A couple of years ago it would have been almost unimaginable that Nepal torn by internal conflict and violence by Maoists would dump monarchy to embrace democracy.
Nepal today has the distinction of being a nation that has got Maoists who rode to power not with the barrel of a gun, but with getting people to use the ballot box. Most political pundits thought that the Maoists whose violence had ended in killing over 10,000 would be trounced, but voters had other ideas.
There is a new dawn in Nepal one of the poorest countries of the world. It is now for the Maoists to turn it around, change the history of their underdeveloped country and surge into the future. Suddenly there is hope.
And hope has made most of the 27 million population heave a sigh of relief. After all, the Himalayan kingdom had seen unprecedented violence in the last ten years. Now, these insurgents are talking of peace and development, of rewriting the constitution to end the 250 year old monarchy and give power to the people who elected the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) to power.
The crown does not sit lightly on the head of King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev anymore. Prachanda, the Maoist supreme leader says that he has to go. He has even suggested that the Palace where the King presently lives with his family, be converted into a national museum so that future generations can understand the history of Nepal and its march to democracy.
King Gyanendra was forced to relinquish his direct rule in April 2006 after sustained strikes and violence in the streets. He retreated into his heavily guarded palace as anti-monarchy slogans echoed in the air. Parliament then clipped his powers reducing him to a ceremonial figure.
History meanders in strange unpredictable ways. In June 2001, after the then King Birendra and Queen Aishwariya were shot dead at the dinner table by their drunk son, who then shot himself, Gyanendra was the murdered King's younger brother. He assumed powers as King immediately as the people mourned in a state of shock. No one wanted to see him as King. Simmering discontent followed. No one seemed to want him there. In February 2005, King Gyanendra had assumed absolute powers and set up a pro-monarchist cabinet thinking he was finally secure. The army protected him and was also out on the streets fighting the people.
Ironically, after he assumed total power, his decline started. People were out in the streets demanding freedom. He had to bow to their wishes and got a puppet government installed. But it was not the same anymore. He soon lost control of the army, for the first time, his picture was removed from currency notes, his annual $3.1-million allowance was denied. He must have then realized that he was better off earlier as a businessman. As election results poured in, there were rumors in picturesque Kathmandu that the King was planning to flee to India.
It has been quite an election that the people never witnessed before: 10,000 polling booths, 10,000 candidates, over 234,000 election supervisors and 2,000 foreign election observers. But there was a good feel when it got over as they saw democracy triumph.
Over 20,000 Maoist fighters are now over ground and at the moment seem to have given up an armed struggle. Not everyone is sure. Before the results came in, there was widespread fear that the country would be rocked with violence if the Maoists lost. Political opponents prefer to be cynical about the Maoists coming to power and would rather wait and see.
The Maoists had put an end to their armed struggle when King Gyanendra was forced to hand back power to the people in 2006. He had to do it as people were out in the streets venting their anger. As a coalition government was then put in place, the Maoists joined in saying that they respected the democratic process. At that time, no one dreamt that Prachanda would actually be the victor.
Probably, voters opted for change as they were fed up with corruption scandals rocking both the mainstream Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninist, with left leanings. Prachanda's speeches of how Nepal needs to be rescued and rebuilt might have caught the imagination of the young. Leaders of both the routed parties have resigned.
But holding the reins of power is not going to be easy for the Maoists. Nepal has multiple problems that need urgent tackling and it will need a coalition to go along with them. As of now, the Maoists are willing to take on partners who will walk with them as they know that it is not going to be easy to deliver to a very expectant populace. They have to decide what to do with their 23,000 armed forces. The Maoists have suggested that they be integrated with the 90,000 strong royalist army but the army may not want to rub shoulders with indoctrinated cadres. More than anything else, there are huge expectations the people now suddenly have.
Then there is drafting of the new constitution which is not easy. All aspirations cannot be met when it is rewritten as there are groups that want more autonomy and even the right to self-determination. Prachanda is now taking of taking a fresh look at all treaties with India. As a big neighbor on which it is hugely dependent at the moment, they have to tread carefully. Political tightrope walking is different from insurgency and guerilla warfare in the jungles. There were charges against the Maoists that they indulged in extortion in villages on the fringes of jungles they operated in and even kidnapped children to recruit them into the cadre.
There is hope that the Maoists will also in some way water down the caste system that is so strong in Nepal. But for a system that has been entrenched in the Nepali mind for centuries, it is not going to be easy.
Despite his Maoist leanings, Prachanda knows very well that if he has to make a difference, Nepal has to economically grow. He has said that he is determined to demolish Nepal's remnants of feudalism and not capitalism. Prachanda has inherited a shaky economy and will have to bring in reforms and attract capital if he has to put it on the rails. So the initial fear of nationalization of industry does not hold as the Maoist leader has said that he is not against capitalism and foreign investment.
India played a major role in the peace process by getting various parties together in 2005. It also aggressively advocated the importance of having elections and marching towards democracy. But New Delhi has not treaded as carefully as it should. Before the elections, New Delhi put its foot into its mouth saying it would be happy to see the Nepali Congress win. After the landmark victory of the Maoists, the foreign office was red in the face. But it has tried to quickly mend fences with Prachanda. One probable fear is that the success of Maoists in Nepal will trigger off more aggressive Maoist activity in India.
Ties with Nepal have always been crucial for India as it would not want it to move closer to China. India is also its biggest trading partner. India's challenge is to make this a turning point in bilateral relations with Nepal. Prachanda said in an interview recently that he is looking forward to working with India as that is the only way to bring stability and prosperity in Nepal and cooperation is the only way. It is clear that Nepal will now want to rework its ties, look at how to regulate the border, allowing Gorkha soldiers to work in the Indian army among other things.
What is really amazing in this Nepal story is how the Maoists gave up the bullet for the ballot. It is a story that Indian Maoists could learn from.