In the parliamentary elections of November 2022, senior Maoist leader and minister for energy & water resources Pampha Bhusal was convincingly defeated, losing her seat she held since as far back as the 2008 first Constituent Assembly to Independent Party’s Toshima Karki, a young doctor in her early thirties. And this, in Kathmandu Valley’s robust Maoist stronghold where many Maoist leaders including Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai had lived safely during their “underground” days. Their massive win in 2008 is now a much-eroded memory; and had it not been for Nepali Kangress suicidally supporting them in an ideologically unholy alliance, their party would have fared much worse than they did this time around. Why?
To search for an answer, I went back to an article in Nepali Himal I wrote in mid-March 2000 (1 Chaitra 2056) titled “Prachanda’s Internet Interview: Nepali Maoists’ Intellectual Face”. Prachanda had been interviewed by an American journalist Li Onesto of the Revolutionary Worker when very much underground, and it created a sensation. Because I had studied Marxism, Leninism all the way to “Scientific Communism” while an engineering student in Moscow in the 1970s, the editor asked me to review it for the Nepali audience. After reading the 24-page A4 size interview, I was aghast: this mysterious underground character seemed not only to have no understanding of Marxist fundamentals but also had views that contradicted much of what he himself or his colleagues like Baburam Bhattarai were saying. It has now taken almost two decades for the fraud to be exposed at a mass level, more an indictment of Nepal’s intellectual class than the street-smartness of the Maoists.
It was whispered among those close to the Palace but not well-known that Prachanda and top Maoist leadership lived safely in Indian cities, mostly New Delhi. This fact has been exposed by Indian General Ashok Mehta who warned in a newspaper article back in 2008 when Prachanda started dallying with the Chinese, “You should remember, out of the 10 years of Peoples’ War, you live eight years in Delhi!” Now, as documented in JNU Professor S.D. Muni’s article in the book Nepal in Transition especially in footnotes between pages 317 to 329, Maoists had surrendered to the Indian intelligence agencies and were being used as pawns against the monarchy (Muni’s footnote 14 in page 321: see my review of this book in Biblio India). What was galling in Prachanda’s interview (also now to his wounded guerillas and widowed families) was his chutzpah in fulminating against Indian imperialism even while being sheltered by its spooks, perhaps with their blessing that if anything went awry, the name ‘Maoist’ was sufficient to pin the blame on the Chinese! Which is why, in those days, the Chinese never called them by that name but instead referred to them as “anti-government bandits”!
Prachanda’s understanding of Nepal’s political economy was questionable from the very start. In the Onesto interview, he states that Nepal is a “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” country where salvation lay in the overthrow of the regime by a violent “peoples’ war”. Another matter that their uprising had been triggered by a corrupt Nepali Kangress-UML dispensation that unleashed violent police action Operation Romeo against innocent village supporters of their parent party Rashtriya Jana Morcha. Moreover, it was not monarchy they opposed (Baburam then was pleading with King Birendra to help them fight the corrupt Kangress-UML combo) but the Westminster parliamentary version of governance which they labeled “a butcher’s shop where you display goat’s head but sell dog’s meat”!
Prachanda and many of the Vulgar Marxists hold on to a linear “step-ladder” view of history that sees non-industrialized, non-capitalist countries as “feudal”, Nepal of course being a prime example for them. They unfortunately don’t seem to have looked at economic figures that show otherwise. When the Rana regime was overthrown in 1951, Nepal could have been called “feudal”, although many scholars argue that was never so, that Ranas were autocratic but hardly feudal. Be that as it may, one criterion in establishing the “feudalness” of a country is where a government’s main source of revenue comes from. While it may have been land in 1951 (agriculture being 80% of the GDP), it had shrunk in the 1970s to 40%; and most of the government’s revenues by the time of Prachanda’s interview came from import tax raised at five custom points such as Birganj, Biratnagar, Kodari, Bhairawa and TIA. It meant that the state was already in the hands of trading class comprador bourgeoisie and hardly the feudal overlords if any who had already been wiped out by King Mahendra’s land reforms of the 1960s.
Nepalis who could feed themselves and their dependents all-year round from their land, when the Maoists began their insurgency in 1996, were no more than 15%. Nepali peasants too had long stopped being serfs to feudal overlords but, as victims of village moneylenders, had been forced to become wage labourers to eke out a living, mostly in India, but as it became easier to get a Nepali passport in the districts itself – a reform measure undertaken by parliamentary forces in the late 1990s to provide succor to their village supporter terrorized by the Maoists – in the Gulf, Malaysia and South Korea. This was the classic case described by Karl Polanyi for 18th century England of citizen peasants uprooted from their social base and converted – as living trees to merchantable dead lumber – into labour bereft of social capital feeding the “satanic mill” of market capitalism.
What the remittance economy did – starting with Gurkha recruitment under the Ranas and accelerated to almost 30% of the country’s GDP today due mostly to the insecurity suffered by many during the Maoist violence – is to create what is now called “desakota” conditions. The word is from Bahasa Indonesia combining two Sanskrit-origin words: desh meaning rural, and kot meaning city, the two together meaning neither rural nor urban but a mix of both. A villager in a remote Nepali hamlet whose income basket is 40% from rural sources and 60% from remittance sent by sons or husbands (and now even daughters as nurses in Israel and UK) would be rural or urban in those proportions, with commensurate aspirations and behaviour. This phenomenon throws all rural-urban bifurcations in policy and planning out of the window, and requires a completely new approach to governance science that, let alone the Maoists, neither Nepal’s dominant political class of Kangress and UML nor their supporting international donors care to even think of. Prachanda’s political economy of “peoples’ war” against neo-feudalism, enshrined in the 2015 constitution and just a week ago as a national holiday, was thus as comic as Don Quixote’s tilting at the windmills, but far more lethal and tragic! It fed more and more innocent peasants into the “satanic mill”.
As a younger lot of Nepali economic and political historians begin to re-examine this tragic stage of the country’s political players and events, they will have to confront the gap between Maoist rhetoric and basic ground reality that has moved these politicians to new opportunistic heights of personal nepotistic and crony capitalist aggrandizement. They will also have to explain the pathetic inability of the Kangress and UML to ideologically challenge the Maoists for their untenable political propositions.
Where would they have to begin? Besides Karl Polanyi’s political economy – certainly more realistic and relevant than Vulgar Marxism – they will also have to go back and take a look at Samir Amin’s classic The Future of Maoism. In this book, Amin distinguishes between three primary approaches to socialism – the Russian bureaucratic party control line, the Nehruvian Indian periphery-subservience-to-center reformist capitalism, and Maoist rural peasant-based course. He argues that the other two will eventually lead to a surrender to capitalism while a genuine Maoist approach will lead to new empowerment. In a latter review of the apparent success of Nepali Maoists, he waxes eloquently romantic on how a new dawn is in the offing for the oppressed peasants world over.
Amin passed away in August 2018, two months after he was unable due to visa issues to come to Marx’s Bicentennial celebrations organized by ADRI in Patna and where, as a result, I had to step into his impossibly large shoes to deliver the Vladimir Lenin Memorial Lecture that he was supposed to have delivered. I had to ask why Nepali communists were not red or even pink but dyed blue capitalists. To assess not just local and national but also international “revolutionary” hopes dashed by the political and ideological fraud perpetrated by Prachanda’s Maoists, younger future scholars might like to reflect on a Soviet era joke which is a bit risqué but hits the nail on the head as far as the Nepali and (with the de-dollarization underway following the Ukraine conflict) international class conflict situations are concerned:
Teacher: Give an example of what Lenin meant by a “revolutionary situation”.
Student: When you place an impotent man on top of a frigid woman!
Teacher: What nonsense! What stupidity is this?
Student: Well, Lenin said: “A revolutionary situation arises when the ones on the top cannot, and the ones at the bottom want not [to be ruled as before]”!