Popularly known as Prachanda (‘fierce’), Pushpa Kamal Dahal, once a Maoist guerrilla who fought a bloody decade-long insurgency against the Hindu monarchy to turn his country into a democratic republic, is Nepal’s new prime minister.
Moustached, bespectacled and with a slight paunch, 68-year-old Prachanda was appointed as the new premier by President Bidya Devi Bhandari after he surprisingly walked away from the five-party ruling alliance led by the Nepali Congress and staked a claim for the premier’s post before the deadline set by the president expired on Sunday.
Born into a poor farming family in Dhikurpokhari in the mountainous Kaski district of central Nepal on December 11, 1954, Prachanda moved with his family to the Chitwan district, where a schoolteacher introduced him to communism.
He saw severe poverty in his youth and was drawn to left-wing political parties. Prachanda joined the underground Communist Party of Nepal in 1981 and became general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal) in 1989. This party, later, became the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
The CPN (Maoist) launched its insurgent campaign to abolish the monarchy with an attack on several police stations on February 13, 1996.
During the bloody 10 years of insurgency, Prachanda remained underground, spending years in India. Though the campaign led by him did not enjoy consistent good fortune, it was ultimately successful in its goal of ending Nepal’s 237-year-old monarchy and turning it into a democratic republic.
Prachanda led the decade-long armed struggle from 1996 to 2006 that ultimately ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in November 2006.
He was the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) during the country’s civil war. In the 2008 elections, the CPN(M) emerged as the largest party, and he became the prime minister in August of that year.
He resigned from the post in May 2009 after his attempt to sack then Army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal, was opposed by then President Ram Baran Yadav.
In August 2016, Prachanda was again elected prime minister by the Constituent Assembly after the previous prime minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli resigned ahead of a confidence vote that he was expected to lose.
He was elected after obtaining the backing of the Madhesi Front, a coalition of political parties representing the interests of the Madhes people of the Tarai region bordering India.
His party also entered a power-sharing deal with the Nepali Congress party. In accordance with the terms of that agreement, Prachanda stepped down in May 2017, paving the way for Sher Bahadur Deuba, leader of the Nepali Congress, to succeed him.
As parliamentary elections approached, Prachanda broke with the Nepali Congress and formed an alliance with Oli and his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).
Together, the two parties swept the elections. In May 2018, the two parties merged into the Nepal Communist Party and formally dissolved their respective factions.
Under a power-sharing deal, Oli and Prachanda were expected to rotate the office of prime minister. Prachanda sought greater influence during Oli’s stint. However, in November 2019, he agreed to allow Oli to serve as prime minister for the government’s full five-year term in exchange for Prachanda taking executive leadership of the party.
Although Prachanda wanted Oli to consult the party on major decisions, Oli made many important announcements unilaterally.
Prachanda then insisted that Oli observe the original agreement to rotate the prime minister’s office, but in December 2020, Oli opted instead to recommend that the president dissolve parliament and call early elections.
Prachanda condemned the move as unconstitutional and appealed to supporters to take to the streets in protest.
Up until his fall as prime minister, Prachanda’s career trajectory was mostly in the ascendant. But most critics agree that he has struggled to make the transition from rebel leader to a conventional politician.
Prachanda is a former agriculture student. His name was Chhabi Lal during school time but later changed to Pushpa Kamal Dahal. He was a school teacher and also served in United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nepal before joining politics. He has published a few books including ‘The Problem of Nepali Revolution’.
His natural gift for military leadership and excellent oratory skills enabled him to transform the Maoists from being a poorly armed rag-tag outfit into one of South Asia’s most feared rebel groups.
More than 13,000 people died in the civil war in the impoverished Himalayan nation, which culminated in king Gyanendra Shah relinquishing his absolute powers and being forced to give up his throne in June 2008, the BBC said in a report in 2013.
Up until then, very little was known about Prachanda. Nepalis knew him from only a couple of photographs. He was rarely seen in public and was constantly slipping between India and Nepal to escape the authorities, the report said.
But Prachanda’s clandestine lifestyle was to change at the end of the war when he found himself uncomfortably having to adapt to the rigours of the 21st Century media spotlight, it said.
The former rebel leader emerged from his hideout in rural Nepal deeply immersed in Maoist ideology, something he shares with his three daughters and a son, who all support the movement. His wife, whom he met through the party, is also a Maoist official.
A BBC journalist, who interviewed him in 2006, said that he came across as surprisingly mild-mannered and shy – more humorous than intimidating and without the charisma of some revolutionary leaders.
This assessment stood in sharp contrast to the perception of him as a ruthless leader during the Maoist rebellion, who was responsible for executions and terrorising swathes of Nepal’s population.
But few have seriously doubted that beneath Prachanda’s mild manner there lies a tough interior. He showed his willingness to compromise on his political ideals by holding talks with the government following a peace deal in 2006 that brought an end to the king’s direct rule.
The Maoist leader reassured doubters that he was willing to take part in democratic elections in 2008 and would accept the results of the vote.
Prachanda is known as an “ultimate opportunist” and has always ended up in a power position despite claiming to be the victim. According to media reports, his critics say he is “self-centred and clever”, and will leave his closest aides behind if it benefits him.
Many had claimed the Maoists were an irrelevant party as they only won 32 out of the 275 seats in the House of Representatives. It is the third-largest party behind the Nepali Congress and the UML. But leaving all that aside, Prachanda twisted politics in such a way that he will be serving his third term as the prime minister of the country.
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