Nepali Times
All the prime minister's men

If he had followed in his forefathers\' footsteps Hari Sharma would probably be chanting mantras for the British Gurkhas somewhere in the UK. Deciding not to was probably a smart move for Hari, who, as Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, is today one of the most powerful people in Nepal. Together with Puranjan Acharya, Political Secretary, and Gokarna Poudel, Personal Secretary, he forms the team that Girija Prasad Koirala relies on to run the country from day to day. The fact that they are all men and all Bahun may also be important, and reflects this country\'s governance structure. Hari and Gokarna are first cousins, although their attachment to Koirala\'s office came about in different ways and at different times. They are both from Gulmi district, Hari from what he calls a "100 percent Gurkha" village of Juhang, and Gokarna from Bhurtung village. Puranjan is from Madhumara, in Koirala\'s home district of Morang.

Hari was brought up and raised in Hong Kong, where his father was the battalion purohit for the British Gurkhas. "I\'m the one who did not carry out what had become a family tradition of joining the army," he says. A brilliant student, Hari ranked fourth nationwide in the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examination of of 1978. A chance encounter with noted Indian scholar Bhabani Sengupta in a Kathmandu street in 1984 was to have a profound impact on his life. "I had read his articles in Indian magazines and I introduced myself to him." he says. Sengupta later became Hari\'s mentor as they worked together on several projects at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), the New Delhi think-tank.

It was while he was at CPR that Chakra Prasad Bastola, now foreign minister, and Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta, the present communication minister and then the PM\'s press adviser, suggested that he come home to assist Koirala who had just begun his first stint as prime minister. Hari was only 26 years old when he joined the Prime Minister\'s Office (.PMO) in 1991.

"I helped set up his first real office, providing him all secretarial assistance needed," says Hari. When Koirala was voted out of office in the November 1994 elections, Hari went for further studies to the US as a Fulbright fellow.

Hari\'s official tasks now include just about everything from overseeing the PMO and briefing the PM on any issue that comes his way. He also works out the cabinet agenda together with the chief secretary, and serves as a channel through which government secretaries can communicate with the country\'s chief executive. Needless to say, Hari is also the Prime Minister\'s eye and ears on foreign affairs, which happens to be his subject of interest.

Gokarna landed his job with Koirala when he was just finishing college, courtesy cousin Hari and Gupta. He was in the mid-20s when he joined the PMO nine years ago and has been with Koirala ever since. Congress insiders call Gokarna a Khum Bahadur Khadka protege but such labels don\'t bother him. "Others can say whatever they want," he says, adding that his one and only guru is Koirala.

The prime minister is at work early at his official Baluwatar residence, out of bed by four o\'clock. After a couple of glasses of tea, he begins his workday meeting politicians from outside the Valley at about seven. His official programme is fixed at least a day in advance, and the evenings are kept aside for meeting government secretaries, ministers and opposition leaders. All appointments are handled by Gokarna, who also updates Koirala on the law and order situation.

Puranjan was working as a programme officer with Plan International in east Nepal before joining Koirala in 1995 (when the UML was in powder), and has been with him both in and out of government. He has a powerful mentor in Nona Koirala, Koirala\'s sister-in-law who is said to wield much influence in both party and government. But he hastens to add, "I\'ve also been inspired by B.P. Koirala and the Prime Minister himself."

Puranjan serves as the Prime Minister\'s link with the party, and the opposition, and advises him on development policy and economic affairs. His task also involves scanning questions raised in parliament and outside and preparing answers after consulting concerned officials and ministers. All party, parliament and development related issues pass through his desk.

Puranjan spends many evenings discussing politics and policy with key ministers and academics at Baluwatar. His favourite readings include At the Centre of Whitehall by J.M. Lee, G.W. Jones and June Burnham, a treatise on advising the Prime Minister and the cabinet. "Many people come to this office with issues that the state mechanism should have addressed as a natural process," he says. "My lesson working here is that unless the delivery of state services take place on their own, it will be difficult for the people to internalise democracy."

Being close to the source of power has its benefits, especially in a society that worships anyone with authority. Hari has a rank equivalent to a minister of state and the other two are of the same level as government secretaries. But the trio have clout almost similar to what the royal palace secretaries used to have during the Panchayat era. All three, therefore, also have their own share of followers and hangers-on-people seeking favours for jobs, promotions, transfers, etc.

\'\'Many political leaders still believe the PMO is a place where you can get everything done. Here we get fariads (petitions) on even\' thing from buffalo thefts to job applications and all sorts of development projects," says Hari. "We are satellites and can only glow in the light reflected by the leader. I prefer to call myself a conveyor belt to the prime minister."

Besides his private office assistants and the official support he gets from the Cabinet Secretariat, Koirala also has what can be called an informal, kane-khusi (whisper) network of advisers who are not accountable to anyone. These include members of his family and some ministers who consider themselves close to the prime minister.

Both Puranjan (40) and Gokarna (33) don\'t hide the fact that they have political ambitions. That their jobs allow them to observe at close range the conduct of state affairs and the management of a party that has often been paralysed by internal dissent is a bonus.

"Anyone in politics has ambitions, I am now rehearsing," says Gokarna. "One important lesson I have learnt working here is how to respond to a public that has varied demands."

Coming from a district that perhaps has more leaders per capita than others, Puranjan knows the road ahead will be tough: "Tomorrow\'s politics will be tougher, more competitive. Yes, this experience can help."

Hari\'s interest in politics is only academic. Even\' time Koirala relinquishes office, he heads back to his den at the Centre of Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) and his pet pursuits: analysis of discourse on democracy and dissent, and teaching.

"I have my own small world," says Hari. And that is made up of his family, a personal library with more than 5,000 books and journals and a classical music collection of over 500 tapes and CDs.
Hari doesn\'t hang around Baluwatar more than he has to. Puranjan and Gokarna, however, shadow Koirala from dawn to dusk. On some evenings they sit down with the Prime Minister-when he settles with a cigarette and a glass (not cup) of tea to discuss another eventful day in the life of the prime minister.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)