The rebel faction led by Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’ exudes a lot of bravado. By naming itself “The Communist Party of Nepal,” without any of the tags or qualifiers used by other splinter groups in this country, it portrays itself as the last remaining embodiment of the people’s desire for radical transformation. In its documents and resolutions, Biplab and his followers claim to have identified remedies for the errors not just of past revolutionary movements in Nepal, but also of all communist regimes in history. Once they come to power, it is claimed, they will establish a regime based on “scientific socialism” purged of all impurities and encompassing all the political, social and technological changes since the days of Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

The language that the Biplab group uses to analyze politics, society and economy is almost entirely drawn from the publications of the old Nepali Maoist party and canonical communist texts. In other words, the Biplab group’s criticism of its forebears entirely relies on concepts derived from those very forebears. As a result, reading its documents is a painful experience; it is like watching a person trying to dance with hands and legs tied.

But the contents of party documents matter only to a few diehards perhaps. More relevant is the performance of producing these documents. Through them the Biplab group seeks to demonstrate that it has enough stamina and sense of purpose to wage an armed campaign that will soon pose a major threat to the state.

Maoists commissars in Achham in 2002
Maoists commissars in Achham in 2002. Photo Credit: Janyuddhaka Photoharu

What are the chances that Biplab will be able to win over a large number of supporters? Certainly, the group already has a core membership of well-indoctrinated, battle-hardened Maoists. While it’s not clear how big the group is, it is unlikely that it has numerical strength enough to be able to achieve its goals. They will need many more followers. Potential recruits will likely come from sections of the population utterly disenchanted with the political system, those who have lost hope that the existing parliamentary or constitutional system will address their interests. They include people who were involved in the diverse ethnic movements – armed and unarmed – and campaigned for identity-based federalism after 2006 but whose voices were silenced after the promulgation of the 2015 constitution.

However, there is no certainty that such groups will come to see Biplab as their best hope for realizing their interests. Many of them have long been suspicious of Maoist ideology and strategy. For Biplab to gain their support, he will have to demonstrate that his group has sufficient strength and flexibility to protect and guide diverse oppositional tendencies. So far Biplab has sought to project strength primarily through the occasional general strike or a random act of violence. No doubt, there are some people who feel a thrill every time Biplab’s cadres blow up a power station or vandalize a truck. But it’s clear that such sporadic actions alone will not enable him to garner substantial support.

Whether or not Biplab’s movement will grow and spread depends to a large extent on the government’s response. The best-case scenario for them, indeed the one that many of the group’s leaders seem to be hoping for, is for the state to repeat its approach for dealing with the Maoists in the late 1990s.

The methods used at that time were primarily repressive, and allowed the security forces to ignore due process and the rule of law. Angered by police violence, large sections of the population became more sympathetic to the rebels. But the state’s brutality alone could not have enabled the Maoists to gain so much strength in such a short period of time. The Maoists benefited not because the police inflicted arbitrary violence but because it was also inefficient. The police antagonized people but failed to contain the Maoists. Many joined the Maoists because they felt that the probability of them being caught out and punished by the police was relatively low. Over time the security forces escalated violence against the rebels and the state came to view the Maoists as the gravest threat it faced. Consequently, a range of people with deep-seated grievances now saw the Maoists as the fulcrum of resistance against the state.

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It cannot be ruled out that the government may act in a way that serves to increase the Biplab group’s power. Nonetheless, Nepal in 2019 is very different from what it was in the 1990s. The state’s reach has increased. Extensive road and telephone networks have made the countryside vastly more accessible. It will be more difficult for Biplab to establish base areas and safe havens where large groups of guerillas can be trained and sheltered.

The class structure and geographical distribution of Nepal’s population have also changed considerably. People across classes have become far more mobile, traveling abroad for work or migrating to the cities. Many have abandoned agriculture. The rural population has become far more connected to the global market. It may no longer be possible to replicate the old Maoist strategy of isolating the countryside from the cities and mobilizing the agrarian masses against the feudal classes and the urban population.

The leaders of the Biplab group understand that these transformations necessitate significant revisions to their mode of operation. Unlike the old Maoists, they do not seek to set up base in the villages and gradually expand into urban centers. Instead, they plan to mobilize people and conduct armed action in both village and city simultaneously. They think they cannot solely rely on the core communist constituencies of the peasantry and working classes. So they also seek to gain the support of the middle classes (“doctors, engineers, nurses, professors, teachers, journalists, lawyers, low ranking members of the army, police and bureaucracy”).

PLA combatants on a highway during People's War
PLA combatants on a highway during People’s War. Photo Credit: Janyuddhaka Photoharu

Furthermore, the Biplab group claims to have superseded old techniques of revolt. Its strategy is neither to wage “People’s War” (where a guerilla army gradually takes over rural areas, thus surrounding and squeezing the cities), nor to stage a “People’s Revolt” (in which the revolutionary party rouses a largely urban population in a mass uprising against the state.) Party documents speak instead of a “Unified People’s Revolution” that will combine elements of both these strategies, focus on rural and urban areas equally, and reach out to workers and farmers, as well as the middle classes. “The forms of struggle of unified people’s revolution will be mainly people’s struggle, mass action and armed struggle,” writes one leader of the group. “While all forms will be developed and utilized relative to necessity and revolutionary process (sic); it is both given and accepted that armed struggle is ultimately decisive.”

What is the Biplab group’s primary aim? Is it to conduct guerilla warfare or focus on mobilizing the masses and committing random acts of violence? If it cannot clearly answer this question, its organizational apparatus will likely be mired in confusion.

In other words, the Biplab group wants to do everything at the same time, hoping they will somehow hit on the right formula to instigate widespread revolt. But using diverse tactics all at once might mean none of them will succeed. The group seems to have forgotten that one mode of action necessarily impedes another. For example, acts of sabotage or seizing privately owned land for redistribution might help the group gain some supporters among groups with deep-seated grievance, but are more likely to alienate the middle classes. It is already extremely unlikely that many “doctors, professors or lawyers” will come out in support of a protest called by the Biplab group, even on issues that speak to their interests and concerns (against corruption in the medical education sector, for example).

What is the Biplab group’s primary aim? Is it to conduct guerilla warfare or focus on mobilizing the masses and committing random acts of violence? If it cannot clearly answer this question, its organizational apparatus will likely be mired in confusion. The group has maintained great secrecy regarding its structure. It is hard for the outside observer to find out how many combatants it has and how they are organized. Nonetheless, party leaders state that their combatants are not yet organized into anything resembling an army. It appears that the leadership aims to deploy its combatants as ad hoc groups created and dissolved as and when necessary. Flexibility is a strength for rebel movements. But excessive fluidity is a weakness; it hampers the ability to act.

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It is relatively easy for rebel movements to raise arms and personnel and create violence and disorder. What is much harder is to find a path to state power. During the final years of the civil war, Prachanda used to tell his ranks that it was necessary for the Maoists to pursue a negotiated settlement to the conflict since they lacked the capacity to take over the capital through force. If they relied on military means alone, he said, they would eventually be reduced to defending small pockets of rural territory.

Biplab and Prachanda (left to right) in Thabang, Rolpa in 2011. Credit: Nabin Bibhas
Biplab and Prachanda (left to right) in Thabang, Rolpa in 2011. Credit: Nabin Bibhas

The Maoists were immensely lucky to have been fighting against a state riven by conflicts between the parliamentary parties and the monarchy. They were able to exploit these divisions throughout the conflict, eventually managing to enter Kathmandu by means of an alliance with the parliamentary parties. Since the negotiated compromise included provisions for the abolition of the monarchy, the Maoists were able to claim a sort of victory.

Biplab will likely try to exploit rifts between the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the opposition Nepali Congress (NC). But it won’t be easy for his group to gain lasting advantage through such efforts. For the wrangling among the political parties fundamentally differs from the contradictions between the king and the parties. Struggles between the ruling party and the opposition are a normal feature of parliamentary democracy. These do not generally threaten the political system as such. The rift between the monarchy and the parties during the Maoist war, in contrast, exposed contradictions underlying the very foundations of political order.

The 1990 constitution was ambiguous about whether sovereignty rested in parliament or the palace. It gave the monarch emergency powers as well as control over the military. King Gyanendra exploited these ambiguities to dissolve parliament and eventually grab full executive power. This was what made the parliamentary parties amenable to jettisoning the 1990 constitution altogether and accepting the Maoist demand for a Constituent Assembly.

Some Maoist leaders during the war
Some Maoist leaders during the war. Photo Credit: Janyuddhaka Photoharu

Nepal faced a systemic crisis during the period between the dissolution of parliament in 2002 and the Jana Andolan of 2006. It is unlikely that Biplab will be able to spark a similar crisis even if he can use inter-party conflicts to his advantage. The government has a substantial parliamentary majority and Prime Minister K.P. Oli has centralized a wide range of powers in his office. There is no chance that the president will act against the government. Opposition efforts to undermine the government will remain ineffectual, at least for the foreseeable future.

But if the Biplab group does manage, against all odds, to expand and cause widespread mayhem across the country, the crucial relationship to watch out for will be the one between the government and the army. It is worth recalling what happened about two decades ago: after the Maoist attack on Dunai in September 2001, Prime Minister G.P. Koirala gave orders to mobilize the army against the Maoists, but the army refused to obey, causing the government to resign and triggering the series of crises that culminated in the 2006 Jana Andolan.

The parties have ostensibly brought the army under civilian control since the peace agreements were signed. But it is by no means certain that the army will unconditionally follow government orders during a time of crisis. Recently the government has tried to amend key legislation to give the prime minister sole authority to deploy the army. This hasn’t gone down well with Nepal Army officials, according to media reports. Conditions of widespread violence and disorder would further put civil-military relations to the test. And the Biplab group will benefit most from rifts between the government and the army.