Sushil Koirala belonged to a centrist political platform that privileged negotiation and consensus over the extremities of ideology and agitation. Yet, the Nepali Congress president and former prime minister often found himself in the midst of political upheaval. As prime minister, he convinced parties across the ideological spectrum to agree on the basic structure of the constitution — a consensus that had proved elusive for long — and got it passed in the parliament last year. That, however, triggered an avalanche of protests in the Terai/ Madhes region, leading to an economic blockade at the India-Nepal border and a new low in India-Nepal relations. However, Koirala, after he lost the prime minister’s post to K.P. Oli last October, became involved in the dialogue between Kathmandu and the Madhes groups, which culminated in the parliament amending the constitution to address the latter’s concerns.
Koirala’s death due to cancer at the age of 78 comes as Madhes groups decide to end the border blockade — a fitting tribute, even if coincidental, to a politician who had close links with India, having lived in exile here for 16 years. His last years were a testament to his triumph and fall as a politician. The years in the struggle against the monarchy ensured that he became a natural claimant for the prime minister’s post when the Nepali Congress re-emerged as the country’s main political voice in the 2013 election. He promised to step down as prime minister once he had shepherded the constitution in the parliament. His insistence on another term eroded his stature and threatened to reduce him to just another faction leader. Tactical mistakes also cost him the opportunity to broaden the political consensus on the constitution within Nepal and improve relations with New Delhi.
Yet, Koirala’s political career can help all the stakeholders situate India-Nepal ties on a firm ground and against the panorama of a shared history. One takeaway is that the odd mistake or setback pales against the abiding richness of the relationship.