The corridors of power in Nepal | Book Review — Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady by Hisila Yami

July 11, 2021 2:00 AM

A political autobiography gives readers a view of the Himalayan kingdom’s polity and economy

A file photo of a man taking part in a protest in January against the dissolution of parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal (Reuters) A file photo of a man taking part in a protest in January against the dissolution of parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal (Reuters)

By Atul K Thakur

Hisila Yami’s life in revolution and the painfully long transition from revolutionary to first lady of Nepal has been an extraordinary journey. Her recently published memoir Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady is a rattling good read and one of the most candid and honest political autobiographies in recent years. From Nepal, among politicians, BP Koirala has penned perhaps the only other well-known autobiography, Atmabrittanta. Scripted with elegance and felicity, Yami has covered Nepal’s transformation from a feudal monarchy to a secular federal republic with tributes of a full-fledged democracy.

The book is also significant in the sense that, in parallel, it reflects on her fellow comrade and husband Baburam Bhattarai’s inspiring life in public. Remarkably, Bhattarai was among those puritan left ideologists in Nepal who had seen ‘radical dissent’ as a route to achieve progressive goals. A celebrated fact was that Bhattarai never came second in life. He proved it politically too. Unlike his top fellow party ideologues, he advocated for dissolving the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) once he had seen it achieving the transitory goal of making Nepal a republic. However, like Yami, he, too, felt a void as the revolution couldn’t progress further after attaining power and giving up on the final goal of ‘socialism’. No one can doubt that Bhattarai was the only finance minister Nepal ever had who thought of genuinely increasing the country’s revenue potential—and he succeeded in record-breaking revenue addition by 33.3% in 2009-10. As prime minister (August 2011-March 2013), he recognised Nepal’s underdevelopment as a corollary of the chronic apathy for augmenting indigenous productive capabilities. Some of the most progressive policy decisions were made during his tenure, and his wayfarer in life and politics, Hislia Yami did well as the minister for physical planning, tourism and land reform in different tenures in a Maoist government.

Supported with rich factual details and beautiful prose, the author takes readers through the political developments since 1950 to the present, making the book a good study on the nuances of Nepali politics. She traces her journey from being a young Nepali student of architecture in Delhi in the early Eighties to becoming a Maoist revolutionary engaging in guerrilla warfare in Nepal. It is truly fascinating to look back and see someone who hailed from an affluent Newar family in Kathmandu joining the CPN (Maoist) Politburo as one of the two women leaders.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ gets a fair share of coverage in the book for his strong organisational capabilities. He is shown in good light for leading the country on a decisive revolutionary path that proved emancipatory. While observers believe that Prachanda lacked the intellectual depth that Bhattarai effortlessly had, Bhattarai lacked Prachanda’s astute organisational calibre and survivalist tendency essential for Nepal’s unpredictable political turf. Both were and are complementary to each other. In a very moving chapter, Prachanda and BRB: Two sides of a river, Yami aptly quotes comrade Post Bahadur Bogati who once used a rather amusing allegory to describe the relationship between Prachanda and Bhattarai in one of the central committee meetings. “Both Prachanda and BRB are like two giant elephants; where they meet or separate, they disturb the ground either way.”

Later in the book, Yami outlines their new line in politics: “While working as the chairperson of the CPDCC, BRB had found the UML more unaccommodating and intolerant than the NC as far as federalism and inclusive agenda were concerned. He had seen signs of social fascism in KP Oli’s attitude when he advocated the use of force against the Madhesi movement and indigenous nationalities instead of political dialogue. What shocked BRB more was Prachanda’s stance. Instead of fighting against Oli’s autocratic attitude, he was meekly complying. For BRB, this was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. He had been bearing Prachanda’s opportunism for too long. On 25 September 2015, BRB had a final dialogue with Prachanda at the latter’s residence at Lazimpat, Kathmandu. BRB proposed dissolving the Maoist party, which had completed its mission of institutionalising the federal democratic republic despite its many flaws.”

“He further proposed to build a new Socialist Party to suit the demands of the twenty-first century. Prachanda did not take this proposal seriously. After leaving Prachanda and the party, we started campaigning for an alternative Socialist Party based on inclusive and participatory democracy. Based on this, the Naya Shakti Party, Nepal (later renamed ‘Janata Samajwadi Party’) was formally launched on 12 June 2016. BRB became the convenor of the party.”

History should be kind to both Bhattarai and Yami for charting a path less travelled, and in doing that, thinking only of their unwavering commitment to Nepal and its people. Meanwhile, as the book makes it clear enough, Prachanda discarded Maoism and the ‘Prachanda Path’ to embrace ‘Xi Jinping thought’— and compromised with Oli by merging the party with CPN (UML). Before they fell apart, the reader of this book gets more informed on how Prachanda only helped KP Oli-Bidya Devi Bhandari, firming their nexus and authority above the constitutional and parliamentary provisions.

Yami’s falling in love with an architect who later went on to change the course of history in Nepal, and her challenging motherhood with lone child Manushi give readers a glimpse of her personal life too. Her book should be of high interest to all those who watch and follow Nepal’s polity and economy.

Atul K Thakur is policy analyst, columnist and writer based in New Delhi

Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady
Hisila Yami
Penguin Random House
Pp 368, Rs 399

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