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In NY, Prachanda shows like his country he too is changing fast

By Sheela Bhatt in New York
September 26, 2008 05:26 IST
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A miracle has happened.

If you would have partaken of breakfast on the eighth floor of Asia Society, on the posh Park Street in Manhattan with Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, prime minister of Nepal, you would pinch yourself twice. Sausages, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes in their skin and a variety of muffins and breads were served to a select audience who were pleased to share breakfast with the leader America considers a "terrorist" in its official books. President George Bush invited him to the customary dinner on September 21 on the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York along with other world leaders.

At Friday's early morning breakfast meet, Prachanda was seated next to Vishakha Desai, president of Asia Society. In his first reaction while occupying the high table, he told her, "It looks like a sweet dream."

His thoughts, expressed previously in China then on the India trip and now in America, will completely stump leftists all over. In no time the man has become "wiser" from the centrist and rightist point of view. He said in his speech, "As it is my first visit to the United States of America I would like to express my sincere admiration for the spirit of  the American republic."

Cynics may say he has no choice but adopt the tools of right-wing economy and language of centrist politics, but one thing is for sure -- like his country, Prachanda is transforming too fast as well.

Prachanda has been instrumental in throwing out the feudal and exploitative structure of Nepal but his next journey is more difficult, complex and risky than sending the King packing.

He has been making speech after speech promising the moon for Nepal. At Asia Society, he was speaking in his native but direct style. He was adding weight to his words that he wanted the audience to believe in.  Dressed in a suit and tie, his thick black oily hair looking orderly, he was not showing any stress of his jungle days and warfare skills. The leader who three years ago was an ultra-Left wing underground leader was today talking with pragmatism and wisdom about dreams and peace. Karl Marx's foot soldier is now talking like a student of Dr Manmohan Singh's class on market economy.

The man who thought for some 10 years that the US wants to destroy the Maoists and is conspiring against him, was now looking for American investment, tourists and attention.

A day earlier, he was pleading with American officials to remove his Communist party of Nepal-Maoists from the CIA's watch-list. He argued with them, "Our people have mandated us to lead the government, lead the peace process and draft of the constitution. I am sorry to know the US leadership has not changed its position. If there is some problem we are ready to have a free discussion. We have come so far in the process. If the US leadership really wants democracy and prosperity in Nepal the US should rethink about our position as soon as possible. It will be beneficial for Nepal, the US and others because we have given a strong message of peace."

Prachanda told the audience consisting of many Nepal watchers, and also businessmen who have been engaged in Nepal, "Until three years back nobody could think this tremendous political change will happen in such a short time in this very poor and backward country. A miracle has happened."

He spoke on new Nepal and its challenges: enduring peace and democracy. In his speech Prachanda was full of humility and was a pragmatic investment seeker in the American bazaar. He said, "The Nepalese people have at last been liberated from the old and oppressive feudal set-up. My party had the great privilege of leading this fundamental and historical transformation process that has far-reaching implications in the nation's life."

He said Nepal was at the threshold and he will like to take this transformation process to its logical conclusion.

To make it possible, he said he wants to finish the writing of a forward-looking constitution and wants to bring in social-economical transformation. He said, "Even today one-third of Nepal lives in extreme poverty and earns less than a dollar a day. Health, education, basic amenities of life which you consider essential are either inaccessible or unaffordable here. We are committed to bring in economic revolution in the country."

Prachanda, whose underground army is accused of many excesses like looting, kidnapping, murders and even rapes is now emphasising again and again that his regime will be guided by the rule of law and universal human rights.

He is talking about developing tourism and water resources by attracting huge foreign investments to make Nepal prosperous.

In reply to a question he said, "The first priority is to lead the peace process in Nepal, and drafting of the constitution is our next priority."

When asked how will he balance relations with India and China, Prachanda demonstrated a mature response and said he is aware of the two giants and their fast-growing economy on Nepal's both sides. He said, "In terms of geography, history and culture we have a specific relation with India. We understand and nobody can ignore this historical fact and accordingly we want to create a positive atmosphere."

He said he requested the Chinese to build a road between Lhasa and Kathmandu to get "25 per cent of tourists" coming to China.

He said he has also requested Indians to make an "east to west, 1000 km-long" corridor along the border to attract tourists from India. Catherine, who has business interests in Nepal and was at the breakfast meeting, shared her vision of Nepal with Prachanda. She said she agrees that Nepal has been taken out of a feudal set-up and is aware of the methods used by Maoists like murders and terror. She said now the sanitised version of Maoist movement is on display. She asked if there will be some kind of reconciliation process after a very violent revolution.

Prachanda took the question in the right spirit, at least in public. He said, "In every revolution there may be some excesses." During the American and European revolution too there were excesses. He said, "I cannot say that everything we did was okay and no excesses exist. But, now we are taking on the responsibility to transform this process of insurgency to a peaceful democratic nation. It's a challenge of history."

Prachanda's and Nepal's march to history has just begun.

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Sheela Bhatt in New York