Sunday, October 20, 2013

Freedom Beyond The Frenzy

From the slosh and frenzy of the crowd of supporters who greeted Khum Bahadur Khadka as he walked out of prison earlier this month, you’d be forgiven for expecting him to head directly into Singha Durbar to take charge. From the vermilion-saturated, flower-heavy and motorcycle-driven festiveness, it was easy to forget that the man had just done time on corruption charges.
The Nepali Congress luminary, for the most part, sought out the future. Yes, a kangaroo court had hauled him in on trumped-up charges, he suggested. But incarceration had only steeled his inspiration. He had strong words of caution for the party leadership, across the factional alignments. And, predictably, he hoisted the mantle of B.P. Koirala and the party icon’s clarion call of national reconciliation.
Khadka, Maila Baje feels, has a strong claim to that legacy. And not just because he’s the only notable who disembarked that aircraft with B.P. in 1976 who is still breathing in our midst. Forget the brave face the Nepali Congress is putting up before the upcoming elections. The party may yet do the best among the principal contestants. But that will have been because its rivals have done a pretty lousy job in power.
Like it or not, the Nepali Congress needs a Koirala to survive. The children, nephews and nieces of B.P. staking their claim to the party’s soul all share the last name. Yet far from uniting the organization, none has been capable of rising above kindergarten squabbling or silliness. So the best the party can hope for is someone who can channel B.P.’s spirit, something Khadka has fully grasped. Could he be that person?
At one point, Khadka was the party’s kingmaker, having at least a quarter of the party’s legislators stashed into his pocket. If Sher Bahadur Deuba could break away from the Girija Prasad Koirala-led mother organization in 2002, it was largely because he had Khadka on his side. As home minister in the Deuba government, Khadka insisted he could conduct the parliamentary elections over the Maoists’ threats. Yet the prime minister thought otherwise. When King Gyanendra sacked Deuba and took executive control – in the relatively benign first phase of royal assertiveness – Khadka was among the handful of Nepali Congress leaders put behind bars.
His controversial and ostensibly corrupt ways had made him an open target, and the masses cheered on. If the criminalization of Nepali politics could be blamed on one person, Khadka critics contended, then he was the man. Then there were other throbbing questions, such as whether it was purely coincidental that the Maoists gained in lethality on Khadka’s watch.
At this point, Khadka began flaunting his republican credentials. He recalled his statement at a party meeting a few years earlier where he had suggested that the Nepali Congress might be better off offloading the monarchy. Years later, when Girija Koirala did just that, Khadka did not seem too happy. Careful to reject the monarchist label, Khadka nevertheless lamented the rashness with which his party had acted. When he appeared with former king Gyanendra at a religious function, people started speculating. But, then, the judges intervened.
As Khadka presses on with the B.P. legacy, he faces the same challenge other would-be successors have in defining the notion of national reconciliation. If B.P. had lived five or ten years longer, would he have had the same affinity for the monarchy? After all, B.P. was the head of a party that had tried to kill Kings Mahendra and Birendra. His version of the validity of the monarchy was rooted in local and geopolitical traditions he came to grasp largely after his release from Sundarijal in 1968. With so much internal and external change having gripped Nepal, could B.P. still be held captive to the same set of beliefs? These are only some of the questions Khadka would have to answer.
If national reconciliation today is in fact much more than a code word for the Nepali Congress’ imperative to return to its constitutional-monarchy roots, then Khadka has an even more onerous task. If anything, the party always has been a polarizing force when in power. In opposition, its sanctimony continues to rile its rivals. If the Nepali Congress really thinks it is Nepal’s only true democratic party and is prepared to bet its life on it, then it must learn to act like it. Khadka should begin anew by driving the point harder.