Zipping down Park Avenue in a black Cadillac, with an NYPD escort in front and a Secret Service agent close at his side, Baburam Bhattarai had come to Manhattan to pitch Maoism.
Bhattarai, the new prime minister of Nepal, believes that a poor country such as his can compete with the rest of the world. It just needs a little help from the rest of the world first. More important, it needs help from the Nepali expatriate elites whom he regaled with revolutionary stories at events in New York in late September.
Bhattarai is his country’s fourth prime minister in five years, and like those before him, he understands that his position is precarious. To remain in power and fulfill his promises, he must sell himself as much as his Marxist ideology. So there was no better time than the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly to tell the world who he is and try to garner the support he needs to run an almost failed state.
On his New York trip, Bhattarai fit in meetings with several foreign delegations and had a photo op with President Obama and the first lady at the New York Public Library. But a key purpose of the visit was to woo New York’s relatively large Nepali population, which includes lots of Ivy League graduates working as academics, doctors, lawyers and financiers. Bhattarai addressed this audience in a Manhattan lecture hall at the New School university, speaking about “The Relevance of Marxism in the 21st Century.”
The crowd — mostly New York-based Nepalis, joined by a few sympathetic Americans — was eager to listen to the man who had waged a revolution and overthrown a monarchy, and was now an elected leader.
“Marxism is alive and kicking,” Bhattarai said. “By end of this century, it will again be the leading philosophy to guide this world.” He sprinkled the talk with his favorite wisdom from Mao and Lenin — “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the experience of revolution than to write about it” — and told the crowd about the challenges of applying for a visa to visit the United States when you are a sometimes-violent revolutionary.
But there he was, in a city where protesters are seeking to occupy Wall Street and questioning the relationship between politics and capitalism, lecturing Americans on revolution and Marxism.
“In Nepal we tried to be creative. We followed the basic tenets of Marxism and then re-created it. That is why in 10 years, we rose as the biggest political force in the country,” he said.
The prime minister, a member of Nepal’s Maoist party, didn’t sugarcoat his experience. He was the architect of the Maoist insurgency that began with a handful of ideologues who had read Marx, memorized Sun Tzu and brandished guns. They inspired thousands of marginalized Nepalis, mostly peasants who lived in the far-flung regions. This led to a brutal and long war that killed more than 12,000 people and shifted the course of the country. Three years ago, Bhattarai and his comrades got what they had fought for: The monarchy was abolished, and they won the popular election.
But it’s not apparent how successful his New York pitch was. Luna Ranjit, a Nepali-born woman who is the executive director of Adhikaar, a New York-based nonprofit group that works to promote the rights of workers and immigrants, said Bhattarai’s discussion of the inherent inequality of capitalism resonated for her, but she didn’t understand what the alternative would be. “He is an academic, so he was convincing when he talked about Marxism as a theory, but he didn’t explain how it was going to be implemented in this day and age,” she said. “I didn’t get a clear sense of how he was planning to use socialism in our current state and what Marxism would look like in Nepal right now.”
Nepal’s Marxism — or Bhattarai’s version of it — is a bit messy, with lots of fighting among political parties and disagreements about how to manage the former rebel forces. The country is running on a makeshift constitution, and five years after the parties signed a peace agreement , there is no definitive sense of what is next for Nepal. The country still has two armies — the national army along with the People’s Liberation Army, made up of former Maoist combatants.
“It is not so much his Marxist rhetoric that draws people to [Bhattarai] but his consistency on issues like republic, employment, peace and inclusion of the marginalized,” says Prashant Jha, a Kathmandu-based political analyst who has written extensively on the Maoists. “His image as a committed, clean and educated leader who could have been a successful professional but choose to engage in political struggle adds to his appeal.”
Bhattarai understands the power of symbolism in a country that has often seen politicians charged with nepotism and corruption. On his second day in office, he made headlines for doing things that were unheard of among the Nepali political class.
He became the first prime minister in the country’s recent history to decide not to use the comfortable, foreign-manufactured car that was made available to him. Instead, he chose a rather unglamorous vehicle called a Mustang (named after a rugged mountainous region in northwest Nepal) that is manufactured in the country. Two weeks later, he flew economy class to the U.N. meeting.
Sitting on a white leather sofa in his suite on the 34th floor of a Manhattan hotel for an interview, Bhattarai said he isn’t flying coach or riding in a Mustang to earn populist points. “This is a clearly well-thought-out economic policy,” he said. “I have used a car that is assembled in the country. I wanted to set an example that would help promote national industries and create jobs within the country.”
The man who hopes to lay out an economic plan that will help Nepal catch up with rest of the world has repeatedly called capitalism an inherent product of an imperial economy. Three years ago, when he visited Washington as Nepal’s finance minister, Bhattarai said the contradiction of capitalism is unequal and uneven development. “This inherent inequality breeds the crisis of effective demands that reduces production and eventually creates unemployment,” he said.
When he returned to Nepal a few days ago, one of the first things Bhattarai did was deposit his $2,314travel allowance into a relief fund to help victims of an earthquake that destroyed homes in part of the country in mid-September. That’s one way to be a convincing Maoist yet drum up business abroad: Head to a multinational meeting, but cut corners and save money when you do it.
Bhattarai is soft-spoken, but at heart he is a stern ideologue. During his address to the General Assembly, he shocked many Nepalis, who have otherwise known the country to be neutral in international conflicts, by calling for a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state. He keeps his favorite words — “bourgeoisie,” “feudal” and “masses” — in his pocket and uses them at almost every occasion.
“It sounds nice to have elections periodically, get elected, but how does it make a difference to masses of people?” he asked during his talk at the New School. Modern democracy is, he said, “democracy for a handful, and dictatorship for the masses.”
Of course this democratically elected leader quickly reminded his audience, rather wryly, that his remarks should not be taken out of context. “I may be making a very scandalous remark here as the prime minister of a country. But I am talking here as an academic,” he said.
Whether Bhattarai will succeed in fulfilling his promises is uncertain, given the mysterious ways of Nepali politics. But he does have the support of citizens who expect him to deliver what other politicians have been promising for five years.
Bhattarai stressed during an interview that the United States and the West have nothing to fear from Nepal’s Maoists and their ideology. He said that his country’s coziness with China and Beijing’s increasing interest in Nepali affairs are necessary, and that China’s growing visibility in Nepal is linked to that nation’s growing political and economic power. “We can’t prevent that,” he said.
He promised that the ongoing political transition in Nepal would take place in keeping with democratic values and not turn violent. In a speech two days later, Bhattarai quoted Marxist philosopher Rosa Luxemburg:
“Either socialism or barbarism, we have to choose it. I am for socialism,” he said.
Anup Kaphle is the online editor for foreign and national security coverage at The Washington Post.