Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sushil Koirala And The Ethos Of Multi-Track Politics

With the election of Sushil Koirala as leader of the Nepali Congress parliamentary party, the organization now has a clear candidate for prime minister. As the numbers game continues to play out in a fractured constituent assembly, before an actual head of government is elected, we must get a better understanding of the man.
The Koirala surname alone will not establish Sushil’s authority in the party or government (if indeed he happens to lead it). Still, the man emerged from the November elections far stronger than many had expected. He not only led the Nepali Congress into first position in the assembly but also personally won from two constituencies. If Banke considered him a connoisseur, Chitwan didn’t see him as a carpetbagger, either.
As someone with no previous experience in the executive, Sushil will join men like Girija Prasad Koirala, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and Manmohan Adhikary, elected straight to the premiership, for good or ill.
Sushil’s public persona is one of a straight talker. (Maila Baje remembers how he summoned the then Indian ambassador to holler at him for this or that.). He also tends to evoke sternness in others (like in the way how a party member once slapped him).
A lifelong bachelor, Sushil has built a reputation for financial probity. While you could say he never really has had an opportunity to rake in riches yet, his financial stewardship of the party should assure us somewhat of his rectitude in that aspect of governance.
Sushil seems to have little in his personal life that has the potential to scandalize us later. Speaking of scandals, he was once designated a leading Nepali agent for Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence. But those who made the allegation from India did so in another time and context. In any case, they seem to have made peace with his ascension to party’s pinnacle.
Illness has forced Sushil to seek regular medical treatments abroad, without detracting from his ability to discharge his duties. Yes, he belongs to the anti-Rana regime class of politicians. But far younger politicians haven’t been able to match him when it comes to maintaining the ‘dignity’ of profession by way of word and deed (if that indeed is a qualification these days).
Sushil’s success in the days ahead will depend much on his party. Uncharacteristically for the Nepali Congress, the three senior leaders managed to keep their real skirmishes largely behind the scenes. In the end, Sushil made a deal with Ram Chandra Poudel to win the parliamentary party election over Sher Bahadur Deuba. For now, Poudel can be expected to rein in his ‘dissidence’ and focus on party matters, which Sushil has entrusted to him as part of the deal.
Deuba, who defeated Sushil for the parliamentary party leadership in 2001 and became premier twice (and both times sacked for ‘incompetence’), has been itching for a fourth innings.
Although Deuba has built an image as a consensus-seeker, his double-constituency win seems to have whetted his appetite. The assortment of loyalists behind him will no doubt instigate him at every opportunity. Both factions will keep a keen eye on how Poudel and his supporters maneuver themselves.
Sushil, then, can play upon the shifting factionalism in the party. People he picks for cabinet positions, the reshuffles that will be his prerogative, and the general public mood vis-à-vis the Nepali Congress as the weeks and month unfold will all be factors. Of course, the other two major parties – the CPN-UML and the Maoists – are in no better shape internally to mount much of a credible challenge. Sushil should easily be able to portray their machinations as part of a sordid power play. What if the Nepali Congress did not win an outright mandate to govern? Its numbers in the assembly must mean something, shouldn’t it?
Consider what Sushil might be like as the leader of the opposition, should he not become prime minister this time? Or in the event a non-Congress government taking power from him later, as the intricacies of the constitution-making process evolve. Would the imperative of keeping his own house in order constrain him significantly? Or would he cherish the spectacle of rival parties duking it out every step of the way? Either way, it’s going to be politics on multiple tracks for Sushil – as it will be for everybody else.