The passing of Prabhakar Rana on 31 May in New York after a year long post-operative convalescence marks the end of an era in Nepal’s political, business and social service spheres.
At a time when corruption became standard operating procedure among politicians, bureaucrats and private businesses, Rana stood out as a beacon of diligence, decency, and dignity in public life.
Figures from all sections of the political spectrum, members of the international community, his colleagues in the business world, had confidence in him. His demeanour and manners made even antagonists trust him, giving him unique mediating power. He used his vast network of contacts in Nepal, India and overseas in the national interest. And for Rana, the national interest meant first and foremost ensuring stability in Nepal so that investors would come, business would flourish, jobs would be created, and all boats would rise together with the tide.
Rana was the son of Nepal’s first Inspector General of Police Nara Sumshere Rana, and he was born inside Singha Darbar in 1934, when it still served as the palace of Rana prime ministers. His two sisters married two of King Mahendra’s brothers. Besides being an A-Class Rana, therefore, Prabhakar had proximity to the Shahs through the marriage of his siblings. This stood him in good stead after the rise of the Shahs, and especially after King Mahendra’s coup d’état of December 1960, right through the absolute monarchy years and the rein of King Birendra.
The launch pad for Prabhakar Rana’s vision for tourism-led growth in Nepal was the establishment of the Soaltee Hotel in 1966, which he pushed through despite nay-sayers predicting that it would be a flop. Fifty years before the current government started boasting about Nepal’s own merchant marine, Rana chaired the Nepal Shipping Company that flew the double triangle on leased ocean-going vessels.
Prabhakar Rana went on to head the Nepal Chapter of the Pacific Area Travel Association, the Hotel Association of Nepal, the American Himalayan Foundation and the Nepal-India Chamber of Commerce and Industry. After 1990, Rana’s companies were involved in the first foreign investment in a hydropower project in Nepal, and he was in the advisory board of many social service organistions.
As a descendant of the Ranas and born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Prabhakar, did not really have to work for a living. Yet, not only did he put his formidable capital base to productive use, but also did it with honesty, transparency, and for the larger cause of laying a strong foundation for the Nepali economy. Polite and tolerant to a fault, he treated everyone, no matter class, caste or creed, with equal respect. Never obsequious to the mighty, and never scornful of the down and trodden, Prabhakar Rana led a life of example.
After the promise of the 1990 People’s Movement went sour and the conflict began, Prabhakar Rana became the main channel through which various domestic and international interlocutors tried to find a solution. Rana shied away from media interviews, and just did one with this newspaper in 2000, in which he said: “In the last ten years we’ve had an open press…it has often been negative. (but) the charges about too much freedom are hollow. Maybe we just don’t know how to use our freedom.” His work was discrete, behind-the-scenes, and always focused on getting Nepal out of the quagmire of violence.
When King Birendra was being coaxed by his hardline relatives in the palace in the 1990s to scrap the constitution and take over the reigns of power, it was Rana who was sent as an emissary to sound out New Delhi, London and Washington DC. He got a conditional amber light for a time-bound suspension of the constitution on condition that negotiations would be held with the Maoists.
Some of these tensions and intrigue probably contributed to the royal massacre of 1 June 2001. When Gyanendra was enthroned, Prabhakar found an even closer role in statecraft because the king was now not just his business partner but a close childhood friend as well.
Gyanendra called Prabhakar by his nickname, “Pro”, and also used him as a sounding board in setting up his royal cabinet. However, while Prabhakar believed in democracy, Gyanendra had nothing but disdain for political parties and their leaders. “Eh, Pro, even after this you want to hand power to the parties?” he asked Prabhakar just before 1 February 2005 when Gyanendra re-enacted his father’s coup d’état against all advice.
After the ceasefire, Nepal plunged into more instability and there was plenty to be cynical about, but Prabhakar never lost hope that Nepal had a destiny to be a stable and prosperous nation. When talking about the disarray in government, the most he would allow himself was one of his characteristically snide smirks.
Nepal will miss Prabhakar Rana when it needs him the most. He set the bar high for us to follow.