Print Edition - 2014-06-15  |  Free the Words

Feeling the public pulse

  • This CA is repeating a mistake made by the previous Assembly in not gauging public opinion on federalism
- Krishna Sharma, ARUN BHATTARAI
Feeling the public pulse

Jun 14, 2014-

Before attempting to sense the public pulse on federalism in Nepal, the Vision for Nepal Foundation (VIFON) was cautious that Kathmandu might not be passionate about data on the contentious issue of federalism for at least two reasons. Our fear was that political elites would not want to be informed by Non- Resident Nepalis (NRNs) and that they would be skeptical about our findings.

Kathmandu proved us right. It deliberately sidelined the idea of getting public input on the most vexing areas of constitution making. Kathmandu’s political cohorts also quietly dismissed efforts from civic groups and non-government entities to collect and disseminate information about the basis of state restructuring, federalism and adjoining issues.

Treading the same path

The second Constituent Assembly (CA) has now begun a new round of deliberations on the most contentious issues of the constitution—state restructuring and federalism. Discourse on the major agenda of the constitution has hit the ground running as nothing significant could be achieved in the first CA. If early signs are any indication, there’s very little to be hopeful about. We would like to take stock of the issues that are at stake as the CA tries to navigate its path amidst the labyrinth of bureaucratic, political and legislative traffic.

To begin with, the entire process has blatantly ignored public input. According to our public poll, the failure of the first CA was a result of its sheer ignorance about public opinion on federalism. It  appears as though political leaders, policy analysts and constitutional experts understood this but did not own up to it. To make matters worse, the second CAwas designed to make the same mistake.The public has neither been asked about the number of provinces nor the basis of state restructuring. Going by the early phase of discussions, several non-governmental efforts to expedite the constitution-writing process by collecting public opinion through polls and citizen surveys are losing traction as political leaders and civic society leaders—who otherwise offer critical interviews on the leisurely working of the government and make a mockery of CA affairs—are hardly talking about these polls and surveys. In well-functioning democracies across the world, public polls are vital instruments to gauge public mood and solicit feedback on a wide range of issues, from the functioning of the government to legislative changes.

Party problems

Second, the government’s performance in its first three months has been dismal and it does not appear to be committed to get its job done. Embattled in myriad bureaucratic mishaps from the appointment of Supreme Court Justices to the promotion of police officers, the government and its major parties—the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML—are gradually losing the vote of confidence given to them in the November 19 election. The two parties are at loggerheads from minor to major policy departures as if one among them is really an opposition.

On the other hand, the real opposition, the UCPN (Maoist), is entangled in its failed democratisation endeavors within its own party and vents its anger by outlandishly obstructing the CA proceedings. The old Rastriya Prajantantra Party (RPP), which once comprised of former royalists and seasoned apparatchiks, is now on the brink of a fall out after its take-a-turn leadership strategy was supposedly dismissed by veteran leader and former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa. The fourth largest party in the Constitution Assembly, RPP-Nepal, continues to beat the obsolete drums of monarchy and a Hindu state, further narrowing opportunities for collaboration with other parties. In the backdrop of these neverending political sagas and the parties’ inability to get their act right, it’s very likely that the current crisis is going to be much more prolonged.

Third, the basis of discussion for state restructuring is flawed, especially when support for ethnicity-based federalism is waning from every sphere of society. The names of the provinces appear to be particularly thoughtless, such as Magarat Rajya or Limbuban or Mithila Pradesh, as they are not only offensive to minorities in respective jurisdictions but also discourage mobility and cross-cultural exchange of ideas, knowledge and skills. In an increasingly globalised era, where the identity of the human race is not defined by race, ethnicity and colour but by skills, education and ability, Nepali leaders and their regional protégés continue to talk of ethnic federalism.

Not good enough

Lastly, the CA members appear to be either resentful or ill-versed in their knowledge for active and concerted efforts in drafting a new constitution. This is evident from the scant presence of CA members during CA proceedings, continuous obstruction of the meeting by the opposition and the prime minister’s China caravan. Until and unless there is a shared sense of responsibility, commitment and grit from all CA members, Nepalis will undoubtedly continue to suffer at the expense of well-paid lawmakers and bureaucrats.

The urgent task before the new CA is to promptly begin deliberations on the unresolved parts of the constitution while honouring the achievements of the first CA. While the government

 may have many operational priorities and a development agenda in its to-do list, it cannot drift away from its core objective of writing and promulgating a new constitution within a year of its stated timeline.

It’s not too late to overlook public feedback. The government should immediately reach out to the public through town hall meetings and other ways to gather their input. As famously said by John F Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” It would be a grave mistake by Nepali leaders if public voice is ousted in the CA process. For now, we can only remain cautiously optimistic.

Sharma is President and Bhattarai is Vice-President of VIFON

Published: 15-06-2014 08:53

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