The Maoists had been preparing for the 12th anniversary celebration of their 'People's War' for months. For young cadre from the grassroots, this was the first chance to see their Comrade Chairman in the flesh. They filled the Khula Manch grounds and spilled over into then overflowed into adjoining thoroughfares to hear their leader speak. If it had snowed on Tuesday afternoon, they would have seen it as a sign.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal had taken some care to create a good first impression. Nattily dressed in his signature grey jacket, he looked well-groomed with his Stalinesque moustache, glowing skin, expensive-looking accessories, and gelled hair.
But looks can do only so much to hide inner insecurities. Dahal spoke for over two hours to say two things. He assured loyalists that the party still stood for the dictatorship of the proletariat. To the critics of armed insurgency, he said he was all set to enter electoral politics in a peaceful manner. How he reconciles the contradiction between these conflicting positions will be a test of his leadership in the coming days. Thus, perhaps, the verbiage.
The road ahead for the peace process is bumpy. The armed insurgency ended in a stalemate. While it may be easy for leaders to accept a political settlement, it will be a difficult sell to cadres indoctrinated with victory-or-death.
The peace deal has weakened the position of the seven-party alliance too. Other than a shared commitment to elections to the constituent assembly, they have nothing in common on the face of it. But the parties-or 'regressive forces'-have appropriated the Maoists' radical slogans, as Dahal lamented. With almost every political player ready to accept republicanism, federalism, and inclusion, no single party will stand out while campaigning for the elections.
Every speaker at Tuesday's rally was taking the lowest common denominator position: support us, or else. This stand has also taken over by most other groups: the Maoists, monarchists, Hindutva forces, military, or anyone else.
Not even Dahal's confessions, regrets, apologies, and commitments sounded solid, interspersed as they were with the empty slogans of a misguided adventure that cost more than 14,000 Nepali lives. The chairman needs to reinvent himself to begin to make amends for his guilt, just as the party needs to reinvent itself to both stand out and hold on to its supporters.
The Maoists' network of informers, which supposedly reaches the highest echelons of the security forces, needs to be activated so we know what happened to the over 800 people reported disappeared during the decade of armed conflict. The Maoists owe it to all these families to explain the circumstances of the disappearances and establish their whereabouts-dead or alive.
The second correction the Maoists must make to transform themselves into a proper political party is to take care of their child soldiers. It can't give them back their childhood, but it can offer intensive basic education and skills training. The combatants in the cantonments will probably be demobilised and rehabilitated in due course. But the needs of the militia to be addressed now, when they are facing the vacuum left by their lost cause.
The third challenge is also the most obvious. The multitudes who have supported Prachandpath urgently need a sense of mission if the CPN-M is not to get lost in the alphabet soup of sundry socialists, fiery communists, and pseudo-leftist hangers-on.