Monday, February 18, 2008

New Nepal Tied Down By The Old

For quite some time now, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has been sounding like King Gyanendra. Lately, Maoist chairman Prachanda is echoing Ganesh Man Singh. Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal reminds you of, well, Sher Bahadur Deuba.
National sovereignty and territorial integrity seem to have become the pivots of the legacy Koirala wants to build. Having done his best to de-develop the nation in its people’s name, Prachanda now envisages an economic revolution. The road to the putative presidency is paved with the hopes of its people. Madhav Nepal has an immediate focus: elections at all costs.
The national interest isn’t a concept Nepalis generally associate with Koirala. From Tanakpur to the privatization of Chinese-built enterprises, Koirala’s first term as premier was a saga of obeisance to the south. He never seemed to mind the “pro-Indian” tag.
This time, Koirala seems intent on undercutting his land of birth at every opportunity. Holding Indian officialdom complicit in everything from hijacking to currency counterfeiting to the Terai crisis, Koirala has warmed up to the Chinese. The handover of Dr. Kidney, too, seemed more of an effort to forestall the political fallout of Indian sleuths swooping on Kathmandu.
In some ways, this transformation – if that’s what it really is – mirrors that of his illustrious late brother. B.P. Koirala once campaigned against Nepal’s membership of the United Nations, arguing that it was merely an administrative unit of India. As Nepal’s first elected prime minister, he made some of the most passionate speeches ever in defense of Nepalese independence.
Of course, we all know what happened to B.P. Koirala after that. In the end, he found Sundarijal more comfortable than South Extension or Sarnath because of the deviousness of his Indian hosts. Much as he opposed King Gyanendra’s direct rule, Girija Prasad Koirala must have come face to face with his own helplessness in New Delhi during the pre-February 2005 phase.
Given his age and virtual indispensability to the other stakeholders in Nepal, Girija Prasad would probably avoid the direct humiliation heaped on his brother from the south. But New Delhi’s cardinal rule remains that Koiralas aren’t supposed to flaunt the China card.
The Indians have grudgingly left that to Prachanda. But the Chinese don’t seem to trust him enough. Their overtures to Rabindra Shrestha, leader of the breakaway Maoist faction are certainly not rooted in his abiding fondness for the Cultural Revolution.
Economic revolution is something Prachanda should quit talking about. Ganesh Man Singh’s vision after the 1990 democracy movement assumed that Nepal’s political contradictions had been settled for good. That end-of-history conceit had a certain respect during those heady times. But consider the flip side. The Koirala cabal succeeded in subverting Singh’s supreme leadership faster precisely because of such rhetorical flourishes.
The Maoists, who advanced on the impossibility of overnight economic improvement, should know better. Nepal’s almost six-decade-old quest for political equilibrium remains as unstable as ever.
Madhav Nepal seems to have grasped that well. There will never be a perfect situation for elections, he tells us. This conviction could easily have come from experience. If Deuba had gone ahead with the parliamentary election scheduled in November 2002, the UML would have benefited the most.
Deuba, who insisted that he postponed them only under pressure from other parties, could invited international monitors to offset the Maoists’ threats. Why the UML chief went along with the rest of the anti-Deuba crowd, resulting in King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Nepal’s last elected premier, is unclear. Less ambiguous is the fact that Madhav Nepal lost the most in the intervening years.
New Nepal is simply tied down by the old.