Thursday, 1 April 2010

My memories of GP Koirala

By John Narayan Parajuli

The death of Nepal’s four times former prime minister who was instrumental in ending Nepal’s decade old civil war has brought bitter-sweet memories about his failings and successes. Obituary by John Narayan Parajuli.

The death of Nepal’s former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on Mar. 20, affectionately known as Girijababu or GP, the patriarch of the Nepali Congress party and a key architect of Nepal’s fragile peace process has left a vacuum in Nepal that will not be easily filled.

Though hated and loved in equal measure, his transformation into a relatively non-partisan statesman began with the signing of 12 point accord with Maoists in 2006 that led to an anti-Gyanendra alliance, against the King of Nepal who had mounted a coup in Feb. 2005. He was not always non-partisan, but he did go far enough to accommodate the Maoists against the liking of his own party men. He was instrumental in bringing the Maoists to the negotiating table and creating an environment that they could trust. In fact, the top Maoists leaders had grown so used to consulting and negotiating with Koirala that even when they disagreed, he was a source of comfort and guidance for the rebels. But he was not always the guardian-figure that he had become towards the end of his life. Though an unrelenting fighter for democracy, he had reduced his party to a personal fiefdom.

Most Nepalis have vivid memories of GP. He had been around as long as one could remember. In his own lifetime, he saw five monarchs come and go. He was an embodiment of eight decades of Nepal’s turbulent history. But his name didn’t always bring pleasant memories. In fact, he presided over a period in the 90’s that is synonymous with degeneration and deviance in Nepali politics. But between April 2006 and April 2008, his stature rose to a dizzying height.

My own experience of observing him first-hand is from November 2007 when I was working as a producer for BBC’s Nepali version of the Question Time, Sajha Sawal. For our first programme, we had confirmed GP, then the prime minister and the interim president as a panelist. He had agreed to face the public in a televised Q&A--provided it was recorded in Biratnagar, his hometown (in the eastern part of Nepal). Keith Beech, the editor of Sajha Sawal then put me in charge of the logistics including bringing in the audience. So I flew three days before the recording date to Biratnagar.

Koirala and the Nepali Press

Koirala’s trip to his hometown had always been marked with anticipation in the Nepali press as he had a habit of making big and controversial announcements from the comfort of his home. He usually kept away from the press in Kathmandu partly because he didn’t trust them, and partly he was very reticent and seldom felt the need to clarify things. But this characterisation was only true in Kathmandu. As soon as he arrived in Biratnagar he spoke freely with the reporters.

The relationship between GP and his hometown press corps was complicated. He treated them like his family members and had dinner and lunches with them whenever he was in town, and they reciprocated. It seemed as if the reporters knew what he meant and what he didn’t, and self-censored his musings. You couldn’t apply the Kathmandu or a more cosmopolitan press corps’ standard in Biratnagar that states ‘unless it is off-the-record, everything is on-the-record’.

Journalists had unrestricted access to his house even while he was the prime minister. Everyone knew everyone, and security officials posted at his residence were least worried about the threat to GP’s life from one of the journalists. But things changed when GP became the acting president. The security at his residence was beefed up, while protocols involving the head of state came into play. Journalists couldn’t wander inside GP’s house anymore, though they were still allowed to enter the premises with ease and without appointment.

I was working with a local BBC stringer, Tanka Khanal, to sort out the logistics of bringing the audience from different villages who would try to hold the prime minister accountable, a rarity in Nepal and definitely a first for GP himself who was famous for putting down the phone during radio interviews if he didn’t like the question. We were worried about the prospect of him leaving the recording 10 minutes into the programme when we had 45 minutes of airtime to fill. The next day, Khanal got a call on his mobile, started his motorcycle and signalled me to tag along.

Hometown Homies

The day was November 7, 2007. Around 2 pm on a Wednesday afternoon, we arrive at Koirala Niwas. Someone suggested us to go to the airport instead. We hopped on to a jeep parked inside the compound. Within minutes it was full with reporters and cadre. GP was scheduled to arrive at 2:30 pm by a regular Budhha Air flight to rest and spend his Tihar holidays. Four hundred metres away from the airport, our Bolero stopped behind a beeline of vehicles going to the airport. A crowd had descended to receive Koirala, whose aircraft landed 15 minutes later. He just waived off at reporters who were waiting to get sound bites.

The security personnel escorted him to the VIP lounge. “He’s not in the mood,” one journalist said from the crowd. “Now, let’s go to his house,” another said.

In 25 minutes, we were back at Koirala Niwas; the police stopped the press from climbing upstairs to Koirala’s veranda, the usual venue for reporters to tattle with Koirala. “Get out from here,” a Deputy Superintendent of Police yelled at the go-getters. The press, not used to such security hassles, was furious. “Why is he being so rude?” they told each other.

A little later an aide came and told the reporters to come at 8:30 am next day.

Next morning, we arrived at 8. Koirala was meeting regional heads of security bodies. Finally the moment arrived. We climbed to Koirala’s top floor veranda in his two storey house through a narrow staircase. We scrambled to grab a chair each. Koirala came out a few minutes later and sat on a white sofa. He gestured gently, and the reporters started to field questions. He answered their questions one after another for the next 15 minutes. “That’s it for today,” GP then said, “Bring tea for all,” he signalled to his aide.

While the tea was being served, journalists complained to him about not being able to talk to him the previous day and the police behaviour. “I was tired yesterday,” he said, almost defending himself.

Then there is time for some photo-ops. The widow of a Ram Hari Pokhrel, a civil servant who was murdered in the nearby district of Siraha, was brought before Koirala along with her daughter. She wanted her job at the local municipality that government had offered as a compensation to be made permanent. Make it permanent, Koirala told his district aide. "I haven't received anything certifying my late husband as a martyr," she said. You will have it, Koirala assured her.

After a while Koirala gestured; it’s the end of the session. Everyone begins to leave. Then he asks everybody to gather round and drops a cryptic bit. “The upcoming session of the parliament will be a peace session.” Half of the journalists missed it.

The statesman

Two days later, on November 9, 2007, Koirala stunned us by sitting in for a full hour-and-a-half taking questions from ordinary people bussed in from six different villages. We were warned that he would walk out without warning, but he stayed on longer than we had planned. He had to take a 15 minute break for oxygen after he started to look lost and distracted. For an 84-year-old, Koirala looked terrific as he responded to impassioned questions and comments from commoners in his garden. His memory and wit hadn’t betrayed him, and responded to the questions with humility, tact and authority. At the end he appeared bemused by his engagement with commoners at his hometown.

As he aged, Koirala displayed traits that are rare in Nepali politics. He began craving for a legacy. Perhaps it was with the realisation his years were numbered, perhaps he had grown wiser with years, or perhaps he had simply grown senile, there is no telling what changed him. But what is clear is that he was a man of few words, and doggedly stood his ground. But like all men of some stature, he was a bundle of paradox. He was a man of profound conviction and discernible gravitas, but he did also play low to get rid of his opponents within and beyond his party.

He presided over the most difficult transition period in the history of Nepal. He successfully held elections for the Constituent Assembly in April 2008 that saw the Maoists emerge as the largest political party in the parliament. After the Maoists reneged on their promise to make him the new republic’s first elected president, Koirala became bitter and vengeful and that led to break down of politics of consensus that had successfully guided the peace process until then. When he stepped down as the Prime Minister in July 2008 to pave the way for Maoists chairman Prachanda, he began promoting his inept but ambitious daughter to succeed him in his party. His affection for his daughter became his undoing. As Yubaraj Ghimire, the editor of the Rajhani daily in Nepal points out, he could easily have been ‘Nepal’s Nelson Mandela’, but he chose not to.

Koirala, who was 86, was suffering from chronic pulmonary disease. He’s survived by a daughter and a step-son.

(A shorter version of this feature appeared in the Kathmandu Post on March 27, 2010.)

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