Sunday, October 18, 2009

Back To The B.P. Balm

Count on the Nepali Congress to bring up B.P. Koirala every time the going gets tough. Party president Girija Prasad Koirala broke down the other day agonizing over how the dreams of his late brother remained unfulfilled these many decades later. Then B.P.’s grand-daughter Manisha visited the Sundarijal Museum, the former site where Nepal’s first elected prime minister was incarcerated for much of the Sixties. All this as BP’s niece, Sujata, lost little time in trying to consolidate her hold in the party after being controversially elevated to the deputy premiership.
Back home from talks in India, former premier Sher Bahadur Deuba said his Nepali Congress was hurt by Sujata’s promotion. But two longtime Deuba loyalists, Bal Krishna Khand and Prakash Sharan Mahat, remain at the frontlines of Sujata’s defense.
The Sundarijal affair was notable not only in terms of Manisha’s possible political plans but also for Nepali Congress acting president Sushil Koirala’s conspicuous presence. Another claimant to the Koirala throne, Dr. Shekhar, has already sought to distinguish himself by blaming both uncle Girija and the Maoists for pushing the country to its sordid plight.
Will the B.P. balm help? Perhaps not. For most of the Fifties, B.P. led more through charisma than intellect. The 1959 election settled the issue of political preponderance by providing the Nepali Congress an absolute majority in parliament. But B.P. had become a polarizing figure in the wider political landscape. When he fell a year and a half later, it was because the non-Congress political class had arrayed firmly against the party and the premier. At least 55 of the 74 Congress MPs would go on to become palace supporters.
B.P. may have been a man ahead of his times but he left little time for the country to catch up. His efforts to maintain equal relations with India and China were arduous enough. When he took issue with Nehru’s assertion in 1959 that any aggression on Nepal or Bhutan would be taken regarded as aggression against India, the Indian prime minister made public for the first time the letters exchanged with the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. That was that.
The following year, during his visit to China, B.P. made thinly veiled criticisms of Beijing’s policies towards India. The Chinese did not seem to mind. That must have emboldened him to assert in Hong Kong, on his way back home, that the Chinese were too preoccupied domestically to glance beyond their borders.
By reaching out to Israel and Pakistan, B.P. could have hardly endeared himself to the Indians. Noble as these efforts were, did B.P. really think he possessed enough credibility where it really mattered to pursue them? He had, after all, sought Nehru’s intercession with King Mahendra to get the premiership, when the monarch had been predisposed toward Subarna Shamsher Rana. There must have been moments during the Sundarijal incarceration when B.P. wondered whether he had simply overreached in his foreign policy intiatives.
Tulsi Giri, Sribhadra Sharma, Parasu Narayan Chaudary and Prakash Koirala, who actively cooperated with three kings, were merely symptomatic of the malaise that had set in Nepal’s largest democratic party. B.P. remained true to his democratic ideals but saw the party as nothing less of a personal fiefdom.
Surya Bahadur Thapa, for obvious political reasons, may have instigated B.P. to take a hard line against the palace and then go into exile. But B.P. was not constrained to act in the way he did. Castigating the monarch alone for perpetuating autocracy was hardly the recipe for reconciliation when the Cold War had forced much of Asia, Africa and Latin America into autocracies of the right or left.
If, in the wake of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, B.P. could warn King Mahendra of a Bangladesh-like armed liberation of Nepal, King Birendra had every reason to suspect Koirala’s national reconciliation initiative five years later as little more than a ruse to rattle Indira Gandhi. The soloist was engrossed in his own tune. Was there a deal between B.P. and the palace that led him not only to not call for a neutral government to hold the referendum but also to rush to accept the Panchayat’s victory?
Under the rubric of democracy, B.P. was a perpetual work in progress. He could be the fiercest opponent of Nepal’s membership of the United Nations, on the ground that the kingdom was merely an administrative unit of India, and then live on in eternity as an ardent nationalist. He could be the head of a party that tried to assassinate two kings yet still claim to be the truest friend the palace could ever hope for.
When the Nepali Congress abandoned its long commitment to constitutional monarchy, it must have realized how for B.P. nothing except democracy was etched in stone. The votaries of newness in the party cannot be selective in their extrapolation of B.P. His contentious politics has turned even more strident, while the Nepali Congress’ economic policy resembles little of what it originally espoused. The rivals the party faces today are no Tanka Prasad Acharyas, K.I. Singhs or Dilli Raman Regmis.
Most importantly, Nepalis have moved far past the point where they could hope to identify priorities and implement policies merely by picking a fistful of soil and consecrating it to the soul.