Girija Prasad Koirala will be remembered as a democrat who strode through Nepal's modern democratic era of two decades, a man with weaknesses at the party level, whose commitment to pluralism remained unwavering. Though an autocrat within his Nepali Congress, where he wielded total control from 1990 till recent months, his democratic convictions when it came to the larger polity made Koirala stand resolute against royal adventurism. And political pragmatism made him reach out to the Maoist rebels in the jungle.
At 86, Koirala was the very last national-level politician of South Asia whose activism spanned the period from the Quit India Movement of the 1940s till present. All his contemporaries elsewhere in South-Asia have passed on before this. In this sense, Girija Prasad Koirala's death marks the passing of a South-Asian era.
He was groomed in political culture by his brother Bisweshwor Prasad Koirala (BP), who walked the world stage as a socialist of the Nehru-Nasser period. It was from BP that ‘GP' received his pluralism mantra, which made him uncompromising in matters like civilian control of the military, separation of powers, and supremacy of the judiciary. These were the ‘simple convictions' which helped Koirala steer the polity after the fall of the 30-year royal Panchayat regime, at a time when some believed the country would disintegrate in the absence of absolute monarchy.
Within the Nepali Congress, Koirala emerged as the sole power centre soon after 1990, ruthlessly sidelining the other two of the triumvirate which inherited the mantle from BP, Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. He was able to maintain a strong base by building a direct relationship with party workers all over through continuous travel, and retaining the power to raise and disburse party funds.
Koirala ruled the longest as five-time prime minister in the democratic era after 1990, and by that token also made more mistakes than others, besides earning the animosity of the mainstream left which opposed him in Parliament and on the streets. Koirala can take some of the credit for the advances made during the dozen years of democracy till 2002, including the advance of community forestry, press freedom, the FM radio revolution and the brief interlude with local government. He was a true believer in open society. And yet, he was party to the ills that dog us to this day, from energy shortage, static economy and the impunity that has spread like wildfire. Clearly, Koirala was unable to come to grips with the newer challenges beyond pluralism, posed by identity assertion and economic globalisation, among others.
Though often vilified as a power-monger, posterity will regard Girija Prasad Koirala better than his contemporaries. His strong and continuous presence at the helm of political affairs for two decades after 1990 can be said to have helped Nepal ease itself into the modern democratic era. He was prime minister when the royal palace massacre occurred in 1 June 2001, and his personality probably helped stave off total anarchy that the then-underground Maoists were set to take advantage of. As is widely acknowledged, the country would not have a peace process and the Maoists come above ground, nor would it have gone republican, without Koirala's acquiescence.
Koirala led an austere life, living in a makeshift rooftop apartment of his nephew most of the time that he was out of power. The corruption charges levelled against him during his prime ministership would have mostly to do with the income he had to generate for the Nepali Congress, in a polity where there is no sanctioned party-finance mechanism. But the father's one definite weakness was for daughter Sujata, and he was not beneath promoting graft on her behalf. Koirala always kept assistants, but never allowed anyone to get close enough to think he was a confidante. Over time, a family coterie came to surround the ageing leader, and able associates drifted away from the inner circle.
Girija Prasad Koirala's ‘second coming' was after 2002, when the new (and last) king of Nepal made a not-so-naked grab for power. While the other democratic leaders, nearly to the last man, fell like ninepins against the royal coup, Koirala held firm even as many regarded him as a laughing stock. He resisted Gyanendra resolutely, and insisted on the reinstatement of the dissolved parliament as the only release that would be acceptable. Few others were with him, but Koirala's doggedness won the day. Gyanendra had used the excuse of the Maoist insurgency to take full charge, but starting in 2003 Koirala initiated contact with the underground rebels and in the fall of 2005 led the seven parliamentary parties to signing the 12-point agreement, which was to spark the massive People's Movement of April 2006.
After the People's Movement, it fell to Koirala to lead the country back to peace and democracy. During the time when Koirala was both head of state and government till the elections of April 2008, it was under Koirala's watch that we saw the entrenchment of impunity and the further-weakening of an already feeble state. And yet there is no denying that the successful effort to bring the Maoists above ground had ended the 'people's war', which had taken more than 16,000 lives over a decade. For long having projected himself as an anti-communist, Koirala found it possible to make common cause with the mainstream-left CPN (UML) party to negotiate with the CPN (Maoist) for the sake of peace.
Without doubt, as a man who saw leadership of the country synonymous with his own stewardship, Koirala would have died disconsolate. In his last days, weakened by emphysema caused by a lifetime of chain-smoking, Koirala would doubtless have liked to have seen the country on the path to political stability, marked by a successful conclusion of the peace process and promulgation of a new constitution. The former should have meant the disbandment of the Maoist cantonment and the ‘attachment' and rehabilitation of the more than 19,000 ex-rebel combatants. The deadline for the constitution writing is 28 May 2010, but Koirala would have died knowing that this deadline was impossible to meet, given the distance between the Maoists and the rest on key draft provisions.
It cannot be left unsaid that the aging politician compromised his own legacy towards the very end by brazenly pushing daughter Sujata to lead the Nepali Congress in the government of Madhav Kumar Nepal — an act which in one stroke weakened the latter's cabinet by filling it with juniors. Such was his commanding presence that not one leader in the Nepali Congress dared challenge this show of unalloyed nepotism. Koirala forced Prime Minister Nepal to elevate the daughter to Deputy Prime Minister, and seems to have had an eye on the prime ministerial chair as the ultimate prize. This favouring of a neophyte politician with rip-roaring ambition had the impact of drastically reducing Koirala's stature within his own party over the past year, and a loss of face nationally and internationally.
Koirala was born in Bihar, where his family was in exile for challenging the Rana regime. He began his political career six decades ago as a labour union activist at the Biratnagar Jute Mills, and he epitomised the ‘secular' values of liberal democracy which many others merely mouth, whether it was in matters of faith, gender, human rights, press freedom or civilian-military relations. While regarded highly in India as a man of the ‘Independence generation', his strength within Nepal lay in relentless party work and the understanding of powerplay.
The man in daura
Girija Prasad Koirala died with the knowledge that a political stable, peaceful and prosperous Nepal was very much a work in progress. And that is the sadness of his passing, of promises unfulfilled and him knowing it. A reliable and towering democrat has been removed from the field at a time when the peace process is incomplete and the constitution unwritten. Will the jolt of his death force the Maoists and the parties arrayed against them to work to finish the peace process and constitution drafting by 28 May? That seems unlikely.
The departure of Koirala weakens the social-democratic middle ground of Nepali politics. Spring is the ‘season of discontent' when Nepal sees political upheaval, and the UCPN (Maoist) could decide to use Koirala's departure as the opportunity to escalate the radical agenda that they have been voicing in public and private. If they do go in the direction of urban revolt as suggested often and loudly, it is bound to embolden the germinating right wing of Nepali politics. Amidst such a scenario, it is required of democratically inclined politicians of all parties — including the Maoists — to work with the broader civil society to keep the middle ground from encroachment from either side.
Dressed immaculately in white daura-suruwal and Western jacket, smoking incessantly from a cigarette holder, white handkerchief in hand, his middle finger extended in oratory fashion, drinking milk-tea from a glass tumbler — that is the lasting image that Girija Prasad Koirala leaves behind. And the hope that the ‘simple convictions' he carried will ultimately weaken the forces of political anarchy, and make way for peace, political stability and economic progress.
(* The reference is to the one work available by Girija Prasad Koirala, “ Simple Convictions: My Struggle for Peace and Democracy ” (2007) Mandala, Kathmandu .)