Girija Prasad Koirala is back in the saddle at Singha Darbar. This is his fourth stint in the hot seat that have seen ten turns and six occupants since democracy was restored a decade ago. But it had better not be business as usual this time around, since Koirala has taken charge after ousting the person he himself had installed about a year ago.
Back then, it was hailed as a master stroke. Koirala’s Nepali Congress was heading a coalition with the Nepal Communist Party (UML) when he called for mid-term elections “to rid the country of political instability”. The Nepali Congress, while a divided house, was still in one piece even as its main rivals—both the NCP (UML) as well as the conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party—had split formally. To check dissent and control rebel candidates within his party, Koirala announced that if his party gained an absolute majority, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai would be the next prime minister.
It is unclear whether it was the ceaseless campaigning and direct leadership of Koirala that worked, or the magic of Bhattarai´s name, but the Congress managed a comfortable majority. Koirala, as head of the victorious party, kept to his pre-election promise and had Bhattarai installed as the prime minister. It was a decision that he was to regret from day one, as Bhattarai went on to form a cabinet that was a queer mix of his old cronies and suspected wheeler-dealers.
The Bhattarai government was guided by the principle that those who do nothing can do no wrong. It would have worked, if it were not for some feats of his faithfuls. Yog Prasad Upadhyay, the prime minister’s Man Friday, stirred a hornet´s nest as education minister by his whimsical decision to grant tenure to thousands of temporary school teachers even as the result of a competitive examination for those very posts was pending. Bal Bahadur KC, another Bhattarai favourite, gained notoriety when a local daily had him scaling a compound wall in the capital.
Things worsened as Bhattarai´s age and ineptitude started to show. His offhand remarks after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 was considered hasty and inappropriate, for he seemed to be accepting blame even before an investigation was complete. Though he backtracked later, his interview to a foreign news agency rattled he palace when he aired apprehensions about a risk to Nepali democracy from the king. The resignation of finance minister Mahesh Acharya over the appointment of the Governor of the Nepal Rastra Bank, the central depository, also seemed to indicate Bhattarai’s uncaring attitude.
Bhattarai’s increasing recklessness was matched by Koirala’s growing restlessness. Koirala believed he had promises to keep to those who had given his party a majority, while Bhattarai thought that his being and continuing in the chair was in itself an unparalleled achievement. Things came to a head after Koirala made a tour of the hinterland and concluded that the Maoist insurgency was getting out of hand, and that Bhattarai was doing nothing to curb it.
Once Koirala decided to oust Bhattarai, the latter’s formal exit became only a question of timing. Under the threat of a no-confidence motion from MPs of his own party, Bhattarai bid an emotional farewell from the podium of the House and resigned. As a parting shot, he fired several salvoes at Koirala, and pointedly expressed the wish that a “yuba peedi” (younger generation) would take over the reins of government after him.
In retrospect, Bhattarai´s source of power was not numbers, but the respect that he commanded due to his absolute integrity. While he remains untainted even now, the same cannot be said about the coterie that surrounded him. For the capital’s intellectual elite, however, his repeated breach of decorum stuck at the craw. His light-hearted comments about petty corruption, the bloated national army and his own indispensability, finally saw him lose this mainstay of his support once he started to ridicule its very value system. The elite could not indulge any more the ineptitude of an old man and forgive the incompetence of this historic figure.
Koirala is more feared than respected. Reputed to be a man of action rather than contemplation, he inspires either fierce loyalty or intense hatred, the latter especially from the mainstream left. Should Koirala fail to deliver on the variety of challenges facing the country, he himself has shown the way the party should deal with him by engineering the Bhattarai ouster. History can no longer bail him out, and nobody knows that better than Koirala. His announcement that 60 years of his active political life was at stake is an acceptance of reality rather than bravery.
The priorities set for his government by Koirala appear to be well thought out politically. Controlling the Maoist insurgency, restoring faith in the administration, and checking rampant corruption are some of the immediate worries. The insurgency, however, is foremost in everyone’s mind. Poor Nepalis—rebel, peasant and police jawan—are dying to the gun and bomb like never before, and the resolution of this problem will probably make or break the new prime minister.
Even beyond the Maoist problem, however, Koirala faces complex issues where quick and visible results are difficult to deliver. Restoring normalcy to strained Indo-Nepal relations, pulling the SAARC process back on track by prevailing upon New Delhi to come back to the postponed Kathmandu Summit, and courting belligerent aid donors, are some of the other critical issues that will test Koirala’s diplomatic mettle.
Unfortunately, other than a few exceptions such as the re-installed Finance Minister Mahesh Acharya, Koirala’s team of tainted faces of the past does not inspire much confidence. Cooperation of the civil service is suspect because its top echelons consist of the very people Koirala had expelled during his first term as prime minister and who owetheir present positions to a court directive invalidating that decision. To complicate matters further, Koirala will have to contend with both the left and its traditional animus against him, and ambitious parliamentary party colleagues expecting their pound of flesh for aiding and abetting the ouster of Bhattarai.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is said to be resolute, and he will need that quality in good measure to meet the challenges that he himself has set. Time is certainly not on the side of the septuagenarian. The first few months in office will determine whether this will be a grand finale or a curtain of disgrace for the evergreen Young Turk of the Nepali Congress. Now that he has taken charge, there is no looking back. It is either perform or perish.