Nepali Times
Fight to the finish


you have to give it to the man. He never gives up, does he? Ignoring the counsel of some of his closest political allies, and following the advice of his relatives and cronies Girija Koirala has once more opted to stay put and fight it out . And this time, even he seems to realise this is a fight to the finish.

Koirala has convinced himself it is nothing less than democracy that is at stake. Speaking privately to friends, he sees a huge conspiracy by the extreme right and left to unseat him, weaken the party and take the country back to the days of dictatorship. Koirala says the Nepali Congress won a majority in parliamentary elections two years ago, he became prime minister because he has the numbers within the party, and he was elected party president-why should he quit? Emboldened by such fervour, he is now in no mood to listen to any talk of resignation.

What he is contemplating now is a major reshuffle of his cabinet to bring dissident Nepali Congress members back to the fold and turn his attention to holding the budget session of parliament-something that could be tougher. This is vital because it has to vote the money for his pet Integrated Security and Defence Programme (ISDP) and the Armed Police Force (APF) to fight the Maoist insurgency.

Koirala believes he got a clean chit from the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). Although it did not charge the prime minister formally, the CIAA concluded that there was corruption in the deal to lease the Lauda Air 767 for Royal Nepal Airlines-which was obliquely approved by cabinet. So the stigma of graft is going to be a Girija legacy. Unlike the 1995 scam involving a European sales agent for Royal Nepal Airlines, where Koirala was implicated and cleared by court, this charge is likely to remain with him forever.

On 25 May, the CIAA filed charges against ten officials, including former minister Tarani D Chataut at the Appellate Court, Lalitpur. Directors of Royal Nepal Airlines, some senior managers and two Lauda officials are also charged. Chataut and one RNAC employee are absconding while others were picked up by police the same morning and taken to court. A distant cousin of Chataut, who is a member of the CIAA, is said to have tipped him off to avoid arrest. He is now in hiding somewhere in Kathmandu.
Some Koirala-aides felt the CIAA letter to the prime minister gave him a honourable way out, so he could resign without implicating himself. Among those advising him to step down last week-of course saying it was ultimately his decision-were deputy prime minister Ram Chandra Poudel, foreign minister Chakra Bastola, and finance minister Ram Sharan Mahat and other close advisers. One insider told us Koirala chain-smoked and drank endless glasses of tea while trying to decide. NC lawmakers Sushil Koirala, Govinda Raj Joshi, former minister Laxman Ghimere advised him strongly not to resign. Badri Bahadur Karki, the Attorney General, told the prime minister there was no legal reason to step down.
We asked Sushil Koirala why he thought the prime minister should stay on. His reply: "He's been attacked from every side since the day he took office, he needs to be given a chance to govern. That is what a majority of the party workers said, not just us."

Defence minister Mahesh Acharya, who is quiet during meetings but seems to have the ear of the prime minister in private, was against resignation. Family pressure also counted: daughter Sujata, nephew Sriharsh and sister-in-law Nona seemed to have been more concerned about jeopardised business interests if he resigned. Niece Shailaja, for her part, who was sternly against stepping down when Koirala wanted to some weeks ago because she did not see a credible successor, had no firm position this time.

Now that he has made up his mind to stay, Koirala's first order of business is to outflank critics within his own party by co-opting dissidents in his cabinet. At the forefront is Khum Bahadur Khadka whom he had summarily sacked in August, but is now taking back probably as a senior minister. The decision also smacks of an embattled prime minister acting defensively to shore up his numbers to prevent a mutiny. "This is not the Girijababu we remember," a minister present at the Baluwatar consultations told us. "He was bargaining, cajoling with former rivals just to cling to power."

Koirala must be thinking he'll sort out the inter-party wrangling with a reshuffle and then turn his full attention to the opposition UML to get them on board for the budget session. If he gets an all-party support for the ISDP and the APF, he may then step down. The main question now is: will anyone let him?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)