Nepal’s political headlines these days are mainly about the rift between K P Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal that split Nepal’s largest party, the UML. Somewhat sidelined is the role of Maoist chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who has been the behind-the-scenes operator.
Dahal went under the nom de guerre Prachanda (‘Fierce One’) during the insurgency, was elected prime minister in 2008, and resigned after trying to replace the Nepal Army Chief. He himself is the first to admit that peacetime politics is not easy.
Last month, he confessed to being under “tremendous stress” because most of the 49 MPs of his Maoist Centre party wanted to be ministers in the coalition government. He added that politics in Nepal does not move in a linear fashion, but has a tendency to go off on an unpredictable tangent.
“I have learnt a lesson that you cannot win if you try to manipulate others too much,” he told a party meeting in April in Chitwan.
As he warms up to a theme, Dahal is prone to making such self-deprecating comments that are embarrassing or even damaging to himself. After the ceasefire in 2006, he was caught on video boasting to Maoist cadre that he had tricked the United Nations into believing his highly inflated figure for militia strength to bloat the budget for cantonments.
His remarks in Chitwan in April were about how he infiltrated the UML by uniting his Maoist party with it, and the goal was to ultimately take over the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN). This was the first time he publicly admitted the real reason he agreed with Oli to unite their parties.
In fact, divide-and-rule has long been Dahal’s way to gain and maintain power both during the conflict, after the ceasefire in democratic politics, and right up to backing Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC) for prime ministership earlier this year.
Dahal and Oli took a bold decision with the Maoist-UML electoral alliance and unity in 2018 to form a strong two-thirds majority government. At first, the two were best buddies. But things started turning sour when Dahal suspected that Oli had no intention to hand over prime ministership half-way through the government’s term as per their “gentlemen’s agreement”.
Since Oli was not on good terms with Madhav Kumar Nepal and Bamdev Gautam, Dahal found an opening. Oli knew what Dahal was up to, and was also trying to outwit Dahal by using all kinds of tricks to stay on in power — including dissolving the Lower House in December 2020.
After the Supreme Court reinstated the House, and Oli was on the back foot, Dahal formed an alliance with dissident UML members, the NC and the JSP to gather the numbers to unseat Oli.
The end result was not just the disintegration of the CPN, but also the split in the UML with Madhav Nepal ultimately forming his own party, CPN (United Socialist) last month.
The five party alliance is having difficulty expanding the Cabinet, but Dahal is at the meetings negotiating portfolios to divide up the spoils.
All these machiavellian moves have resulted in a peculiar political outcome — the largest party in Parliament is now in the opposition and a weak opposition NC is leading the government.
Dahal steered his former underground party to electoral victory in the first Constituent Assembly election in 2008, but lost in 2013. But even then, Dahal was trying to drive a wedge in the NC-UML coalition by supporting Oli’s candidature for prime ministership against the NC.
He fell out with Oli and helped bring him down to form a coalition with the NC with an agreement to rotate government leadership with Deuba, and became prime minister for the second time. However, he soon ditched Deuba and formed the electoral alliance with Oli and the UML for the 2017 polls.
All this behind the scenes skulduggery was not new to Dahal. What is new is that he now publicly admits that it does not work.
This is the same Dahal who as a powerful post-conflict prime minister in 2009 sacked Nepal Army chief Gen Rukmangud Katuwal and replaced him with Gen Kul Bahadur Khadka. Dahal’s intention then was to divide and capture the Nepal Army which he had fought against as a guerrilla commander. But the move backfired, Dahal had to resign after only nine months as prime minister, and he and his party had to wait long years to stage a political comeback.
He was succeeded by Madhav Kumar Nepal as prime minister, but Dahal was up to his old tricks and deposed Nepal by lending his party’s support to Jhalnath Khanal that brought an open rift in the UML. Distrust was growing within the Maoists about Dahal’s ways, and after facing a mutiny from Baburam Bhattarai, Mohan Baidya and Narayankaji Shrestha in 2011, he dumped Khanal and replaced him with Bhattarai.
It is the story of Nepal that the same politicians play musical chairs, becoming prime minister multiple times, and remaining in party leadership for life. For the past 30 years: the same names are in the headlines: Deuba, Nepal, Oli, Dahal, Bhattarai, Gautam, Khanal.
“Dahal’s character is to aspire to be a singular and powerful Communist leader, that is why he sacrificed so many lives during the conflict, for him the end justifies the means,” explains political scientist Mahadev Sah. “He does not have any affinity for democracy. It is all about power, and how to attain and retain it.”
Pushpa Kamal Dahal is still Prachanda. In 2007, he had told his former guerrillas in Chitwan’s Shaktikhor camp: “During the war we machine gunned our enemies, now we sit around a table and sip tea with them. The method may be different, but the goal is the same.”
Today, Dahal’s role has been to handle the same personalities he once waged an armed struggle against, and after the war manipulated from behind the scenes. While undermining Oli for the past two years, he let Nepal do most of the talking. Now, he allows Deuba to be out front. But his own party is now so weakened that it needs alliances to win elections.
The leader of the Marxist-Leninist wing of the Nepal Communist Party C P Mainali knows Dahal well, and says he has let so many people down along the way that it has become a habit, and the only way he knows how to do politics.
“He is used to working in the shadows, orchestrating things from behind, he cannot operate in the open, with transparency,” Mainali says. “What he says and what he does have always been completely different.”
This is true not just in domestic politics, but in Dahal’s dealings with leaders of neighbouring India and China, while in or out of power. He commented openly about his domestic political travails while abroad in controversial interviews. Or, he often boasted about support from leaders in Beijing or Delhi to bolster his domestic standing. In June, he said Delhi would be “comfortable” with him becoming prime minister again.
After failing in his objective to capture the CPN, Dahal is now intent on being the foremost Communist leader in Nepal. He used Madhav Nepal and Khanal to depose Oli, and weaken the UML. So far, it is to Dahal’s credit and political instincts that his strategy has met with success.
Dahal’s charm offensive seems to have worked on Nepal, who finds the Maoist leader a lot more trustworthy than Oli. It would not be surprising if the United Socialists and the Maoists combine forces in the 2023 elections.
What Dahal is doing now is no different than what he was doing as Prachanda during the insurgency. Sometimes he cosied up to Mohan Baidya against Baburam Bhattarai, and at other times he won over Bhattarai to sideline Baidya.
C P Mainali says: “That is always how he operated, to use one comrade against another, and keep himself as a key player.”
Dahal has his eyes fixed on 2023, and is willing to revive the electoral cooperation that won his party 54 seats in local elections in 2017. But Mahadev Sah does not see that as likely. He says: “The Maoists could not remain united with the UML, so it is difficult to believe that an alliance with the Congress will stick. It may help Dahal exact revenge on Oli, but in fact, it may even be counterproductive to both parties and a loss of face for the Maoists.”