|Mourning for the person|
With the death of KP Bhattarai, or Kishunji, a political generation that attached importance to value-based politics has abruptly come to an end. Much has been said and written after the rite of passage of a statesman and “saint” who did not stop joking even in his deathbed, but not much is covered about how wonderful Kishunji was as a person. More than anything else, I mourn most the demise of a wonderful person who was just like everybody else, while being great as a politician.
First a little about the statesman and saint. Challenges are the touchstone which determine whether one is a situational leader, catapulted by vagaries of politics, or a statesman who has the will and attitude to rise above the vicissitudes of political fortunes. And it is all comparative. As we see one leader after another failing to preside over a transition and deliver a new constitution on time, Kishunji certainly presents himself as an iconic statesman who was able to do both successfully.
Simple living was synonymous to Kishunji. His life was Spartan as prime minister. At Bhainsepati, the house was opulent, but his living was austere. He used to sleep in a decidedly simple bed covered with an ordinary mattress, with only a small Nepali carpet hugging the floor. I did not see his Badegaun ashram. At a time when political leaders have enriched themselves by means fair and foul and are leading aristocratic life, Kishunji’s was certainly saintly with a life of manifest simplicity.
As he himself has admitted so many times, he was unmarried, not a bachelor. In spite of all speculations and innuendos, Kishunji stood head and shoulder above other leaders who have cheated on their duly wed wives, have more than one wife, and worse, have kept mistresses to enjoy extramarital, illicit liaison, without any trace of compunction or shame. So he was more saintly than most others on this count.
Undoubtedly, the curtain has been pulled on a generation of political leaders and on value-based politics. BP Koirala, Subarna Shumser, Ganesh Man, Man Mohan, and Girija have gone to their heavenly abode, if there is one. Kishunji was the last man standing from the era of the 1950 revolution, and his death has brought that era to an end. If there are some others still around, they have not made much of a ripple in Nepali political firmament.
He was one who refused to compromise with the king and stayed in prison for 14 years, longest of all Nepali Congress leaders. Also he was the only one who did not flow with the tide when it swept out his party’s long-held plank of constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy, even though he had suffered most in the hands of the kings. In these hedonistic and utilitarian times, you cannot expect any other politician to stand against the tide holding his principle high above his head.
That brings me to what a wonderful person he was, with all human strengths and weaknesses, just like everybody else. Although I cannot and will not claim closeness with Kishunji, whether real or perceived, as most have tried to do upon his death, I did work with him closely when he was prime minister the second time. I also met him several times when I was in New York. I mourn the loss of Kishunji most as a wonderful person because I can relate to him in his weaknesses, more than in his strengths, as one of us, as part of me.
I mourn the loss of Kishunji most as a wonderful person because I can relate to him in his weaknesses, more than in his strengths, as one of us, as part of me.
Let me narrate three, among the many, incidents here. During his trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, Kishunji did something completely unexpected. He, Amita Kapali and her sister, Damodar Gautam, then our ambassador in Washington, an attaché from the New York mission and myself were present in the hotel suit. As soon as Kapali and her sister left for shopping, Kishunji asked the attaché to open the whiskey bottle from the freezer and to replace it quickly with a new one so Kapali could not find out.
He told us that, since Kapali took so much care of him and as a strict disciplinarian she would not let him drink against his doctor’s advice, he had to enjoy the guilty pleasure in her absence. She would, he further confided, excoriate him if she knew he had indulged in it. A larger than life statesman, he was also so inherently human in his cravings and in his fear of someone who cared about him, just like everybody else and just like me.
Soon after Kishunji became prime minister in 1999, Girija Koirala craved to replace him. Kishunji was ready to resign after a visit to France for which French President Mitterrand, a socialist, had invited him. But Koirala feared that Kishunji would come with a bag of tricks to remain in power if given that time. Foreign Minister Ram Sharan Mahat and I as Foreign Secretary shuttled back and forth between Baluwatar and Maharajganj pleading to Koirala to let Kishunji make that last trip, which was rejected. Kishunji was so human in his reaction, though without any acrimony.
It was in January 2002 when the government invited me from New York to help prepare for the summit of South Asian leaders, I went to see Kishunji at Bhainsepati where he was living in those days. When I was escorted to his room, Kishunji, though indisposed, tried to get up to receive me but I asked him not to. He then asked me to sit on the edge of his bed, as there was no chair. I rather sat down on the Nepali carpet hugging the floor. That great man had a warm heart and winning demeanor.
He had won my heart with his simplicity so much that I conveyed his massage to the king that he should not engage in politics if he wanted the monarchy to continue. I knew I would suffer the consequences. Nonetheless, I passed the message to the king in the palace garden sitting under the sun next morning without ever thinking about the consequences or without regretting them when they came haunting me later.
I wish he had been a little more serious about some of the important issues facing the nation when he was in-charge. But he was what he was, an imperfect man just like everybody else, just like myself, with weaknesses. But his strengths were so many more and so much more consequential than his weaknesses that both his friends and foes are mourning his death with spontaneity and genuineness and with the acute sense that the era of value politics has come to an end.
Published on 2011-03-08 01:00:59