What Nepal president Poudel's visit to BP Koirala Museum says about his politics - Hindustan Times
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What Nepal president Poudel's visit to BP Koirala Museum says about his politics

Mar 15, 2023 04:20 PM IST

Ram Chandra Poudel's visits to the Pashupatinath temple and the Sundarijal jail are deeply symbolic, as they highlight how the veteran leader views Nepal's politics

Close to four months after the general election, Nepal elected its new president on March 9 — the third since the country abolished a 250-year-old monarchy in 2008.

With Prachanda walking away from the CPN-UML to return to his pre-poll coalition with the NC, stability may be on the horizon in Nepal. For now. (Reuters) PREMIUM
With Prachanda walking away from the CPN-UML to return to his pre-poll coalition with the NC, stability may be on the horizon in Nepal. For now. (Reuters)

Supported by 10 parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) veteran Ram Chandra Poudel handily defeated Subas Chandra Nemwang, a senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). This battle of titans saw one former speaker effortlessly beat another.

The volatility of the House

In the 275-member Lower House, the NC has 89 seats, CPN-UML — 78, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) — 32, Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) — 19, and the monarchist Right-wing Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) — 14.

Under Nepal’s mixed-voting system, 165 lawmakers are directly elected from geographical constituencies while 110 others are elected through proportional representation (PR). This provision of voting on two ballot papers — one for a candidate of choice and another for the party of choice — ensures broad representation, but it also arguably makes it harder for any single party to get an outright majority.

The Centrist NC, led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, is currently in pole position in Parliament. This is primarily because of the recent flip-flop by Prime Minister (PM) Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda" which saw him shifting tents from the CPN-UML to the NC just weeks ago. His party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) is the third-largest party.

The RSP, a brand-new party whose president is journalist-turned-politician Rabi Lamichhane — once a TV anchor who hit out at political heavyweights — has emerged as the fourth-largest party.

The Right-wing RPP, which has been advocating for the restoration of the monarchy and Nepal as a Hindu State, has now moved from being a fringe political force to emerge as the fifth-largest party in the federal Parliament.

Put this together and one quickly sees that any government that is formed in Nepal sits on fragile ground, thanks to a deeply hung Parliament. However, with Prachanda walking away from the CPN-UML to return to his pre-poll coalition with the NC, stability may be on the horizon in Nepal. For now.

Setting the tone

A day after his victory, 78-year-old Poudel took significant symbolic steps in a bid to set the tone for his presidency. He first visited the Pashupatinath temple in the heart of Kathmandu, followed by a visit to Sundarijal jail on the outskirts of the capital.

Both visits hold crucial messages of the image that Poudel wishes to display as president — outlining two distinct features of Nepali politics and society. The visit to the temple marked his public recognition of Nepal’s rich cultural and religious heritage and sanatan traditions, while his visit to Sundarijal Jail represents his political commitment to statesmanship and democratic values in the face of prolonged adversity.

However, it was the second visit that is deeply poignant. It is Sundarijal Jail, now known as BP Museum, where Nepal’s first democratically elected PM and NC leader Bisheshwar Prasad Koirala (BP) was imprisoned for eight years. In a dramatic coup in 1960, king Mahendra deposed the young PM, put him behind bars, and introduced a self-styled one-party Panchayat Democracy, which lasted until 1990. Nepal’s infant democracy had survived only 18 months. Ram Chandra Poudel was only 16 then. BP went on to inspire a legion of young followers who would fight for the restoration of democracy for decades. Poudel, like BP, spent years in jail while leading campaigns against the King. This is why Poudel’s emphasis on BP’s storied legacy is no accident.

BP's political legacy

A recurring motif in BP’s much-celebrated writings (many written in Sudarijal Jail) and reflections is his difficult relationship with king Mahendra — his ambitious and undemocratic contemporary rival. It is interesting to note here that BP often viewed the king in a generous light, not questioning his intent, and instead seeing him as a ruler of a small state trying to find its footing in a post-World War global order. It was, however, clear that their worldviews and visions were poles apart.

Both BP and Mahendra, with their own strengths, enhanced Nepal’s international stature and diversified Nepal’s relations with countries across the world (most certainly with China) along with global institutions, including the United Nations, with the king's tenure seen by many as a golden age for Nepal in foreign relations. It was a time of great political upheaval too. India had just gained Independence and the Chinese Communist Party, under Mao Zedong, was gripped by a rising nationalism after a "hundred years of national humiliation". The United States (US) and the erstwhile Soviet Union were locked in an intractable Cold War. His political stature and statesmanship allowed BP a seat at the table with the world’s top leaders, from Nehru, Mao, and Zhou Enlai to US president Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Israel’s PM Golda Meir. Nepal was the first South Asian country to establish full bilateral relations with Israel.

However, despite Mahendra's efforts in the international arena, his deep-seated insecurities could be seen as clouding his judgment domestically. Born and raised as a dynastic heir in the corridors of power in Kathmandu, he took his material and political privileges for granted. Further, his idea of "national unity" was strongly influenced by his deep insecurity vis-à-vis India’s perception that Nepal was within its "sphere of influence".

On the other hand, BP, born in a well-to-do business family in Biratnagar, a border town in Tarai, was a vastly different person. After his family had fallen out of favour with the autocratic and totalitarian Chandra Samshere, who took hereditary office as PM, their property was confiscated. This forced Krishna Prasad Koirala, BP’s father, into exile alongside his extended family of 45 members — first to Banaras, and later to Saharsa in Bihar where they lived in penury.

BP embraced politics at an early age, first as a student when he met Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. But it was especially with Indian socialist leaders — notably, Rammanohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan (“JP”) — of that era that he enjoyed strong personal relationships. BP became a towering figure not only in Nepal’s democratic politics but also in the international socialist movement for over three decades — from the birth of the Nepali Congress while he was in exile in 1950, until his death in 1982.

It is this deep reverence of BP's legacy and in acknowledging that he himself has been in politics since the young age of 16, that Poudel mentioned that his first choice was the Prime Minister’s Office. This is because, despite some discretionary powers, the office of the president is largely ceremonial in Nepal. Now that the boat has sailed, Nepalis would want to see him rise above party and, by extension, the Nepali Congress politics. He has his task cut out in an extremely polarised and volatile political landscape at home.

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