By Maila Baje
In death, Kirti Nidhi Bista has been appropriately eulogized for his indefatigable defense of the nation’s interests and for his spotless persona as a public figure.
Bista’s first term as premier (1969-1970) is remembered for his decision to remove Indian military checkposts and liaison office as part of consolidating Nepal’s national sovereignty and territorial sanctity.
During his second tenure (1971-1973), King Mahendra passed away. In serving King Birendra, the prime minister provided much continuity amid the aspirations for change the new monarch’s ascension had inspired.
Yet, when Singha Darbar mysteriously caught fire, he resigned on moral grounds. Few could be sure what Bista could have done to prevent the calamity that struck the iconic central secretariat. That decision has been held as an example of political integrity.
Bista returned to the premiership in 1977 and resigned in 1979, when King Birendra announced a national referendum in response to student protests that threatened to burgeon into a full-blown national insurrection.
The royal proclamation read over Radio Nepal exhorting the people to choose between continuing with the partyless system or returning to multiparty democracy was said to have come as a surprise to Bista. Regardless, he concluded that he could no longer continue to lead the government with the nation standing at such momentous crossroads.
After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Bista tried his hand in competitive politics, alongside, at one point, another ex-premier, Matrika Prasad Koirala. Having failed to make any headway, he quietly receded into the background.
In 2005, he emerged to become one of the two vice-chairmen in the government headed by King Gyanendra as the monarch took full state powers. After the collapse of the royal regime amid a popular uprising in April 2006, Bista continued voicing his opinions on crucial national issues.
Sure, he had his fair share of critics. Many called him a palace lackey, while others denigrated him as China’s pointman in Nepal. Indeed, if Bista was the only Nepali politician the Chinese might have been tempted to rate among the Zhongguo renmin de lao pengyou [old friends of the Chinese people], Bista certainly earned the spot. Two episodes, both preceding Bista’s ascension to the premiership, serve to illustrate the roles he played.
First, a little background. Growing Sino-Nepali engagement in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war had manifested itself in increasing flows of Chinese aid to Nepal in an ostensible effort to offset India’s preponderance. At the same time, the logic of the Cold War precipitated American, British, and Soviet aid policies aimed at countering Beijing.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Nepal-China bonhomie was not a done deal. After his high-profile visit up north in 1961, King Mahendra would not visit China again. Premier Zhou Enlai, who had visited Nepal twice, skipped Kathmandu during his travels in the region in 1964 and 1965.
As Beijing pulled out of two aid projects – rather brusquely in Nepali eyes – the value of Chinese economic assistance had begun to be reevaluated in some Kathmandu quarters. Official Chinese pronouncements, for their part, had begun referring to friendship and support for the Nepali people rather than for the Nepali government.
The palace’s apprehension of a shift in Chinese policy was no doubt bolstered by the fact that the pro-Chinese faction of our communist fraternity was in exile in India advocating an uprising against the monarchy, while the pro-Soviet wing was quietly backing the king.
As the Kathmandu-Tibet highway opened to one-way traffic in December 1964, a Chinese technician who defected to Taiwan alleged that the road was constructed for military purposes. An official in Kathmandu revealed the discovery of four large caches of arms reportedly smuggled in by Chinese agents. The Soviets began playing up such reports of ulterior Chinese motives in Nepal, prompting Beijing to condemn Moscow’s tactics.
In an effort to widen Nepal’s strategic space, King Mahendra began seeking US and British military assistance, and Kathmandu politely turned down a Chinese offer to build a road connecting the Kathmandu-Tibet highway with a point in the eastern Terai. Although Beijing was said to have made angry complaints in private, it never voiced them publicly.
When the CIA made another airdrop of arms, ammunition and food supplies to Khampa rebels in Mustang in 1965, the Chinese pressed the palace to act. Several Khampas were arrested in Kathmandu with arms and radios and an American diplomat was expelled for having supplied them. Welcoming those moves, Beijing considered them insufficient.
Against this grim backdrop, Bista, as Deputy Prime Minister, visited Beijing in August 1965. By the time he returned, Beijing seemed satisfied enough with the royal regime to step up aid projects in the form of the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway and Sunkosi hydropower station.
The second episode came in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. As the Kathmandu-Tibet road was opened to traffic the following May, Chinese media reported that Nepalis at inauguration ceremony had raised slogans extolling Mao as “the red sun which shines most brightly in the hearts of the people of the whole world”.
The expulsion of two Chinese diplomats from India in June 1967 intensified tensions as some 200 Chinese Embassy officials and project technicians gathered at Tribhuvan Airport to welcome the two men. When told they were not on the flight, the assembled Chinese raised anti-Indian and pro-Cultural Revolution slogans, prompting New Delhi to lodge a strong protest.
Tensions escalated later that month at the annual exhibition held to celebrate the king’s birthday. The Chinese wanted to put up a portrait of Mao beside King Mahendra’s in their stall, although Liu Shaoqi was China’s head of state. A crowd of Nepalese students attacked the Chinese stall before attacking a Chinese Embassy vehicle and the Nepal-China Friendship Association library.
The official Chinese media accused US ‘imperialists’, Soviet ‘revisionists’ and Indian ‘reactionaries’ of having instigated the Nepali ‘hooligans’. It also accused Nepali authorities of having ‘approved and supported the protests’, a charge subsequently leveled by the Chinese government.
Although immediate tensions subsided, Nepal grew more suspicious of the China. Beijing, too, reevaluated its stance. Bista paid a visit to Beijing and seemed to have succeeded in injecting a modicum of normalcy in relations.
During a visit to Kathmandu in 1969, Indian Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh reaffirmed that Nepal and India shared special relations. Bista, by now prime minister, described such relations as outdated in view of the progress Nepal had made in its foreign relations. (Among other things, Nepal had been elected to a two-year term as a member of the United Nations Security Council.)
Bista went on to demand the withdrawal of Indian military checkposts along the Nepal-China border, insisting that Nepali troops were available and capable of doing the job. Stating that the Indian military liaison team stationed in Kathmandu had completed its work, Bista demanded its withdrawal as well.
New Delhi met those demands, but not without noting that Kathmandu’s assertiveness had come three weeks after Bista’s return from a visit to China. (Bista would reveal in a newspaper interview in 2015 that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi subsequently told him that the matter could certainly have been taken up in private.)
Bista had no illusions about himself or his times. He never sought personal credit for any success or shirked responsibility for failure. That trait stood in sharp contrast with the behavior of most Panchayat leaders who relentlessly criticized the monarchy and partyless system before lauding the wonderful things they claimed to have done while in office.
When many erstwhile members of King Gyanendra’s council of ministers continue to complain of having had nothing better to do in office than swat flies while the foreign and home ministers ran the show, Bista continued to contemplate on the state of the state till the very end and counsel anyone interested in hearing him out.
His request for a simple funeral was perhaps the ultimate expression of his abiding gratitude to his motherland – for having honored him with the opportunity to serve.