Nepal’s Democracy Lab
IN QUEST FOR A CONSTITUTION
By Monish Tourangbam
Research Scholar, School of International Studies (JNU)
New Delhi, June 11 : Nepal continues to be sans a Constitution even after four years and four extensions of its Constituent Assembly (CA) which expired on 27 May. Notwithstanding, the CA elected in April 2008 was one of the most promising and inclusive designs of post-revolutionary Nepal.
Mandated to draft a Constitution for the new Republic and lead the peace process, the CA was an effort to bring about political consensus in Kathmandu and made it the cynosure of all eyes, post the civil war. However, the Assembly’s expiry without a Constitution killed optimism within and outside the country.
Indeed, the political fallout was not a surprise as there were basic differences regarding governance of the country among political parties. Despite, observers hoping for a last minute solution on the divisive issue of federalism, major Parties, namely Maoists, Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) failed to come to any agreement on whether the country should be carved into small States along ethnic lines.
Pertinently, Nepal is multi-ethnic wherein the political and socio-economic status of many of its ethnic minorities has been a simmering issue. According to observers, the Government in Kathmandu and Parties failed to show sustained interest in resolving this issue, leading to continuing impasse.
Worse, the future appears bleak given the vitriolic enmity among the Parties. Those in favour of dividing the country into ethnicity-based States (Maoists and small ethnic outfits) argue that it is an inevitable step towards long-denied political empowerment of some larger minority groups. But, the Nepali Congress and Communist Party, representing the traditional ruling elite, insist that ethnic federalism would sow seeds of the country’s disintegration.
This is not all. The acute dissension over this issue sees no signs of abating, with entrenched groups opting to prove their mettle through violence and strikes. Moreover, it is no rocket science to discern that some genuine concerns of federalism and inclusive representation have been hijacked by mainstream Parties for their own vested interests, including creating vote banks along ethnic lines.
Consequently, the extension of the Constituent Assembly’s tenure had become a sort of a ritual. With the Supreme Court refusing to give any further extension, the Bhattarai-led Government has called for elections in November, spewing further bad blood among Parties. Expectedly, this move is being bitterly opposed by other Parties and questions raised on the political legitimacy of Bhattarai’s Government, post the Constituent Assembly’s dissolution.
Even as his Government is called a “caretaker” arrangement, Prime Minister Bhattaria asserted in an interview to Indian paper Hindu, the President did not use the word ‘caretaker’ and his Government was “Constitutional and legal, and will continue till the next election.”
Hence, one can expect continuous blame game till the elections, with differences spilling out into Nepal’s streets. Sadly, the continuation of old rivalries and emergence of new ones among Parties has come at the country’s expense which continues to falter on the road to effective Republicanism. The major bone of contention is between the resentments of the marginalized sections and those who favour maintaining status-quo, along-with petty rivalry among Parties.
Alas, let alone other Parties in the fray, the Maoists are not in a condition to reconcile their own differences. Repeated change of Prime Ministers and pre-occupation with who is going to be occupy the hot seat rather than giving time and resources to the job of getting a Constitution has injected further insecurity and differences within and among Parties.
Furthermore, continued political impasse in a country still facing economic distress across sectors underscores hard days ahead for the people. As economic uncertainty coupled with political and social instability are dangerous symptoms for a country recuperating from long years of civil war. Already many are living under the poverty line and food insecurity is a major issue confronting them. Needless to say, the current political state could lead to widespread strikes resulting in price hikes of essential commodities, that too when the country is already facing rising inflation.
This apart, the Constituent Assembly should be credited for bringing semblance of a consensual arrangement towards resolving the contentious issue of integrating the Maoist army (PLA) into the Nepal army. According to sources, some agreements have come forth vis-à-vis the conditions for integrating former rebel fighters and those who opt for voluntary retirement and financial settlements.
Presently, the Nepalese Army has taken control of PLA cantonments, combatants and weapons stored in containers inside its camps. Also, regardless of dissident voices among Maoist hardliners who sharply criticised this and lamented their leaders’ surrender, the step is widely viewed as a major forward move in the peace process.
Undeniably, the integration process is far from over and the implementation period to be monitored, yet, at least one can be optimistic. Nonetheless, the critical issue of federal re-arrangement remains a thorn and a quick perusal of the current situation and the state of inter-Party and intra-Party vibes do not offer any hopeful analysis.
Clearly, the Bhattarai-led Government in spite of presenting itself as a functioning executive authority will continue to face questions over its legitimacy. In addition, to the finger-pointing during the forthcoming elections, one hopes Parties will take out time to arrive at some consensus on vital governance issues along-with calming their cadres to prevent rivalry spilling onto the streets.
Unquestionably, these developments will have spill-over consequences for India and weigh heavily in its foreign policy calculations. New Delhi cannot lose track of the evolving situation in Nepal. At the same time, it should not provide fodder to those elements in Kathmandu who keep looking for an ‘Indian hand’ in any untoward development there.
The most important thing at this juncture is for Nepal to come out of its political mess by creating a stable and sustainable political arrangement else the peoples’ aspirations would be wasted, thereby opening fissures of ethnic and political clashes again. This would neither be in Nepal’s interests nor of the region.
In sum, as this Himalayan kingdom turns in to a “democracy lab”, it should serve as an important lesson for other multi-ethnic nations who are in quest for democracy and Republicanism. —– INFA
(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)