Pushpa Kamal Dahal (nom de guerre: Prachanda), Chairman of the CPN (Maoist Center), former prime minister, and chief architect of the country’s civil war, is now a man in search of a mission.
At the Maoist Center’s central committee meeting on August 16, Prachanda gave a stirring speech where he pointed out that the party risked becoming irrelevant. “If we continue with our current activities,” he said, “this party will be of no use.” He called for reforms within the party.
This introspection, from a man who is otherwise tirelessly confident, caught even his most loyal party members by surprise. Despite the theatrics of that speech, its power ultimately originated from its underlying truth: the Maoists are indeed becoming irrelevant.
Over the years, since first coming to power, CPN (Maoists), the party that led the civil war, has splintered. Key ideologues have left. All that now remains, the Maoist Center, is held together by Prachanda’s crafty stratagems to stay relevant. He has skillfully merged, parted ways with, aligned, and maneuvered with other political parties to keep him and his party visible.
While Prachanda and his Maoist Center amble about the corridors of power playing political games to stay relevant, the party is bereft of ideology—lost about what it should do in the Nepal they themselves helped create.
There are, no doubt, many factors why the Maoists lost their way. For a large part, it was because they rushed to rule, not govern. Instead of seeking to empower individuals, communities, local governments, and provinces to make their own decisions, their leaders rushed to centralize, direct, and rule.
Among the many examples, consider for example, the story of Barsaman Pun (nom de guerre: Ananta). As deputy commander of the People's Liberation Army during the civil war, he led the attacks on Bandipur and Sindhuli barracks where approximately 50 people died. In the government, he last served as the Minister of Energy, Water Resources, and Irrigation.
As minister, his actions centralized power in Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), the country’s national power utility, further intensifying its monopoly, deepening political interference in NEA, and undermining the role of provinces, local governments, and individuals in the power sector. He failed to pass a single transformative legislative Act, the Electricity Act for example, which was in desperate need of reform.
Nepal’s deep-rooted problems cannot be solved by a single person, entity, or authority. It needs individuals and communities who are empowered to make local decisions and are accountable to their stakeholders. This is what federalism and decentralization offer, and what the Maoists had fought for.
Once in power, however, they forgot their fight for local empowerment and rushed to rule. Put aside concerns about corruption and vested interest that they enabled. The Maoists leaders decided what was best and went about forcing those ideas down from the center. They forgot that empowering local communities entailed just the opposite.
In hindsight, the Maoist civil war doesn’t anymore look like a fight for empowerment that is embodied in the constitution’s federalism, decentralization, and local governance. The activities of Maoist leaders have made it look like the civil war was nothing more than a bloody battle for political power.
The Maoist demand for an Executive President reflects its motivation to rule. Within Nepal’s federal structure, it is unclear how an Executive President would enhance governance, as they argue. On the contrary, it would institutionalize a structure for the centralization of power, and create a bigger risk for an authoritarian rule.
If Prachanda and his Maoist Center seek to genuinely explore how to stay relevant, they must ask whether they intend to rule or govern. To rule is easy: the party is full of clever people with political acumen and craftiness to vie for power, just like every other party.
If Prachanda and his Maoist Center intend to govern, they must return to their roots. Nepal’s progress doesn’t lie in a few wise men (or women) deciding the right solutions for everyone. It rather lies in empowering individuals and local communities to decide what’s best for them. Federalism and decentralization are still the best way to enable this.
Nepal’s federalism and decentralization remains weak, republic and secularism are unsteady. If the Maoists weren’t so busy trying to establish whose turn it was to be minister, they would already know their next mission: save federalism and Nepal’s constitution.