Narayan Singh Pun's career, like the helicopters he pilots, was a vertical takeoff. In less than ten years he has gone from being an army pilot, to MP, to aviation tycoon, to minister, to forming his own political party, to being the only man King Gyanendra trusted to handle peace overtures with the Maoists.
Even his critics will admit with a lot of envy that they admire Pun's meteoric rise up the political ladder. The retired Lt-Colonel has always shown a knack for being at the right place at the right time to make the right move.
As the government's chief negotiator, Pun carried out top secret negotiations in Nepal's leaky political milieu for two months before the truce was finally announced on 29 January. In private conversations, Pun uses aviation jargon to dismiss concerns that the peace process is in jeopardy: "It is normal to encounter some turbulence, but we are on autopilot." He was able to finalise a 22-point code of conduct during the peace process, made public on Thursday, which will hopefully ensure that violations do not take place and both sides scale back deployment.
Born in Myagdi, son of an ex-Indian Gurkha soldier, Pun joined the Royal Nepali Army as an officer cadet soon after completing college in Deharadun. He went on to Sandhurst, learned to fly at the Indian Air Force Academy and got helicopter training with the French Air Force. Even in France, his colleagues recall, Pun was used to a flamboyant lifestyle driving fast expensive cars. In 1985, Pun was appointed helicopter wing commander and chief training officer until he voluntarily retired from the Royal Nepali Army in 1993.
He then joined the Nepali Congress in 1999 and was elected MP from Myagdi. Pun had unprecedented access to Girija Prasad Koirala's inner circle, and himself piloted Koirala during his whirlwind election all over Nepal. Koirala rewarded Pun by making him assistant tourism minister.
A member of the Foreign Relations and Human Rights Committee in parliament, Pun was seen as a studious and hard-working lawmaker. He reads a lot, ordering books on diplomacy, parliamentary practices, international relations, leadership and management. When few MPs would dare defend Koirala during the Lauda controversy, Pun stood staunchly by his mentor's side saying there was nothing wrong with the deal. Insiders tell us it was in fact Koirala who pulled strings to allow Pun to retire from the army, since the military did not want to lose such a senior instructor pilot. Pun dabbled with other private helicopter companies before setting up his own outfit: Karnali Air which now has a fleet of six helicopters.
When most private companies were too scared to transport policemen in their choppers, Karnali did so. Pun was also close to Koirala's home minister, Govinda Raj Joshi, and Karnali's choppers clocked a lot of hours. When his insurers asked him why he was taking the risk (one of Pun's Ecuriels was destroyed by the Maoists in Khotang last year) his standard reply was, "The nation is in crisis and this is my duty to offer my service."
Pun proved to be a wily politician. When Koirala was ousted he joined the Deuba faction, and even accompanied the prime minister on his high-profile visit to the US and Britain "at my own expense". Pun advised Deuba on the Royal Nepali Army's hardware needs. And when things got too hot for Deuba, Pun knew which way the wind was blowing and quickly formed his own Samata Party.
The 54-year-old soldier-turned-politician who lives with his fourth wife at Dhumbarahi, is completing his BA and plans to go to do a masters in economics. He is a good tennis player and has recently taken up golf.
"Pun is a very articulate, very polished, very informative and a very hard-working individual," says a well-placed Nepali Congress activist. "He was amazingly close to Girijababu but never too close to Deuba."
After King Gyanendra sacked Deuba, Pun cleverly gained the trust of the palace and got appointed minister for physical planning, promising not to contest elections. When he was appointed chief government negotiator, it caused envy among his own cabinet colleagues who saw the ambitious and charismatic Pun as a threat to themselves.
Pun speaks French and has good rapport with Kathmandu-based diplomats. "It was a brilliant move," says one diplomat about Pun's appointment as coordinator. Indeed, having for the first time a politician from an ethnic background, who understands military issues, and who has an electoral constituency behind him was a masterstroke.
"Politics is a game of coordination and Pun is trying to master in it," says DR Lamichhane, a leftist journalist and one of Pun's contacts with the Maoists. "He works very hard and is honest." In the past weeks Pun has been to his home district and Gorkha to address huge rallies. His entry is always dramatic: in a flurry of dust as his helicopter settles in a nearby field. The crowd is enthusiastic about what he has to say, his peace and development efforts, and his promise that no one Nepali will be excluded. The janjati, dalit, royalists and disenchanted democrats are all flocking to Pun.
"It is likely that the Samata Party will emerge as a loose confederate of political forces that would profess democratic radicalism while actually being conservative," says another political analyst we interviewed. "Pun flew helicopters for 25 years, if he engineers a safe landing for the peace talks then he's home."