“This is my last opportunity to serve the people and probably my ultimate challenge as well,” said CPN (Maoist Center)’s Pushpa Kamal Dahal soon after being re-elected party chair. In his political document endorsed by the Party's 8th General Convention, Dahal confessed that people these days struggle to differentiate the Maoists from other political parties.
This clearly indicates the mother Maoist party is facing an identity crisis. In the general convention that concluded in the first week of January, the party vowed to take reform measures. But that is a daunting task given the party’s ideological ambiguity, which is only compounded by its dysfunctional organization.
Dahal often claims republicanism, federalism, and secularism are original Maoist agendas that have now become national agendas, and he must get credit for that transition. But those agendas seem increasingly divorced from the Maoist party. “Obviously, the credit for establishing these agendas goes to the party,” says political analyst Sudarshan Khatiwada. But they are no longer exclusive Maoist agendas as other parties have also taken their ownership. When the Maoist party pushed those agendas ahead of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008, the public supported the breath of fresh air. No more.
In order to regain party strength, Dahal is trying to placate Janajati, Madhesi, and other marginalized communities by raising the possibility of constitution amendment. But he has already lost the trust of these constituencies after merging his party with the CPN-UML led by KP Sharma Oli, who fiercely opposed those very agendas. These constituencies no longer consider Dahal their leader. But Vijaya Kanta Karna of the Center for Social Inclusion and Federalism, a think-tank, says there is still a remote possibility of Dahal retaining his strength if he can somehow again win the trust of marginalized communities, his previous source of strength and power. It was when Dahal abandoned progressive agendas, says Karna, that he and his party became weak.
Dahal’s party has been in power in all governments formed after the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015. In 2015, he supported CPN-UML Chairman Oli. Then he broke the ruling alliance with Oli and formed a coalition government with Nepali Congress, becoming prime minister in 2016. In 2018, his party joined another Oli-led government, ultimately merging the Maoist and UML parties. Now, his party is a key coalition partner of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Analysts say this tendency to stick to power is an example of Dahal’s deviation from his ideological core.
The party’s revival demands a clear ideological positioning, says analyst Khatiwada, but Dahal is these days characterized by ideological confusion and ambiguity. “Dahal has talked about embracing socialism with Nepali characteristics but he is short on details,” adds Khatiwada. “And he cannot draw public support only by committing to socialism”.
Maoist party leaders, however, are hopeful as the party’s CC has been mandated to sketch a plan on how the party commits itself to socialism.
Says newly-elected CC member Hemraj Bhandari, the convention has provided a clear guidance on how to move ahead and details of the roadmap will be finalized through the CC meeting. “We will tell the people that in order to guard secularism, federalism, and inclusion, the Maoist party needs to come back to power,” he says.
Ideological deviation is not the only cause for the Maoist party’s decline. After joining peaceful politics, the party didn’t bother with adapting its war-oriented organization to peaceful politics. Additionally, its organization began to crack after the party faced a vertical split on the issue of peace and constitution. Over the decades the party has suffered multiple splits.
In 2012, a large chunk of party leaders and cadres led by Mohan Baidya left, which significantly eroded the party’s strength. The party was duly relegated to third position in second Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2013.
In 2015, Dahal’s ideological backbone Baburam Bhattarai left the party. With the realization that he could not revive the party, Dahal then decided to merge with UML in 2018, completely sidelining ideological issues and party’s core agendas.
The electoral alliance with UML in 2017 helped the Maoist party maintain a strong presence in national politics. But with the Supreme Court order last year, the Maoist party was revived yet many of its senior leaders and cadres decided to stay with the UML, further weakening the party. Last year, some leaders also proposed the idea of renaming the party, removing the Maoist tag. Maoist leaders such as Devendra Poudel and Phampa Bhusal even proposed a name-change, to which Dahal reacted positively. But then nothing came of it.
In the document presented at the general convention, Dahal has confessed to mistakes which contributed to the party’s erosion. Dahal is perhaps not very hopeful, which is why he says this is his last chance.
Dahal’s document, too, is old wine in a new bottle. For instance, the party aims to engage its cadres on production, an old proposal that never saw light of the day. Similarly, the document talks about maintaining fiscal discipline and transparency and curbing corruption, and strengthening and purifying party organizations. This too is something that has been endlessly discussed.
Says a senior Maoist leader, Dahal has confessed to the mistakes which damaged the party but there is no guarantee that he won’t repeat the same mistakes. The leader is not hopeful of the document’s implementation as Dahal remains completely focused on winning elections, come what may.
Says analyst Khatiwada, the Maoists do not have any distinct agenda with which to woo the public. So, for the Maoist party, the upcoming elections will be a survival issue. Without an electoral alliance, the party fears a humiliating defeat
So despite numerous differences with PM Deuba, Dahal is in favor of retaining the current coalition. Dahal has himself confessed that the Maoists cannot become the first party in the upcoming elections. At best, his goal will be to lock in the Maoists’ third-strongest position after NC and CPN-UML.
The Maoists are likely to forge an electoral alliance with CPN (Unified Socialist) but even their joint strength may be insufficient to defeat stronger parties like Nepali Congress UML. So, again, Dahal is pinning a lot of hope on a possible alliance with Congress.
But there are strong sentiments inside the NC that the party should not ally with the Maoists, even though there could be a tacit understanding to ensure the victory of some Maoist leaders. So, if NC remains rigid, Dahal could explore other alternatives, including an alliance with UML.
“This is our last chance to win the public’s hearts and minds by implementing the pledges we have made in the general convention,” says Maoist Central Committee member Bhandari. But even he is unsure of the continuity of the current ruling coalition.