Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Son Also Rises

He may not be as voluble as some of his cabinet colleagues. But when Prakash Koirala speaks, he hits right on the nail.
The minister for science and technology in King Gyanendra’s cabinet has accused India of forging the alliance between the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists rebels as part of its policy of perpetuating instability in Nepal.
Before castigating the man as a rabid India-baiter, let’s look into a phenomenon he represents. As the eldest son of B.P. Koirala, Prakash knows better than anybody else the tragedy and travails of Nepal’s first elected prime minister.
Although B.P. never directly accused the Indian government of instigating his ouster in December 1960, his memoirs and prison diary portray a complex relationship he had with Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru.
In his memoirs, Kumar Mani Dixit, B.P.’s secretary, describes in detail B.P.’s last meeting with Nehru as prime minister. A visibly disturbed B.P. emerged from the talks, seething at how a leader of Nehru’s stature could fail to see him as the prime minister of an independent and sovereign country.
Stories abound. Nehru once asked B.P. whether he wanted to serve as the deputy chief of India’s embassy in Moscow or go to Nepal to pursue a political career. B.P. opted for the latter. The story gained traction among those familiar with B.P.’s purported role in the campaign against Nepal’s application to join the United Nations.
It is commonly held that King Mahendra didn’t want B.P. as prime minister after the Nepali Congress won a landslide in kingdom’s first election in 1959. Once he became premier, B.P. went on to share warm relations with the monarch. King Mahendra would regale B.P. with royal lyrics with full accompaniment of the harmonium. B.P. once ventured into the royal kitchen inquiring whether he could help Queen Ratna with food preparation. Days before dismissing B.P.’s government, King Mahendra presented gifts he said he had bought for the prime minister during his foreign visit.
Years later, some people close to King Mahendra marveled at the monarch’s endless praise for B.P. One mustered the courage to ask the king why he had B.P. behind bars for so long if he thought the man was the only Nepali worthy of the premiership. King Mahendra’s reply was cryptic. “Do you think I wanted B.P. imprisoned this long?” He probably was referring to the lack of discretion Girija Prasad Koirala, B.P.’s youngest brother, had demonstrated during the quiet reconciliation talks, which ultimately scuttled the effort.
Regardless of the authenticity or otherwise of all these stories, a larger picture emerges. After his release from eight years of imprisonment, B.P. happened to be in Bombay where King Mahendra was transiting on his way back home from a trip to the West. As a former prime minister, he felt an obligation to go to the airport to welcome the monarch. On the receiving line, King Mahendra gave him a quick glance and passed him by, leaving B.P. a little puzzled about royal psychology.
Moments later, though, the monarch returned to inquire about B.P.’s health and general well being. As B.P. subsequently recounted, it looked like the personal warmth between the two men had never dissipated.
Where B.P. did find a sea-change was in the behavior of Indian leaders. They systematically shunned him. He ended up living in virtual house arrest in Varanasi and Delhi. For B.P., national reconciliation was a compulsion stemming from a larger Indian reality.
Neither Ganesh Man Singh nor Girija Prasad Koirala could grasp the thoughts B.P. grappled with before deciding to return to Nepal. He was, after all, facing charges of treason. (The other top Nepali Congress leader, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, had refused to go into exile, insisting that a stable democracy couldn’t emerge from abroad.)
Later, when B.P. was on his way to the United States for medical treatment, Indian reporters were anxious to know whether he would return to Nepal. “The king’s neck and my own are entwined in the same noose,” he replied.
When the Panchayat side won a referendum in 1979, the entire multiparty camp cried foul. B.P. stood firm saying the result was inexplicable but as a democrat he would accept it. B.P. wanted to take part in the first adult-franchise elections to the partyless legislature. He was dissuaded by his colleagues.
Toward the end of his life, B.P. began narrating his story to his brother in law Ganesh Raj Sharma, the eminent jurist. In the opinion of the ailing ex-premier, there was only one other person, apart from Sharma, who he thought could do justice to his story.
That other person was Shailaja Acharya, B.P.’s niece, who to this day is fiercely committed to the imperative of national reconciliation. B.P. emphasized that Shailaja might not have the time or convenience to complete the task and asked Sharma to volunteer.
Girija Prasad Koirala and other members of the Koirala coterie did their best to prevent Sharma from coming out with B.P.’s memoirs. (When a Kathmandu-based publishing house started running excerpts from another phase of B.P.’s unpublished prison diary, there were rumblings of discontent in the Koirala family. The English weekly and Nepali fortnightly that were carrying the pieces quietly dropped them.)
Prakash Koirala wasn’t the only one drawing lessons from B.P.’s experience. B.P.’s granddaughter – Prakash’s daughter -- Manisha has been quite critical of the way other members of the extended Koirala family have misused B.P.’s life and legacy to further their own political interests.
One does not know whether Manisha shares her father’s estimate of Indian intentions in Nepal; nor is it clear whether she would be as forthright in voicing them in public, given her own status as a leading actress in the Indian film industry. (Dr. Shashank Koirala, Prakash’s younger brother, is firmly allied with Girija Prasad Koirala. He seems unable to fathom the depths of Prakash’s sentiments; perhaps it’s because he was too young – and subsequently too engrossed in his medical studies -- to experience his father’s travails.)
Prakash Koirala’s remarks bear added significance in view of the renewal of the transit treaty between India and Nepal. A protracted dispute over the renewal – which seemed increasingly likely at one point – would have imposed severe hardships on Nepal.
The closing of transit points and withdrawal of privileges would have been tantamount to an embargo on the landlocked kingdom – reminiscent of 1989-90.
A second blockade perhaps became untenable because of, among other things, the improved transit and transportation system available to Nepal via China – something absent 17 years ago. Making a virtue out of necessity, India renewed the treaty.
What we don’t fully know is the fate of the “non-treaty-related” issues India had raised in earlier negotiations, citing which New Delhi extended the agreement for three months. In formally renewing the treaty, India may have weighed the benefits accruing from an improvement in its public image among ordinary Nepalis. Could New Delhi be gearing up to extract greater -- and graver -- concessions via the unfolding SPA-Maoist showdown with King Gyanendra’s government?