When the Nobel Laureate and Myanmar’s democracy warrior, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited Kathmandu a couple of years ago, she was introduced to Nepal’s top political leaders. Suu Kyi joked, “Never have I been in a room with so many former Prime Ministers!”
After 1990, Nepal has had 13 men who have become Prime Ministers, some of them multiple times. The average tenure has been a little over a year and many among them have made little contribution to write about.
Sushil Koirala, who was PM when Suu Kyi cracked her joke, joined the list of former Prime Ministers this October when he lost in a parliamentary vote to the current incumbent K P Oli. A little after midnight on Tuesday, Koirala passed away.
From President Pranab Mukherjee to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s top leadership expressed condolences over his death. A high level team which includes external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, NSA Ajit Doval, Congress’ Anand Sharma, CPM’s Sitaram Yechury and JDU’s Sharad Yadav have flown to Kathmandu to pay their respect to the departed soul.
But was Sushil Koirala just one of the dozen plus men who lived in the prime ministerial residence in Kathmandu’s Baluwatar in the last two decades? Or does he leave something more tangible behind? There is no black and white answer - for like all politicians in public life for decades, Koirala’s record was mixed both for Nepal and on the Nepal-India front.
A party man
Sushil Koirala’s crowning glory was not in 2014 when he became PM, but in 2010 when he defeated former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba to become the president of Nepali Congress. And this was because he was the quintessential party man.
Koirala had no life besides the Nepali Congress. He was a bachelor who got politically socialised under the shadow of his far more illustrious cousin, the legendary B P Koirala. Once the Nepali monarch took over absolute power in 1960, dismissing BP as PM, the NC had to wage a 30 year long struggle. Sushil spent many years in exile in India, especially Bihar and UP. But his role was primarily that of assisting BP. This is the period his networks in the party grew, but he was a junior activist. He also played a part, somewhat peripheral, in the hijacking of a Nepal Airlines aircraft as a mark of opposition to the royal autocracy - NC’s leaders later claimed this had the backing of India’s covert agencies; Sushil however had to spend a few years in an Indian prison.
Under his other cousin, Girija Prasad Koirala - who became the country’s PM five times and was NC’s most powerful leader till his death in 2009- Sushil’s role in party affairs grew. He refused all executive positions in government and showed little interest in power politics or inter party battles. As one of his younger colleagues remarked to this writer many years ago, “Sushil da knows what is happening in the different factions of our student wing in even a college. That is his passion. He doesn’t care about what India and China are doing in Nepal.”
This does not mean he did not have strong opinions or ambitions. He was firmly anti communist, and this made him skeptical of the alliance with the Maoists which led to the anti monarchy struggle and the peace process in 2005. He was also an old school democrat who was more focused on the form of democracy - periodic elections, free press - rather than its substance and did not quite internalise the need to ‘restructure the state’ to accommodate aspirations of all segments - this was understandable because a large part of his political life was spent in fighting for democratic freedoms. Democracy, he genuinely believed, would cure all problems. Within the party too, he had views - while a pillar of the ‘establishment’ faction, he was unhappy with Girija babu for promoting his daughter, Sujata.
As Girija babu began fading away, Sushil became the acting president of the party. He came into his own when he defeated Deuba in the party convention.
Koirala took a rather strong position on terms of the peace process (which involved the integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants), and insisted there could be no constitutional negotiation with the Maoists till it became a ‘civilian party’. He also insisted that a Maoist-led government must not be allowed to hold the elections - and wanted to become PM himself once the first CA was dissolved. That did not happen, a Chief Justice led government was constituted, and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the NC.
Sushil’s most successful political moment was when the Nepali Congress, after a surprising and devastating loss to the Maoists in the 2008 elections, made a grand comeback in the 2013 elections for a second Constituent Assembly. This may have happened more due to the weaknesses of the Maoists and the Madhesi parties, and the increasing public disillusionment with their performance in government, rather than NC’s intrinsic strengths or Sushil’s personality. But the fact that he led the party to victory will surely be counted as among his most remarkable achievements.
And so three traits of Sushil Koirala stand out- in times of fluid political loyalties, his complete loyalty to the Nepali Congress and his enormous investment in the party institution was remarkable. Few devote their lives to one particular institution. The second was his lifelong commitment to formal democracy - and this was no mean achievement given the long battle the Nepali political parties had to fight against the monarch and the Maoists. And finally, he was able to maintain a high degree of probity an integrity in public life as austerity in private life - this is the ‘simplicity’ Modi admired in his condolence message. His distance from formal state power helped.
But there were gaps. For Sushil, NC represented democracy and democracy was NC. The problem - he clearly saw both as intrinsically linked with the Koirala family and its fortunes.
While he was fond of repeating that there could be no compromise with democratic values, Koirala did not think hard enough about democracy in a diverse society and what it means. Like Girija Babu, he was skeptical of the politics of identity; he was a reluctant convert to the idea of federalism; and he was not comfortable with the categories of caste and ethnicity that has come to dominate Nepali political discourse. He did not realise that for democracy to be meaningful, it had to become more inclusive.
Record as PM
But while his contribution as a party man cannot be disputed, Sushil Koirala’s record as Prime Minister was rather weak.
As the PM when the earthquake struck Nepal last April, the onus was on Sushil Koirala to provide direction to the administrative machinery and hope and direction to the citizens. It is true that no least developed country could have coped with a tragedy of this magnitude.
But by all accounts, the Government did a dismal job; the PM got to know about the quake from a phone call by Narendra Modi; it took him days to make a public appearance; the administration at the centre could not play the effective role of coordinating relief and rescue efforts; there was an unnecessary and damaging ultra- nationalist tilt in official discourse with both internationals and NGOs being treated with skepticism and even suspicion when the country needed all the help it could get; his government was unable to pass a legislation and set up reconstruction authority; precious time for reconstruction was lost; and citizens in the hills had to live through a difficult monsoon and remained inadequately prepared for the winter.
Koirala’s other task was promulgating the constitution. And here, the narratives about him diverge in the Nepali public sphere.
One view - the dominant view in Kathmandu - gives him credit for leading the constitutional process and ensuring its promulgation after seven years of drift. The constitution managed to restrain the fundamental
Principles of the political transformation - federalism, democracy and republicanism. Many see this as his abiding contribution.
But another view - to which this writer subscribes- is that in the quest to be the man who presided over the promulgation of the constitution, Sushil left a deeply contested document, which has divided Nepali society, perhaps irreversibly.
The constitutional process isolated the Madhesis; it did not do justice to ethnic minorities; it flouted the fundamental principle of gender equality. In the run up to the promulgation, the Koirala government shot three dozen Madhesi protestors, causing deep alienation. The process may have been pushed by other leaders, and Koirala often expressed helplessness. But there can be no excuse for state brutality - and for not pausing the process in order to make it more inclusive. The fact that Sushil was said to be eyeing the presidency after the constitution was done indicated a narrow power ambition drove the rush. What should have been a moment for celebration for all turned out to be a moment of mourning for half the country.
The India dynamic
The condolences from India may be genuine and Sushil’s own stated commitment to cordial Nepal-India ties when he was alive may have been real. But the fact is that the Indian establishment and the late PM shared a deeply difficult relationship.
Sushil continued to feel till the very end that India had been unfair to the Koirala family - especially BP when he was PM and struggling for democracy; he also continued to feel strongly that India had supported and harboured the Maoists against democratic forces during their People’s War. Personally, he did not like Indian advice that he should be more accommodative of Madhesi concerns towards the end of the first and second CA; he also felt it was the lack of Indian support that deprived him of becoming Prime Minister after CA-1’s dissolution; he did not like PM Modi’s emphasis on a constitution by consensus last year; he saw the Madhes and Tharu movement as orchestrated by Indian ‘agencies’; and in a conversation with Modi, he directly blamed R&AW for instigating violence in Tarai.
India saw most of these allegations as baseless - and typical of the tendency of Nepali politicians to pass on the blame to Delhi rather than own up to their own failures.
India saw him as an extremely rigid and conservative politician; a section of the security establishment appeared to think that he had links with Pakistan when the ISI factor in Nepal was a major concern for India in the late 90s; Delhi’s diplomats saw him as ungrateful who did not remember that India had supported him in the race for party presidency in 2010 as well as provided generous support in the 2013 polls; they also felt that if only he had enabled the passage of the constitution in 2012, he could have become Prime Minister and did not like the fact that he had opposed the extension of the CA’s term at that point; they were unhappy with him for consistently undermining Indian advice to take along all sections of the polity together before promulgating the constitution and for using excessive force in Tarai last August-September; and there was fury in Delhi at his suggestion that India was somehow behind the Tarai violence - this, Indian policy makers felt, was proof of the blindness to domestic discontent.
But the India-NC relationship - as many in Kathmandu’s political circles joke- is like a difficult marital relationship. There is a power dynamic, they often complain against each other, there is manipulation but they also turn to each other at the end of the day.
And in an episode representative of the love-hate relationship between India and NC, that is what happened once the constitution was promulgated. Delhi did not want UML’s K P Oli to become Prime Minister and prodded Sushil Koirala to put up a candidate from NC - even reassuring him that the party had a good chance. There was a strong lobby within NC which wanted to retain power. Sushil got tempted and filed his nomination - he lost. His faction blamed India for putting him
up for the contest and not delivering a victory; Delhi blamed him for leaving it too late and filing his own nomination instead of putting up a more winnable candidate.
And that is the note on which Sushil Koirala’s political career ended. It was a life that captured the complexities of Nepali politics - the struggle for democracy, the dominance of one family in a key party, the blindness to the inclusion question which is today’s defining debate, and a relationship with Delhi with many shades of gray. RIP.