Republica Editorial: End of an Era

End of an Era

The savior of the peace process, Girija Prasad Koirala, is no more. The Nepali Congress (NC) president and five-time prime minister, passed away on Saturday at 12:10 p.m., leaving Nepali politics with the twin challenges of concluding the peace process and writing the constitution. The passing of Koirala, who played the most instrumental role in bringing the Maoists into mainstream politics in 2006, and who had the stature and credibility to take the peace process to a logical conclusion, has left the people in doubt about the future course of Nepali politics.

The 85-year-old Koirala had been quite unwell for some years and his health condition deteriorated gradually over the past six months. As recently as November 2009, he was rushed to
Singapore’s Gleneagles Hospital for a medical check-up. Koirala’s condition once again worsened a couple of weeks back and since then he was under 24-hour artificial oxygen until his passing away at mid-day, Saturday.

Since Koirala was such a towering personality in the Nepali Congress and Nepali politics with his political struggles spanning over six decades, it´s but natural to ask what role the NC will play in his absence or which course national politics will now take. If the NC, the prime partner in the present coalition government headed by Madhav Kumar Nepal, is able to maintain its centrist role and bring all the parties together to conclude the peace process and write the constitution, it will have paid a true tribute to its patriarch. But that will partly depend upon weather it is able to present a united face and on how committed it will remain to the peace process. If a power struggle ensues within the party in the near future, it is certainly going to impact negatively on the future course of national politics. But if the party leaders show maturity, foresight and wisdom, the nation should be able to cope smoothly with the tremors emanating from the octogenarian leader’s demise.

Koirala devoted his life to politics. His political journey started in 1948, 62 years back, with the formation of the Nepal Mazdoor Congress. Very few leaders around the world have survived in politics for so long and have made such an important contribution to national politics. One thing is for certain, there is not another politician around the world who has been in the forefront of three successful movements for democracy-- in 1950, 1990 and 2006 – over a span of almost 60 years. In this sense Girijababu´s passing brings an era to an end.

Ever since he led the workers strike in Biratnagar in 1948, Koirala´s life has been a saga of unending struggle to give his country a democratic political system. As his struggle continued he also gradually rose to prominence in the NC hierarchy. In 1952, Koirala became NC´s Morang district president and continued to occupy that position until King Mahendra arrested him following the royal coup of 1960. He was imprisoned for seven years and then exiled to
India for 12 years till 1979. As General Secretary of the Nepali Congress, he played an active role in overthrowing the party-less Panchayat system in 1990 and in 2006 led People´s Movement-II which compelled the erstwhile autocratic monarch Gyanendra Shah to give in and restore the supremacy of parliament.

His defiance against the king´s rule after the 2005 royal coup and the eventual challenge he mounted against the monarchy by joining hands with the Maoists-- and in doing so bringing them into peaceful politics after abandoning their decade-long war -- will be his lasting legacy. A person who so hated the communists had no remorse in joining hands with them once he realized that the abusive monarchy was the greatest threat to democracy.

If he had such an excellent track record as a fighter for democracy, his role in institutionalizing democracy remained lackluster. Koirala’s five spells as prime minister (May 26, 1991-Nov 30, 1994; April 15, 1998-May 31, 1999; March 22, 2000-July 26, 2001; April 25, 2006-April 1, 2007; April 1, 2007-Aug 18, 2008) were a mixed bag. Soon after his election as prime minister following the restoration of multiparty system post-1990, he was embroiled in intra-party feuds. In the internal power struggle he angered and sidelines both his contemporaries—the late Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. His stints as prime minister were also not very inspiring, if not dubious, in terms of maintaining financial transparency and upholding rule of law. Some of the most infamous scams happened during his tenures.

But Gyanendra´s seizure of power in a bloodless coup in 2005 gave him the opportunity to do what he was perhaps best at: Putting up a fight against despots. His stance against monarchy not only helped him bring the Maoists to peaceful, competitive politics but it eventually culminated in holding the historic Constituent Assembly election and declaration of a republic.

Such a range of contributions to the nation is precisely the reason why the country has forwarded his name to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the coveted award. However, of late, the towering personality was criticized for going out of his way to make his daughter Sujata Koirala foreign minister and eventually deputy prime minister. Perhaps he failed to realize that he was a larger-than-life figure and by doing so, he was putting his hard-earned credibility at stake. While we do not endorse what he did to ensure Sujata´s climb in the party hierarchy – in fact we have been critical of this from the word go – perhaps what we fail to realize is that he was a human being after all and the father in him got the better of the politician.

The biggest irony surrounding Koirala´s personality was that while he fought for over 60 years for the cause of democracy, he never really promoted democracy within his party. He leaves that as a legacy in the NC, which is why it now runs the risk of getting embroiled in internal power struggles.

Koirala had one primary wish toward the end of his life: To see the promulgation of the constitution by the stipulated timeframe. In fact, according to his daughter Sujata, the last audible words that he uttered were “national consensus”. It´s unfortunate that he could not live to see that happen. However, the least our political parties could do to honor him posthumously is to set aside their differences and write the statute on time. Maybe the world community, for its part, can also recognize the contribution of this fighter by honoring him with the Nobel Peace Prize. While we know that many people take exception to this view, we believe that if Barrack Obama could get the peace prize even before he had done anything, Koirala certainly qualifies by virtue of what he achieved in the past 60 years of his long life.

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