Girija Prasad Koirala tried different things for nearly 50 years to change society and politics in Nepal. His long and many battles against an anachronistic monarchy included even attempts at an armed rebellion. But he eventually convinced himself, and the majority of the Nepalese people, that peace and democracy offered the best hope for a new order. If the monarchy in Nepal is now history, and democracy, however fragile, is the new order, it is largely due to Koirala’s lifelong struggle against the monarchy and the feudal institutions it nurtured. Of course, he had notable predecessors in men like his own brother, Bishweshwar Prasad, Ganesh Man Singh and Pushpa Lal Shrestha, the founder of the first communist party in Nepal. His own stints as prime minister may have been marred by corruption, scandals and administrative inefficiency. It is not uncommon for a fledgling democracy to face critical tests and even threats to its survival. There were far too many vested interests in the Nepalese society to make it a smooth transition for the young democracy. Even a constitutional monarchy had enough powers to make things difficult for a democratic ruler. The assassination of King Birendra and his family in 2001, and the dismissal of the elected government by King Gyanendra in 2005, proved this.
Koirala’s death presents even greater challenges for Nepal’s new democracy. His status as an elder statesman proved invaluable in uniting the country’s democratic parties and the Maoists, first against King Gyanendra’s autocratic rule, and then for the peace process that ended the Maoists’ 13-year-long armed rebellion. The Maoists’ activities since then have strengthened suspicions about their commitment to peace and multi-party democracy. The elections to the interim parliament have thrown up the Maoists as the biggest political force in the country. But their positions on a new constitution and a federal structure for Nepal have unleashed new hostilities instead of ending old ones. The future of Nepal’s young democracy is now threatened more by the Maoists than by diehard monarchists. Koirala’s own party, the Nepali Congress, has always had a moderate, centrist approach to politics. It now faces a new test of carrying forward his democratic legacy. It is a test that the party cannot afford to fail because the alternative is a Maoist takeover of the country.