Opinion and Editorial

Nepal’s first family

Sudeshna Sarkar (Spotlight)
Filed on February 12, 2014

The sun sets on Indian Congress but rises on Nepali Congress

You can call it a study in contrasts. In India you have people clamouring for an end to the dynastic rule of the Gandhi family and there is a strong backlash against the ruling Congress party’s efforts to project its vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, who founded the dynasty, as the next prime minister of India. However, in neighbouring Nepal, dynastic rule is holding out the hope of progress after decades of instability and a short-lived experimentation with radical revolutionaries who proved to be more corrupt and greedy than centuries of blue-blooded dictators.

The birthplace of the Buddha has just got itself a new prime minister — the sixth in as many years. Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, takes up the mantle of his cousin, Girija Prasad Koirala, who could be described as the Kennedy of Kathmandu or a male Indira Gandhi, take your pick.

The Koiralas are undisputedly the first family of Nepal. The political history of the clan started with Krishna Prasad Koirala, a free-thinking scholar and patriot who fell out with the hereditary and all-powerful Rana prime minister of his time and was given a choice between exile and death. He chose to migrate to India where his children took part in the Indian struggle for freedom from British colonial rule and developed close ties with the Indian Congress. Three of his five sons became prime minister of Nepal at various times.

Matrika Prasad was the first, becoming premier after the end of Rana rule in the 50s. Bisweshwar Prasad was the most charismatic, becoming the first elected prime minister in 1959 after a pro-democracy movement forced the then king to agree to a new constitution and hold elections. But the most commanding and longest serving was Girija Prasad, whose government saw a Maoist revolution take root and burgeon and who perhaps tried later to atone for the bloodshed and destruction by holding secret talks with the Maoists to end the violence. But much of the atonement was undone when the octogenarian clinged on to power, refusing to relinquish it to an able successor even when he was dying, and instead, like Indira Gandhi, tried to promote his daughter Sujata, making her deputy prime minister.

In this jousting for power, made all the more complex by a former protege and prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, raising the banner of revolt and splitting the party vertically, Sushil Koirala went unnoticed. A soft-spoken, gentle man who had been fighting a battle against cancer, Sushil Koirala proved to be a loyal aide, content to serve the patriarch and declining to beg for a berth in the string of cabinets formed and dissolved as government after government fell in republic Nepal. The post of party chief came to him as a compromise. After Girija Prasad Koirala’s death Deuba staked his claim but was opposed fiercely by a veteran party member, Ram Chandra Poudel. Fearing further splits and deferring to the Koirala name, Sushil Koirala was made Nepali Congress president.

And now the post of premier comes to him by virtue of a backlash. Under Girija Prasad’s stewardship the Congress fought the elections in 2008 and got severely licked by the Maoist party, just as in New Delhi the Congress was by the debutant Aam Aadmi Party. But thanks to Maoist misrule, infighting and disregard for the law, the red brigade was humbled in the elections held last year and the anti-incumbency wave that had seen the Nepali Congress trounced six years ago gave it the most seats.

Now Sushil Koirala has a year to deliver his promise — give Nepal a new constitution by, of and for Nepalis. Since 2008, two major parties pledged to do that and both — the Maoists as well as the communists — failed. Though much of the new constitution has been drafted, even then completing it is no easy task. To complete the constitution and then promulgate it, Sushil Koirala has to take all the parties along with him. In the past the communists proved to be a deadly ally, backstabbing the Nepali Congress to side with the Maoists for power and in Nepal, history has a dreaded habit of repeating itself. The Maoists themselves are bad enough as an enemy, putting self-interest before national ones. On top of that the deadly rivalry between the Maoist top leaders makes the party’s reactions difficult to predict.

The new premier has to show an iron hand in his velvet gloves to give the beleaguered nation a stable government, tame escalating inflation and restore law and order. Then there are high-priority infrastructural problems like water and power scarcity. On top of all this, the mild-mannered Koirala has to also stand up to dictations by India, that is regarded as trying to behave like Nepal’s big brother and control Nepali politicians.

The peace process in Nepal has not been entirely home-grown. India brought the Nepali Congress and Maoist leaders together for talks in New Delhi and despite the ultimate cessation of bloodshed the secret mediation earned the distrust and enmity of the Maoists and a section of Nepalis. Now at this critical juncture Susil Koirala has to be seen as a leader like Mt Everest, Nepal’s most beloved icon after the Buddha: A man who will not bend to pressure from both within the country and without.

Sudeshna Sarkar is a journalist with Khaleej Times

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