Nepali Times
Where are you, Tulsi Giri?


The catcalls unleashed by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's political doggedness obscure his undivided devotion to democracy. Of course, he could have been more methodical in expelling Girija Prasad Koirala from the party presidency before stepping in. But he did spare us the awkwardness of a partyless premier presiding over our hard-won multiparty system.

The word out of Baluwatar is that you can't always expect to go by the book. The process that culminated in the restoration of multiparty democracy 12 years ago, after all, was hardly a paragon of constitutionality. You no longer have to be an ex-pancha to say that. Those who wondered why the panchas didn't come out on the streets demanding another referendum on the system in April 1990 got their answer when Deuba began his first term as premier five years later.

Speaking of panchas, I don't think Deuba ever idolised Tulsi Giri, except perhaps in wanting to become the second Nepali head of government to have met the US president at the White House. So our man from Dadeldhura must be furious at the comparison he constantly draws with the Darbhanga-trained medical doctor. The consolation, however, is that every Nepali Congress prime minister has been compared to Giri by the rival faction. For Ganesh Man Singh, Koirala's go-it-alone attitude reflected the resurgence of the reactionary right. When Krishna Prasad Bhattarai was under intense pressure to resign in 1999, many kangresis and like-minded commentators were ready to wager that he would do another Giri to stay in office.

In a hard-hitting speech in Biratnagar just before the December 1960 political change, Giri himself had accused BP Koirala of surrendering to the palace. (Our comrades, too, are struggling to avoid unsavoury comparisons with another medical doctor despite the fact that Dr Rayamajhi is very much part of this system.)

Although the suspicions and suspense surrounding recent political events seem to make the analogy more attractive, it is not entirely apt. The partyless ideologue made a big career switch, whereas Deuba saw politics as his calling at an early age. He headed the Nepal Students' Organisation during its formative years and spent several years in jail polishing his resume. Even after coming to power, Deuba had to wade through much blood, sweat and tears in the defence of democracy. Remember those violent days in 1993, when militant comrades went after telephone cabinets to vent their fury at Madan Bhandari's death? The hardline Deuba took as home minister also helped the Ministry of Communications' planners.

Moreover, when Giri switched camps, he had little idea of what he was getting into. Crude ambition alone could not explain his behaviour. Since Giri was a player in the BP-Matrika peace parleys, the depths of the fraternal fissures must have frustrated him. That way, he was vulnerable to the appeal of the local version of a political experiment sweeping across much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. When 55 out of 74 kangresi MPs in Nepal's first elected legislature ended up in the Panchayat camp, Giri became a metaphor for a movement. It took the country 30 years to decide that the doctor's prescription was wrong and do something about it.

By then, Giri had stepped down as chairman of the committee set up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the system he helped establish. Deuba, for his part, is staking his rightful claim to the kangresi mantle. After a lot of cajoling, he filed an appeal against his expulsion at the Nepali Congress central working committee. But the "butchers"-to borrow Deuba's word-had already decided to lop him off the list they planned to submit to the Election Commission.

With time running out, Deuba could have formed a new party. But since he couldn't abandon the one he grew up adoring, evicting Koirala was the only alternative. Admittedly, most of Deuba's cabinet colleagues joined him out of personal considerations. But the show of solidarity demonstrated how this crisis is qualitatively different from the ones that culminated in the departure of people like Giri, Biswabandhu Thapa, Sribhadra Sharma and Parsu Narayan Choudhary.

Granted, Deuba has become a little roguish lately. But doesn't he have his reasons? He should have consulted his party rivals before recommending the dissolution of the House of Representatives. But they, too, should have been more forthcoming about their new cosiness with the UML. If the premier didn't give his cabinet or parliamentary party colleagues an inkling of his intentions, maybe it's because he was too tired figuring out how many of them had signed pledges of allegiance to both camps.

If you think Deuba depends too much on the west for his own good, you have to understand that he's Nepal's first western-educated prime minister. Just because he happens to have marital ties to a family that conjures up images from the past doesn't mean he's incapable of reaching out for the future. In other words, if Deuba becomes another Giri, blame it on Girija, too. The teacher must bear some moral responsibility when a star student goes astray.

Deuba is showing signs of an innovator. He's taking on some grey areas of the constitution. For instance, we don't know for sure whether an election and state of emergency can go together. If the premier wants to show us that they can, well, then, the burden of proof is on him. What's more important for Nepali democracy is, however, Deuba's other hypothesis: the Nepali Congress can survive without the Koirala brand name. If he is proven wrong, we can always find another member of the clan to reunite the party. Getting another Deuba would be far more difficult, don't you think?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)