Politics is a complex art, the success of which depends on multiple actors, some visible, many invisible, the latter working quietly behind the scenes. The top political leaders and their immediate enablers get the headlines, bouquets as well as brickbats. But those behind the scenes, who play an equally important role in shaping politics, rarely get the credit they deserve.
Though it is hard to exactly put into words the role Captain Rameshwar Thapa plays in Nepali politics, in summary, it suffices to say he has had a hand in nearly every significant political development in Nepal over the past two decades. He has also had a role in shaping various economic agendas and policies during this time. Most recently, he was instrumental in preventing a split in the CPN-UML, the ruling party in Nepal, thereby preventing the country from another bout of prolonged instability. By doing so, he also helped KP Sharma Oli retain his Prime Minister’s chair. He had played a similar stabilising role in early 2018, at the start of KP Sharma Oli’s second tenure as Prime Minister.
In the most recent instance, KP Sharma Oli’s chair was threatened after the Nepali Supreme court earlier this year annulled the 2018 merger between the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) into the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). The NCP, which KP Sharma Oli co-led with Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, had a near two-thirds majority in the federal house, giving KP Sharma Oli a comfortable governing mandate. But with the annulment of the NCP merger and with the Maoist party later pulling out of government, KP Sharma Oli lost its majority.
It didn’t help that a section of KP Sharma Oli’s own UML party was threatening to oust him in coordination with Prachanda’s Maoist party. The bad blood between KP Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal, the top two UML leaders, had increased to an extent that they had stopped talking to each other. The siding of Madhav Kumar Nepal with the Maoists and with another Madhesi party would have meant that KP Sharma Oli would have had to step down.
This is where Capt Thapa came into the picture. With the rupture in UML looking all but certain, Capt Thapa worked behind the scenes to reduce the trust deficit between KP Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal, even hosting the two in his house on the deadline day for the formation of a new majoritarian government. With Capt Thapa’s mediation, KP Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal talked there for over four hours, the result of which was that Madhav Kumar Nepal agreed not to walk away from the UML immediately.
This meant the opposition forces were short of a parliamentary majority and KP Sharma Oli was re-appointed Prime Minister, for the third time. The Prime Minister now has 30 days to prove his majority in the parliament, failing which the country will go into elections in six months. But an immediate crisis has been avoided, partly thanks to Capt Thapa’s mediation between the two UML leaders.
But it would also be wrong to see Capt Thapa as KP Sharma Oli›s man or someone only close to the top UML brass. In fact, he enjoys good relations with almost all top Nepali political leaders, from Sher Bahadur Deuba of Nepali Congress to UML’s KP Sharma Oli to Maoists’ Prachanda. They call on him whenever they have to settle important inter- or intra-party disputes.
In 2015, Capt Thapa helped patch up the deteriorating ties between top Maoist leaders like Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai and the leaders of other political parties. This in turn enabled the promulgation of the constitution. Before that, during Bhattarai’s premiership in 2012, he had played a significant role in getting the Prime Minister and Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba to see eye-to-eye on deploying the national army in Maoist cantonments. This was a vital development in the nascent peace process.
Thanks again to his latest mediation, the government of the day can now focus on controlling the Covid-19 pandemic in Nepal, which is getting worse by the day. Over 4,200 people are dead and the number of active cases has crossed 100,000. Hospitals have no beds for new patients. Oxygen cylinders are in short supply. The Oli government has been lobbying with various governments including the US, India, China, and the UK for the import of vital medicines and vaccines.
Decorated with many national and international awards, Capt Thapa is a unique personality. He comes from the humblest of backgrounds. In his memoir, Barudmathi Udda (‘Flying over Explosives’), he writes of how his parents could not even buy him a decent pair of pants and how he had to patch holes in them by sewing in extra clothes. It was through sheer hard work that he got a scholarship to train as a helicopter pilot in Russia. He still flies choppers and identifies himself as ‘captain’.
During the 10 years of the Maoist insurgency, Capt Thapa, the first MI7 helicopter commander of Nepal, repeatedly put his life on the line on various relief and rescue missions carried over active battlegrounds. At the time he often flew on such life-and-death missions for Nepal Army and Nepal Police. Such courage won him many friends. Later, he would utilise the deep bonds of friendship he cultivated to develop a sprawling business empire.
Capt Thapa today leads dozens of companies, making his presence felt in sectors as diverse as aviation, hydropower, media, education, real estate, and manufacturing, to name a few. The remarkable thing about Capt Thapa is that he speaks little and is always courteous and humble. People often mistake these traits as his weaknesses but his success in everything he has done so far shows that these are rather his strengths.
Many people suspect Capt Thapa harbours political aspirations after working closely with many top political leaders. That is not so. Having repeatedly declined invitations to join the cabinet, he is determined to continue to remain out of active politics and to offer his help from the sidelines.
Nor is his role limited within the country. Capt Thapa has worked as a connecting bridge between the Nepali and Indian establishments on multiple occasions. He has excellent relations with leaders of both the major Indian political parties. Likewise, he has worked behind the scenes in helping smoothen Nepal’s relations with many other countries.
It is hard to think of another Nepali person quite like Capt Thapa, with his breath-taking versatility. He says he is determined to continue to play any role in helping his country achieve peace, stability and prosperity, irrespective of which party or leader is in power. Again, politics is a complex business and were it not for the likes of Capt Thapa, the politics of a country like Nepal that is still transitioning into stable peaceful politics would be far rockier.
The writer is a senior journalist, Pratipatra.