When the patriarch passes on by CK Lal

When the patriarch passes on

By CK Lal

Thousands gathered at the Dashrath Stadium on Sunday. Another hundreds of thousands thronged along the streets of the cortege route to the cremation ghats on the banks of Bagamati near the Pashupatinath Temple. It was difficult to believe that it was the journey to eternity of a person who was ridiculed and reviled by the comfortable classes of Kathmandu throughout his life. But then Girija Prasad Koirala was not just a politician, he was history personified for at least two generations of Nepalis. Mourners were grieving for a slice of national history rather than merely the death of a former prime minister or chairperson of the most influential political party of the country.

In an atmosphere of national grief, it’s difficult to asses the legacy of Girija Prasad Koirala, known better as Girijababu by his followers and as simply GP by his admirers. There is a fear that the ongoing peace process may unravel in the absence of his guardianship. The future of Nepali Congress now falls on the frail shoulders of second-generation leaders who have not exactly covered themselves in glory over the past few years. The Maoists and the UML stalwarts generate even less confidence.

The pacts that GP made with several agitating groups remain unimplemented. Uncertainty seems to be the only certainty at the moment. It says something about the political stature of one of the tallest leaders of South Asia that his departure from the scene has created widespread concerns about the future of peace, stability and democracy in Nepal and the repercussions it may have in the rest of the region.

Perhaps no other leader of South Asia saw, endured and survived as much political upheavals as GP. Five times prime minister and the first head of state as well as government of Republic of Nepal, he was one of the last South Asian leaders to have actively participated in the Indian Independence Movement.

GP was born in Tedi village in Bihar where his father Krishna Prasad Koirala had been living in self-exile to escape from the oppressive Rana regime of Nepal. The place where Koiralas lived now falls within the extended bed of Koshi River. Had Tedi existed, it would have mourned one of its most illustrious sons who contributed in the transformation of Kingdom of Nepal into the world’s youngest republic with relatively less loss of life and property. Biratnagar has assumed that responsibility where the Koirala Niwas became the nuclei of Nepali politics once the family returned to their homeland.

Koiralas are perhaps the only family in the world in which all the three brothers became prime ministers in different periods of history of the country. The eldest brother was Matrika Prasad who helped steer the country from Rana regime to the restoration of Shah Monarchy in 1950s and did the groundwork for democratic politics in those years of massive challenges and tremendous opportunities.

Bisheshwar Prasad Koirala became the first democratically elected head of government of a country where the king considered himself to be the incarnation of Lord Bishnu. Difference of opinion between BP and King Mahendra over the role of the king in a constitutional monarchy led to a clash of personalities. BP was ultimately dismissed and thrown into jail within 18 months of leading a government with two-third majority in the parliament.

Girja Prasad Koirala, the youngest brother, watched as a popularly elected prime minister was dismissed by the king who considered himself to be above constitution, laws and norms of democracy. Lessons learnt during these formative years were to come handy for GP when he got the opportunity to decide the fate of monarchy.

After the restoration of democracy in 1990, GP became the second popularly elected prime minister of the country in a multiparty parliamentary democracy. In 1994, GP was forced to dissolve the parliament when parliamentarians of his own Nepali Congress party failed to show up at a crucial confidence vote. BP’s government had lasted 18 months; twice that time. BP had tried to implement socialist agenda, but the decisions taken during GP’s tenure turned Nepal irrevocably toward free market economy.

Mid-term elections led to the rise of first elected communist head of government of any parliamentary democracy in the world. Unfortunately, it too fell within nine months, and the period of uncertainty and instability that followed led to the rise of Maoists. Their so-called People’s War caused the death of at least 14,000 Nepalis and thousands of villagers were forced into internal displacement.

GP once again took the leadership to free the country from the uncertainties of fluid politics. At the height of Maoist insurgency in 1999, nobody thought that free and fair elections were possible in the countryside. GP saw the election through and was rewarded with a majority for his party in the parliament.

The fate intervened in GP’s initial attempts of negotiating with Maoists and establishing peace in the country. In an orgy of violence on June 1, 2001, the entire immediate family of King Birendra was wiped out. Gyanendra, a businessman with interests in tobacco, tea and tourism became the new king. He had plans different from his prime minister.

Gyanendra’s regime began with decisions that turned out to be coordinated steps of a phased coup. First GP was forced to resign and he was replaced with a relatively pliant Sher Bhadur Deuba. With the help of Deuba, the parliament was dissolved in the dead of the night. His utility over, finally Deuba was dismissed and Gyanendra took control of the entire country. GP watched in dismay as the king declared himself to be the chairman of the Council of Ministers. This was the end of constitutional monarchy and the beginning of the end of the institution of kingship.

Almost the entire political class gave up hope when Gyanendra took absolute control on Feb 1, 2005. Only GP stood resolute against royal-military rule even when Maoists had opened channels of communication with the king for a compromise deal. GP’s gamble paid off as Gyanendra was forced to restore the parliament and handover the state back to people’s representatives. In his showdown with the crown, the representatives of the people had own. But GP’s struggle had just begun. Maoists were waiting in the wings to pounce upon him.

In the months after the restoration of parliament on April 28, 2006, GP adroitly brought Maoists into the mainstream, made them participate in the framing of an interim constitution and convinced them to embrace parliamentary democracy. It was GP’s finest hour. But bigger challenges were yet to come.

Uprising in Madhes weakened Nepali Congress. Agitation of ethnic groups in the hills and mountains challenged GP’s authority. Maoists continued to play political hide and seek threatening fresh outbreak of violence. Nobody thought it possible that long-promised Constituent Assembly elections could be held in such confusion. GP persevered, and CA elections were held in which Maoists emerged as the largest political party with one-third of seats in the house. Now, Maoists couldn’t deny that they too were one of the parliamentary parties. On a matter of principle, GP had won, but there was defeat in his victory. His political party, the formidable Nepali Congress, had been reduced into minority.

An activist and a risk-taker all his life, GP gambled big by getting Ram Baran Yadav, a Madhesi of southern plains, elected as the first president of the Republic of Nepal. GP probably thought that the head of state would forestall undemocratic decisions of the Maoist government. That Yadav did by restoring dismissed army chief Rookmangud Katawal to his post when Maoists appeared to be on the verge of running the state as they wished. The decision, however, soured the relationship between Nepali Congress and Maoists.

The probability of timely promulgation of a new constitution has since diminished. Perhaps the choice of Madhav Nepal at the head of anti-Maoist coalition was GP’s one of the biggest political mistakes. A status quoist by disposition, Premier Nepal has little interest in institutionalizing the republic through a new constitution.

GP will be remembered for throwing out the outdated institution of Hindu monarchy and turning Nepal into a secular republic. His role in the mainstreaming of Maoists will be long remembered. The errors and omissions of governance while he was the prime minister will take a while to go away from public memory. But most of all, his absence will be felt acutely as Nepal prepares itself to face the consequences of constitution not being promulgated by the stipulated date in coming May.

Even though he began his career in the trade union movement, GP veered towards free-market fundamentalism in the later stage of his life. Agriculture, the mainstay of Nepali economy, suffered most during his stewardship of the country. The whiz kids he trusted for economic advice turned Nepal into an open field of capitalism where the poor and the disadvantaged were relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities of the government.

In the arena of foreign relations, GP dealt deftly with Nepal’s neighbors, donors, lenders and world powers and helped garner the support of the international community for peace, democracy and development in the country. However, he perhaps failed to convince the Indian establishment that Nepali Congress was capable of handling the Maoist threat in the countryside.

The legacy of GP is the High-Level Political Mechanism where top leaders of three main parties in the Constituent Assembly are expected to meet and thrash out their differences. It remains to be seen whether all their feet together are big enough to fit into the political shoes of GP Koirala, one of the last political titans of South Asia.

It would be quite a while before someone emerges on the political firmament of Nepal who could enter and exit from corridors of power almost at will. GP managed to do that because he treated the post of prime minister as “a pair of torn shoes”. It’s doubtful if ever there will be anyone with that kind of disdain for the office he held repeatedly. The country—and the rest of South Asia—would miss GP’s patriarchal haughtiness. (Republica, March 22, 2010)

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