I had asked a young researcher studying BP Koirala for her Mphil an easy question: Did she find anything new about him that we haven’t yet been told? Her answer was naive for my taste: she said she found him ‘double-faced’.
I didn't mince words to say that she was being utterly naive. Humans are complex in all manners, more so in matters of morality in politics.
The foundation of Nepal's Grand Old Party was laid in India, inspired by the Indian National Congress. Established as an elite intellectual group in 1885, the INC slowly evolved into a political force, with years of rigorous deliberation. By the time the Koirala sons were growing up in exile, the Congress under Nehru-Gandhi was preparing for succession of power after the British. It was a movement that united India.
Young Nepali students studying in India started organizing themselves and finally, BP was able to unite three different parties—two in Varanasi and one in Kolkata to form the Nepali Congress.
From letters and diaries of that time of the legend himself and those of friends and relatives, the researcher had concluded that BP was double-faced. I laughed out loud. After research of many years, she had finally found out that BP the legend was also human.
I admire BP for the liberal-semi anarchist-renaissance man he was. King Mahendra punished a popularly elected government and established People's Panchayat—different name for Democracy by King's Grace, and put BP in jail. His prison years were well spent in creating some of the masterpieces of Nepali literature.
He was learned, and had the gumption to take up challenges and live for those. But his charisma was more of a romantic sort. Some calculations went wrong, and many decisions backfired. His health too did not support him much, and the rest is history: he has become the most-hyped leader in Nepal with very less real impact and hardly a legacy to speak for him.
In politics, there isn't much that has come from BP after King Mahendra hijacked history, but the real question is: why could Mahendra himself not become the Lee Kuan Yew of Nepal?
Lee came to power in Singapore around the time of Mahendra's coup. And he was the prime minister for 31 years, till 1990, drawing strong parallels with the Panchayat rule of 30 years in Nepal.
What worked there and what did not here? This is an important question to be asked.
A simple explanation that has been tried is that Nepal is bigger and more complex. To some extent, this may be true. It may be unjust to draw parallels between city states like Singapore and a geographically difficult country like Nepal. Even the ethnic diversity is far more precarious in Nepal.
But blaming it all on the environment and structure is not the right approach. However difficult the task of sorting this mess, somebody has to get it done.
In the book Makers of Modern Asia published in 2014, Ramchandra Guha hasn't included BP among the 11 leaders profiled: Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi from India; Chiang Kai Shek, Mao, Zhou, and Deng from China; with Ho Chi Minh, Sukarno, Lee, and Bhutto closing the list.
Some intellectuals in Nepal were disgruntled that no Nepali was included in the list; they believed at least BP deserved a mention. But I thought his exclusion was justified.
The fact that in the 70-plus years of post Rana rule, we do not have a name that can be taken as the maker of an era speaks volumes about the lack of leadership Nepal has lived through. We have names that have been in power for a long time, like Mahendra, or leaders who have been able to keep politics centered on them for long, like Prachanda, but hardly anyone whose legacy will have an enduring impact.
In Nepal, there is a class of intellectuals whose main job has been to normalize all kinds of eccentricities that the political class has thrown at us. They are so tightly engaged with the ruling elite that knowingly or unknowingly, they are hardwired to take side of the status quo, and justify inefficiency, ineptitude, and lack of character among leaders.
This class of intellectuals has long been arguing that the hunger for a charismatic leader is misplaced, and development of healthy institutions is at the core of long-term progress. There are no fundamental flaws in this line of thinking, but it ignores one important factor: the context and the demographic window of opportunity. There can be no doubt that a charismatic leader with high integrity can make a real impact.
Politics and culture are not homogenous, and hence the mindset pushed by Western thinking ignores our context completely. The institutions of the West developed gradually while those of most new states were put into form immediately.
In non-Western nations, institutions have been made strong only by extraordinary dedication of legendary personalities. Saying that Nepal's case will be an exception, is stretching the idea of institutions too far. The fact is that we need a Lee Kwan Yew to sort out the mess we are in, and however hard the punditry tries to make a case against it, without a transition to a presidential system of governance, we are doomed.
There has been a never-ending debate whether circumstance or personality shapes events. In case of Singapore, Lee settled the argument in his favor through sheer grit, and dedication. Singapore is a living statement now which the world can't disregard with any pile up of words or clever punditry.