Three years ago, Nepal was mired in civil war. Ten years of conflict between national security forces and Maoist rebels had cost the nation an estimated 13,000 lives. King Gyanendra had declared a state of emergency, dissolving the democratically elected Parliament and arresting many of its members. Reports and rumors of disappearances, political imprisonments, murders, displacements and other atrocities–committed by both sides–were commonplace. The story seemed as bleak as it was typical: a fledgling democracy done in by corruption, fighting and an internal war of attrition.
But Nepal defied the usual story line. Galvanized by King Gyanendra’s grab for power, the parliamentary parties put aside their differences and began peace talks with the Maoist rebels. Weeks of protests forced the King to reinstate the Parliament. The Maoists agreed to peace accords overseen by the United Nations, and entered the government as a nonviolent political party. The monarchy was soon abolished and–in the first election of the new constitutional assembly–the Maoists won the largest bloc of seats. And so it was on the evening of September 26 that the newly elected Maoist Prime Minister and former revolutionary leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (better known by his guerilla nom de guerre “Prachanda,” meaning “the Fierce One”) arrived at the New School in New York City, fresh from the UN, to speak to of an audience of students, journalists, Western-style communists and expatriate Nepalis.
Those expecting a fiery diatribe denouncing right-wing ideology and foreign hegemony were in for a disappointment. “We will focus ourselves on three major issues,” the Prime Minister said, “taking the peace process to a logical conclusion, writing a democratic, inclusive and forward-looking constitution and thinking about the socioeconomic transformation of the country.” The speech sounded less like Prachanda the guerilla warrior than Dahal the statesman, eager to ameliorate rifts with Nepalis and to recast Nepal’s image as a nation moving toward a peaceful, economically stable future. He talked about the inclusion of women and “untouchable” castes in the constitutional assembly. He referred to the UN’s help in brokering the cease-fire and portrayed his government as an aspiring member of the international community. He talked of stomping out corruption and criticized Nepal for failing to tap its natural resources. He spoke at length about plans to rebuild Nepal’s infrastructure and encourage private enterprise and foreign investment in order to develop its hydroelectric capabilities. By the time PM Dahal had finished speaking, the vision he had painted resembled contemporary European socialism much more than it did China, circa 1966.
The discrepancy between Dahal’s vision and Mao’s was not lost on either the audience or on the prime minister himself. During the question-and-answer period, one questioner asked if the Nepali Maoists plan to disconnect themselves entirely from their communist roots, to which Dahal quipped that, if they are supposed to dismiss Engels and Mao, then what about Lincoln and Washington as symbols of American democracy? Communism, he seemed to say, is a heritage, not an orthodoxy, a point that he returned to repeatedly as he railed against the condescending rigidity of Western Marxists and described his movement as “the Prachanda Path,” a new, more “scientific” step in the evolution of communism. “Concrete analysis of concrete conditions is the soul of Marxism,” the Prime Minister said. “We are devising our policy and program according to the changed situation of the first decade of the twenty-first century.”
Dahal’s willingness to adapt Maoist doctrine is partly a reflection of how nebulous modern Maoism can be. Indeed, Maoism today is defined as much by its military strategy as it is by its economic and political ideals–the so-called “people’s war” that uses popular peasant support and guerilla warfare to cripple the state and wear down its military capabilities. But with the Maoists’ turn towards peaceful multiparty democracy, this defining aspect no longer applies. What then? Follow China’s lead of hyper-capitalism? Move towards a centralized economic model? Even the original forty-point platform the Maoists submitted to the Nepali government at the beginning of this conflict was less a blueprint of radical leftist economic and political models than a list of pragmatic, nationalistic grievances aimed at reforming a failing democracy. One exception was the condemnation of “so-called privatization and liberalization to fulfill the interests of all imperialists,” a position from which Dahal now seems to be backing away.
As inspiring as it was to hear a revolutionary talk so pragmatically, it did little to mask the fact that many difficult decisions lie ahead. Three times audience members asked the Prime Minister whether the government’s harsh treatment of its Tibetan refugee population was a result of back-room dealings with the Chinese government. Each time, the Prime Minister dodged the question, stating that the government will respect human rights but cannot tolerate actions “on our own soil” that might be taken as hostile towards its neighbors.
Questions about Nepal’s corrupt ministry of finance and the Maoists’ infamously violent youth wing were met with equally evasive answers. And yet, more than undermining Dahal’s credibility, these questions only emphasized the fundamental challenges facing Nepal as a small, poor and unstable country, sandwiched between two rising Asian superpowers. Despite advances in the last few years, Nepal’s economy remains in shambles, its infrastructure nonexistent, and its future as unclear as it has ever been. The bloodshed is over, at least for now, and that alone is a miracle. But for Nepal to fulfill Dahal’s vision, many more miracles will be necessary.