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Nepal: Perilous Koirala-Kerensky Parallels

Nepal: Perilous Koirala-Kerensky Parallels

By Sanjay Upadhya

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s visceral faith in the Maoists’ full commitment to a nebulous concept of “total democracy” amid a sustained pattern of rebel defiance has invited comparisons with Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s short-lived democratic president in 1917.

Maoist supremo Prachanda’s threat to launch an October Revolution if the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) failed to move in consonance with the rebels’ interpretation of the spirit of the April Uprising prompted American Ambassador James F. Moriarty to inject some sobering history into Nepal’s befuddled political discourse.

Has Koirala become Nepal’s Kerensky? The contrasts between the two men and their times could not be starker. Kerensky, at 36, was in the prime of his life when he embodied Russia’s democratic quest. His opposition to the absolute rule of the Romanovs blossomed during his university days in St. Petersburg. Kerensky, moreover, was an intellectual interested in all aspects of Russian history, culture and literature in addition to politics.

To be sure, Koirala’s plunge into politics at an early age came at the cost of academic life. But that tradeoff put him at the forefront of Nepal’s democracy movement. Koirala, moreover, did not have to work his way up the leadership hierarchy like Kerensky – at least in the context of his undisputed leadership of the SPA. And Koirala has been ready to ally himself with the palace on his terms.

In a country devastated by a decade-long insurgency with its heavy human and development costs, Kerensky’s Russia carries much relevance. The First World War, in which Russia had been involved in for three years, diverted massive amounts of manpower and caused serious food and fiber shortages. The Czarist regime was exposed to increasingly strident charges of gross mismanagement. Yet the collapse of the monarchy was as unexpected as that of the Soviet Union would be 74 years later.

Kerensky was a moderate socialist whose passionate, lifelong goal was to see a Western-style constitutional democracy in Russia. In his ardor to fight off his adversaries on the right, Kerensky simply refused to believe that the Bolsheviks could represent the greater threat.

Koirala, who started out as an implacable anticommunist and thrived on that record, is today bending over backwards to appease the Maoists. His own Nepali Congress is outraged by the government’s apparent capitulation to the rebels.

Dedicated to his country and to democratic principles, Kerensky was a courageous, energetic man with great oratorical skills. It was his willingness to assume command in a time of crisis that allowed Russians to enjoy their brief but unprecedented freedoms. The bitter political infighting that followed Czar Nicholas II’s fall may have allowed Kerensky to establish his indispensability. His lack of vision to tackle the root causes of popular discontent came in handy for the Bolsheviks.

Indeed, it would have required a miracle for Russia to become a vibrant democracy amid the mixture of a disastrous war, massive economic hardships and political factionalism. Yet the Bolsheviks’ triumph was not inevitable. Lenin and Trotsky plotted their course in the chaos conceived in Kerensky’s misplaced confidence. The reality that the world’s first experiment with a “worker state” occurred in a country that was 98 percent agrarian more than debunks the myth of communism’s inevitability.

The most ominous parallel between today’s Nepal and Kerensky’s Russia is that Koirala finds himself straddling between those who see the triumph of total democracy in the sidelining – and perhaps an eventual abolition -- of the monarchy and those demanding more radical social and economic restructuring.

Here Prachanda has taken the most insidious page from Lenin’s playbook. Through his fiery and often contradictory rhetoric, buttressed by an almost insatiable appetite for concessions from the state, Prachanda hopes to exert complete authority. By portraying the government’s failure to meet his impossible demands as a sign of utter ineptitude, the Maoist supremo seeks to evade responsibility. Clearly, the Maoists are banking on the same anarchy the Bolsheviks capitalized on.

In exile, Kerensky believed the Bolshevik regime would crumble imminently and contemplated his triumphant return to power. Koirala and his cohorts, at least, can rely on history to shed any such illusions.


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