The young fellow with a resemblance to John Lennon sitting to my right, a student from Lafayette College, was one of them. He had travelled by bus for an hour and half to attend the talk. What brings you here? "To see Prachanda," he said, as if he were talking about a rock star, and then explained he was a socialist. He was a very serious sort of person.
"You know I had a funny thought on the way over here," I said to him. "Wouldn't it have been great if they had arranged for Prachanda to ring the opening bell at the stock exchange on Wall Street? Visiting dignitaries do it all the time."
Even my serious acquaintance couldn't suppress a smile. It soon took over his face. After all, Wall Street?the capital of capitalism?was in crisis, with the fate of Washington's $700 billion bailout of the financial system hanging in the balance. The irony of an elected Maoist revolutionary ringing that famous bell to start the day's trading was delicious.
I was thinking about it more as a tactic to raise Nepal's visibility in America. It would have made for one of those short news items beamed to 100 million Americans on the nightly news, a clever way to cut through the clutter. Dahal had already addressed the UN General Assembly earlier in the day, as had countless other heads of state, all equally ignored by the jaded media.
At the New School, Dahal faced a pretty tough crowd. He began his remarks by reading from a prepared text in English for 15 minutes. His primary message: "History begins anew in Nepal."
He promised the rule of law and freedom of the press, a just, prosperous, stable and peaceful society, relief and rehabilitation, a growth of living standards and an end to governmental corruption?all leading to the socio-economic transformation of the nation. His remarks included an invitation to US investors and a guarantee of cooperation from the nation that was a bridge between two of the biggest markets in the world: China and India. Dahal was not exporting his revolution, he was seeking to import capital investment. That visit to Wall Street was perhaps not a farfetched idea after all.
The real action, though, came with the questions from the audience. Two long lines quickly formed behind each of the two microphones in the aisles. It was time to dig into the details of the just, prosperous and peaceful society-in-the-making. One group of questions centered around how to rein in the YCL and other vigilante groups. Another group of questions came from protectors of the Tibetan cause, who wanted their right for peaceful demonstration guaranteed. And what role for Hinduism? How will land reform proceed? How will corruption be corrected?
"This is a very sensitive question," Dahal said more than once. In one instance, he said with jocularity: "You are trying to provoke me." In every case, his message was brief: these things will be handled in a very cautious way and balanced in a democratic way. But by the end, there were so many questions that there was no longer time for responses. Questioners were given 30 seconds to say their piece, until finally no one was left on the lines. Then Dahal waved and took his leave.
Aside from the UN General Assembly meeting and the stock market crisis, New York was host to another high stakes circus that week: the Clinton Global Initiative. This year, at the opening plenary, the achievements of the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, were highlighted and celebrated.
After taking the reins of the African nation torn by civil war, she has affected a remarkable transformation. The most telling detail perhaps is this: per capita income has risen from $100 to $400 in the two years she has been in office.
That stage where she sat is the Wall Street of global development. Getting there is no media event, no ironic ploy for visibility. The lights go on there every September when the General Assembly is in session, and it's another destination for the Awesome One to put on his agenda on his next visit to New York.