, in a message soon after Oli’s resignation, said the army is “taking a stock of the situation”. Chhetri was obviously implying that the bitter relationship between the Maoists and Nepal’s army is still an issue and the defence forces will prefer not to have a Maoist as the country’s defence minister.
Besides the army-Maoist relations, Nepal’s political discourse also revolves round India and China. More than the former revolutionary’s return to the helm, Nepal watchers are debating what the instability in the country means for its relationship with its neighbours. Nepal has seen much political instability in the past eight years: This period of political change has seen eight prime ministers. It has also been a period of poor economic growth and devastation by earthquake.
Oli’s response to a jubilant Prachanda returning to the helm of affairs was an acerbic one. He said that his exit was not the outcome of a homegrown exercise. “Diwali is being celebrated after my exit,” he remarked. He was obviously referring to reactions in India as sections of the Indian media projected his exit as Delhi’s victory. After all, Oli had stood his ground when Delhi refused to recognise Nepal’s new constitution. It also gave clandestine support to a five-month long economic blockade of Nepal that caused acute shortages in the country and immense hardship to the Nepalese people.
In the months that followed, Oli signed a trade and transit agreement with China. The president of China, Xi Jinping, was scheduled to visit Nepal but the change of guard has put a spanner in the works of Sino-Nepalese bonhomie. The development goes against the Chinese precondition that political stability in Nepal is crucial to the relations between the two countries. The Chinese have made it clear that there is very little likelihood of Xi’s visiting a politically unstable Nepal.
The Chinese foreign ministry has said its relations with Nepal will not be affected by the change of leadership but it has also been silent on Xi’s visit. The Chinese response is not unnatural as it considers Nepal a part of its sphere of influence in much the same manner as India sees Nepal.
The current change could be well be another temporary exercise. That will discredit Nepal’s political leadership even more. It may even kill the constitution that came into force in September, 2015.