Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
Hour of reckoning


Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala didn't make the address to the nation as anticipated. He read a statement thrust into his hands into the full glare of tv cameras. Though he looked frail, his voice was steely and he seemed in no mood to listen. The signs of Koirala's fabled inflexibility are portentous.

Contestations over the controversial provisions of the interim constitution were anticipated. In negotiations preceding the April Uprising, different parties had contradictory positions on the country's post-autocracy politics. Elections to a constituent assembly became an agenda of compromise, but all signatories to the common minimum program continue to hold a grudge against a document they signed under difficult circumstances.

The lack of trust between coalition partners was reflected in the draft of the interim constitution. Instead of being a charter of consensus, the statute turned out to be contentious. NC leaders are unhappy because leftists dominate the interim legislature.The UML is sore it couldn't check the rise of the Maoists. Royalists are alarmed that the king has been sidelined.

The interim constitution isn't even a compromise-it's a deed of compulsion that the eight-party alliance was forced to commit, in order to salvage the legitimacy of the coalition. Thus the paradox: all parties in the alliance want the interim constitution but none are willing to defend it.

The vulnerability of the statute is what prompted the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum activists to burn copies of it last month. Law enforcement agencies handled the exigency in their usual ham-handed way, protestors were booked and those in authority realised too late that this would have serious consequences. Madhesi protestors were out on the streets in Siraha, the prime site of vote-bank politics in the eastern tarai. The way the government has handled the situation since strengthens the impression that no matter what the system, the state of Nepal is completely insensitive to the concerns of madhesis.

Loss of life during any agitation becomes the rallying cry of the masses, and political honchos use innocent deaths to inflame passions. But a head of government is expected to condemn violence, offer his condolences, and promise an investigation to bring the guilty to book. This is what a government routinely does in a functioning democracy. Koirala did no such thing in his Wednesday address. Maybe it was an oversight, but it gave madhesis an unambiguous message that their own prime minister showed a callous disregard for their feelings.

Koirala has been a consummate politician all his life. More than anyone else in government now, he knows the significance of gestures. It's unlikely that he doesn't know the consequences of his rigidity on madhesi political demands. Does he have a magic wand to make the problem disappear, or does he really not have a clue? We can only hope he knows something we don't.

The octogenarian prime minister is under tremendous pressure from all kinds of interest groups. The stress of heading an embattled party, an embittered coalition, and a beleaguered government besieged by fierce transitional contestations must be overpowering. And he is grieving the loss of close relative and longtime party companion, Nona Koirala. But the task of being head of state as well as head of government is not for the obstinate or the feeble.

Ironically, Koirala is the most popular mainstream politician in the tarai-and the opposite in the hills, valleys, and mountains of Nepal. At the end of his momentous political career, he faces a moment of truth. The way he handles this crisis will set the course of the country for the years, if not decades, to come, and make or mar his place in history.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)