Girija Prasad Koirala's death on Saturday afternoon marks the end of an era in not only Nepali but also sub-continental politics. As a warrior for democracy over six decades, a five-time Prime Minister and architect of the ongoing peace process with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Koirala was an integral part of Nepal's modern political history. But he has passed away at a time when the task of institutionalising the democracy he fought for remains incomplete.
G.P. Koirala, or GPK, was born in Bihar in 1925, where his father, Krishna Prasad Koirala, was in exile for defying the autocratic clan-based Rana regime. His father believed that Nepal could not be free of despotic Rana rule as long as their patrons, the British, ruled India. G.P. Koirala's elder brother, B.P. Koirala (also known as BP), was imprisoned in the Quit India Movement. In early 1947, Nepali exiles in India and Kathmandu-based dissenters formed the Nepali National Congress.
G.P. Koirala joined politics in this broader setting. In March 1947, he led Nepal's first workers strike at Biratnagar Jute Mills. Though firmly opposed to the use of violence, he accepted the party's decision to launch an insurrection against the Ranas in 1950. He served as the political commissar on the far-eastern front in the country's first democratic revolution.
But the tenuous democracy did not last. B.P. Koirala was sworn in as Nepal's first democratically elected Prime Minister in 1959 but King Mahendra engineered a royal coup soon after. Both BP and GPK were arrested and spent seven years in prison. They subsequently went back to live in exile in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and struggle for democracy from there.
In the early 1970s, the party decided to use violence against the autocratic regime. Under G.P. Koirala's leadership, NC hijacked a Nepali state-owned aircraft which was ferrying cash. Koirala also printed fake Indian currency, and procured weapons. But this phase did not last long. After emergency was declared in India in 1975, the Koiralas returned to Nepal and continued their movement in a non-violent manner.
Long seen as BP's ‘havaldar', Girija Koirala finally came into his own after his brother's death in the early 1980s. Along with Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, he became a part of the troika that constituted the Nepali Congress leadership. As general secretary, he tirelessly expanded the party organisation. Koirala accepted Ganesh Man's lead in forging an alliance with left groups against autocracy. With mass people's participation, and support of Indian politicians like Chandra Shekhar, democracy was restored in 1990. A new constitution was drafted instituting constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy.
The Nepali Congress won a majority in the 1991 elections. But senior leader and interim Prime Minister Bhattarai lost his seat. Koirala was the next natural candidate to lead the government. From fighting against the state, Koirala was now in charge of governance.
As Prime Minister, Koirala is credited with creating a democratic environment which enabled media and civil society to take roots. He opened up the economy, and expanded services outside Kathmandu. But he did little to ensure independence of public institutions and dumped the party's socialist commitment for a neo-liberal trajectory. He was blind to the nascent, but growing, assertion of marginalised ethnic communities. Koirala practised ‘coterie' politics; relatives and associates indulged in large-scale corruption; and he marginalised senior party leaders. He finally had to resign after an intra-party rebellion three years into his tenure.
This failure to institute democratic norms and political instability would cost Nepal dearly. The Maoist insurgency had picked up. Royalist forces became active. Koirala took over as Prime Minister twice again in 1998 and 2000. His stewardship of the country after the royal massacre in 2001, and willingness to stand up to the Royal Nepal Army's allegiance to the palace instead of the democratic government deserve appreciation. But his working style remained authoritarian and he paid little attention to key governance and policy issues.
The weaknesses and infighting of the democratic forces and growing Maoist violence allowed the new and ambitious monarch, Gyanendra, to assume an active role. He dismissed a democratic government in 2002 and appointed hand-picked nominees. To his credit, Koirala saw it as a ‘regressive' step and firmly opposed it. When Gyanendra assumed executive power through a coup in 2005, Koirala's instincts were proven right.
GPK was now back to doing what he knew best — fighting for democracy. Since 2002, he had also been talking to the Maoist chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda', to convince him to give up violence and concentrate on democratic politics. The royal regime created a context for the parliamentary parties to join hands with the Maoists. With Indian help, they signed the 12-point agreement in Delhi in November 2005. Older parties agreed to dump the monarchy and support the formation of a Constituent Assembly while the Maoists committed themselves to multiparty democracy.
This paved the way for the April 2006 People's Movement. The king was forced to concede that sovereignty rested with the people, and Girija Koirala became the Prime Minister one more time. This was truly Koirala's defining moment. All his sins of the 1990s seemed to be forgiven for his bold leadership in restoring peace and democracy in Nepal. He had stood firm against the right wing dictatorship, and had also helped a violent, ultra-left group accept the necessity of democracy. In November 2006, Koirala signed the peace agreement with Prachanda formally announcing the end of the civil war.
Though the Maoists unexpectedly won the Constituent Assembly elections, GPK expected to become Nepal's first president for his role in ensuring a smooth transition to a republic. But the Maoists did not support him, triggering a rupture that would later widen. His decision to foist his unpopular daughter, Sujata, as the NC's leader in the present government in 2009 eroded his credibility significantly. His party today is facing a deep existential and leadership crisis.
More crucially, the Maoist-non Maoist polarisation has increased. The peace process (which involves integrating and rehabilitating former Maoist combatants and addressing conflict crimes and justice) and constitution writing (for which the deadline is May 28, 2010) are in limbo. Realising the gravity of the situation, Koirala had recently taken a lead in setting up a High Level Political Mechanism which included the Maoists, who are otherwise in opposition, to address these issues.
Girija Prasad Koirala has left at a time when his centrist politics would have been a moderating influence on all sides. Only he could stand up to the spoilers — the right wing within his party, Nepal Army hawks, Maoist dogmatists and even Indian security hawks. The greatest tribute to him, and his six-decade-long political life, would be for Nepal to institutionalise peace and write a democratic constitution.