The passing of Tulsi Giri, the doctor-turned-politician-turned-follower of the Jehovah’s Witness sect, who died on 18 December aged 93, marked the end of an era in Nepal’s recent political history.
Giri’s close friend and colleague, Biswa Bandhu Thapa, is now one of the last remaining survivors of that period in Nepal’s politics when it moved from feudalism to constitutional monarchy to absolute monarchy within a span of a few years. There are now few witnesses left of that roller coaster ride as the stalwarts of the Panchayat passed on in the past few years: Surya Bahadur Thapa, Kirti Nidhi Bista, and now Tulsi Giri.
The general elections of 1959 propelled the Nepali Congress to power in a landslide victory. B P Koirala, has noticed Tulsi Giri’s charismatic persona and considered him to be an unflinching democrat while campaigning. Giri became BP’s blue-eyed boy to such an extent that top Congress leaders were turned off, and were suspicious of Giri’s influence over the Prime Minister.
BP named Tulsi Giri Foreign Minister when he was just 34,made him a close adviser during a time of sensitive geopolitics when relations between India and China were souring, and Nepal was opening up to the outside world. BP’s relations with Giri soon soured, as he found Giri increasingly demanding and a possible rival within the party. The ambitious Giri, for his part, felt that he could not go higher in government as long as BP was around.
Tulsi Giri was also getting increasingly disenamoured with Western-style parliamentary democracy that Nepal inherited from Britain via India. And when he came across a paper written by Indian freedom fighter Jaya Prakash Naryan that rural India should have partyless elections and governance, Giri had a eureka moment.
“It was an epiphany,” he confided to one Nepali friend much later in Sri Lanka where he was living with his wife Sarah Yonzon. Giri was convinced during campaigning for the 1959 elections, later as an MP in the national Parliament and a member of the Cabinet, that despite the strong majority that the Nepali Congress had, the western model of democracy would not work in Nepal. His reasonings were: Nepalis were too unaware to vote meaningfully so caste and ethnic vote banks made a mockery of majority rule, the strong monarchy would always be a destabilising factor, and all this would leave Nepal as a playground for the proxy rivalries of global and regional powers.
King Mahendra had been on the throne since 1955, and was not really happy sharing powers traditionally enjoyed by the royal palace with an elected Parliament. As distrust grew between King and Koirala (egged on, perhaps, by geopolitical meddling) Mahendra famously told BP: “Nepal is not big enough for the both of us.”
BP was supposed to accompany Mahendra on a hunting trip to western Nepal, but sent his trusted Tulsi Giri instead. Mahendra was looking for a high-level defector from the Nepali Congress and sensed Giri’s discontent. Giri broached his theory of a partyless system with the king, and this must have been music to Mahendra’s ears. Historians say it was during this trip that King Mahendra hatched his plan for a coup, and the ideology of a partyless Panchayat system.
Till the night before the coup of 15 December 1960, Mahendra and BP were dining together, and the Prime Minister was trying to work out the growing differences with the king. But the next day Mahendra dismissed the government, dissolved Parliament, and put BP Koirala and his party leaders in jail.
Giri went on to serve thrice as Chairman of the council of minister during the 1960s, since it was Mahendra’s habit to keep reshuffling the council of ministers and have a revolving door prime ministership depending on the public mood, his mood, and whether the wind was blowing from the south or north.
Mahendra died in 1972 and was followed by Birendra, who was killed in the royal massacre of 2001, to be succeeded for four days by his comatose son, Dipendra, and then his brother, Gyanendra. The Maoist war was nearing a peak, and Gyanendra tried to turn the clock back to the Panchayat. He staged a coup like his father did on 1 February 2005, bringing Giri back as a co-chair of the council of ministers.
Giri said later he agreed reluctantly, but what convinced him was his fervent belief that Nepal would do better under a partyless system of government. Whatever one may say about Giri, he never wavered from that belief.
The monarchy and democracy were never compatible in Nepal, but it must be said that a decade after Nepal abolished the monarchy, and under a new federal republican constitution, many Nepalis feel things have not got any better.