KATHMANDU (AFP) — After 25 years underground and a decade of armed struggle across Nepal’s jungles and hills, Maoist leader Prachanda has become the most powerful man in Nepal and is set to lead a new government.
On Wednesday, Nepal’s newly-elected constituent assembly was set to implement a long-standing Maoist demand — abolishing the country’s 240-year-old monarchy and turning the country into a republic.
Prachanda, who signed up to peace in 2006, has had trouble shaking off his ruthless warlord image.
But many believe he is now the right man to rebuild the impoverished Himalayan country wedged between giant India and Nepal after the deadly civil war that ravaged the country’s economy.
“It is Prachanda who really set the agenda for a constituent assembly, republicanism and federalism,” said Sangraula, who writes for Nepal’s best-selling Kantipur daily. “He wants to move Nepali society forward.”
The Maoist chief is now in his strongest position yet.
Last month, he led his party to an upset victory in polls to elect a body to write a new constitution, the next step in a peace process launched in 2006. Commentators said the result showed impoverished Nepal was desperate for radical change.
The Maoists snatched 220 seats in the 601-member assembly, twice as many seats as their rivals and election favourites, the Nepali Congress.
That success was a long time coming for the 53-year-old Prachanda, who spent more than two decades living underground.
Born into a high-caste but poor farming family, Prachanda — whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal — was driven to politics by the extreme poverty he witnessed in rural Nepal.
Married with three children, his interest grew in the communist groups that emerged in the country in the late 1960s after the father of the current King Gyanendra banned political parties.
The chaotic Cultural Revolution in neighbouring China inspired him, as did Peru’s Shining Path Guerrillas, who also took their inspiration from the revolutionary theories of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.
Although he never fought in combat himself, he became chief military strategist of a group of rag-tag rebels and built it into a fearsome force that took control of large swathes of Nepal’s countryside.
Their ideology appealed to Nepal’s low-caste, women and ethnic minority groups, but the rebels also used indoctrination, intimidation, murder, kidnapping and extortion to cement their control, human rights groups say.
He has had trouble shaking off his image of being a ruthless warlord, especially as young Maoist activists continue to be accused of beating up their rivals and extorting money.
The United States still classes his group as a foreign “terrorist” organisation, and many in Nepal are still uneasy.
“During the People’s War there were many excesses — many, many innocent people were killed on the suspicion of being spies,” said columnist Sangraula.
“In some way the Maoist party glorified violence. There was too much and unnecessary violence, for which Prachanda is responsible.”
The man slated to head Nepal’s next government has said his dream is to create a more inclusive country, but he may also suffer from the weakness for clan politics common in South Asia.
His immediate family members are already embedded in Maoist politics, with his wife and daughter both holding seats on the constituent assembly sworn in Tuesday.
In spite of the question marks that still surround the former teacher, Prachanda is for now the face of a “New Nepal,” a popular Maoist slogan.