Friday, December 22, 2006

Can Any Premier Have Greater Power?

An all-powerful prime minister replaces an “autocratic” monarch as head of state to the glee of the dominant political class. When he asserts that role days later, his partners in peace and reconciliation erupt in anger.
True, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala exercised his prerogative rather prematurely – before the interim statute empowering him to do so had come into force. But, then, when did constitutionalism begin defining Nepal’s post-royal regime politics?
An acknowledged straight-shooter for much of his political life, Koirala began indulging in theatrics during the first phase of royal assertiveness that began on October 4, 2002. He accused Narhari Acharya and Gagan Thapa – the two preeminent republicans in the Nepali Congress – as agents of the palace. During the height of the hype surrounding the Nepali Congress’ abandonment of constitutional monarchy from the party charter, Koirala privately suggested that republicanism was only a slogan to intimidate the palace.
Age has entitled Koirala to use poor health as an excuse to procrastinate on critical issues. He couldn’t take the oath of office on the appointed day and skipped the early sessions of the legislature he single-handedly struggled to reinstate. Instead of traveling to Bangkok for medical treatment as announced, Koirala changed directions and flew into New Delhi to be hailed as South Asia’s preeminent statesman. When he came back, the premier inked the eight-point accord that brought Maoist supremo Prachanda into full public glare. The Reds had cautioned national vigilance against another Tanakpur Koirala might do in Delhi. No evidence to that surfaced. But Koirala returned a committed constitutional monarchist. Narhari Acharya is waiting for a propitious moment to defect to the Maoists and Gagan Thapa has receded into silence.
The day after he drew up the eight-point accord with Prachanda and virtually forced it on his Seven Party Alliance (SPA) partners, Koirala left for Bangkok. The other SPA leaders, ever reticent in Koirala’s presence, regretted how they had inked the accord in haste. Instead of receiving treatment for his longstanding respiratory problems, Koirala underwent prostate surgery in Bangkok.
After the premier’s return, Prachanda hit a Baluwatar stonewall that, among other things, shattered his claim to the co-premiership. The rebel supremo’s talks with a Chinese academic created some sensation – primarily across the southern border – that galvanized the peace process. It took Prachanda’s visit to India – preceded by US Ambassador James F. Moriarty’s and UN special representative Ian Martin’s own missions – and a formal renunciation of Maoism as an exportable commodity to complete the broader peace accords. The interim constitution was inked in time for Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s arrival in Kathmandu. Koirala used Mukherjee’s presence in the country to meet a Chinese delegation and reiterate his government’s refusal to allow Nepalese territory to be used against its northern neighbor.
With his control of the Nepali Congress never really in doubt, Koirala is carefully treading between the Maoists and monarchists. The palace is his tool to tame the Maoists and vice versa. As for the preeminent political player in Nepal, Koirala has been deferential even amid the deepest personal humiliation, outdoing his Nepali Congress contemporaries.
By choosing the Panchayat prison over Indira Gandhi’s emergency-era detention centers in 1976, B.P. Koirala clearly registered his views of India. Of course, his prison memoirs are more explicit vis-à-vis the world’s largest democracy’s considerations in Nepal.
Ganesh Man Singh, “supreme commander” of the 1990 movement, used surrogates to blame the defeat of his wife and son in elections the following years on Indian designs. When post-Rajiv Gandhi Indian National Congress began cultivating the palace, Singh became more candid about New Delhi’s motives.
Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, stung by the “common rivers” tag he acquired during his interim premiership, used anti-Indianism as a plank in his unsuccessful by-election campaigns. The fallout from the December 1999 Indian Airlines hijacking perhaps reminded then-prime minister Bhattarai of the kind of Nehruvian pressures B.P. Koirala faced during his last months as Nepal’s first elected head of government.
Girija Prasad Koirala has strenuously desisted from anti-Indianism. The only time Maila Baje can recall this emotion taking hold of his politics was during the aftermath of his ignominious resignation in 2001. He accused the palace and India of being behind the Maoist insurgency. When both rejected the allegations, Koirala attempted to sound apologetic, but without retracting the substance of his allegation. (“Alright, but I am still surprised at how the Maoists could have thrived as they have.”)
When Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee refused to meet him during one of his medical-treatment sessions in New Delhi, Koirala kept silent. He couldn’t have been prescient enough to recognize that someone held personally responsible for the worst of Nepal’s post-1990 multiparty politics would become the savior of democracy on his terms. Yet Koirala must be human enough to recognize the impermanence of the “statesman” title foreigners confer.
The scary part now is that Nepal’s peace and reconciliation hangs on the life – literally and figuratively – of a man who has spent almost all of it. How much more power can any prime minister exercise over his country?