Born into the influential Thapa household, Siddhartha Thapa is in a unique position to take from the family’s rich political lineage and add to it with a modern worldview. But can he change the face of Nepali politics? Inside a heavily guarded residence in Maligaun, we find out
“Is the minister in?” Jhapasi Saafi asks one of the many uniformed guards patrolling outside a heavily guarded residence in Maligaun. “I must see him. Mr. Shah took away our lands which we were cultivating for centuries. The minister is the only one who can help me,” the bridle man squatting nervously on the road pleads. He starts rummaging through the many plastic bags he has brought along with him, unraveling one pouch after the other untying the shreds of cloth tied to the bags. He murmurs in Maithali how important it is for him to meet with the ‘minister’.
44- year- old Saafi has tired eyes and creases all over his face, which makes him look older than his age. A resident of Uma Prempur VDC, Dhanusa district, Saafi’s arduous journey to Kathmandu is more of a pilgrimage than a sojourn to him. He left behind his family of six to come to Kathmandu because this is where his ‘savior’ resides.
The three storied residence hides itself amidst the row of other affluent residential buildings. It is only after one passes the guards that a tag emblazoned with ‘Surya Bahadur Thapa / Sunil Bahadur Thapa Niwas’ appears. This is no ordinary residence. One of Nepal’s most illustrious family resides inside.
Surya Bahadur Thapa, who has served as the Prime Minister of the country five times, lives here along with his son Sunil Thapa who is a CA member and his daughter-in-law Sangeeta Thapa, curator and owner of Siddhartha Art Gallery. This is also where Siddhartha Thapa, son of Sunil Thapa and Sangeeta Thapa lives.
There was never any alternative to it,” says Siddhartha Thapa. “I was already sure in my head that I would get into politics.”
We are seated inside the drawing room of the Thapa residence on a lazy Saturday morning. Siddhartha is seated beside his father and grandfather, all three of them neatly clad in daura suruwal. The opulence of their surroundings is striking. Surya Bahadur Thapa’s long political career lends itself to the room; photographs of Thapa’s meetings with various political figures from Mao Tse-tung to Margaret Thatcher are placed strategically all over. The walls are decorated with paintings of Amar Chitrakar and MF Husain. Long time art curator Sangeeta Thapa has been instrumental in promoting art in the country. Her love for the arts is clearly visible here.
Siddhartha’s grandfather Surya Bahadur Thapa has been the Prime Minister of Nepal five times and now chairs the second Constituent Assembly. He was one of the prominent figures in the Panchayat system, then in multi-party democracy system and now in Republic Nepal. Born in Muga, a village of Dhankuta district, his political inspiration was the Indian independence movement, when he was studying in Allahabad University.
Back home, people overthrew the Rana oligarch and ushered in democracy. Thapa became Prime Minister under three different kings, served two terms as the Prime Minister under King Mahendra and twice under King Birendra twice, once when the Panchayat system was still in place (between 1979–1983) and then again in 1997–1998 after democracy was restored in 1990. It was when King Gyanendra ascended to the throne after the royal massacre in 2001, that Thapa was chosen to be the Prime Minister in 2003-2004 for the fifth time.
Siddhartha Thapa rarely visits his ancestral land in Dhankuta. The stately brick and mortar Rana-era mansions in Muga village are the last remnants of the rise of the Thapas in the country. Once, Mugali Thapas ruled the east. They ruled the east but not ruthlessly or else Sunil Thapa would not have won the second Constituent Assembly election held there last November.
“Definitely, everybody played their part to win the election, but Siddhartha always supported me out in the field,” shares his father Sunil Thapa.
Siddhartha spent four months in the village. “Though he had a long relationship with the villagers, we tried to reach every household. We heard them and we tried to explain to them why they should vote for us,” he says.
It was definitely not easy to convince people to vote after the protracted political transition of the country’s transformation from a unitary state to a republic. The difficulties is in a sense that Siddhartha’s grandfather’s party Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) is often criticized as a Panche (from Panchayat) party. Siddhartha’s stately stature also goes well with feudal system lord.
Born and raised in the Capital, Sidhhartha studied in the UK and the USA. Having a sound knowledge of politics and an witness of the Nepali politics, he knew it was going to be difficult to campaign in the village. In the changed political context after the country was declared a republic, it was a tough job for any conservative force to convince to vouch for them. It was Siddhartha’s oratory skills and his family legacy that ultimately helped Sunil emerge as the winner.
Following is an excerpt of an interview with Siddhartha.
Why did you get into politics?
There was no alternative to it.
I was born in a political household. My grandfather’s generation fought the same fight for democracy that we are fighting now. When there was monarchy, the fight was about whether the people were more important or the king. Now, political parties are trying to settle the same issue. The monarchy is long gone and it has been accepted that people are more important but it has not been established due to the lack of a written constitution.
Do you remember exactly when you got into politics? Any childhood memories?
I remember accompanying my grandfather during his meeting with various political figures. Nobody would be bothered by my presence as I was just a kid.
I remember being very fond of Girija Prasad Koirala. I used to like him a lot. Koirala would finish a pack of cigarette in a sitting. Manmohan Adhikari was the Pprime Minister then. They used to talk about how to topple the communist government and form a government of democratic forces. I was in grade one then.
Why did you choose RPP?
I don’t see any difference between RPP, UML or Nepali Congress. RPP (Surya Bahadur Thapa led faction) tried to democratize monarchy during the Panchayat days. But then multiparty democracy was restored and eventually constitutional monarchy was thrown out.
Our party is one of the most democratic parties. For instance, Pashupati Sumsher and Lokendra Bahadur have already become the party chair in RPP. Look at the other political parties: Nepali Congress’s politics is centered around the Koirala family, Madhav Kumar Nepal was general secretary for 15 years in the UML. Likewise, Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has remained the party chairman for almost three decades now.
Why conservative party?
First of all we should understand that as a youth my struggle began within my own family, a conflict with established family values and ideas. The next struggle was within the party and then nationwide.
I am of the belief that politics should be reformed. I am with the youth wing of the party but I occasionally have to deal with 50-year-old people. The old generation can- not accept and adapt to new ideas that have come up over time. If any leadership fails to deliver and meet expectations, it will result in an internal struggle. The internal conflict will ultimately give birth to a new leadership. This struggle is needed for transformation. The country is ripe for progressive politics. Only the force that accepts new ideas first will bring about rapid changes.
Your grandfather has served as the Prime Minister five times, your father is a development worker and your mother a leading art curator of the country. What are the topics at the dinner table?
Like any other family, we talk about almost everything, mostly art, music, politics and social issues. It is true that our talks often revolve around politics. We talk about things that happened with our villagers back home, we talk about helping them. It has been routine in our lives and it feels odd to me if we don’t talk about things like that.
How helpful or unhelpful was your family for you to get into politics?
We are still a feudal society. When you go to villages, your child is as important as you are. People have high expectations from you even if you are a kid. You have to be conscious about your surroundings and background. You cannot ignore it and should not take it for granted.
For instance, someone born to an Indian political dynasty take is as their birthright to get into politics but the scenario in Nepal is completely different. You have to struggle and win a place for yourself. Even my father struggled to become the party’s central committee member. We have to prove our worth to be in the party. Family background aside, there has to be a certain acceptability within the party. You have to have the ideology, vision, competence and other sociable characters to be in politics.
How important is your grandfather in your life?
My grandfather has always been an inspiration for me. He never imposed his opinions on us. Even during the Panchayat era, he had a clear ideology and vision, and so too during multi-party democracy and in the federal republic. He is someone who has been a man with a vision. 60 years later, this still hasn’t changed. Politics is not just about power but an ideology which should ultimately serve the countrymen. And this is something I have believed in since my childhood.