No leader in the CPN (Maoist Center) has been as consequential as Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The 68-year-old former rebel leader, who waged a decade-long armed insurgency against the state before entering peaceful politics in 2006, has become prime minister three times in the past 15 years.
The only other Maoist leader to become prime minister is Baburam Bhattarai, who left the party in 2015. Dahal, sometimes referred to as the Maoists supremo, has been ruling the roost since the party’s rebellion days.
Despite the presence of other influential leaders like Bhattarai, CP Gajurel and Mohan Baidya (the three are no longer with the Maoist party), it was Dahal, who gripped public and media imagination during the wartime.
Better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda at the time, Dahal developed a cult around himself. There was an air of mystery about him. Most Nepalis saw him in person only after the party joined the peace process.
While the cult of Prachanda might have helped the Maoist party become a major political force, it has also the potential of ruining it.
Despite his many faults as a leader—from promoting nepotism to flip-flopping in his decisions to joining unnatural alliances to remain in power—Dahal is still revered by his supporters. One could even argue that the Maoist party is nothing without him.
Though Dahal has no immediate plan of retiring from active politics, the virtual absence of successors is a cause for concern.
While Bhattarai is said to be preparing to return to the mother party, his return is not going to make much of a difference. Bhattarai and Dahal are of the same age—and, more importantly, the former has already made his intention clear about retiring from active politics one day.
This leaves the Maoist party with a smattering of leaders like Narayan Kaji Shrestha, Barsha Man Pun, Janardan Sharma, Dev Gurung and Krishna Bahadur Mahara. But the truth is these leaders are nowhere close to Dahal.
The future of the Maoist party is at stake because it never invested the time and energy to build its organizational strength. Ever since joining the peace process in 2006, the Maoist leadership has more or less wasted time in power politics and suffered multiple splits.
In the first Constituent Assembly election of 2008, the Maoists emerged as the largest party ahead of traditional big old parties, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML. But the subsequent elections—CA polls of 2013 and the general elections of 2017 and 2022—have seen the party become progressively weaker.
The Maoists’ merger with the UML to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) also proved disastrous, as the party broke up within less than three years. In the process, the Maoist party lost one of its senior leaders, Ram Bahadur Thapa, who went on to join the UML.
The recent general election saw Dahal’s party come in third position, securing just 32 seats in the 275-member parliament, behind the Nepali Congress (89) and the UML (78).
Dahal became the prime minister after breaking the alliance with the NC and joining forces with the UML.
Multiple leaders that ApEx spoke with admitted that the Maoist party’s organizational strength has suffered so much that there are only a few constituencies from where the party can win elections on its own. The party forged an electoral alliance with the NC in the Nov 20 polls of last year out of this very fear. And yet the party could secure only 32 parliamentary seats, which is 17 fewer than the 2017 election.
Party leader Haribol Gajurel says they have virtually no organization at the grassroots, without which their existence is in danger.
Gajurel is in favor of reviving the party’s organization across the country, but he is unlikely to get Dahal’s nod, with other senior leaders like Shrestha, Pun, Sharma, Gurung and Mahara on the line. That is why Gajurel has been appointed as an advisor to Prime Minister Dahal.
Party leaders say Pun and Sharma are more likely to win Dahal’s trust when it comes to handling of the party affairs.
Shrestha, despite being Dahal’s trustee and a deputy, does not have a strong support base within the party, while Mahara has more or less taken a backseat following a rape allegation on which he got clean chit from court. Similarly, Gurung is someone who had defected from the party in 2013 to join the Baidya faction.
Maoist leaders say now there is mainly a two-horse race between the general secretary duo Sharma and Pun to take lead of the party affairs. Both of them have considerable influence in the party structure, so much so that Dahal has to pick the leaders close to them while making key appointments in the party and the government.
During the distribution of election tickets ahead of the Nov 20 polls, Pun and Sharma were dominant after Dahal.
After the elections, two leaders stood on opposite corners on the issue of government formation. Sharma, who had served as finance minister in the Deuba-led government, stood in favor of continuing the pre-poll alliance, while Pun actively worked to bring communist forces together.
But despite their growing clout and power within the party, Sharma and Pun can never measure up to Dahal. In any case, if one of them were to helm the party, there is bound to be a factional rift within the Maoists, which could be even worse for the party.
It has been a year since the Maoist Center organized its general convention, and the party is yet to form its politburo and standing committees. Due to the party split, it took a long time for Dahal to select the party’s office-bearers. The party has also yet to form its departments.
Sharma is actively trying to take control of the party’s organizational department. A few weeks back, he even held a meeting of the party’s organizational department where he came under fire.
Maoist central committee member DP Dhakal said Dahal is unlikely to pick one specific leader to look after the party affairs, as the party is preparing to convene a central committee meeting for discussing ways to strengthen the party’s organizational base.
The meeting, added Dhakal, will most likely form committees to oversee the party activities collectively.
Senior journalist Babin Sharma, who closely follows the politics of the Maoist party, said while Pun and Sharma are competing for the party leadership, Gurung, a general secretary picked by Dahal himself, could lead the party affairs.
He said Gurung has a fairly good command in the party for the job.
But central committee member Ramdeep Acharya has a different take on the issue of picking the next Maoist party leader.
He said there are different modalities of the leadership selection process, so one cannot be certain as to who will replace Dahal.
Acharya added Dahal selecting his successor is one of the modalities but there are other ways too.
Whoever comes forward to lead the party, they will have big shoes to fill.