Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wider Dimensions Of National Reconciliation

His voice tends to be muffled in the cacophony that passes for serious deliberation in the Nepali Congress, but when he does speak, he forces you to sit up and listen.
When Dr. Shashank Koirala, son of Nepal’s first elected prime minister B.P. Koirala, announced a few years ago that he was entering politics, many of us expected him to go far. How na├»ve we were.
In a field already crowded by Koirala scions, the Nepali Congress also had no shortage of political parvenus that had hitched their wagons elsewhere. If B.P.’s legacy was what we expected to drive Shashank political trajectory, we should have known better. Today’s Nepali Congress remembers B.P. perfunctorily once a year. His brothers’ offspring have arrogated to themselves the Koirala mantle and want very little to do with the most illustrious member of the clan.
Yet Shashank, like his father, persists in unconventional ways. A few years ago, he suggested publicly that a new constitution was being prepared outside Nepal. This time, Shashank has expostulated his views across a wider canvas, linking the issues of federalism and religion to our geopolitics. And he has done so by boldly comparing the politics of his father and his father’s ostensible arch-nemesis, King Mahendra with those of the present-day rulers.
There was much more that united these two great men of a bygone generation than conventional wisdom would lead us to believe. King Mahendra’s seminal experience occurred during his months in exile in New Delhi with his father in 1950-1951, where he observed the maneuverings unfolding against Nepal in the name of change.
Today, based on the limited declassified material available, we have a better understanding of how wide apart the Indian and British/American governments stood on matters unfolding in Nepal. It was fortunate for our independence and sovereignty that a toddler prince was left behind in Kathmandu bear the crown of a sovereign nation. A slight misstep here or there and who knows how Nepal would look on today’s political map.
That Nepal succeeded in remaining outside the Indian union so riles one class of today’s Indians that they are still feverishly searching for ‘evidence’ to back the long-held canard that King Tribhuvan had offered to merge Nepal with India.
The political compromise of 1950-1951 represented a turning point in B.P.’s political evolution. Although he led the Nepali Congress in the Rana-Congress coalition, he was acutely aware of New Delhi’s attempt to relegate the Nepali Congress to the junior-most status in the tripartite experiment. He found himself ‘tricked’ into pushing for the resignation of Prime Mohan Shamsher Rana only to find himself out of power for the next eight years.
As prime minister in 1959, B.P. vision for Nepal was scarcely that different from King Mahendra’s, if you put aside the issue of democracy. With Tibet issue heating up, the Sino-Indian dispute flaring and the Soviet juggernaut rolling on, Nepal had been caught in the vortex of the Cold War. That these regional and international machinations could not be pursued out in the open was well understood by those foreign governments who had advised King Mahendra not to hold the elections at all. If the Indians, Chinese, Americans and Soviets wanted to pursue their respective quests, they had to be able to do so in the dark, not in partnership with a dynamic elected prime minister.
B.P.’s exasperation after his last meeting with Nehru and his seeming apathy in the midst of rumors of an impending royal coup bespeak a realization that he had lost out to regional and international forces. In his prison diaries and subsequent publications and pronouncements, B.P., contrary to his party colleagues and much of the royal opposition, was careful not to blame King Mahendra entirely for the subversion of the democratic process. The prevailing geopolitical dynamics, in B.P.’s view, were what they were. Still, he believed he could bring King Mahendra and his successors around to the intrinsic value of democracy to Nepal’s well being. (In terms of international powers, it was immensely significant that B.P. was the least critical of the Chinese.)
King Mahendra, for his part, was always effusive in his praise of B.P., even while he ordered the former premier’s incarceration for eight long years. If Nepal ever had a prime minister the country could be proud of, the monarch often asserted, it was only B.P.
The substance of King Mahendra’s geopolitics during the partyless Panchayat years was a virtual continuation of B.P.’s, be it on the urgency of maintaining equidistance between India and China or exercising Nepal’s independent international options by, among other things, building relations with Israel, a new nation shunned by both our giant neighbors.
King Mahendra, Maila Baje feels, must have felt that keeping B.P. under royal lock and key would prevent India – as B.P.’s would-be host in exile – from deploying him as a tool of destabilization in the guise of democracy promotion.
When B.P. was finally released from prison in 1968, it was Surya Bahadur Thapa, with his known pro-Indian proclivities, who intimidated the former premier into exile. Once across the southern border, B.P. was cold-shouldered by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and learned his lessons well. Although he continued to up the ante against the royal regime, India’s machinations in the chain of events that led to creation of Bangladesh spurred behind-the-scenes efforts toward reconciliation with King Mahendra. The monarch’s unexpected death in Bharatpur in 1972 shut the door on that prospect.
While the Nepali Congress persisted with its anti-palace activities during King Birendra’s early reign, B.P. saw a repetition of India’s conspiratorial policies in the events leading up to its annexation of Sikkim. A virtual prisoner of the Indian state, B.P. chose to return to Nepal in 1979 having formally articulated his national reconciliation policy. It was scarcely accidental that people like Surya Bahadur Thapa would call for his execution. Instead, King Birendra permitted him go abroad for medical treatment and B.P., true to his word, returned home to answer the sedition charges awaiting him.
To cut a long story short, B.P.’s national reconciliation policy was much more than a blueprint for compromise between the monarchy and the Nepali Congress. It represented a way in which Nepal could reconcile its perilous geographic position and with its ability to exercise its sovereign international option regardless of the changes in time or circumstance. Shashank can only be commended for articulating that reality so succinctly.