By Maila Baje
For someone who stepped down from the premiership so rancorously seven years ago refusing to ‘prostrate’ before ‘foreign gods’, Pushpa Kamal Dahal is trying hard these days to illuminate his halo of humility.
To be sure, Nepal’s top Maoist no longer projects the ferocity of yore. Open politics has provided him none of the safeguards of the subterranean schemes that characterized the ‘people’s war’. Especially not when you no longer have your own army and when the sword of the International Criminal Court hovers above you incessantly.
So Nepalis may be forgiven for looking past the fact that Dahal is the only communist leader fortunate enough to have returned to the premiership.
Our new prime minister’s early pronouncements have been akin to excuses for impending failure. Gone is the bluster about institutionalizing discontinuities in the affairs of state. The cabinet’s decision to withdraw the nominations of 14 ‘political’ ambassadors, while superficially bold, seems to have been a sop to the Nepali Congress.
How far such demonstrable overtures of a break with K.P. Oli government would go towards placating the coalition partner remains unclear. Mindful of the disarray within the Nepali Congress, Dahal has rejected any notion that he is under any deal to stay for a mere nine months.
The seven intervening years have been instructive to us all. During 2008-2009, Dahal stuck out his neck so northward that it almost snapped. Instead of providing him cover, the Chinese bolstered the more hard-line Mohan Baidya faction, emboldening it eventually to break away.
True, the Americans met Dahal more than halfway, but, in retrospect, only to undermine his revolutionary credentials. In the end, navigating the factional dynamics in India turned out to be most important – and intractable.
Having failed to sack a supposedly insubordinate army chief, Dahal chose to resign and wage a battle to preserve the principle of democratic supremacy. His domestic opponents laughed him off. Separation of powers? Coming out of the mouth of a Maoist? The army was disbanded, the party split and the next election was lost. Much of the party has come back together, but the country is in tatters.
Isn’t it interesting how Dahal undertook a public transformation coinciding with the change in government in India? We did hear of how Nepal’s Maoists opened their first serious contacts with official New Delhi during the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Atal Behari Vajpayee government around 2002.
Almost as if in response to Dahal’s ascension, a senior BJP leader just the other day ruled out the return of the monarchy in Nepal. (His point: “How can the people want to bring back a king who slunk away from them during their hour of greatest need?”)
Friends and foes alike may ruminate all they want about the extent of Dahal’s transformation. What matters is the extent of the bases he has covered where it matters. So keep your eyes on how the transactional dimensions of Nepal-India political relations evolve in the weeks and months ahead.
This is not to say that our prime minister is in an untenable position. If Dahal was able to show an Indian hand behind his departure last time, who’s to say he can’t benefit from perceptions of New Delhi’s role in his resurrection? Heck, former prime minister Oli can still keep regaling us with his aphorisms.