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Monday, March 22, 2010

Nepal adrift after icon's death

Published by Asia Times on www.atimes.net/speakingfreely on 22 march 2010

The demise of Nepal's most important political figure, five-time Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, comes as an enormous setback in the country's painful transition period. Nepalis mourn the 'premature' death of the 86-year-old because of his extraordinary bridge-building. It is now up to a younger lot of politicians to emulate Koirala and save the shaky peace.

Few of the leaders in Nepal have shown the integrity and resilience expected of the powerful people with responsibility to lead the masses. Ironically enough, the politics in Nepal has revolved around persons rather than the system and pathetic leadership has been perennially held responsible for the misery of this small land-locked country, particularly after the repeated practices with democracy. B.P. Koirala was probably an exception with his relatively impressive performance after he became the first ever elected prime minister of Nepal. His efforts to institutionalize democracy were hard for then King Mahendra to digest, his government was then toppled, the leaders jailed and he was snatched away by lung cancer before the people's movement could re-establish democracy in Nepal in 1990.

Girija Prasad Koirala (GPK), the youngest brother of BP Koirala, the five time PM of Nepal, also succumbed to the lung problems today, on March 21, leaving much of the questions in Nepali political arena unanswered just when many had placed great hopes on him. Though the fate of the octogenarian leader was more or less known for last few weeks as his lungs were just refusing to comply the doctor's orders, his death has shocked many who were praying for his recovery. The belief that he was the only person potentially able to avert the overt confrontation between the polarized political camps has made the loss of this leader more painful at the moment. The apprehension has suddenly grown that the two camps led by the Maoists and their rivals will invite the chaos sooner now with formulation of poor or no constitution and disruption of the peace process.

As such, GPK was the person to remain for longest duration in the top executive position of Nepali Congress and Nepali state, both directly and indirectly over the last two decades. Much of the blame for the current misery in Nepal thus goes to him and the system he led to create and institutionalize. His authoritarian attitude was not always hidden and his tenures as prime minister were marred by many large scale scams that bought him a lot of negative publicity. He seldom tried to hide the blatant nepotism in his party as well as government and was fiercely criticized both from within and without the party for this. His scrambling for power and privilege was the other trait despised by many in Nepal.

His role during the decade of 1990s was profoundly mediocre if not disruptive for the long term interest of Nepal because it was the kind of governance hostile to people that his successive governments developed resulting in alienation of the masses and ultimately the armed rebellion. The entire new culture of consumption among the politicians in absence of corresponding increase in the economic activities and thus the legitimate income was the product of the messy, bizarre and inept attempt of the then governments to 'liberalize' the economy. That made corruptibility one of the professional attributes among the civil servants and the politicians institutionalizing the practice in the range from a police recruit to the Chief Justice.

It would be extremely unjust to lay the blame solely on the shoulder of GPK, however. To take the omnipresent sycophants as the loyal cadres and supporters was his inherent weakness and those unscrupulous people never left GP alone to think and act. But these things are something that are more or less common among the political leaders in Nepal. GPK is still being praised just because he had few other outstanding abilities that his successors in Nepali politics lack utterly. Over the six long decades of nearly uninterrupted active political life, GPK could accomplish few things that no other leader in Nepal can even think about. Despite the regressive tendency and grossly inept and malfunctioning democracy that his leadership could practice during the first decade post-1990, many others took charge of drawing Nepal into further misery over the next decade while GPK's role in the mess remained predominantly positive, constructive and that of a coordinator of different political groups with divergent interests. He led the phenomenal task of bringing the Maoists insurgents alongside the other political parties to fight a stubborn, sclerotic and arrogant monarchy led by adventurous then King Gyanendra and backed by the national army.

Regardless of the outcome of the half-completed peace process in Nepal, GPK will be remembered as the person to contribute the most in a process to bring a ruthless insurgency to an effective end.
Many milestones in Nepal's journey away from a debilitating armed conflict were attained largely with the leading role of GPK who was the de facto leader of the people’s revolt of 2006 after whose success he became the Prime Minister. The tasks of formulating an interim constitution, signing the historic Comprehensive Peace Agreement, holding the CA polls were all led by this iron-man of Nepali politics. Though with some lackluster he eventually transferred the power to the emergent winners of the CA polls, the Maoists and remained observant and played appropriate role when demanded. Though the fallout of the Maoists with the president in the issue of ouster of the then army chief and eventual collapse of the Maoists-led government threatened the coordinating role of GPK, none other than him had the potential to become the game maker in the aftermath.

Through every moment of the many crises that came head on due to inevitable dichotomy in the interests of the political groups that had collaborated to topple the monarchy, GPK stood firm, though not always perfectly rational and radiated the confidence and vigor that did their trick to force the opposite camps to come together for the sake of larger good. Even when there was a frank tussle between his party and the Maoists, GPK was the only person to whom the Maoists were reluctant to ignore or disregard. The journey has been far from smooth for Nepal ever since the formulation of the famous 12-point understanding in 2005 that was the pivotal point in recent history of Nepal. The hardliners in the right from his party-men to the American envoy were dead-set against legitimizing their 'ruthless ideological rivals' from the jungle who could upset the status quo in the above-ground politics. The predicaments of GPK were great as he was the old-generation leader of the oldest political party of Nepal that had revered monarchy as something necessary though burdensome. As the entry of the Maoists in the mainstream politics polarized the political field further drastically increasing the acrimony between the two non-monarchy and post-monarchy poles, GPK had to make increasingly hard choices. Reading the popular concern of the people, he always chose to strike a balance if not to go further leftward in such moments of change in his attempt to avoid the alienation of the Maoists, the new forces awkwardly following democracy in Mao's name.

It was this trait of GPK developed over the last decade for which the enormous trust of the Nepali people was placed on this weak, sick, fragile and elderly figure with all energy drained by the illness that was not compatible with the lungs that had now worked for record eighty-six years despite the uninterrupted assault of the cigarette smoke that GPK could not abstain from. Ironically, the Maoists may now turn to lose the most with his loss as the prospect of reconciliation with the rivals recedes further in the horizon with his death. The clamor for power in the current government and their announced plan to bring the no-confidence motion in the parliament are now perceived as the perfect recipe for a large-scale political disaster in Nepal amid the increasingly vocal army and a peace process just ready to be derailed. That will make the loss of GPK all the more painful.

The other added advantage of GPK as the leading figure in Nepal was the high standing and credibility he enjoyed at the international level. The fact that the Indian PM welcomed him in airport breaking the protocol in his trip after the success of the 2006 revolt was one indicator of this. Over many decades of turbulent political life, he was able to develop the image of a stout, liberal and democratic figure and that meant a lot for a tiny state of Nepal sandwiched between two giant states of China and India.

With just above two months left for the deadline to issue the new constitution, it would be a great tribute to GPK if the political parties in Nepal could reconcile by burrowing the differences; no doubt they will miss the charismatic mediator and instructor in the process. An epoch in Nepal with guardianship of the enduring leader has now come to an abrupt end and many consider the death of the eighty-year old to be 'premature'. But it will be absurd to expect a person to fulfill all major responsibilities of a state for more than half a century and this is an opportunity for his successors to shoulder the responsibility with due seriousness. Indeed that is the only way forward and we will have to move onto it, whether we like or not, whether with apprehension and reluctance or with confidence and energy. Let's hope the loss of the enduring leader will wake us all to our proper responsibilities helping us in to make movements forward in right direction.

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