All Eyes on Maoist Leader After Nepal Vote
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now, a report on big changes in Nepalese politics. Maoists who once fought a civil war in the Himalayan nation are taking power there. The vote count was expected to end today and it's clear the Communist Party has overwhelmingly won this month's elections. The vote was for an assembly that will write a new constitution and, in the meantime, form an interim government to rule until the constitution is completed.
As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, all eyes are on one man known by just one name who may shape Nepal's future.
PHILIP REEVES: His name is Prachanda. Political analyst Nilambar Acharya has said this is a Nepali word with many meanings.
Mr. NILAMBAR ACHARYA (Political Analyst, Nepal): Prachanda may mean very strong yet orient(ph). Prachanda may mean very powerful. Prachanda may mean excessive. The Prachanda's army, excessive hot, very hot.
REEVES: The most common translation is fierce one. This is the known nom de guerre of a 53-year-old former science teacher and agriculturist who led a 10-year Maoists uprising against the state of Nepal. He's still using the name in peace time as he celebrates his party's stunning success in the elections, although his real name is far more serene, it's Pushpa Kamal.
Mr. ACHARYA: Pushpa means flower, Kamal means lotus. So it is his ex-real name.
REEVES: Two years have elapsed since a popular uprising supported by the Maoists forced Nepal's King Gyanendra to end a 40-month period of absolute rule and hand power back to the political parties.
(Soundbite of trumpets blaring)
REEVES: Nepalese celebrated the anniversary of that event with an official parade in the middle of the capital Kathmandu. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. The main political parties have already agreed that abolishing the monarchy all together will be the new assembly's first task. The Maoists' sweeping victory at the polls means Prachanda will likely be Nepal's new transitional prime minister. For many Nepalese, Prachanda is something of a mystery.
Mr. KANAK MANI DIXIT (Political Analyst and Journalist, Nepal): There were rumor that there was really, actually, no Mr. Prachanda, that it was all a myth and it was a figure created by the Communist Party of the Nepal Maoist to create an aura.
REEVES: That's Kanak Mani Dixit, one of Nepal's leading journalists and political analysts. Dixit says during Nepal's civil war when Prachanda was operating underground, the media only had one photograph of him. Most Nepalese knew next to nothing about him. But in 2006, the Maoists ended a peace agreement and Prachanda came in from the jungle. Dixit says, since then, Prachanda's proved himself to be a formidable political operator.
Mr. DIXIT: He's very personable. He's often distractingly honest with what he says. It is sometimes easy to forget that he represents a force with himself as the commander that was carrying out a brutal people's war which then invited a brutal state reaction as well.
REEVES: Officially, the U.S. State Department still categorizes the Maoists of Nepal as a terrorist organization. But Dixit says Prachanda, in a recent victory speech, went to considerable lengths to portray the Maoists as anything but militants.
Mr. DIXIT: He said exactly what I think that the world and the people of Nepal wanted to hear, how the communist party of Nepal, actually, was not going for a communist state but for a mixed economy, that they had no problems with capitalism, that the bureaucracy need not be worried, the officers and soldiers and the security forces need not be worried. And he was giving a message of calm and reserve.
REEVES: As they await a new transitional government, Nepalese are warily watching developments. Soniel Loya(ph) manages a boutique selling top-end Rolex watches in one of Kathmandu's most exclusive areas. He thinks the Maoists will have to live up to that promise to be pro-business.
Mr. SONIEL LOYA (Businessman, Nepal): If they are not friendly with the businessmen, they cannot do anything. If tourists will not come, our business will not go boom, then everything will collapse.
REEVES: The new Maoists-led government will have to act fast if it's to retain popular support. Lakshmi Mahajan(ph) is a mother of five. She lives in a village which is only a few miles outside Kathmandu, but a world away from its boutiques and bars.
Ms. LAKSHMI MAHAJAN (Resident, Nepal): (Speaking foreign language)
REEVES: She says she's already fed up with all the excitement about Prachanda. She's not the worst off by the standards of Nepal, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. Weaving carpets up to 18 hours a day earns her the equivalent of $40 a month. Add it to her husband's pay as a driver, they bring in about $80 a month. But the family's been hard-hit by the rising prices of rice and other basic foods. She says, these have gone up by 30 percent in the last few months. They're struggling to get by. Nepal's new government is yet to be formed, but once the cabinet portfolios are handed out, it will need to get down to work straight away.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, Kathmandu.