Two roads diverge

  • By now, all parties know the limitations and possible points of compromise on contentious issues of the new constitution
- KAMAL DEV BHATTARAI
Two roads diverge

Dec 8, 2014-No sooner had he landed in Kathmandu on November 25 for the Saarc Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered unsolicited advice to Nepal’s politicians—draft a new constitution on the basis of consensus, not through numerical strength.

Even as the ruling parties attempted to downplay this statement, it emboldened the opposition, who have long been arguing this very point. Modi categorically used the words ’consensus’ and ‘number’, at a time when the ruling parties were adamant that their joint proposal on contentious issues of the new constitution be put to a vote before the full Constituent Assembly (CA). Modi further called on the ruling parties to ensure the participation of the Maoists and Madhesis in the constitution-drafting process.

Modi repeated his message of ‘consensus and compromise’ in his informal meetings with party leaders that same evening. But to avoid possible criticism resulting from the portrayal of his advice as symptomatic of Indian interference in Nepal’s internal matters, he was quick to add that there will not be any interference in Nepal’s constitution-drafting process.

The aftereffects

The positive aspect of this saga is that Modi openly spelled out India’s position on Nepal’s constitution-drafting process. As our leaders always attempt to read Indian minds before taking any decision, they now need not depend on other sources to learn what India wants. In any case, Nepali political parties should not care for Modi’s prescriptions, as it is up to us to decide our constitution-drafting course—either by numbers or consensus. Once Modi returned to India after the 18th Saarc Summit, both the ruling and opposition parties proclaimed their commitment to completing the constitution on time. Regardless of whether this could be attributed to Modi or not, it is a good sign that both ruling and opposition parties are finally working together.

Before the Saarc Summit, ruling parties—the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML—were firm in their position that Baburam Bhattarai should either be ready to initiate a voting process or resign as Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee (PDCC) chair. Now, the ruling parties have given up the stance of immediately putting their joint proposal to a vote. They now talk more about consensus and less about majority votes.

The opposition’s 22-party alliance led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal appeared bellicose before the Summit. Dahal had even threatened to form a parallel government through a street movement. But soon after Saarc, the opposition cancelled the protest programme and has instead been focussing on table talks with the ruling parties. With regards to Madhes-based parties, they are now more united than before and are preparing to come up with a common position on contentious issues. Ruling parties have also started to incorporate Madhes-based parties into cross-party talks. Furthermore, a meeting of the Political Committee has taken place after a long hiatus, which was itself a bone of contention among parties.

Another important development during this period was talk of a national unity government before the January 22 deadline. The UML has proposed the formation of a national unity government with the Madhes-based parties and the UCPN (Maoist). UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Dahal, who had earlier threatened to quit the CA, is now committed to drafting a statute. Dahal recently said, “Constitution drafting is more important than unification with breakaway parties, mainly the CPN-Maoist.”

Even so, the latest tune of consensus sung by the ruling and opposition parties could be just lip service and a time-buying tactic. This would further complicate the constitution-drafting process. However, for now, these positive developments imply that parties are either working together to forge consensus on contentious issues or they are preparing for the worst.

To-and-fro

A month-long deadlock in the PDCC has now been resolved. But it is no time to rejoice just yet, as this is just a transfer of disputes from one committee to the full House. The way things stand now only reveals that the parties are still not ready to tackle disputed issues; they would rather shuffle such issues from one place to another. This has been the case since the last three months.

In a latest episode, on Friday, the PDCC submitted disputed issues of the new constitution to the CA, which will be tabled before the House today. CA members are happy because this gives them a chance to again express their views on contentious issues. But, enough discussions on disputed issues have already been held in the CA. Another discussion will only be a waste of time and energy, which will also affect the deadline. Besides, the opinions of CA members rarely diverge from that of their party positions.

So instead of engaging in disputes on how to send a meaningless report to the CA, parties should be engaged in productive dialogue to iron out disputed issues, which is not happening now. The PDCC report clearly mentions that the full House cannot take any decision on the ruling parties’ joint proposal. It has already been established that the process cannot even be initiated without consensus among the parties. So this practice of transferring disputes from one place to another must be stopped.

Two ways out

To hasten the constitution-drafting process, the opposition should either agree to start the voting process by preparing a questionnaire or there should be consensus on substance. There is a third option that is more confrontational—the ruling parties can move ahead on the basis of their two-third majority, irrespective of what the opposition parties say.

Yet, even the ruling parties are not in the mood to bypass the opposition in statute drafting; their joint proposal and subsequent signature campaign were just pressure tactics. On the other hand, the opposition is not ready to cooperate on preparing the questionnaire for the purpose of initiating a vote either. In this context, the activities of both the ruling and opposition parties demonstrate that there is no alternative to consensus in constitution drafting.  

By now, all parties know the limitations and possible points of compromise on contentious issues. The only obstacle is that top leaders are waiting for a favourable time to strike a compromise. The CA Secretariat has come up with a new fast-track plan, which all parties should abide by. If the January 22 deadline is missed, no one knows how much longer the constitution could then take.

So there are mainly two scenarios ahead. First, the parties will strike a package deal on contentious issues and power sharing, which means a preliminary draft of constitution by January 22, not the final constitution. Still, a preliminary draft by January 22 will ensure a new constitution, as it will take the next couple of months to satisfy procedures. The second scenario is that parties will again head for confrontation for the time being, only returning from the brink to fix a new

deadline for the constitution.

- Bhattarai is with the political desk at the Post

Published: 09-12-2014 09:45

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