Champion of change

Print edition : April 23, 2010

Girija Prasad Koirala,who was five times Nepals Prime Minister. He was also president of the Nepali Congress party.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

The death of Girija Prasad Koirala, known as GP to his friends and as Girijababu to his followers and admirers, marks the end of an era in Nepals politics. After the abolition of the monarchical panchayat system in 1990, he became the Prime Minister of the country five times. He also had the distinction of being the head of government as well as the head of state simultaneously when monarchy was eliminated in 2007 and a new President had not been elected until July 2008.

Koirala symbolised Nepals 60-year-old struggle for democracy since 1950 first against the anachronistic Rana system of hereditary Prime Ministers and then against an autocratic monarchy. He was in the forefront of two victorious peoples movements Jan Andolan I in 1989-90 and Jan Andolan II in 2005-06 that gave historic turns to Nepals political evolution. His was the decisive role on both the occasions forcing the King to accept multiparty democracy in 1990, and bringing in the Maoists to transit from the politics of violence to that of peaceful democratic competition in 2005-06. For this bold and imaginative role, the present government of Nepal nominated Koirala for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Forging an alliance with the Maoists and initiating them on the path of mainstream democratic national politics was no mean achievement, considering that a bitter and blood-smeared rivalry had existed between the Maoists and Koiralas Nepali Congress. Recall the police operation codenamed Romeo in 1995 when the breakaway Nepali Congress group of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was in power. This operation perpetrated untold miseries on the Maoists, their supporters and sympathisers as well as innocent people in Rolpa and Rukum districts, and became a powerful trigger for the Maoists peoples war launched in February 1996. Again, in May 1998, an equally ruthless police operation named Kilo Sierra 2 was launched against the Maoists in 18 districts during G.P. Koiralas prime ministership.

Koiralas death marks the end of the dominance of the Koirala clan in the Nepali Congress and of the Nepali Congress in Nepals politics. There are a few Koiralas active in Nepali politics but none of them has the potential to rise to the heights that GP and his elder brothers B.P. Koirala and M.P. Koirala reached.

The Nepali Congress now faces the formidable challenge of keeping itself united and politically relevant in GPs absence. The party has been postponing its national convention and presidential election owing to the leadership conflicts within. Two of Koiralas close associates had thrown their hats into the ring of the presidential contest even when he was alive. The internecine struggle for power and influence has been seeping down to the levels of district and village committees. Young and dynamic workers have been feeling suffocated. Ideologically, the tension between the status quoists and the advocates of change has been sharpening. GPs feudal and autocratic style of functioning and his deft use of authority and patronage had kept the lid on many of these conflicts and these may now burst open. Unless the party manages to evolve a collective and consensual leadership and makes room for younger cadre to rise, there may be no escape from fragmentation.

Nepali Congress leaders did try to put up a show of unity and cohesion during Koiralas funeral procession, but institutionalising a collective and consensual leadership may be easier said than done as the struggle for succession unfolds. The beneficiaries of the Nepali Congress drifting into disunity and internal chaos will be the monarchists and the Maoists.

In view of Girijababus prolonged and serious illness, his death was not unexpected. However, the people of Nepal seem ill-prepared to face the consequences of his death. GP has died at a time when the republic of Nepal is still in its infancy; the peace process initiated in 2006 is still far away from its logical conclusion; and the elected Constituent Assembly is only eight weeks away from the deadline May 27 for completing the writing of the Constitution for the new republic.

The two pillars of Nepals peace process were essentially the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, and the political consensus between them. This consensus broke down in 2008, when the Maoists emerged as a dominant force following the Constituent Assembly elections. The Maoists victory (they secured more seats than the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) put together) was beyond the expectations of the mainstream parties as also of India and the international community. Girijababu did not hand over power to the Maoists for nearly three months on one pretext or the other. The charges levelled against the Maoists were that they were not returning the lands and properties they had seized during the 10 years of insurgency and were not disbanding their armed youth wing, the Young Communist League. But these charges had been equally relevant before the elections when GP had allowed the Maoists to be a part of his interim coalition government. Hence it was something more at stake than what was visible on the surface.

The Maoists, arrogantly flush with their unexpected victory in the elections, had refused to honour their informal assurance to endorse G.P. Koirala as the first President of the republic. They were apprehensive that he would emerge as an alternative centre of power and constrain their unhindered control of the state apparatus.

Maoist leader Prachanda confessed this while paying tributes to GP and said that this was a gross error of political judgment on the part of his party. He said he had made this confession to GP too when he called on the ailing leader in a Singapore hospital in November 2009. To rectify this derailment of power-sharing arrangement between the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, a high-level political mechanism (HLPM) headed by Koirala was devised to give overall direction to the government and to the peace process. Koiralas death disrupts this mechanism and leaves a question mark on the fate of the peace process.

Prime Minister Koirala with Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, at the beginning of the Assembly session to declare Nepal a republic on May 28, 2008, in Kathamandu.-PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

But there may be some hope. While keeping the Maoists engaged in the HLPM, Koirala also provided a cushion to Madhav Nepals ragtag coalition government. Many in Nepal, including those in Madhav Nepals own party, the CPN (UML), are frustrated with the government for its utter failure to govern.

Koiralas departure from the political scene has in effect precipitated a serious crisis of survival for the present government and opened up the prospects for forging a national coalition, possibly under the Maoist leadership as they are the single largest group in the elected Constituent Assembly. There are powerful interests both within Nepal and outside (including in India) who will resist the formation of any government dominated by the Maoists. But if such a government comes into being, it will re-energise Nepals derailed peace process and the stalled Constitution writing exercise.

A precondition to the emergence of such a government is a sincere move on the part of the Maoists to assure the other principal stakeholders that they will not abuse their position and will start delivering on their unfulfilled commitments. Prachandas statement of tribute to Girijababu reflected a welcome strand in this respect. He wrote: This is a very tragic moment for all of us. But such events may lead to a new understanding, bring incongruous political strands together. I feel that Maoists themselves should analyse their role deeply and take on a new one to turn the peace process into a success.

Between the extremities of the monarchists and the Maoists, GP represented the large middle ground of democratic socialism. His death has seriously eroded this middle space and may drive the extremities to polarise further and compete fiercely for the ideological vacuum created. The monarchists have started asserting themselves for the return of the monarchy and the Hindu state and against a federal polity. The Maoists will be encouraged to spread their constituencies even by poaching into pliable sectors within the Nepali Congress and the UML. Prachandas statement highlighting the areas of rapport between him and Girijababu is a clear appeal to the pro-Girija sections in the Nepali Congress to come forward for a deal with him. One can only hope that the polarisation between the royalists and the revolutionaries do not precipitate a direct clash between them that will push Nepal into yet another phase of conflict and anarchy.

Several controversies surrounded Koiralas persona, politics and policies. Yet he was the tallest Nepali leader of his times. Even when he was moving from one intensive care unit (ICU) to the other, Nepali politicians waited with bated breath for his next political move.

He was the most decisive force for change in contemporary Nepal. But if he could be a visionary and a statesman and institutionalise the change that he himself had pioneered, the history of democracy in Nepal during 1990-2002 and the outcome of the post-2006 peace process would have been far more constructive and promising. He did succumb to the political ambitions of his daughter Sujata Koirala and did everything to promote her career and status. She surely owes her deputy prime ministership to GPs influence and manoeuvres. Somewhere behind this vulnerability to his daughters ambitions lay the guilt feeling of a father whose compulsions of public life did not allow him earlier to attend properly to the upbringing of his motherless daughter. In any historical narrative of GPs role and contribution to Nepal, this blemish of humane frailty will not appear to be more than a small and inconsequential dot.

S.D. Muni is Visiting Research Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.

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