The 20 March passing of Girija Prasad Koirala marks the end of an era in Southasian politics, for he was the lone national-level survivor whose public life reached as far as the Quit India Movement of the 1940s. Born in exile in Bihar to parents who fought the Rana regime in Nepal, ‘G P’ was, like his elder brother Bisweshwor Prasad (‘B P’), groomed in the tenets of classical democracy in the company of Indian stalwarts including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. While undoubtedly an autocrat who wielded complete control over his Nepali Congress party for the last two decades (after sidelining two seniors), G P was a true democrat as far as the larger polity was concerned. He challenged the autocracy of former King Gyanendra at a time when every other leader of note agreed to compromise. Indeed, his resolute insistence on the reinstatement of the Parliament, dismissed by Gyanendra in February 2005, paved the way for the orderly collapse of the monarchy and the evolution of the new Nepali republic as a democracy.
As five-time prime minister and the person at the helm of Nepali affairs for the last two decades, G P made his share of mistakes in governance. He was also unable to understand and adjust to the pressures of economic globalisation and demographic shifts, and certainly failed to respond as a politician should to the identity-led demands of marginalised communities of the country’s hill and plain. Yet he did understand that, above all, it was pluralism that would raise Nepali society from its economic doldrums, and benefit each and every citizen. It was fortunate for the nation that he was prime minister when the royal-palace massacre of June 2001 nearly pushed the nation state off its moorings, and it was mostly G P’s stature that kept the opportunists and anarchists at bay at that time. Without him, it would have been far more difficult for the Maoists to come aboveground through the 12-point agreement of the autumn of 2006; while at the same time, without him Nepal may have slid from a ‘republic’ towards a ‘people’s republic’.
The 85-year-old Girija Prasad would have died “disconsolate”, as one commentator put it, because he was acutely aware that the work of consolidating peace and democracy in Nepal remained unfinished. The country’s new constitution is stuck at the drafting stage due to the extreme polarisation between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the other parties, and the demobilisation of the cadre in the Maoist cantonments is yet to happen. In addition, the Maoists have placed several undemocratic elements into the constitution’s draft provisions – based on their insistence on rejecting ‘pluralism’ while accepting multiparty competition, and a flawed if not prejudiced understanding of the separation of powers in which the judiciary would be kept subservient to the legislature. There are numerous other weaknesses in the various draft articles, from a neglect of local government in which Nepal’s own successes are ignored to the proposal to define the country’s new federal divisions on the basis of identity, the matter of economic efficiency having been ignored.
The citizenry had looked to G P to use his credibility and stature to find a way out of the morass, both on combatant management and constitution-drafting. As a consistent votary of liberal values and open society, there had been a hope that he could pull it off, but emphysema from lifelong chain-smoking had weakened his body. A man whose entire political capital was based on constant interaction with party workers and feeling the pulse of the polity through incessant travel was thus increasingly confined to his sick bed and oxygenator. His decision to foist his daughter Sujata, a neophyte politician, to lead the Nepali Congress in the cabinet of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal also weakened, in one stroke, the latter’s cabinet and dramatically affected the ageing patriarch’s hold on his own party. Overall, this rapid loss of health and stature came as a grievous drawback to Nepal’s unique and fast-progressing peace process.
Fulfilling G P’s vision
Fortunately, the ideal format for both the peace process and constitution-writing are to be found in the resolute, non-populist and well-known positions of the late Koirala. On the peace process, as laid down in the written agreements with the Maoists, some of the 19,000-plus combatants still living in two-dozen cantonments are to be integrated into the security forces (‘attached’ was the word once used by G P). Informal discussions between the Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Koirala before the elections of April 2008 had indicated a possible number for such integration to be between 3000 and 5000, with the understanding that there would be some integration into the national army. Having done extremely well in the elections, several Maoist leaders started calling for integration of the entire Maoist force into the army, which drew a response from some politicians on the other side that there would be ‘no integration whatsoever’.
As things stand, the government of Madhav Kumar Nepal has come up with an agenda for combatant management. This would include the agreed-upon principles of individual rather than unit-wise entry of combatants who meet set standards into the national army. The direction of national politics and regional geopolitics suggest that the UCPN (Maoist) leadership would be wise to accept the proposal. But where G P’s absence becomes problematic is on the issue of the final number of cadres to be integrated, as everyone had expected him to insist on a particular figure and make all parties, including the Maoists, agree to it. Further, the other political parties are not about to agree on formulising the constitution unless the combatant-management process is underway. Whichever way, the first requirement is to come up with the number for integration. Now, all this has to be agreed upon in G P’s absence.
Finally, it remains critical that the political parties agree on a constitution that is above all democratic. And in this, the pluralistic position of the old democratic warhorse Girija Prasad Koirala should carry the day, such that Nepal remains a vibrant open and inclusive society – as it was always meant to be.