Last wednesday, Girija Prasad Koirala had his Chief Secretary draft his resignation letter. His aides had cleared out their desks. The prime minister was at peace with himself: he had made up his mind to quit. Then he started listening to his relatives and cronies who had a vested interest in him remaining in power. By Saturday morning Koirala was hesitating, by Sunday he was not so sure, and by Monday he declared he wasn't stepping down.
"Last week Girijababu was behaving like a politician, this week he is behaving like a cornered cat. He is fighting for his political life," confided a close colleague of the prime minister who advised him to step down. There is no doubt that Koirala missed the opportunity to make an honourable exit over the issue of the letter from the Centre for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) asking him for clarifications on the Lauda jet lease deal. Those who advised Koirala to hang tough argued that the letter was not an accusation, and legally there was no need to resign over it. "He was riding a tiger, if he had jumped off, it would have eaten him up," one adviser told us. Koirala faced two dilemmas: he looked around and found no successor he could completely trust, and he didn't want to leave the legacy of a prime minister who had to resign under a cloud of corruption. Also, the anti-Koirala faction in the NC is still in disarray and cannot offer a viable challenge.
Congress succession race has now become an indelible part of this country's politics, and has paralysed it. The tussle seems to be the outward manifestation of a power struggle between the old guard represented by right wing ex-Panchayat elements and post-1990 politicians of the democratic era. The Maoists, the soft left, and Congress factions are united by their present anti-Koirala posture, and they all are trying to gain political advantage as Koirala squirms. Explained one disillusioned Congress insider: "The trouble is that Girijababu has lost his moral standing to put up a fight on behalf of the people." If it is the succession question that is bothering him, then maybe the prime minister should look beyond his immediate circle, he added.
Political analysts say there is going to be an unofficial truce next week during the visit here of the Chinese premier Zhu Rongji. After that, if Koirala still wants to defuse the crisis, he would have the final option of calling a session of parliament to give a valedictory speech and bow out. If he is advised against it, then his party and the country are headed for increased political turmoil. The soft left is hardening its stand, and has already called for an unprecedented Bangladesh-style three-day shutdown at the end of May.
One senior politician had this bit of advice for Koirala: "A planned exit is better than being hounded out."