On Falgun 1 (Feb 13), the day ex-Maoists commemorate the anniversary of the decade-long insurgency, former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai tweeted a photo.
The photo shows (from left to right) Ram Bahadur Thapa, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya in garlands, their right fists punching the air. Curiously, the quartet of top Maoist insurgency-time leaders now find themselves in four different political parties. Before, they were together in CPN (Maoist) and had jointly led the insurgency from 1996 to 2006, with Dahal as the supreme commander of the underground outfit.
Disputes between them started to surface when the Maoists transitioned to peaceful democratic politics, and especially after they came to lead the government following their resounding victory in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. Dahal’s relations with his fellow revolutionaries started to sour, too.
‘Divorce’ with Bhattarai
Among the leaders discussed above, Bhattarai was the last to sever ties with Dahal when he decided to form the Naya Shakti Party under his own leadership following the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015.
Bhattarai apparently ended the two-decade-long working relation with Dahal after it became clear that he would never get to lead the party.
“Bhattarai may not have quit the Maoist party had he gotten a chance to lead it,” says writer and journalist Netra Panthi, who has published a Nepali book titled ‘Divorce’ based on Dahal-Bhattarai relations. “But Dahal gave no hint he was ready to let Bhattarai become chairman anytime soon.”
Mumaram Khanal, a political analyst who left the mother Maoist party in 2005, contrasts Dahal’s reluctance to relinquish power to the willingness of another popular communist leader, the then CPN-UML General Secretary Madan Bhandari, to share power. Bhandari had offered party chairmanship to Manmohan Adhikari even though Bhandari could have easily kept the post for himself. “But Dahal never thought of offering the top job to anyone else,” Khanal adds.
According to other ex-Maoist leaders, Dahal used different stratagems to sideline other leaders and retain his chairmanship. Bhattarai was one of his early victims.
Bhattarai, the SLC examinations topper in 1970 and a PhD holder from Jawaharlal Nehru University, was one of the most influential leaders in the Maoist party and helped attract many youths to the Maoist cause. But Dahal tried to sully Bhattarai’s image right from the start of the insurgency.
“Dahal used to tell party rank and file that although Baburam Bhattarai was not a real communist, he would be useful tool to achieve the revolution’s goals,” a former Maoist leader told ApEx.
Later, Dahal started portraying Bhattarai as someone uncomfortably close to India, which further widened their rift.
Old differences with Thapa
Ram Bahadur Thapa, Dahal’s top lieutenant during the insurgency, left his former supreme commander in 2012 but then rejoined the mother party following Bhattarai’s 2016 exit. As a reward, Dahal in 2018 nominated Thapa as home minister in the KP Oli-led government.
Less than five years after his patch up with Dahal, Thapa left him again, this time for Oli’s NCP faction.
“Thapa decided to ditch Dahal and side with Oli so that he could retain his ministerial berth. It’s simple as that,” says Lekhnath Neupane, who was until recently a close confidant of Thapa.
Panthi agrees with Neupane’s reading. “He understood that the division between Oli and Dahal was based purely on power calculations and thus he had no compunction in abandoning him,” Panthi says.
Thapa’s relation with Dahal had never been stable, even before the Maoist insurgency. Thapa had first left the Dahal-led party in 1991 to form a new political outfit under Mohan Baidya’s leadership but he had later rejoined the mother party.
During the civil war, Thapa was axed from the Maoist central committee following allegations of sexual misconduct. The allegation was a big hurdle in his ascent up party hierarchy and soured relations with Dahal.
Baidya and the army
Just like Thapa, Mohan Baidya, the top Maoist ideologue during the insurgency, also left Dahal in 2012, following a dispute over the party high command’s decision to send Nepal Army into the UNMIN-supervised Maoist cantonments.
The senior communist leader had come to have major differences with Dahal since the party joined the peace process in 2006. He had also registered many dissenting political papers in the party’s major gatherings.
Along with the army row, Dahal’s pick of ministers in the Baburam Bhattarai-led government in 2011 riled Baidya and other leaders in his camp.
One major reason behind the 2012 Maoist split was disgruntlement of CP Gajurel and Dev Gurung, both of whom were unsatisfied about not getting the ministries of their choice.
Gajural had sought the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but Dahal appointed Narayan Kaji Shrestha in the post. Dahal also picked Barsha Man Pun as Finance Minister, dampening the hope of Dev Gurung, another claimant to the post. “The Maoist party may not have split at the time had Gajurel been made foreign minister,” says Panthi.
Baidya had been arrested in India in 2004 when the Maoist insurgency was at its peak. His faction suspected the party’s changing internal power dynamics—i.e. growing clout of Dahal and Bhattarai—as responsible for his arrest.
All about power with Oli
Ahead of the 2017 parliament polls, long-time arch rivals Oli and Dahal decided to forge an electoral alliance, to the surprise of many. After sweeping federal and provincial polls by winning two-thirds of contested seats, the two communist parties they led merged to form the Nepal Communist Party.
Dahal and Oli projected themselves as two pilots of the NCP jet. But Dahal’s partnership with his former foe didn’t last long as well and the two parted ways less than three years after party unification.
“Dahal made the blunder of merging the Maoist party with Oli’s outfit without thinking about its repercussions. The unity was unlikely to last given the self-centric nature of the two leaders,” says analyst Neupane.
Adds Mumaram Khanal: “Dahal didn’t merge his party with UML because the two parties shared a political ideology. It was so that he could get to be prime minister and party leader after Oli”.
Dahal had also agreed to Oli’s proposal to continue with Bidya Bhandari as the country’s president after Oli assured him the prime minister’s post two and half years later. “Had Dahal agreed with Madhav Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal to pick another candidate for president, the political course today would be vastly different,” Mumaram Khanal says.
Family over party
Dahal could also not do justice to many of his former Maoist colleagues. Chakrapani Khanal, better known by his nom de guerre Baldev, was one of the top commanders of the Maoist army during the insurgency. He got to be a government minister only when his party had joined the government for the seventh time after the start of the peace process.
By then, other Maoist comrades of similar ranks had already become ministers multiple times. The likes of Barshaman Pun, Janardan Sharma, Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Shakti Basnet were Baldev’s contemporaries yet they seemed to have been repeatedly favored over him.
According to party sources the now-underground Netra Bikram Chand Biplob’s relation with Dahal soured after the Maoist supremo suspected him of leaking the fact that he used to consume alcohol during the insurgency. Chand had been overlooking Dahal’s security details while he was holed up in Rolpa during the last years of the insurgency.
Likewise, another senior Maoist leader Mani Thapa recently left Dahal’s NCP faction after Oli offered him a ministerial berth, something Dahal had failed to do.
“When the Maoist party got into government, Dahal appointed ministers who could materially enrich the party and not necessarily those who had made the most contribution to the party’s cause,” says Panthi, who is about to publish another book on Nepali politics.
But Dahal does not fail to make big promises. “He promises many things to many people when he is not in power. But then he cannot fulfil all his promises when his party gets to power, alienating many,” says Panthi.
The former Maoist supremo also started to increasingly favor his own kith and kin. His daughter Renu Dahal was largely unknown among Maoist cadres before she was picked by her father to contest the 2013 Constituent Assembly election from Kathmandu-1.
Renu lost, but then she was again fielded as a candidate for mayor of Bharatpur metropolitan in 2017 local elections. Dahal had even forged a poll alliance with Nepali Congress to ensure her victory. Yet Renu was still trailing CPN-UML candidate Devi Gyawali in vote-counting when Maoist representatives at the counting-station started tearing valid ballot papers. There was a reelection and Renu came on top this time.
Likewise, Dahal’s daughter-in-law Bina Magar was appointed the Minister for Water Supply in the Oli cabinet. When PM Oli wanted to remove her owing to her poor job performance and her alleged involvement in irregularities, Dahal made it clear that her removal would be unacceptable.
Dahal’s critics say his first preference while making important appointments are his immediate family members, followed by other relatives, the members of his faction and only then other party members.
Revolutionary no more
All his flaws do not stop his admirers from talking highly of Dahal, and seeing in him a dynamic and pragmatic leader.
Shakti Basnet, a close confidant of Dahal, says Bhattarai, Baidya and Thapa all left the mother party due to their ideological differences and not necessarily because of Dahal.
“Prachanda comrade took a pragmatic political line, and not everyone agreed with it. Yet you cannot deny that Nepali politics has revolved around his agenda since 2006,” Basnet says.
But critics say Dahal’s new pragmatic line is the result of his abandonment of all revolutionary agendas. “Perhaps other leaders are less inspired to follow him as he has now abandoned all his revolutionary agendas. He has started living lavishly and become money-minded and power-hungry,” says Shyam Shrestha, an analyst of left politics.
According to analyst Khanal, Dahal’s unbroken leadership of the Maoist party for over two decades might make him believe he cannot be replaced, and nor can he for the same reason understand the aspirations of others vying for party leadership.
It was unrealistic to expect the NCP to remain intact for long given the high political ambitions of both Oli and Dahal, its two co-chairs. But perhaps Dahal’s signature failures also contributed to the split.