Gerontocracy means government based on rule by elders, one of the persistent criticisms of politics in Nepal. Former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, who died on February 9 at the age of 77, was a member of the Koirala dynasty who made little effort to bridge the generational gap between him and much of the Nepali electorate. He was the fourth Koirala to become prime minister of Nepal. (The third, Girija Prasad, was well in his eighties when he became Nepal’s prime minister numerous times, but the second, Bishweshwar Prasad, was in his forties.) Though Sushil continued the family legacy, his term as prime minister will be remembered as one of inaction in the face of adversity followed by rashness that created new conflicts.
Taciturn and reclusive, Sushil Koirala presided over one of the worst periods in recent Nepali history. Riding high off the Nepali Congress’s electoral victory in 2013, he assumed the premiership and settled into the usual routine of program attendances and dais sittings. Fourteen months into his tenure, Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake. Though large swaths of the country lay in literal ruins, he waited a month before leaving his official residence to visit a damaged village. The government’s response amounted to gross negligence. Ten months later it’s criminal: millions of people have endured the monsoon and the winter with little meaningful assistance from the Nepali state—not because Nepal is poor (foreign friends pledged about $4 billion), but because the parties cannot agree on who will sit atop of the pile of relief money.
Rather than address the needs of reconstruction, Koirala and his coalition chose to use the crisis as a chance to ram through a constitution that backpedaled on progressive gains. Nepal needed a statesman; what it got was a man who’d risen to power by the sheer power of dynasty and petty deals among the party bosses. A mass opposition movement quickly arose, bringing widespread human rights abuses by security forces and sometimes protesters, and a border blockade that exacerbated the situation. Despite months of agitation in the Terai-Madhes, where he was from, Koirala did not deem it necessary to visit and talk to the protesters. Upon his exit from office, he left behind a country far more divided than when he entered.
To his credit, Koirala never tired of standing up for democracy. But when journalists and editors visited his residence, once occupied by his cousin Girija, or the prime minister’s quarters in Baluwatar, and asked him what he meant by democracy, he could elucidate little more than platitudes. He refused to see how rotten Nepali democracy is for the downtrodden, anyone who does not have “afno manchhe” in positions of power. From his lips, democracy became a mantra of a sort, an automatic substitute for vision. He busied himself with maneuvering the faction-ridden party to become its president. He was a true apparatchik—not a leader, let alone a statesman—and will go down in history as the prime minister who pushed for a constitution over the bodies of dozens of his fellow citizens. But then, politics is relative. Compared to the man who succeeded him, Sushil Koirala appeared downright benevolent—a bearded, avuncular bachelor of sparse possessions doing what he saw best. Perhaps his most distinguishing feature was that he lived simply, and modestly—a rarity in our times.
In his early days, it is rumored, Koirala wanted to make a name for himself in the film industry. But he soon took up the family business and joined political life. Like many of his contemporaries in the Nepali Congress, and the myriad communist parties, Koirala spent his younger days fighting the royal dictatorship. In 1973, he wound up as part of a plot to hijack a Nepal Airlines plane full of cash, which was smuggled to the Nepali Congress party. He was arrested for his role in the hijacking and spent time in an Indian jail. When the 30-year royal rule ended in 1990, Girija took on a central role in Nepali politics, with Sushil at hand, albeit backstage, doing what needed to be done to keep their place in power secure. Sushil was a relatively minor player until Girija anointed him as a successor before he died in 2010.
The dawn of democracy in 1990, of course, turned out to be false, and bloody. One of the many ironies of Nepali politics is how quickly the oppressed, once close to power and money, become the oppressors. The Koiralas and their Nepali Congress party, revolutionaries who twice mounted armed insurgencies against the monarchy, responded to the Maoist insurgency with shortsightedness and high-handedness. Later, Gyanendra Shah followed suit. Nepal became notorious for human rights abuses. Against this backdrop, it is not so surprising then that at the crucial hour when the constitution was being finalized, the Maoists, too, turned against their own cause of inclusive democracy and sided with Koirala to bring out a charter opposed by the historically marginalized.
And what became of the democracy Sushil defended? The Nepali state remains spectacularly exclusive, a club where the “upper caste” male monopoly on power is near total. It’s not Koirala’s fault, of course. He was born into the system. But when his chance to reform it came, he didn’t just preside over the system; he preserved it.
Cover photo: Former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, center, stands with Prime Minister K.P. Oli, left, and former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Sunil Sharma/Xinhua