view from in here: Long and winding road

  • After 120 days in office, Koirala and cohorts offer Nepali voters more questions than answers
- AKHILESH UPADHYAY
view from in here: Long and winding road

Jun 1, 2014-

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala completed four months in office on Friday.

 A distinct narrative has formed around his premiership: an inarticulate and inflexible leader, Koirala really has not grown in office and continues to feel safe listening and talking to only a narrow coterie. If there was hope that as prime minister, he would grow out of his age-old habit of keeping company with a small group of mostly old-school Nepali Congress (NC) friends, he has been a letdown.

At a time when the political transition (particularly, the constitution project) requires a skilled hand at the helm, this partisan trait could undermine the larger task at hand. In his early days as premier, Koirala seemed to demonstrate statesmanship, refreshingly reaching out to CPN-UML and UCPN (Maoist) leaders. He even gave indications that he would find political space for the wayward Mohan Baidya.    

Yet his 120 days in Baluwatar has been a story of missed opportunities. Koirala now gives the impression that he has failed to broaden his political base: he has gradually distanced himself from the Maoists, alienated the UML and earned new enemies inside his own party. His government does not seem able to rally political support for the pledge in the four-point agreement made after the election: the revival of the High Level Political Committee (HLPC).

Lately, in his frustration, Koirala has started threatening that he is not one to hang on to power needlessly. Instead of addressing the larger Nepali population, he again seems to be talking to a very narrow group of people inside his party and outside.

An overwhelming number of Nepalis want Koirala to complete the constitution drafting process, rather than consider a change in government—a process that is sure to consume many weeks, if not months, in futile negotiations and put the constitution project in limbo.  

Typical Koirala

Koirala repeated his regular routine yet again late last month. An interaction with

a diverse group of editors last Sunday before leaving for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in was a good beginning. He seemed willing to listen to people who have not always been on the same page as him.

Not ones to mince their word, the editors offered some sound advice on what

his foreign policy conduct should be while in New Delhi.   

One, the prime minister would do well to see the visit as an opportunity to develop political relations at the highest level. Nepal-India ties have been repeatedly held hostage within the narrow confines constructed by the Indian bureaucracy and intelligence agencies. This has especially been the case ever since the last of the tall leaders,

Girija Prasad Koirala, faded from the political scene. Notwithstanding their significant support base within Nepal, KP Oli, Sher Bahadur Deuba and  Prachanda do not have personal ties with senior political leaders in India.

Two, Prime Minister Koirala could leverage his comparative advantage as

the host of the Saarc secretariat and the upcoming Saarc summit in November. This would help him get both political and media attention in Delhi.

Three, as a prime minister heading a coalition government, he would do

well to include a senior UML minister in his entourage.

Four, Modi seems to be a leader who would be keen to find political allies in the region, so the swearing-in offered a major opportunity to build personal rapport with a potentially enduring phenomenon in South Asian politics.

That wasn’t to be. Koirala did very little in New Delhi to offer Mr Modi and the Indian media a fresh perspective. He was a no-show. An official privy to his interaction with Modi said, Koirala had a “forgettable outing”. Instead of putting forth a convincing vision for Nepal and Nepal-India relations, he offered a long explanation on how the Rana and Panchayat regimes had caused Nepal’s underdevelopment.

At the swearing-in, built on the platform of Saarc neighbourliness, Koirala only had to suggest his vision, or just a plan, for the upcoming Saarc summit to gain the limelight. Even the Bhutanese prime minister got more space in the Delhi newspapers.

Instead of including a senior UML minister in his team, he took members of the Koirala family—Shashank and Sujata—to New Delhi. The gesture was grossly lacking in political symbolism. A leader who had just successfully championed against the deeply rooted Nehru-Gandhi dynastic politics, Modi must have been annoyed with Koirala.

All not lost

The biggest take-away from the Delhi visit should be clear and it neatly fits into the larger narrative of Koirala as prime minister.

Modi’s underlying message to Nepal was simple: Get your house in order; for me to be able to help you, you have to help yourself. The Indian prime minister urged Koirala to come up with a well-defined two-year development roadmap, with the need to harness Nepal’s vast hydropower potential high on the agenda. He also made it clear that Nepal should work towards a timely completion of its constitution. Both the proposals offer opportunities to establish missing links in Koirala’s premiership.

Baburam Bhattarai projected himself as a pro-development prime minister and people, even his detractors, now credit him for Kathmandu’s much improved road networks. With all the charges of silently harbouring dreams of a long stint in Baluwatar hurled at him, Khil Raj Regmi leaves behind a successful election, with a record voter turnout of over 75 percent.

As of now, Sushil Koirala seems lost between Baluwatar and Singha Durbar, consumed by the day-to-day trappings of his office. Some may suggest, he has at least not been tainted by charges of corruption or dirty political scandals. But by now, even his die-hard Congress supporters admit, he is seldom heard beyond the narrow party and Cabinet circles, his presence seeming even more feeble since the indefatigable Modi has come to office next door.

Big picture

Koirala clearly is no Modi. If only he would grasp the big picture: that Nepali voters have put Nepali Congress and CPN-UML back on the centre stage of national politics; he heads a government backed by more than a two-thirds parliamentary majority—405 of the 571 lawmakers voted for him in February. His is the first government since 2008 to enjoy the broad support of the international community, who seem keen to see Nepal make rapid and inclusive growth so that society does not relapse into conflict.

What is holding Koirala back? Why has his government failed to make much of its sweeping mandate? Why the political inertia and the absence of a coherent public messaging? As of 120 days in office, Koirala and his cohorts have placed more questions before us than answers.

Published: 02-06-2014 11:58

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