As I like: Badly begun, half lost

  • Resolving disputed constitutional issues will require engagement in good faith by major party leaders
- Deepak Thapa
As I like: Badly begun, half lost

May 21, 2014-

In less than a week, we will reach a date that will remind us of the good as

well as the bad of post-2006 politics. The 28th of May symbolises the hopes and aspirations of the country as the first Constituent Assembly (CA) met in 2008, and also the frustration and sadness four years later when the political parties failed the people miserably by not coming up with a new constitution.

There were many who scripted that tragicomic drama that led to the dissolution of the CA in May 2012. Starting with the obstinate refusal for months by Girija Prasad Koirala to hand over power to Pushpa Kamal Dahal in the initial days of the CA through the inept hubris displayed by both Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai to stop-gaps Jhala Nath Khanal and Madhav Kumar Nepal, none of these gentlemen can escape responsibility for keeping the country in this state of prolonged transition.

All those responsible

Depending on one's own proclivities on the matter, there are any number of others who can be blamed as well, whether it be the political parties, the UCPN (Maoist) or the Nepali Congress-CPN-UML combine in particular; the various identity groups that mobilised and grew ever more strident; Janajati and Madhesi politicians or their counterparts who stood against them; the donor community; influential countries or country, if more precision is required; and even Subhas Chandra Nembang, for ignoring the fact that he was the speaker of a House that was sovereign in its own right.

Unfortunate though the turn of events of May 2012 was, more so because it allowed cynicism about politics to set in again after a decade, as a nation we should be grateful that our political leadership did not try to ram through a constitution that would surely have been bitterly, if not violently, opposed by one side or the other. Last-minute parleys on the form of federalism went nowhere with all sides sticking to their stated positions and the danger actually was that a hurried compromise might be reached for the sake of political expediency. When the end came, however, the drama was restricted to mutual recrimination, and the country actually breathed an audible sigh of relief.

The proximate cause of disagreement at the time may have been the features of a federal Nepal but clearly, it was lack of engagement with the constitution-drafting process by the top leadership of the major parties that had a primary contributory role. Even allowing for the fact that the question of combatants and cantonments took nearly three years to resolve, it was most irresponsible of them to presume that they would somehow be able to reach agreement on federalism even if at the last minute. Extending the tenure of the CA is one thing but taking decisions with real or perceived long-term implications is something else altogether.

Squarely on top leaders

Commenting on the failure of the first CA, noted constitutional lawyer Bipin Adhikari writes: “Senior party leaders were hardly involved during committee-level discussions. Senior party members were barely even aware of many choices made at committee level by CA backbenchers. The thematic committees could have managed the widening gulf between different parties if senior leaders had participated, but senior leaders prioritised political exigencies, especially making and unmaking governments, over delivering a new constitution.”

Considering all the time it took to form the present government and the amount of energy now being expended on the appointment of new Supreme Court judges, with the Prime Minister himself reportedly involved in huddles with all and sundry, political exigencies are at the fore once again. We nearly saw a naked display of it in the planned nomination of the 26 CA members who, according to the  constitution, are to be “distinguished persons and persons from among ethnic and indigenous groups who fail to be represented”. The Supreme Court's interpretation of that clause in letter and spirit seems to have stunned the

parties, and hence, a full six months after the CA was elected, it has not reached

its full strength.

As for the party bosses' involvement in the thematic committees, it was abysmal. The research organisation Martin Chautari has looked at the participation of CA members in the initial two years of the first CA. Sher Bahadur Deuba was found to be the most disinterested in CA deliberations, having marked a measly two percent, meaning that he attended only two of the 101 meetings of the CA in those two years. Next on the list of the honourable 'bunkers' was Dahal with an attendance record of seven percent followed by Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar at 10 percent. Almost all the top leaders were parsimonious with their time when it came to the CA. Hence, Upendra Yadav, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Ram Bahadur Thapa 'Badal' clocked just 20 percent attendance while Baburam Bhattarai and Jhala Nath Khanal managed only 28 percent.

Given that all of these individuals were part of a group that had unilaterally arrogated the power to endorse or veto any decision by the CA, they probably believed that getting bogged down in committee debates was an utter waste of time. All of these leaders (with the exception of the boycotting Badal) are back with a vow to have the constitution ready within a year, and there is hardly any sign that their attitude has changed.

Also back is the hapless Nembang, who is beginning to look like a figure of ridicule. After appealing to his flock not to venture out to the districts, let alone foreign lands, so that he could tie them down to the business of coming up with a constitution, he actually passed an order along the same lines. At that time, there were 50 CA members gallivanting around the world and perhaps shamed by it, the major political parties promptly gave the Speaker the required assurances.

Some of those 50 travellers are back by now but just a couple of days ago, in a clear snub to Nembang, nine more left as part of a Nepali Congress delegation to China for 10 days. And the team leader actually had the gall to declare that the visit will not affect the CA process but that it would actually speed it up since he and his team would come back with the knowledge on how best to develop the country. That is the kind of logic that fails ordinary reason and is in the class of UML Vice-Chair Bidhya Bhandari's claim that same day that the new constitution will solve the mystery of her husband's death back in 1993.

Little movement

All said there has been some movement on the constitution-writing front. The Constitution Records Study and Determination Committee has already come up with its reports as per schedule even though all the designated sub-committee had to do was pore over CA I's reports and come up with a list of issues of agreement and dispute. The difficulty, obviously, will be in tackling matters that eluded consensus the first time around. Putting disputed issues to a vote is a legal possibility but given the public mood, as was made manifestly clear by the convergence of competing hordes outside the CA building in May 2012, it is best not resorted to. The only solution is sustained and active engagement—and engagement in good faith—by all the powerful leaders from the major political parties with each other and the citizenry at large.

For now, Speaker Nembang should request all CA members to voluntarily submit their red passports to his secretariat for the remainder of the CA's tenure with the understanding that the honourable members can ask for it only in case of dire emergencies. Now, that would be a true test of commitment for our politicians.

 

Published: 22-05-2014 09:37

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