Friday, April 27, 2007

A Nation Loses A True Nationalist

In the death of Mohan Gopal Khetan, Nepal has lost much more than a businessman at the helm of an impressive array of ventures. As he strove to build one of Nepal’s biggest industrial houses, ranging from banking, breweries and insurance to processed foods, Khetan remained loyal to the soil until he suffered that fatal heart attack Thursday at age 61.
Mohan Khetan could not have achieved his business successes without at least some of the “shadiness” ordinarily associated with entrepreneurs. Where he stood out was in his espousal of issues going to the heart of Nepal’s existence as a sovereign nation.
Introduced to the family business as a teenager, Mohan Khetan remained influenced by his father, Bihari Lal. Once, when a potential partner proposed a timber-based venture, Khetan declined straightaway. He politely reminded the visitors at his Sanepa residence that his father had taught him never to cut trees. Family values must have gone a long way in the emergence of his son, Rajendra, into a prominent business leader of this generation.
During the Panchayat years, Mohan Khetan’s office at Makhan Tole would see a plethora of politicians seeking donations. Other prominent members of the Kathmandu establishment sought his support for a variety of personal, social, cultural and other causes. Considering some of the conversations there, one could be forgiven for mistaking the venue for a politico-economic brainstorming. Mohan Khetan’s own views were unconventional for a businessman, more so under the partyless polity of the time.
Rivals accused Khetan of buying influence in the palace by, among other things, contributing funds to the Social Services National Coordination Committee Queen Aishwarya led. Some were embittered by how Khetan had “purchased” medals and awards. Others lamented how the scale of his munificence had made social service simply too expensive. The visage of Khetan, with his trademark salt-and-pepper beard, could be seen heading from one destination to another. He would almost always be in the front seat of the vehicle, as if in some kind of partnership with the driver.
After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Khetan became known as the “Marxist billionaire.” In a television interview, Jhal Nath Khanal, the Marxist-Leninist representative in Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s interim government, denied ever having heard of a man called Mohan Khetan. The accompanying footage, of course, disputed Khanal’s claim. Association with Khetan – or at least the perception of it – must have helped Khanal’s party – today’s UML – in transforming itself into an advocate of private entrepreneurship and free markets at a time when communism was under sustained assault in the rest of the world.
During Girija Prasad Koirala’s first tenure as premier, Khetan was imprisoned. A chronic diabetic, that experience took a toll on his health. Khetan was charged with violating Nepal’s foreign exchange regulations, which the state could not prove. The episode was really part of Koirala’s projection of toughness in his power struggle with Ganesh Man Singh. Years later, Khetan complimented Koirala as being the only politician with class. (In one revealing quote, if Maila Baje recalls it correctly, Khetan described Koirala as the only politician who never sought donations from him personally.)
At the height of the Maoist insurgency, Khetan had good words for Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. Again, it was tempting to dismiss Khetan as a consummate businessman seeking to curry favour with all potential power centers. A more careful reading of his newspaper articles and interviews on Nepal’s national interests, however, suggested a clear convergence with some of the Maoists’ views.
Khetan was quite vocal in attacking India’s refusal to acknowledge Nepal’s existence as a sovereign state. Many dismissed his stand as little more than an effort to cover his own “Indianness.” The fact remained that Khetan’s Nepali roots went farther back than those of many of his critics. The country has lost a true nationalist.