By Siddhartha Thapa
The demise of GPK will undoubtedly lead to a political realignment in Nepali politics. Girija Prasad Koirala was without a doubt the most influential politician in Nepal. What was truly unique about Koirala’s political strategy was his ability to fuse his belief in democracy and his Koirala legacy to further his political goals. Koirala operated as a democratic monopoly – he succeeded in portraying himself as the sole democratic crusader at the detriment of his own party and to those within and outside the party too. The most cogent portrayal of Koirala can be attributed to former Prime Minister Thapa’s observation. In 2004, I had asked Thapa why he persistently sought to ally with Koirala at the expense of UML and NC-D, and Thapa’s reply was telling of Koirala’s political capability – “no one in Nepali politics has the ability to embark on a political adventure”.
Koirala’s political resurrection came into being when King Gyanendra formally took over in 2005. His premiership much through the 90’s had been marred with corruption, nepotism and political interference in the bureaucracy and Nepal Police. A testament to Koirala’s unpopularity could be seen during the funeral of King Birendra – protestors not only chanted slogans against the prime minister but stoned the bulletproof Mercedes which Koirala was riding in – his aide de camp had to place a helmet on Koirala’s scalp to save the prime minister from incurring any injury. In a way, Koirala in his death emerged as this democratic messiah but whether or not his policies will be carried forward by his own party will determine his legacy.
B.P vs G.P
Nepali Congress had dropped the premise of BP Koirala’s theory of national reconciliation in November 2007 six months before the historic 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. Although there was wide spread opposition in dropping BP’s theory of national reconciliation from the party statue, no one challenged GP’s decision to adopt republicanism in place of constitutional monarchy. The only politician who stood ground was one of the founding leaders of Nepali Congress, KP Bhatterai who quit the party in protest. But it is worth noting that Nepali Congress dropped BP’s theory of national reconciliation reluctantly and there are many leaders who would not hesitate to revisit BP’s theory of national reconciliation to safe guard both democracy and nationalism.
One is reminded of 1979 and the reasons behind why BP Koirala ended his exile and came back to Nepal. BP told his aides and colleagues that the call for national referendum was spontaneous and violent and that the agitation during the time of referendum was not under the leadership of the Nepali Congress. He feared that the use of violence and force would embolden the communists and destroy both Nepali Congress and the monarchy. In fact, in 1979, Chinese troops had come near the Nepalese border. Tempered by his enduring struggle for democracy, BP strongly believed that democracy was an evolutionary process and accepted the result of the 1980 referendum. BP famously told his aides, “ Indira Gandhi ko sari ma chirnu bhanda, raja ko surwal bhitra chirnu ramro”( It is better to reconcile with the king than to reconcile with Indira Gandhi). BP was firm in his belief that India was not going to support democracy in Nepal but would rather pay more attention towards achieving her own self interest.
What brings us back to BP is that how far sighted he was and that he always put his country before anything else – these qualities were devoid in GP. The mistrust between the King and the democratic parties created a situation in which foreigners began poking their fingers at will in the internal politics of Nepal. Second, the violent campaign led by Maoists which the Nepali Congress joined in the spring of 2006 showed how correct BP was because after that movement, communist forces triumphed in Nepal and as a result, what we witness in Nepal today is an ideological imbalance in which communists are at strength. And with the way things are going on in the name of federalism, ethnic violence is fast becoming a common story in this ‘ New Nepal’. In fact, GP’s political calculation has been wrong from the very onset.
To bring the Maoist into political mainstream was the correct decision. However, what was wrong was the appeasing process in which GP could not stand ground against Maoist acts of violence, open disregard for human rights and their flouting of democratic principles. What GP could not do was that he could not translate opportunities into success albeit that for the nation. Twice he became prime minister of a party which had over fifty percent of the seats in parliament and two more times he led a coalition government and at last he became even the acting head of state. But the question in contention is: all the time he was in power did GP’s action hurt or help the sustenance of a liberal democratic polity in the long run?
In death, GP has left a huge challenge for the political parties to safe guard both democracy and nationalism. Also equally challenging is the prospect of revival for the Nepali Congress – can NC reemerge from the hubris of GP. In the days to come, much time will be spent on picking the pieces left by GP. The success of the sustenance of a democratic polity in Nepal will depend on the decision the Nepali Congress makes in the days to come. But that decision which aims to sustain a liberal democratic polity in Nepal will have to be a departure from the course of direction set by GP. The Nepali Congress has to make a critical decision and decide if it wants to take the leadership of the democratic forces in the country and if it wants to be the vehicle of liberal democracy in Nepal. The dichotomy that will define GP’s legacy is that he – a leader cannot say he is democratic and not promote democracy in his own party. Great leadership requires great moral values and practice as well. One cannot say Koirala indulged in corruption but that it was for the party and that he was not corrupt.
Koirala has been touted as one of the greatest democrats of South Asia, I think there is great irony in this claim. Only in South Asia does a leader prosper by not practicing what he preaches. Would we hold Mandela, Martin Luther King or even his own brother BP in the spirit we do today if they had preached great moral values but made selfish choices to the detriment of their own followers and their noble mission?