17-23 April 2015 #754

Surya Bahadur Thapa (1928-2015)

The man who did not shape national politics, but let national politics shape him
Om Astha Rai

Veteran politician Surya Bahadur Thapa who became Nepal’s Prime Minister a record five times, serving three kings, passed away in New Delhi on Wednesday night after an operation. He was 88.

Thapa was the mentor leader of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and was appointed prime minister in 1963 by King Mahendra two years after sending an elected prime minister to jail after a coup. Thapa was made prime minister again four times (1965-1969, 1979-1983, 1997-1998 and 2003-2004).

Although many analysts have used historical hindsight to criticise Thapa for being a staunch defender of the autocratic Panchayat System, and especially his role in selling off forests to fund the royalist campaign in the 1980 referendum, Thapa was a decisive pragmatist. He was also not afraid to speak his mind, sometimes against the palace establishment and unnamed “underground cliques” who exercised power in the name of the king. He was impeached in 1983, and it was rumoured that Prince Gyanendra was behind his ouster.

Thapa later served as prime minister under King Gyanendra after he started his ‘creeping coup’ to sideline parliament and the political parties in 2003-2004. He was a sharp political analyst, and was seen as a veteran leader that everyone trusted to be a mediator.

Thapa could be a ruthless politician when he wanted to. He put his own friend Bishwo Bandhu Thapa in jail for meeting BP Koirala and unseated his political rival Lokendra Bahadur Chand in 1997.

Ever since the young man from Muga in Dhankuta was handpicked by King Mahendra to chair his Advisory Council in 1959, Thapa was always at the center of Nepali politics. Whether during the Panchayat System or after the restoration of multi-party democracy, he was a pivotal political player.  

After Nepal was declared a republic in 2008, he did not get a chance to become Prime Minister but chaired the Constituent Assembly (CA) sessions by virtue of being its eldest member.

Thapa was Mahendra’s confidante and remained loyal to the royal palace throughout his life. It is said that Mahendra, before his death, had advised his son Birendra to consult Thapa during any political crisis. But after Mahendra’s demise, Thapa shared a bitter-sweet relation with the palace, demanded changes in the Panchayat System and was even jailed for his role in pushing reforms.

“He always believed that the source of power was people and stood against Narayanhiti’s intervention in Singha Darbar,” said RPP leader Prakash Chandra Lohani, who is close to Thapa’s rival Lokendra Bahadur Chand. “That was why he was sometimes tormented by the palace. In a way, he contributed a great deal to democratisation of governance. Despite being a key political figure, Thapa did not shape national politics, but national political shaped him. He adapted adeptly to any political system that Nepal took on: absolute monarchy, constitutional democracy, or a return to autocracy.

Journalist Kedar Sharma, who had been working closely with Thapa on his memoir for the past three years says Thapa always knew which way the wind was blowing, but did not allow it to blow him off course.  

Perhaps because of this very quality, Thapa always remained relevant to Nepali politics. Thapa’s Panchayat-era political rival Tulasi Giri vanished after the first pro-democracy movement of 1990, came back after Gyanendra Shah seized power in 2005, and vanished again after the second pro-democracy uprising of April 2006. But Thapa was always around through thick or thin, like a political fixture.  

Thapa was active right till the end, hosting a meeting of top leaders of four political parties last month to find a compromise on the constitution, and what he could do to help break the political impasse.

“He was always alert and full of energy,” Sharma recalls about their many hours together working on the book. “His mind was sharp, he remembered everything from the past, and knew exactly what was going on in present-day politics.”  

Lohani, who has worked with Thapa since the Panchayat era, wishes Thapa had played a greater role in ending the political deadlock. “He was one leader everyone respected and listened to, he has left a great void.”

Thapa had undergone surgery in his stomach at Medanta Hospital in New Delhi last week, and was recovering well when he suddenly complained of respiratory problems and was put on a ventilator. Doctors pronounced him dead at 10:44 pm on Wednesday. He will be cremated at Pashupati on Friday.

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