KATHMANDU: When veteran Nepali Congress leader Shailaja Acharya first became a minister in 1991, she refused to sit on the chair that was occupied by her communist predecessor Jhala Nath Khanal.

Khanal was Minister for Forest and Soil Conservation in the interim government after restoration of democracy in 1990. Shailaja got the same ministry in the government formed after general elections. Her conduct gives the impression that she was a staunch anti-communist leader.

She was a rebel even in NC’s central committee, and often boycotted the meetings taking principled stand, showing her arrogance. But those who worked closely with

her in the Nepali Congress say she was concerned only about adhering to democratic norms within the NC and in the country.

Shailaja, who passed away on June 12 at the age of 68, was a democratic fighter and a committed political leader. During her stint as minister and first woman deputy prime minister, she maintained her image as an uncorrupted and clean politician, which is rare in the current breed of Nepali politicians, widely considered to be corrupt and power hungry.

Even senior leaders Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Paudel looked up to her as an influential political figure. Party rank and file used to project her as the successor of party president Girija Prasad Koirala.

Morality, philanthropy, commitment and self-respect were the strong points, whereas arrogance at times let her down. She never compromised on her conviction during party’s central committee and other meetings, according to her contemporary NC leaders. She fought for democracy throughout her life, never bowed before autocracy, fought for internal democracy within NC, always put her words and commitments into practice and never compromised on norms, values and principles of democracy.

“She used to regret NC’s deviation from political line propounded by BP Koirala. She also regretted that her thought and viewpoint did not prevail in the party in later years and leaders like Ganeshman Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai were sidelined from the party-mainstream,” said Pradip Acharya, Shailaja’s younger brother.

She was bothered about NC’s decisions against BP’s principles, adds Pradip. She claimed monarchy was the symbol of country’s unity but it should be under people’s control. She was against the NC’s decision to remove ‘constitutional monarchy’ from the party’s statute. She did not participate in anti-monarchy movement and abstained from NC’s central committee meetings. Some say though Shailaja died of pneumonia, one of the major causes of her early death was depression for not being able to successfully lobby for her political proposition. In fact, two years ago, when her health started deteriorating, she had to rely on anti-depressants.

“Shailaja used to care about the well-being of Nepali people,” said Sambhu Maharjan, Shailaja’s aide and driver.

Even during the Panchayat regime, she exhibited revolutionary character, said NC leader Chakra Prasad Bastola, adding that she showed ‘black flag’ to the then King Mahendra without party’s instruction on 18 February 1961 for imposing direct rule after overthrowing a democratically elected government, earning a three-year jail term. She spent two more years in jail while she led student and other democratic fronts in India and Nepal.

“Acharya, remained a spinster throughout her life was highly aggrieved by the deaths of NC founder BP Koirala, Indian leader Chandra Shekhar and Nona Koirala, who were very close to her,” said Bastola.

She served as vice president of the party for a few years after the party’s ninth general convention. She was elected the member of House in 1991 from Morang-5 and appointedas Minister for Agriculture and Cooperatives. She resigned

from the ministry on moral ground stating that corruption and irregularities were rampant inthe ministry. Later, in 1998, she became first woman deputy prime minister and Minister for Water Resources. She led several democratic fronts within the country and in India.

Though she had a chance to study medical science after she completed intermediate in science, she embraced a career in politics, adds Pradip Acharya.