Forty-six years ago, on Paush 16, 2033, (December 30, 1976), Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, popularly known as BP Koirala, decided to end his eight years of exile in India. Koirala, who was the leader of 1950-51 popular democratic revolution, became the first ever elected prime minister of Nepal after the first general elections in 1958-59 for five years. King Mahendra dismissed the Koirala cabinet in 18 months of five-year term, imprisoned the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues for no fault of theirs. They suffered from rigorous imprisonment for eight long years. After his release in 1968, circumstances forced BP into exile in India where he lived for eight years and guided Nepal’s ongoing democratic movement.
B.P. had premonition of a dangerous situation developing in and around the subcontinent and Nepal becoming a playground of foreign powers. He took a historic and courageous decision when the wave of Cold War was sweeping across the globe, and fault lines from Himalayas to sea were in the making. After a close and careful assessment of emerging geopolitics in the neighbourhood, B.P. issued an appeal to the people of Nepal on Paush 16 calling for ‘national unity and reconciliation.’ He put the ‘nation first above everything,’ and decided to break his exile and return home, where there were seven charges of treason and sedition against him who could face a death sentence. Whether in jail or out or in exile, B.P. dominated the Nepali political scene during his entire life.
Reading that statement today offers a number of insights about the country’s current situation and geopolitics. In his analysis, the Nepali Congress Party that was fighting “solely for democratic rights of the people,” has now an additional “responsibility to save the integrity of the country.” He had alerted all Nepalis that, “there is a preponderance of self-seeking, communalism (regionalism), individualistic mentality and a tendency to look to foreign hands. In such a situation as this, nationalism is the first casualty.” These trends have become more pronounced now than ever before.
Political parties have disturbingly deviated from principled politics and chosen to engage in opportunistic and appeasement politics. BP’s own followers who swear by his ideology and founding principles of the Party, have become power-centric. The talk of transformational politics that B.P. started has become a thing of past and distant dream in present-day Nepal. There is a worrying leadership vacuum at a time when the need for a wise and visionary leadership has become more urgent than ever before. Abandoning foundational principles, embracing transactional politics and recurring cycle of political instability and fluidity with fractured mandate will be consequential. Nepal is facing a “deepening national crisis,” if not handled carefully, BP Koirala warned “would endanger the very existence of our nation.”
He said, “Foreign interests have started intrigues in our country,” making “Nepal a centre of international conspiracy.” To address that crisis, Nepal needs a better, principled, and more mature politics and visionary leader who can read the multiple complex strategic and political writings on the wall and show the courage to take correct decisions in the long-term interests of the nation. Nepal must learn to develop strategic culture and do a better job of explaining its message and missions to the rest of the world.
BP’s strategic prism was wide and spoke in an articulate manner. He analysed every development from different perspectives, looked at them critically, comprehensively, closely, and carefully. That makes BP’s concept of geopolitics figuring prominently and profoundly in today’s fast changing geopolitical landscape. BP guided Nepal’s democratic movement with courage, dignity, and conviction in an uncertain and unsteady time. His analysis of evolving geopolitics has proved to be correct even after decades of his death. His conversations and observations were simple yet came with deeper meaning while responding to domestic and international circumstances.
The track record of today’s Nepali leaders is less inspiring at a time when problems are growing harder, and trust is missing. Leaders lack the wisdom and vision necessary to prepare new generations for leadership. Added to that is the reading of the intensification of great power rivalries. Nepal’s capacity to respond to the rapidly shifting geopolitical circumstances has been considerably weakened by political opportunism, instability, systemic corruption, incompetence, economic stagnation and devastating effects of COVID-19.
If we look across the world, a wave of populism in right-wing, left-wing and centrist populist parties is sweeping. Populism is a tactical politics and “thin ideology.” Parties and individuals alike even in the established democracies have misused democracy and employed tactics to show that easy solutions exist to society’s complex woes. They construct alarming narratives which are often portrayed as being the “voice of the people.” The populists view their “opponents as self-serving and undemocratic,” entrenched in corruption and complacency. They touch on sensitive issues of race, religion, and immigration, and give voice to those who feel suppressed, and generate feelings of Us vs. Them. The poison of identity politics, communalism, regionalism, and religious fundamentalism is sowing seeds of divisions and conflicts in otherwise tolerant diverse societies.
No to populism
B.P. would not “say or do anything which is not correct, even if it is popular.” He said, “If democracy has to be saved, we cannot afford to give in to populism. To save democracy, we may at times have to take unpopular decisions and make the people accept them. Of course, that will have to be done, not through autocratic methods but by convincing the people.” If people are not at the centre of development process, foreign aid in such a situation, BP said, “instead of helping the process of development, only creates a new class of people, whose affluence is unrelated to the general economic conditions of the nation as a whole.”
This happens through “manipulation of foreign aid and corruption and illegal trade.” The growing endemic corruption is eating the vitals of body politic, making the situation even more chaotic and messy. Several reports indicate that a more contested, fragmented, and turbulent world is likely with the intensification of geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China and dampened economic development. BP Koirala was a visionary statesman who the world heard when he spoke. Though the global scenario has changed fundamentally since his death, but his expressions on geopolitics remain relevant to this day.
(Dr Bhattarai is a Faculty Member at Institute of Crisis Management Studies (ICMS) at Tribhuvan University.)