The sun can sulk
The moon can hide
– Shillong-based poet Temsula Ao in “Stone-people from Lungterok”
When the funeral cortège of Girija Prasad Koirala (20 February 1925 – 20 March 2010) began its slow journey towards the Aryaghat crematorium on the banks of the Bagmati River near the temple of Pashupatinath, hundreds of thousands thronged the narrow streets of Kathmandu. The party faithful chanted the customary slogans. Leaders walked along with sad faces. But what was remarkable for a crowd of this size in Nepal was the comparative silence that hung thick in the heat of the late spring afternoon. Though not as cacophonous as Punjabis or as voluble as Bengalis and Sinhalese, Nepalis too love to banter, gesticulating and making noise even during solemn ceremonies. Even the show of grief is usually full of sound and fury. On 21 March, the mourners in Kathmandu were unusually sullen. It was as though they had realised they had lost something valuable, but knew not what exactly it was.
Perhaps what has been lost with the passing of Koirala is the last link with the romanticism of the early 20th century. Koirala was one of the original dreamers of Southasia, believing that the sun would set on the British Empire, and that the royal houses tracing their ancestry to the moon would too someday be found only in the pages of history. When dreamers die, even death bows its head in respect. It was this that left the crowd in Kathmandu speechless. There will, of course, be other leaders to hold the torch of freedom and democracy. From across the border, a visibly tired Pranab Mukherjee, a nattily dressed S M Krishna and a sombre Meira Kumar paid their last respects to Koirala, as did Rajnath Singh of the Hindu right and Sitaram Yechury from the moderate left of Indian politics. They were all there at the Aryaghat, representing the gratitude of a generation that had waged democratic battles across international borders.
From home, accompanying Koirala’s body to the cremation ghat were the claimants to the mantle of Nepali Congress leadership. Daughter Sujata Koirala and cousin Sushil Koirala waved at the crowds from left side of the truck, while Ram Chandra Paudel raised his hands towards the right and Sher Bahadur Deuba sat bang in the middle, as if to keep watch on the flag-wrapped body of the late Koirala. All these politicos have their own records of struggles. But none of them shared the dream that pushed the leaders of independence movements across Southasia to take impossible risks and then face all consequences with fortitude and perseverance.
Dreamers and doers
Mohandas K Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, two British-trained barristers, first met in 1916 at the meeting of the Indian National Congress in Lucknow. At that time, it must have appeared inconceivable that the Jewel in the Crown would break off from the ceremonial headgear of the queen within a mere three decades. Nehru was a keen student of the rise and fall of world civilisations, and recognised the role that violence had regularly played in power politics. The carnage at Jallianwala Bagh probably convinced Nehru of the brutality the British Empire was capable of inflicting upon its people if its interests were threatened. If India was to become independent without large-scale violence, it would have to find a way that allowed the imperial forces to withdraw with grace. Gandhi offered the alternative, with his insistence upon ahimsa for swaraj, the inseparability of non-violence and self-rule.
Not many people possess the self-confidence and unshaken belief in the power of self-sacrifice displayed by the Mahatma. Meanwhile, Nehru’s visions were simple to the point of being simplistic: only a judicious blend of principled politics and an attitude of compromise could lead a nation to freedom and glory. Other leaders of the time, such as Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Bangabandhu Mujibur Rehman, found the Nehruvian vision of power politics more attractive than the ascetic prescriptions of the Mahatma. Similarly, B P Koirala adored Nehru’ s approach so much that he tried to implement its scaled-down version in Nepal, much to the consternation of the comfortable classes in Kathmandu. Not just the Bandaranaikes, even J R Jayewardene was perhaps influenced more by the grandeur of Nehru than any other political figure of their time. Jayaprakash Narayan did, of course, try to fuse Gandhi’s prescriptions with the Nehruvian vision. But hybrid approaches seldom survive the hustle of practical politics, and the failure of the Janata Party experiment in 1979 ended the era of audacity when it was possible to dream and see if it worked in real life.
B P Koirala – ‘B P’ to his admirers worldwide – described the socialist vision of Nehru most succinctly: put democracy into communism, it is socialism. Add authoritarianism to socialism, it degenerates into communism. Deduct heartlessness from capitalism, the road to socialism begins. Add militarism to socialism, and it turns into fascism. It was only towards the end of his life that B P discovered the tremendous strength of Gandhian philosophy, though he never got an opportunity to adapt it to the realities of Nepali politics.
In the next generation, the early doers of Southasia at least knew the ground below their feet, and realised that their responsibility may have been towards future generations. But they were answerable to their ancestors, as well, which prevented them from making unwarranted compromises in politics. Indira Gandhi was her father’s daughter for the most part; that could be the reason she was able to pull herself back from the slow road to fascism she had opened with the declaration of the internal State of Emergency in 1975. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s thunderous declaration that he would develop an Islamic bomb, even if Pakistanis had to eat grass, echoed Nehru’s grandiloquence.
Rise and fall
The third generation of Southasian leaders had heard about the glorious struggles of the freedom movement, but they never experienced its fire. They probably thought that the history of sacrifice in their lineage gave them license to do as they wished, and they never made any serious attempt to find out what their countries needed. In a way, Benazir Bhutto, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Rajiv Gandhi were legatees of a tradition they did not fully comprehend. Benazir tried to emulate her father’s populism, without realising that the sources of petrodollars had long since moved towards Islamic fundamentalism. Chandrika failed to gauge the depth of alienation felt by the Tamils and the angst of the majority Sinhalese. Rajiv refused to recognise that India needed to fashion its own model of modernity, rather than blindly ape the West. Together, they thrust all of Southasia into an era of upheaval.
In this mix, Girija Prasad Koirala was a man who has seen the rise and fall of Southasian leaders from close quarters. In a way, he knew what did not work. But he had no idea about what needed to be done. It was with this confusion about the direction that of Nepal’s political economy needed to take that G P became the first democratically elected prime minister of the country, after the restoration of multiparty politics in 1990. Unsure of himself, he adopted the zeitgeist of the 1990s, and hitched the bullock cart of an agricultural economy with the jet engine of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation. The resulting instability emboldened the military-mercantile elite on the one hand and the Maoist adventurers on the other.
G P knew the nature of the rightwing enemy, and succeeded in bringing it to its the knees. But the Maoist challenge was something new for him. The whiz kids he had trusted with the country’s political economy were of no help in tackling the biggest and most complicated challenge of his political life. His bewilderment was more symptomatic of the pragmatist ideology of the third generation of Southasian leaders than the failure of the first generation of political innovators. To G P’s credit, he managed to hold the centre with remarkable tenacity.
It has been said that the qualities of historic personalities are uniquely their own, while their weaknesses are often drawn from the period. Almost every charge levelled against G P – nepotism, corruption and cronyism – are inalienable parts of every growth-centred political economy. The tragedy of G P’s life was that he decided to do what he was told needed to be done, while forgetting what he knew by instinct. But that is the trick that history often plays with its most prominent protagonists. G P accepted the verdict of history in his own lifetime; very few world leaders face the consequences of their choice with so much sagacity. The crowd attending his funeral procession knew that they were witnessing the end of an unusual man – the dreamer who was also a doer.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).