Saturday, February 07, 2009

Change He Can Believe In

Is Radha Krishna Mainali about to join the Maoists? Or is Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal merely seeking wisdom from one of the towering figures of Nepali communist movement?
A man who went to the palace on that momentous April night in 1990 to press for the dismantling of the Panchayat system and dilution of monarchical powers ended up joining the royal cabinet 15 years later. The man’s evolution is as gripping as his early unsavory reputation.
One of the leaders of the Jhapali movement, Mainali saw violence as the only option amid the exploitation by feudal elements. A personage no less than Pushpa Lal Shrestha derided his path, saying that assassination of individuals would not topple the Panchayat system.
The Panchayat government, which imprisoned Mainali in 1973, freed him over a decade and a half later and tried to strike a deal. But, then, it did not know how far he and his Marxist-Leninist buddies had gone in forging an alliance with the Nepali Congress against the palace. To prove his point, Mainali became a cosignatory to an appeal to the Nepal Aid Group and other donors asking them to stop aid to the Panchayat government.
When King Birendra, under massive popular pressure, sought a meeting with the Nepali Congress-United Left Front (ULF) combine, Mainali wasn’t considered for a slot on the delegation. (Sahana Pradhan, as the leader of the ULF, was one of the communist representatives.)
Younger members of the ML, the driving force behind the ULF, were apprehensive of the old guard’s ability to negotiate a full dismantling of the Panchayat system in the presence of the monarch. When Mainali became the second rep, he had a predicament of his own. The ML leaders – Madan Bhandari, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Ishwar Pokharel et al – weren’t terribly excited about the Nepali Congress hogging the limelight. Mainali had a hunch that they might ask him to withdraw from the palace confab at the last minute. So he simply went incommunicado.
In front of King Birendra, Mainali pressed for the full and complete dissolution of the Rastriya Panchayat as a confidence-building measure. The monarch evidently envisaged a multiparty Panchayat system. The lifting of the ban on political parties was hardly the triumph Messrs Bhandari, Nepal and Pokharel had in mind. By the time he walked to the television cameras, Mainali sounded the most categorical in announcing that the People’s Movement had lost its relevance.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala tagged Mainali along to Beijing after the UML complained it was being left in the dark on foreign-policy matters. After the 1994 election, Mainali became Minister for Agriculture, Land Reforms and Management under Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari. He returned as health minister in Lokendra Bahadur Chand-led government in 1997. After the UML split the following year, Mainali became a politburo member of the new CPN (ML) led by Bam Dev Gautam.
When the UML and ML reunited in 2002, Mainali became a member of the party’s standing committee. However, in July 2003 the UML suspended his membership for advocating a rapprochement with King Gyanendra. Six months later, the UML expelled Mainali, saying his presence in the party could belittle democracy and the entire communist movement.
Mainali was handed the expulsion letter while he was attending a function at the Russian Cultural Center and to this day bemoans his erstwhile allies’ refusal to let him fully and formally clarify matters. If anything, the move pushed him closer to the palace.
After King Gyanendra’s February 2005 takeover, Mainali became minister for education and sports. His proposal for a nationalist education system proved controversial. But many believed his real job on the cabinet was to serve as a link between the palace and the mainstream parties.
Following the collapse of the royal regime, Mainali became an early critic of King Gyanendra’s mismanagement of the opportunity. Yet he was measured, claiming that critics exaggerated the foibles of the king. “If King Gyanendra had succeeded in ending the Maoist insurgency, he would have been the most revered monarch after Prithvi Narayan Shah,” Mainali told one interviewer.
Prime Minister Dahal, who regularly consults with former royal ministers Ramesh Nath Pandey and Kamal Thapa, seems to retain ideological affinity with Mainali. Just the other day, Dahal extolled Mainali’s contributions to Nepal’s revolutionary movement. Given the scale of his own challenges, Dahal probably does see Mainali as a transformational figure.