Sunday, June 16, 2013

Stringing A Story From Bits And Pieces

Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister did not, after all, succumb exclusively to a supposedly power-hungry feudal tyrant.
Shashank Koirala, whose attempt at inheriting the political mantle of his father B.P. Koirala has so far sputtered, has prodded us deeper into the murkiness of that era.
In an exhaustive interview with a leading Kathmandu daily, Shashank all but accused then Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru of instigating King Mahendra to oust B.P. in December 1960.
Nehru’s relations with B.P., according to Shashank, turned frosty after B.P. established diplomatic relations with Israel, then a pariah in much of the developing and communist world. When Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito called B.P. the “rising star in the Asian horizon”, the Nepali monarch simply flipped out.
Shashank should know – his side of the story. B.P. must have repeatedly recounted those tumultuous times amid his family and friends. Yet, B.P.’s first elaborate explanation on the subject could have come only eight years after King Mahendra’s takeover, when the ousted premier was freed from incarceration in 1968. (Unless, of course, father, son or whichever relative discovered some code to evade the royal eavesdroppers during the jail visits.)
Admittedly, the love-hate relationship between King Mahendra and B.P. Koirala did much to define a crucial phase of Nepal’s political evolution. As someone who happened to witness some of it from both sides, Maila Baje can affirm that the full story, once it emerged in public, would help us understand our national plight better. For now, piecing the bits and pieces emanating from the two sides (mostly, though, from B.P.’s side) into a coherent whole is the best we can attempt to do.
It is no secret that Nehru had a difficult relationship with B.P. While admiring some of B.P.’s ‘excellent qualities’ like ‘push, drive etc.’, Nehru also saw him as ‘far too impulsive’. “But by over-reaching himself [B.P.] might not only injure his own changes but, what was important, injure Nepal’s interests.” (quoted from Nehru’s letter to M.P. Koirala dated February 28, 1952).
B.P. himself felt India had a role in denying him a prominent role in power after his resignation in 1952 as home minister in the Rana-Nepali Congress cabinet. (This was a controversial and highly suspicious contrivance in itself, which Maila Baje has detailed in previous posts).
After Nepal’s first democratic elections in 1959, when King Mahendra took his time in inviting the massively triumphant Nepali Congress to form a government, B.P. recognized how the delay might have had to do with the monarch’s reluctance to work with him. Nehru, too, was said to be more amenable to the king’s choice: Subarna Shamsher Rana, the more soft-spoken leader of the election government and principal financier of the party.
But after B.P. lobbied hard with Nehru through intermediaries, the Indian premier openly advocated his candidature with the palace. How that came about is not entirely clear. But certainly all three personages involved must have recognized the incongruity of depriving the most popular leader of the majority party – and one who won a seat in parliament – from heading the government.
Despite their mutual admiration for one another, the Mahendra-B.P. experiment was bound to fail on account of their divergent outlooks and temperaments. B.P. had a modern and reformist – and even an historic – vision of his role, but one, in retrospect, that was far ahead of what cold war dynamics would have permitted to be viable in Nepal.
King Mahendra’s own idea of the monarchy’s supreme and personal role in defining Nepal’s independent and sovereign identity was shaped not only by his isolation during Rana rule but also the machinations under way during his exile in New Delhi in the winter of 1950-51. In his view, B.P. was moving too fast for Nepal’s good.
Externally, during B.P.’s premiership, the issue of Israel meshed with that of Tibet and growing Sino-Indian rifts to create a geopolitical maelstrom that was propitious neither to B.P. Koirala nor Nepal’s nascent democracy. This was a time when the world’s two communist behemoths, the Soviet Union and China, had opposing interests in Nepal, as did the world’s largest democracies, the United States and India.
Before his takeover, King Mahendra had completed visits to the United States and Britain during which, according to subsequently declassified documents, both western powers were stepping up their campaign to use the Tibet issue as a tool against international communism (both through covert armed action and more public political-diplomatic maneuverings.)
India, whose relations with China were deteriorating after the rosy expectations of Asian solidarity, had granted the Dalai Lama asylum in 1959 but was not ready to go all out with the West on the larger Tibet issue. Moscow, which was in the early years of the split with Beijing, was wooing countries like Nepal also as part of its larger campaign to prove its ability to coexist peacefully with countries possessing different traditions and political systems.
It would be preposterous to conclude that Nehru perceived any kind of threat to his international persona from B.P.’s emergence as democratic Nepal’s face to the world. (That delusion, however, is widespread in the Nepali Congress to this day). It was all about Nehru’s policy and practical expectations from Nepal and from B.P. at that crucial moment against the background of a wider cauldron.
Even if Nehru had wanted only B.P.’s removal from the premiership but a continuation of the political structure – the conventional wisdom – the pressures against Nepal’s open and democratic political system were far more pervasive. It’s easy in today’s Nepali political discourse to forget how Nepal was part of a cold war pattern in Asia, Africa and Latin America where democratic governments fell like dominos to authoritarianism of the right and left.
Throughout his life, B.P. was willing to absolve only China from any role in his ousting. King Mahendra, for his part, would stun quite a few interlocutors by asking whether they really believed he alone bore responsibility for B.P.’s incarceration. For years after the ex-premier’s release in 1968, B.P. and King Mahendra both could be heard wondering aloud in their disparate settings how differently events might have turned out had they been able to surmount in time the efforts of the likes of Surya Prasad Upadhyaya and Surya Bahadur Thapa to push them apart, resulting in B.P.’s flight into exile in India. Nehru, of course, was long dead.