Nepali Times
State Of The State
Fox in the chicken-coop


Surya Bahadur Thapa is the second prime minister of the post-Fourth October order. If Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhab Kumar Nepal look worried, they have every reason to be. With Thapa comfortably ensconced in Singha Darbar, their virtual parliament will probably have to sit on the pavement for some more time.

The Koirala-Nepal clique didn't risk much by allowing Lokendra Bahadur Chand to stay in Baluwatar for a while. Chand was too genteel to be a challenge in the take-no-prisoners world of Nepali politics. But the sly old fox from Muga is of a different breed altogether. Thapa is a competent-pancha, and everyone familiar with the 1980 referendum and its aftermath knows what that implies.

When chosen by King Birendra to bestow retroactive legitimacy on the hybrid democracy introduced by his father, Thapa ensured the victory of Panchayat system in a national referendum against seemingly insurmountable odds. The deck against multiparty democracy in the plebiscite was so cleverly stacked that even a
leader of BP Koirala's stature failed to smell a rat.

Thapa's close links with an influential embassy is well known, but the fact that he maintains cordial ties with other missions too is not sufficiently appreciated by his critics. It's a tribute to his acolytes in the intelligentsia that he is often seen as a liberal pancha. On the contrary, he once demanded BP Koirala be hanged for treason.

Politicians with strong party loyalties seldom get along well with people who do not subscribe to their views. Here again, Thapa is an exception: he seems to have well-wishers in every political party. He has never revealed how he got leftist extremists to boycott the plebiscite and demolish the reformers, but there must have been more to it than mere Marxist-Leninist-Maoist expediency.

For a leader of his age and standing, Thapa is an extraordinary networker with functional links in every sphere of society. Never shy of bestowing favours when in power, he takes care to nurture a patron-client relationship. In receiving visitors to his Maligau residence, Thapa is courteous to everyone irrespective of status. His influence in the Royal Nepali Army, the Armed Police and the Nepal Police is much deeper than the present heads of all these forces with Thapa surnames. Higher echelons of the civil service are even more beholden to him-many owe their position personally to the fifth-time premier.

With the media, Thapa has such a comfortable relationship that even Nepali Congress and UML mouthpieces have been muted in criticism of a man who out-manoeuvred their own political masters. Many old hacks now sporting the colours of different political parties know that at Dasain time Thapa will be generous with the envelopes as usual.

Now that a castling move by the king has put the rook to face the regional pawns of global geopolitics, the Maoists are likely to find that their movement across the international border has been curtailed, if not stopped. The Maoist leadership's repeated threats to go back to the jungles is ringing hollow. The 'jungle' seems to be a metaphor for the political wilderness. That may be why Baburam Bhattarai was spotted filling up forms for Frequent Fliers aboard a Buddha Air flight last week, and then taking a cable-car ride with his parents soon after.

With everything going for him, Thapa's foreign mentors can be forgiven for thinking that Thapa is the man for the moment. There is only one problem: the septuagenarian Thapa is an anachronism in this day and age. His 6 June message to the nation had all the buzz of a 78-rpm record being played on an antique gramophone that needed cranking. His politics is from another era. Yet, he seems completely oblivious to it all.

Hridayesh Tripathi's epithet of "date-expired medicine" suits Thapa even more than it did Lokendra Bahadur Chand. The Maoists have been too kind in calling Thapa "old wine in a new bottle". His cabinet may smell like wine, but it may soon turn into vinegar.

If Thapa is the pragmatic politician he pretends to be, he should recommend the restoration of the lower house of the parliament and then vacate Baluwatar to its rightful occupant. Sometimes the best way to make history is to know when to make your exit.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)