Girija Prasad Koirala may be everything his critics say he is, but he is not a quitter. So while he flip-flopped on Thursday to go or not to go, it was the classic Girija: keep everyone guessing till the end. He has decided to resign, but he does not want to be seen as someone giving up, and show instead he's beating a strategic retreat.
There are pros and cons both ways. Koirala's advisers tried to convince him that the letter from the Centre for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) on Wednesday just asked him for clarifications on the jet lease deal for Royal Nepal Airlines. The five questions did not ascribe guilt. So why should you go, they asked him.
And then there is just no one Koirala himself would feel comfortable handing over to. The cabinet advised him strongly not to resign, arguing that it would weaken the party and vindicate the demands of the opposition, the Maoists and all his critics.
But there are equally potent arguments for resignation. Koirala may decide it is better to be a behind-the-scenes kingmaker than a lightning rod. Retaining his party presidentship would give him power, without the headache of being constantly needled. He had also publicly stated he would quit the day the CIAA investigation pointed to him. He would be keeping his promise by going.
Besides, who would want to be a prime minister in the country's present state? "It would be a political death wish. No matter who is in power now he is bound to be unpopular," says a Congress adviser. The prime minister could be reasoning it may be better to let someone else take the flak for a while, while he rebuilds his political capital.
Insiders say the prime minister has wanted to quit for the past two months, but has been looking for a political parachute so that it would not appear that he was quitting because of the UML's charges of corruption, or because of the failure of his strategy to contain the Maoists. The letter from the CIAA was a perfect exit: he could have been seen to be resigning of his own accord without being actually tainted in the airliner deal.
Koirala, 78, assumed premiership a year ago by removing his colleague, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. He gave himself three tasks: control corruption, improve governance and tackle the insurgency and failed miserably on all three counts. But from his own point of view, Koirala has survived against all odds by standing up to just about every political force that has been arrayed against him: the Maoists, the moderate left parties, the palace, the Army, and even his own Congress prot?g?s who wanted him out. All of the above have one thing in common: they thought Koirala was getting too powerful. By getting the army out of the barracks he had notched another constitutional point vis-a-vis the palace.
Koirala must think: this is the time to depart in a blaze of glory. He has decided to cut and cut cleanly. The big question is when will he do it, and who's next? As far as the rest of the country is concerned, the answer to both questions is: it doesn't really matter. None of the frontrunners for succession have demonstrated the statesmanship and inclusive and decisive leadership the country needs today. For whatever it's worth, here is a list
l Ex-PM Sher Bahadur Deuba: Koirala's thrice-humbled party rival has tasted power, but his chances of succeeding will depend more on the eagerness of his political mentors.
l Deputy PM Ram Chandra Poudel: has administrative experience and "seniority" and is well-versed in the Machiavellian world of government and party. He has been a fence-sitter, but got the most votes in Pokhara
in party polls.
l Koirala cousin Sushil Koirala: A behind-the scenes operator who was Girija's main fixer and one-man dirty-tricks department. His sphinx-like demeanour and his closeness to Girija has not endeared him to too many Congressis. He's also not a family-insider.
l Ex-PM Krishna Prasad Bhattarai: unpredictable, frivolous and 77. Girija would love to hand over to him, if only because it would silence critics for a while and he could wrest the prime ministership back anytime.
l Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat: Is nobody's candidate but acceptable to all, including donors. May bring a fresh, technocrat's perspective.