On April 4, 1979, at around 2 am local time, Pakistan’s military government executed former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after he was convicted on charges of killing a political rival. His execution was announced on state radio at 11 am.
The decision not only sent shock waves to all part of Pakistan, it also made headlines around the world, including Nepal, where dissent was simmering against the King’s Panchayati regime.
The announcement of Bhutto’s death triggered protests in Kathmandu. Two days later, on April 6, a group of students were on their way to the Pakistani Embassy, which was near the Royal Palace, to submit a petition. Police intervened, and clashes ensued. What was a localised demonstration of dissent against Bhutto’s execution soon turned spiraled into a nationwide movement.
In New Delhi, president of the ruling Janta Party Chandra Shekhar asked one of his aides to call a Nepali doctor, who was in the Indian capital for his post-graduation. When he came to Chandra Shekhar’s residence, Chandra Shekhar took the young man to Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
“This is Shekhar Koirala, he will go to Kathmandu,” Chandra Shekhar introduced the doctor to the Prime Minister.
“Within a few moments, the Prime Minister’s assistant handed me two envelopes. Inside one of the envelopes was a ticket to Kathmandu, and in the other, I presume, was a letter,” remembers Dr Shekhar Koirala.
Meanwhile in Nepal’s capital, Nepali Congress chief BP Koirala was under house arrest in Chabahil. Regime insiders believed that BP was behind the student movement. But many old Congress hands believe that BP was not involved, not directly, at least.
“I reached the house where BP had been held. I had to make sure that the letter did not end up with the police even if I were detained,” remembers Shekhar.
Shekhar was born to a family in which three Koiralas from the previous generation served as Prime Ministers. While most of the Koirala family was involved in politics, Shekhar’s father Keshav was not. He was a forester. But Shekhar’s mother Nona (once considered Nepal’s most powerful woman) made up for it.
In the Koirala family, politics was at the centrestage, and everything else, including family matters, were secondary.
On December 15 1960, 10-year-old Shekhar, who lived in Biratnagar, was in Kathmandu. He was admitted to Shanta Bhawan Hospital (now Patan Hospital), where he underwent a throat surgery.
“How is Shekhar now?” BP Koirala, who had just become Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister, had come to see his nephew in the hospital, asked Nona.
“I was under anesthesia, but I could hear BP say that he will be arrested soon,” says Shekhar looking back at the day’s events.
That fateful day (which would be remembered as Poush 1, 2017, according to the Nepali calendar) would see the Royal government arrest the PM BP Koirala, to lay the foundation for an aristocratic system of government that would continue for 30 years.
“After BP’s arrest, my mum also left the hospital, and I was left with my younger sister!” says Shekhar.
“When are you going to return?” BP, under house arrest in a restive Kathmandu, asked his nephew, who had just delivered the Indian Prime Minister’s letter.
“If there’s nothing to do, then I’ll return. I need to study,” Shekhar remembers telling his uncle.
“If that is the case, then get a pen and a notebook. I’ll give you a list of people to meet, go meet them and write down what they say.”
Shekhar, who was nominated ‘messenger’ by Chandra Shekhar, was again chosen by BP to become his messenger. Shekhar had met prominent personalities of the time such as Rishikesh Shah, noted down what they had to say, and brought it back to BP.
The policemen would also allow him to meet BP easily because Shekhar was a doctor, and BP had said he’d come to monitor his health.
After a few days, BP gave Shekhar another messenger assignment. This time, he was to look for BP’s younger brother and his uncle Girija, and tell him that BP was not behind the movement in Nepal.
“I did not know where Sanubua (Girija) was. After frequenting his shelters in India, I met him in Forbesgunj.”
Girija again handed him a letter, this time it was for the Congress supporters. “His message was that the andolan should stop.”
By May 1979, the student movement in Kathmandu had spread around the country. On the evening of May 23, King Birendra made an announcement on state radio. He announced that a referendum would be held to decide whether Nepal should keep the Panchayati system or adopt a multiparty democracy.
The parties in favour of multiparty democracy lost the referendum, and the movement received another setback after BP’s death three years later.
Those who know Shekhar Koirala say that the doctor picked up lessons in politics while growing up in Biratnagar, but his real school was New Delhi, where he rubbed shoulders with big names.
“It is easier for a doctor to gain the confidence of people,” says Shekhar, who studied at the All India Institute of Medical Science in New Delhi. “Politicians used to respect doctors, despite their political leanings, because they knew that they would have to come to the doctor when they’re ill.”
In Delhi, Shekhar would sometime meet Atal Bihari Vajpayee and on other days Chandra Shekhar. The politicians he hobnobbed with had one thing in common. They were conservative politicians, who believed in reform rather than radical changes.
“He (Shekhar) cannot take bold decisions. He says he believes in hard work, but he is a traditional politician, who has an ideology, but no programme to implement the ideology,” says a Congress leader.
When democracy was restored in Nepal in 1991, Shekhar was working at Koshi Hospital in Biratnagar. He was already rallying local support by conducting health camps in villages, and laying foundation for a political career,
“After 1990, I decided that I will do politics, full time.”
“If you are asking for help, ask for a medical college in the name of our friend BP Koirala.”
On February 15, 1991, the mood in Biratnagar, the industrial town in eastern Nepal, was one of joy. The city, which had played an important role in getting democracy back, was going to felicitate then Indian Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar (the same man, who introduced Shekhar Koirala to PM Morarji Desai).
“We would like to request PM Chandra Shekhar to assist us in upgrading the Koshi Hospital,” I said something of that sort during the felicitation programme, remembers Shekhar.
“If you are asking for help, ask for a medical college in the name of our friend BP Koirala,” Chandra Shekhar had replied.
Although Chandra Shekhar’s term in office was short, he did keep his promise. After a few months, Chandra Shekhar’s message to then Prime Minister Girija Koirala was that India was ready to help build the medical college.
The message was relayed by none other than Shekhar Koirala.
The BP Koirala institute project was soon initiated, and Shekhar Koirala took charge of the project from the Nepal side. “This meant that I had to travel to New Delhi frequently and meet a lot of politicians and bureaucrats.”
But the ‘messenger’ was yet to turn into a politician. That would happen during the peak of the Maoist movement in Nepal.
In 2001, when peace talks between the government and the Maoist rebels failed, then Nepali Congress President, a staunch anti-communist, had a change of heart. He realised that it was time the rebellion be ended through peaceful talks.
Girija chose Shekhar, along with confidante Krishna Prasad Sitaula, and Amresh Singh (someone he believed would be trusted by India) to establish contact with the Maoists.
Shekhar was a doctor, and he had numerous reasons to frequent New Delhi, where the Maoist leaders were sheltering. The regime in Nepal would not suspect his involvement in backdoor negotiations, Girija had believed.
The regime in Nepal would not suspect his involvement in backdoor negotiations, Girija had believed.
Shekhar exchanged messages between Maoist supremo Prachanda and Girija for a long time, and then in November 2005 travelled to the Indian capital one more time. But this time, his travel companion was GP Koirala, who was accompanying him for a ‘health checkup.’
But the real reason was the seven-party alliance led by Girija was giving finishing touches to the 12-point agreement that would bring the Maoists into mainstream politics. On November 22, the deal was signed.
Shekhar, who was called ‘doctor’ even during his childhood, played the role of messenger without much hindrance from the members of the Koirala family. But when he decided that politics was his calling, the family would not accept it wholeheartedly.
The peace agreement with the Maoists, and the death of his mother, meant that Sushil Koirala, who considered Nona to be his rival, rose to prominence within the party. Family insiders know well that Sushil did not like Shekhar because he was Nona’s son.
After Girija’s death, Sushil became the party president, and it was obvious whom he had chosen as the leader of the new generation of Koiralas. It was BP’s on Shashank.
Shekhar, who spent lot of time in India, is seen by many as a messenger of the south. During India’s recent blockade on Nepal, he had maintained that the blockade would be lifted only after the constitution was amended (so it turned out to be!) But there are other leaders in the party, who believe that Shekhar’s proximity with Indian politicians should not be seen in that light. They say that leaders like Krishan Sitaula deserve the title way more than Shekhar does.
During the 13th convention of the Nepali Congress Shekhar was elected to the central committee with the highest number of votes. Although he had hinted that he was in contention for general secretary, he chose not to contest his own cousin Shashank.
But the ‘messenger politician’s message is loud and clear, come next convention, he will be the one sending and receiving messages.