Monday, April 12, 2010

Nepali Congress: Relevance Inelegance

The Nepali Congress’ struggle for relevance has become particularly heartrending in the aftermath of Girija Prasad Koirala’s death. Look at the seniormost leader the party affirmed the other day. Forget that Krishna Prasad Bhattarai advocates the restoration of the monarchy and the 1990 constitution. He isn’t even a member of the party.
Although the plunge into republicanism pushed the Nepali Congress toward oblivion, the party could maintain its preeminent position because of the stature of Koirala. A sizeable section of the lower-rung leadership was said to have opposed his abandoning the party’s traditional adherence to constitutional monarchy. They kept quiet perhaps out of recognition that Koirala’s main priority for the times – and the 12-point agreement’s principal premise – was to tether the Maoists to the peace process as tightly as possible.
India’s antipathy for King Gyanendra’s independence did not diminish the value it placed on the monarchy. Sikkimization and Bhutanization may have become policy prescriptions through audacious moves, but Nepalization assumed ad-hocism. Hence, the ‘baby king’ card. But Gyanendra Shah wasn’t about to acquiesce in the retention of a monarchy wherein others got to chose who sat on the throne. Instead, he chose to redefine the debate as whether the monarchy needed Nepal more or vice versa.
In the meantime, the Nepali Congress glimpsed the real reason for B.P. Koirala’s affinity for the monarchy: self-preservation. Republicanism has come in all hues on the left. With the UML increasingly taking on a centrist ground all but in name, the Nepali Congress’ turf is surely shrinking. Now, the party abhors the notion that republicanism in Nepal is somehow colored red. Nepali Congress leaders periodically like to remind us that members had introduced a formal resolution against kingship at the celebrated Bairganiya conference. But perceptions have overtaken facts here, just as they have on the issue of the constituent assembly.
As part of the 1950 Delhi Compromise, the Nepali Congress owned that commitment as much as the Ranas and the Shahs – and Jawaharlal Nehru – did. B.P. Koirala ceded the party’s longstanding demand for an assembly because he thought parliamentary elections had a better chance of institutionalizing democracy. Or he may have calculated how his party stood to gain that way. It was in the seventies that he recognized where his party’s principal challenge lay. The first time India pressured the NC exiles to stop their anti-palace insurgency, B.P. clearly saw China from behind his Sundarijal bars. The second insurgency fell flat on B.P.’s watch when he was forced to divert his meager resources to the campaign to liberate Bangladesh. National reconciliation germinated in B.P.’s mind long before his stifling incarceration during Indira Gandhi’s emergency.
Even as the past rings anew, the Nepali Congress cannot avoid an ideological resilience that is forward looking. Without doubt, the intrinsic value of democracy will resonate forever as an ideal. But an ideal, by definition, allows anyone to grasp it. In terms of sustenance, the practical past, too, is unreliable. The Nepali Congress can justifiably proclaim its centrality in our perpetual democratic struggle. But almost seven constitutions later, its role in our democratic malaise is apt to be questioned by more and more people. And that would allow other parties to articulate democracy in their own terms, as the Maoists have.
With democratic socialism having become almost a contradiction in terms, the Koirala brand name could still work some wonders for the Nepali Congress. Sujata Koirala probably has the best shot at wresting the dynastic mantle her father held high for two decades. But for what purpose, considering how, as the party’s leader in government, out of whack with the rest of us she has proved to be on that key symbol of new Nepal: machine readable passports?