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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 16 New Delhi April 9, 2016

Goodbye, Sushil Koirala

Sunday 10 April 2016, by Dipak Malik



The is a tribute to the late Prime Minister of Nepal, Sushil Koirala (August 12, 1939-February 9, 2016), by someone who was a close friend and knew him intimately since his days of exile in Varanasi.

Sushil Koirala’s was an extraordinary story where a very transparent, simple, honest to the core and plain person could reach to the position of the Prime Minister as well as an able organiser of the long and tortuous battle against dictatorship and monarchy in Nepal. He learned his ideological lessons from the legendary B.P. Koirala. Like a mesmerised disciple he never deviated from the core ideas of democratic socialism, democratic process in governance within the party and secularism in the Nepalese context which includes equality of all religions and going beyond the caste differentiation. He learned his day-to-day real polity from Girija Prasad Koirala but within that he added a non-compromising stance against corruption, which was an addition more on his part.

He was the natural consensus point within the coalition partners and nation after the death of the charismatic B.P. Koirala who was literally the father of democratic and modern Nepal as well as a towering ideologue and litterateur well adept in the great discourse in social democracy, Marxism and various people-oriented ideologies of the era, within the party and the nation. Girija Prasad Koirala was a pragmatic politician in a hurry though it was at his initiative that the long drawn hatchet between democrats and the Maoists was finally ended. This helped Sushil Koirala to graduate from the tortuous struggle against monarchy and feudalism in social terms to the task of “nation-building”. The mantle for establishing a Constitution-based democratic state fell upon his shoulders. It was no easy task unlike the Constitution-making exercise in the fifties in India.

The Indian Constitution enjoyed some kind of in-built consensus of the freedom struggle. There was near-complete hegemony of the Indian National Congress; the only addition was Ambedkar who contributed by making the Constitution more inclusive. This was a much difficult task than the successive Constituent- Assemblies in Nepal veering around from the extreme Left ideas of people’s dictatorship of proletariat to normal parliamentary democracy for years together. The idea of incorporating the various communities in a quasi-Stalinist framework of nationalities was also propounded by the Maoists initially but apparently they retreated from that position resulting in acquiescence to the hegemony of the Kathmandu elites in opposition to the Madhesis. In fact the Maoists in Nepal returned ironically to the ideological stance of the Nepalese Monarchy and feudalism. This is the great negation of Marxism and even of Maoism unheard of in the world though there is a long history of royalist renegade Communists and many so-called Maoists joining the King’s court in the heydays of King Mahendra and the Cold War. This was a contradiction in terms but it drew perhaps its legitimacy from the days of the Nixon-Mao bonhomie brokered by Henry Kissinger.

I came in touch with Sushil Koirala right from the late seventies and eighties. He was extremely simple, spartan and a devoted whole-time worker, the kind who makes a party run at the grassroot level. This ordinariness of Sushil made him extraordinary. His work in the terai districts and later on in the upper reaches of Nepal gave him a big access to bond with workers of the party. His transparent honesty in the post-Girija Koirala days made him trustworthy in the Kathmandu middle class and outside the party circle, his doggedness took him to the completion of tasks in spite of cynicism of the coalition leaders as well as within his own party. This may have led to some overlook on his part in the nitty-gritty of Constitution-making but he too was in a hurry as he knew that death was approaching and any moment it could strike. Naturally some disputes of the Constitution-making are left for those in saddle. It seems that the Nepali Congress had started taking initiative in settling the issues particularly concerning the Madhesis during last days of Sushil. Though it still remains in limbo as the Kathmandu elites have to gear themselves to the nation-building task as the Constitution exercises in Nepal are not limited to making only the democratic infrastructure but have the deeper task of cobbling a nation-state after Prithvi Narayan Shah weaved a Nepal to start with.

Cobbling a nation on free will as well as introducing a Constitution in a society long under the hegemony of a non-accountable monarchy as also a weak kneed democracy where elected representatives could be simply dismissed by a stroke of pen or even simpler by mere royal utterance, was no easy task. Nation-building under colonial or monarchial hegemony makes it a simpler task as they do not suffer from any accountability to the people; neither do they draw their sovereignty from the people at large. But Nepal had changed over the years and had become rights conscious and its minorities, disadvantaged sections had become restive.

So it was a complex task at the end of the day. Sushil Koirala could navigate it as he was ready to listen to different interest groups. Perhaps the rest of coalition partners did not have the historical legacy which the Nepali Congress, as the main forum for democracy, had. This explains the oxymoron of a coalition cobbled in which Maoists and Hindu fundamentalists gathered together. The weakness of Nepalese Marxist-Maoist parties is that while they do propose theoretically sound proposals, once they come to the parliamentary arena they suffer from selective amnesia and inability to match theory with contemporary reality and practice. After all, the Maoists had not much of a following in the Terai areas—it was the Nepali Congress which had galvanised both the hills and Terai people in the struggle for democracy; so they had no serious objections and amendments before passing the draft Constitution. Further it is of no surprise to see the monarchist-cum-Hindu fundamentalist in their fold just for assuring the much needed number to form a government

But we cannot underestimate the adventurist moves made by the NDA Government in Delhi, who were perhaps still nurturing a utopian design of bringing back some revised form of Hindu nation supplanting the secular nation of Nepal. The Sangh Parivar nurtures a specific brand of diaspora politics and the Terai-based Madhesis could qualify as one of the diaspora entity having deep links with neighbouring Bihar and UP districts through marriage and kith and kin relationship. Whereas the UPA Government had waged a discrimination against the Maoist Government led by Prachanda a couple of years ago relying on stale data from the Cold War days, similarly the NDA Government relying on its Sangh repertoire nurtured the false hope of reviving the Hindutva regime in Nepal. This was further aggravated by the Kathmandu political class, dominated by Bahuns, with their attitude of exclusion towards the Madhesis. Besides, it must be taken note of that Nepalis have a strong notion of sovereignty vis-a-vis India which neither the Sangh Parivar nor secular governments took note of. This agglomeration on a specific juncture of Nepalese history made things complex. This needed a balming approach, handling the issue with caution and understanding. Sushil was the one who could give it a try.

Sushil also could rise on occasions as a statesman not because of his entitlement to it but because of his plain and simple faith in the people. He made a mark when he managed to bring together a Modi and a Nawaz Sharif estranged at the sidelines of the SAARC meet at Kathmandu. South Asia needed somebody with the transparency, innocence, initiative and persuasive spirit that Sushil Koirala had. It also needed somebody like Sushil Koirala who could passionately plead for democratic socialism at a time when the rest of the South Asian political class had abandoned the very idea of democratic socialism or any kind of socialism.

Prof Dipak Malik is the Director Emeritus, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi.

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