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A massive letdown
Publication Date : 18-01-2013
Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai’s popularity was at an unexpectedly high point before he became the prime minister in August 2011. In public opinion surveys carried out by the media, he scored more than Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, securing the support of more than 80 per cent of the people polled. At that time, Dahal blamed the ill intentions of the media for giving his deputy a higher score to defame his image. Now, Bhattarai’s popularity has plunged; and his one-time ardent supporters are demanding his resignation and venting their anger at him.
Soon after Bhattarai became the prime minister, social media networks were filled with remarks that he should not be obstructed from performing his tasks. Some crazy youths even had T-shirts printed with slogans praising their “visionary leader”. Bhattarai was projected as a deity who would deliver peace and the constitution overnight along with economic development. The support was the result of his continuous effort from the beginning of the 10-year insurgency to win the hearts and minds of civil society, youths, media, intelligentsia and international power centres.
To the opposition parties too, he was dearer than his party chairman. During the initial years of the insurgency, Bhattarai was considered to be the main leader of the Maoist party as Dahal was not on the scene. To many opposition leaders, Dahal was an “incredible and autocratic-minded person” while Bhattarai was a “democrat and peace-loving political animal”.
Even after joining peaceful politics in 2005, Bhattarai’s entire efforts were concentrated on boosting his mass image. He reached out to different sectors instead of paying attention to boosting his organisational strength by reaching out to his cadres. He frequently used to meet media persons, civil society representatives, youths from different parties, students and ambassadors from different countries to impress them by telling them about his political and social visions.
Before and soon after becoming the prime minister, it used to be a big headache for him if there was any criticism of his work in the mainstream and social media. I remember how, a few days after he became the head of government, there were some news reports about his interference in the bureaucracy. He immediately reached out to the reporters in charge of the bureaucracy beat to avoid further news reports of that kind. There have been many such examples where Bhattarai seemed to be cautious about possible criticism of his work.
Presently, the prime minister has been facing massive criticism from the same circle that gave him overwhelming support when he assumed the post. Bhattarai has been unmoved by the condemnation in the mainstream and social media, and he has been saying that he does not care what the “capitalist media” write about him or what “anarchist people” comment on Facebook or Twitter. He is more concerned about what party leaders and cadres expect from him. He is changing from being a popular leader to a “genuine Maoist leader” of his cadres and leaders.
Meanwhile, Bhattarai’s stance on the murder investigation of journalist Dekendra Raj Thapa has eroded his image as a democratic leader, and people are beginning to call him an “autocratic leader” and “worse than Dahal”. He has ordered a halt to the probe and defended his cadres stating that only the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is authorised to deal with war-era cases. Similarly, his clean image has been questioned after some of his cabinet members were found to have been involved in corruption. His political and economic vision has been overshadowed by his failure to save the Constituent Assembly and bring out a new constitution.
The change in Bhattarai’s avatar from popular leader to cadre-based leader has happened ahead of the party’s seventh general convention scheduled to begin on Feb 2. He is now more concerned about keeping the leaders and cadres happy to strengthen his position at the convention which is taking place after 22 years. The media, Facebook, Twitter and civil society do not vote in the Maoist convention, so cadres from the grass-roots are valuable to Bhattarai. His stance on Thapa’s case has drawn the support of leaders and cadres who have been facing charges of serious human rights violations.
Nowadays, he is not meeting the people he used to mix with before and immediately after becoming the prime minister. He is busy huddling with hardcore cadres to win their support at the party convention. Recently, he treated 230 members of the convention organising committee to dinner at his official residence at Baluwatar. The PM cajoled them saying that he was leading the government to safeguard the party’s agenda and fulfil the demands of the cadres. Leaders from the Dahal camp have started to say that Bhattarai’s continuation as the PM is essential to save the leaders and cadres facing charges of rights violations.
Bhattarai is presently busy strengthening his position in the party so that he can bargain with the party chief for powerful posts in the future. He has been pressing the chairman that at least 40 per cent of the convention delegates should be from his faction. He thinks that if he remains in power till the party convention, his position in the party will surely become stronger. Some people have begun writing Bhattarai’s political obituary because of his eroding popularity and failure to deliver peace and the constitution. However, it is too early to predict the future of his political career. Bhattarai seems to be fully optimistic that he will retain his position if he succeeds in getting his people to occupy 40 per cent of the party organisation.
In conclusion, it was a mistake expecting a lot from Bhattarai and projecting him as a deity. His weak position in the party would not allow him to implement his agenda and fulfil the aspirations that many expected of him. At the same time, Bhattarai betrayed his supporters outside the party by failing to promulgate a constitution and with his bad handling of corruption, Thapa’s murder and violence against women, among other cases.