Nepali Times Asian Paints
Nation
The prime minister's daughter


BINOD BHATTARAI


Sujata, the 46-year-old daughter of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, has become a constant fixture in the Nepali political scene ever since she staked a claim to the party ticket in the last elections in May 1999. Her father, who is both party president and prime minister, did not give her the ticket to contest from Sunsari. Sanubua, as she calls her dad, didn\'t want her to be in the political mainstream because of internal party jostling and also not be seen as favouring his daughter. But Sujata is determined to get into politics on her own steam. "I am in politics, I will do politics, I will not give up, I will fight," she says.

Sujata spent most of her married life outside Nepal. After primary schooling in Biratnagar, she completed high school at Shanti Niketan, near Calcutta, and moved on to New Delhi to train as a textile designer. Her father and uncles were in and out of jail while she was growing up. Then in 1968, when she was 13, she lost her mother, on whom she used to depend on very much because Sanubua was away most of the time.

Sujata returned to Nepal in 1975 and did some designing. But all that took a back seat after she met her husband-to-be Norbett Jost, a German economist with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Marriage took her to Germany where she had two children-a son and a daughter. She moved from one Asian capital to another with her husband\'s postings until 1990 when political changes catapulted daddy Koirala\'s Nepali Congress party to power. Since then Sujata has been in Nepal for longer stretches, and these days she\'s back permanently to build up her political base and pursue social work.

"I wanted to come and do social service even during the Panchayat days but we were not given the opportunity," she says. "Those were hard times. In Biratnagar they didn\'t allow us even to donate blood, saying it was Congress blood."

Sujata\'s homecoming has not been free of controversy. Even her Koirala relatives see her as a threat and potential competition in the Congress hierarchy. Party cadre see her hogging the limelight and power while they did all the dirty work to put the party in power. The media likes to whip up her marriage to a foreigner as a disadvantage every time her place in politics is discussed, and the papers are full of charges her influence-peddling for personal gain. She is also attacked for the special favours she gets for her Sushma Koirala Memorial Trust, the organisation she set up in her mother\'s name.

The most controversial accusation against Sujata is her alleged involvement seven years ago in talking her hither into appointing a little-known London-based company (in which she is reported to have interests) as Royal Nepal Airline\'s General Sales Agent in Europe. The Commission on Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) looked into the charge and dropped it.

Questioned about it, she sidesteps it deftly: "People say so many things, they may say anything, but I will not be discouraged. I am very clear about what I am doing and will continue doing my work." So why does the name "Sujata" pop up in every new controversy? "I am very straightforward type of person that\'s why I also get into trouble," she says.

Girija Prasad Koirala has become prime minister four times in the past 10 years, and is now among the most powerful men in Nepal. Being a prime minister\'s daughter is no joke, especially in a country where power and proximity to power is worshipped. That has made Sujata\'a power centre in her own right.

Sujata herself feels her political clout is exaggerated. "I feel there are more disadvantages. I did not get a party ticket because I am the daughter of Girija Prasad Koirala," she says. "Otherwise there was no reason why I should have been denied. I had not taken anyone\'s constituency and I could have won a seat at one go where no Congress candidate has ever won."

But she agrees that there are advantages. "Being his daughter has helped me in my work at the Trust, Sanubua\'s supporters also help me to implement projects in villages." The Sushma Koirala Memorial Trust was set up in 1993 and runs a showpiece hospital for reconstructive and plastic surgery in Sankhu, run by the international plastic surgery group, Interplast. Sujata runs other community development, health delivery and rural infrastructures projects in the Sunsari 1 constituency she is nurturing. "We\'ve been successful because of support of many people who believe in what 1 want to do," she says. "The hospital is very special to me because my mother died of severe burns after an accident."

Critics charge that the Trust\'s success is more due to her proximity to power rather than vision or real commitment. Sujata denies power is the reason, saying that the Trust does not have the money or international donor support that people think it has. "My worry now is how to make the hospital sustainable after the German donors, who are paying for everything, leave," she says. "I don\'t know any hanky-panky, all I want to do is good work."

Sujata has her own followers: job-seekers, aspiring politicians, hangers-on seeking or willing to trade favours. The flair with which the Prime Minister\'s daughter holds court in her big house in Mandikatar shows all the trappings of an emerging politician. Over 50 people mill around the Trust\'s office at Lazimpat every day, others visit her at home from early in the morning. The fact that Sujata spends more of her time in Nepal these days has led to speculation that her marriage is on the rocks. Sujata declined to discuss her private life with us, saying that her involvement in many projects and her political career is what has keeps her here. Both politics and social work are about changing society, especially for the better. Says Sujata: "You can help small groups by doing small projects, you have to be in politics to make a larger impact. The ministries have money earmarked for projects in villages, as a politician I\'m in a better position to demand that the resources be spent where they are meant to be."

One project now on Sujata\'s drawing board is a polytechnic training institute and a centre to train staff nurses. The idea struck her after she met Nepalis working in Qatar. "Because they don\'t have skills they earn less than Indians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos," she says. "With proper training they could get better jobs, more money."

Girija Prasad Koirala has not taken special steps to groom his daughter to be a politician. But it seems the political genes she inherited are just too strong. Sujata visits Sanubua at least once every day but not for any special political coaching. There is one mantra that she has learnt from her father: "He told me emotions and sentiments do not help in politics."


LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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