From Lotus Flower to the Fierce One: the story of the Maoist who took power in Nepal

When Pushpa Kamal Dahal was a schoolteacher in the mountains of Nepal he was nicknamed "Lotus Flower" as a result of his soft and gentle manners. Not surprisingly, when he gave up teaching to lead a rebel army he adopted the more martial nom de guerre of Prachanda, or "the Fierce One".

Now, as the Maoist party he leads surges towards a landslide election victory, the 52-year-old is preparing to adopt yet another new title, that of president. He says it is a position he is ready for "if the masses want to give me the responsibility".

It appears they do. The latest results from last week's vote to select a new national assembly give the Maoists 101 out of the 178 seats counted so far. With the first scheduled task of the new assembly to draft a new constitution and abolish the country's monarchy, it appears Prachanda will become the first president of a republican Nepal.

This latest twist in the remarkable journey of a man who spent a quarter of a century operating underground and a full 10 years heading a rebel army in the jungles has come about because of the stunning success of the Maoists in last week's vote. Before polling, most analysts questioned the depth of the Maoists' support and suggested that at best they might come third. Now everyone is rapidly having to get used to the idea of a government headed by a party still designated a terrorist group by the US.

"The person most surprised was Prachanda himself. He never expected it either," said Kunda Dixit, editor in chief of the Nepali Times. "Anyone who says they predicted this result doesn't know what they are talking about."

Prachanda was born into a high caste but poor farming family in the Chitwan district and secured a degree in agriculture from a college in Rampur. But moved by the extreme poverty he saw in rural Nepal, he became interested in politics and by the late 1960s, when monarchy banned political parties, he became involved with the country's Communists.

He left his job as a science teacher in his home village for full-time politics and in 1986 became leader of the grouping that would become the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists). Already operating on the fringes, in 1996, Prachanda in effect declared a civil war by handing the government a list of 40 demands and threatening conflict if they were not met.

For a decade, Prachanda headed the rebels' military operations, though he was never personally involved in combat. During the 10 years of fighting that ended with a ceasefire agreement in the spring of 2006, at least 13,000 people were killed. "How he became a revolutionary is surprising," Raj Krishna Kandel, a schoolteacher who taught Prachanda English, told Reuters. "He was polite, sincere and kind to others. But he was ambitious."

One thing he apparently never lost was his sensitivity. Mr Dixit said that when Prachandra was military leader he broke down and wept several times, most infamously after a Maoist bomb attack on a bus believed to be carrying troops killed more than 30 civilians. "He told his guerillas they should not torture," Mr Dixit added. He said that if they needed to execute someone it should be done with a bullet to the forehead, not by torture."

Originally inspired by the Cultural Revolution in China and the Shining Path movement of Peru, Pra-chanda and his Maoist colleagues now appear much more mainstream. His victory speech at the weekend when he won his seat in Kathmandu was conciliatory and inclusive. "I thank all Nepalese people for giving us the responsibility to make a new Nepal," said Prachanda, who is married and has three children. "I will remain fully committed to the peace process and multi-party democracy."

Indeed, where once he talked the rhetoric of Marx, Prachanda now talks of turning Nepal into "the Switzerland of Asia". He says globalisation is unavoidable and he wants to encourage millions of tourists to his impoverished country.

The election also means Nepal's 239-year-old monarchy will be abolished. Although the palace massacre of 2001 – which left nine of the royal family dead – and parliament's dismissal by the new king in 2005 cost the monarchy public support, there are still those who would wish to keep a constitutional monarchy.

But Prachanda believes Nepal is ready to leap forward. "I feel it is a new life and new situation," he said. "Everything looks different than at the time of the conflict; really fantastic."

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