Surya Bahadur Thapa possessed several traits common to many successful people in politics and business. He was cunning and charismatic, but he was also persistent, relentlessly pursuing power till the last days of his life. He could be shrewd but he was also flexible. He was opportunistic and corrupt. An astute political player, he was connected well enough to be trusted by all political quarters.
It is quite a feat for anyone to rise to the highest position available to citizens. Late Thapa accomplished this five times. Three kings, four different political systems, and an active public life that spanned more than five decades- Thapa had seen so much and adapted to each situation so well that his claim to success did not demand any remarkable contribution from him. He was already successful by just being there. For someone who was at the center of Nepalese power and politics for most of his active life, he did not make a single important contribution worth remembering. Thapa was in power at the most formative period in the life of modern Nepal. He has left such a strong negative legacy in Nepalese society and politics that being able to get rid of it alone could be called a major success of our national project.
Surya Bahadur Thapa did a lot of damage. He can be said to have instituted corruption. He has been accused of massive deforestation, and involvement in gold smuggling even at a later period of his career. He oversaw massacres of people in Chintang, Sukhani, and other places to terrorize political opponents. For all his life, he was known in Nepal as someone loyal to India’s influential Gandhi family. On Indira Gandhi’s interest, and his own power ambitions, Thapa demanded a death penalty for Nepal’s democratic leader BP Koirala. Together with Indian opposition, BP was involved in a struggle against Indira’s emergency-rule before he returned to Nepal seeking reconciliation among Nepal’s political actors. Thapa can be credited with delaying Nepal’s democratic reforms. He cornered Koirala at a time when the palace was also said to have been soft on him. Thapa was the Prime Minister who instructed massive electoral fraud in 1980 referendum which would cement Panchayat for another 10 years. A popular movement finally ousted the regime with which Thapa was synonymous.
Surya Bahadur Thapa was a successful individual. Apart from the qualities mentioned above, people who knew him have told me that he was soft-spoken, well-dressed, and maintained a dignified presence. He was a cultured man, with a soft hand-shake. These qualities are indeed desirable in political leaders. But they are very poor excuses for defending his politics. While remembering Thapa, and accepting him as a successful politician whose experiences would be useful in the future, should we not judge the legacy left by him?
Thapa was not just a pawn of the palace, as some would claim. Some find indirect ways of hiding his flaws by calling him a “liberal Pancha”. None of these claims have been substantiated. Surya Bahadur Thapa was instrumental to the Panchayat regime, and was one of the driving forces behind it. Panchayat relied on him for survival, and it is more plausible to say that Thapa used the palace to his benefit. This does not apply to only Thapa however. Many “super-citizens” of Nepal (see my previous post for a definition)- those from many different castes, regions and trades, have been dictating the terms of our state at the cost of ordinary citizens. They have held a firm grip on state apparatus and used them to get their way. Time and again, we have read about internal struggles in the palace, and about kings wanting to be remembered for doing good for the society. The super-citizens were the informants, bureaucrats, and advisers of the palace. They got direct appointments into public offices and got special favors. I wonder what absolves those who enjoyed the greatest power in Nepal. Super-citizens wielded their power and position, to educate their kith and kin in top universities, and to expand their property and business. People have all-expense paid holidays. Our super-citizens have all-expense paid lives, funded by the national treasury. The same super-citizens are still at the helm of our society.
There are plenty of reasons to eulogize Thapa, and there have been attempts to do so after his death. Those close to the Indian establishment who had a mutually beneficial relationship with Thapa would want to make sure Thapa is remembered as a great man. It is an indirect way of saying- be like Thapa if you want the kind of praises he is receiving.
Another reason is for Nepal’s super-citizens to make sure they are not seen in a bad light by Nepal’s future generations. In Kathmandu’s small but intricate cobweb of patronage and family ties, Thapa has done favors to many other super-citizens of Nepal who are dictating the terms of our public discourse to this day.
If these are the qualities to judge a public personality, Lok Man Singh Karki could also be called a great bureaucrat of Nepal. I’m sure we can find someone similar in the business-sector. However, we are not going to accept such airbrushing of history, one that happened before our eyes. According to our super-citizens, Chitra Bahadur KC, who has spent all his life in a rented room and is respected for being an honest politician, represents the regressive, “elite establishment” of Nepal and is the reason for Nepal’s ills. His faults? He views on federalism differ with our super-citizens. But they say Surya Bahadur Thapa is one of the greatest statesmen we had.
True, he was a man for all seasons. He exuded sophistication, and had a charismatic personality. But those qualities hardly make anyone a statesman. He instituted and ruled over a regime in Nepal that massacred people for political differences. His legacy means corruption, a brutal dictatorship, and a loss of opportunity for millions of Nepalese people. We hope for a future that will be free of the legacy left by Thapa and his network of super-citizens.