Forced hand

  • If parties are serious about ending the deadlock, they need to talk on both constitution and power sharing
- Dipendra Jha
Forced hand

Feb 3, 2015-

The second Constituent Assembly (CA) election was conducted on the basis of a development agenda. As the Maoists and Madhesi parties were obsessed with power games at the centre, they failed to explain clearly to the public their stances on federalism and proportional inclusion. This almost always happens: people take time to understand the real message while rumours and hearsay take little time to spread. Intellectuals understand that the question of identity will have no ill-effects on social harmony, but anti-federalist forces have successfully managed to twist the federalism agenda by claiming that ensuring identity will result in a breakdown of the country.


Closer to a vote

It would be wrong to argue that the mandate of the second CA election was against federalism, since most major parties contested the elections on the common planks of federalism, secularism, and inclusion. But since the election, rightist forces have started raising their heads under the garb of religious identity and ultra-nationalism, helped along by conservative forces in civil society, the media, and academia. In this context, it would be prudent to reflect on Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s statement that power holders often create research and produce academic materials to back their logic and maintain power in the name of new knowledge. This is what happening in Nepal.  

The opposition alliance has made clear its distress regarding the formation of the Questionnaire Committee in the Constituent Assembly (CA). This step towards a majority vote in the CA has led to understandable fear in the opposition. They have been pushed to a corner from which they can hardly make any compromise on vital issues in the constitution. The way the ruling parties are acting, vis-à-vis the Maoists, Janajatis, and Madhesis, it seems that the opposition either has to surrender or hit the streets to get their agendas incorporated into the constitution.

When the opposition parties’ resorted to vandalism in the CA against the Chair’s decision to move ahead with the majoritarian voting process, media outlets highlighted prominently how chairs were broken inside the CA hall. They projected UCPN (Maoist) CA member Umesh Yadav as a villain. Yes, such acts of vandalism should not be condoned, but no journalists asked why the CA Secretariat later deployed 650 marshals. Wasn’t this done with the intent to force a voting process in the CA and thereafter, form the Questionnaire Committee? The marshals were lean young men with similar heights and hairstyles. If they were not policemen, who were they? They resembled soldiers.

How neutral is neutral?

It has to be kept in mind that in the first CA, when the UCPN (Maoist) and Madhesi parties were in an advantageous position and many Madhesi and Janajati CA members clearly signalled that they would defy their parties’ whips on progressive agendas, Subhas Nembang, who was the Chair of the first CA as well, refused to move the constitution-drafting process ahead in the name of consensus. The Madhesis and Maoists had repeatedly asked Nembang to call a meeting on the last day of the first CA, but he refused. His infamous quote in the newspapers was that he did not call the meeting because he was afraid there could have been a bloodbath. Nembang did not pay any attention then to the signatures of the two-thirds majority.

Yet, in the second CA, he seems to be a great hurry to push for the majoritarian process. This time he took a proactive role in the formation of the Questionnaire Committee himself. Nembang’s neutrality is under question and for all the right reasons. The Questionnaire Committee, which he announced unilaterally, goes against the established norms of a democratic parliamentary system.

International reactions

To gain legitimacy via the majoritarian process, the ruling alliance has been telling the international community that they should support a voting process to settle disputed issues in the constitution. What the ruling parties do not seem to acknowledge is that the UCPN (Maoist) is a key participant of the peace process and they cannot simply ignore the Maoist agenda, which has been mentioned in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim Constitution. Recent emphasis by the international community, including India, the United Nations, and the European Union, for a consensus-based constitution holds important meaning for Nepal today. The UN resident coordinator, on behalf of the international community, recently said in a press release that a new constitution is a part of the peace process.   

As far as India, a key international stakeholder in Nepal’s peace process, is concerned, it seems that there has been a slight shift in Indian foreign policy towards Nepal and a tendency to support cultural rights. A senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently told Nepali civil society members in New Delhi that conflict in Nepal cannot be addressed by allowing the continuance of economic disparity and social discrimination. My impression is that the Indian ruling party has a clear strategy to push for the elimination of social discrimination by recognising the identity of excluded communities and bringing them into the mainstream.

Insofar as India is concerned, the UML’s KP Oli seems to be toeing the Panchayat-era policy of giving some concessions to India on bilateral issues. There is a danger that the kind of nationalism Oli is championing might give rise to extremism, which can further polarise Nepali society and harm India’s security concerns in the Tarai.

Be flexible

If parties are serious about ending the current deadlock, they need to hold talks, on constitutional issues and a power-sharing deal both. Some sort of mechanism should be put in place so that all parties are able to take ownership of the new constitution. A unified national government and broad national consensus is the only way forward to end the deadlock.

On the issue of federalism, the ruling parties must be ready to show flexibility, either to break the existing boundaries of contentious districts or explore alternative options, such as Jhapa remaining with a hill province and Morang and Sunsari included in a Madhes province. But the ruling parties should be ready to include Kailali in the Tharuhat province. In exchange, Madhesis and Tharus can let Kanchanpur be included in the Far West province.

Political issues should be dealt with on a political level, not by enforcing one-sided decisions. Parties also need to be mindful of the fact that moderate voices in the mainstream parties should be accommodated, otherwise extremists could replace them. The parties need to push for an acceptable deal; otherwise, whatever compromise is made in Kathmandu will be hard to sell in the Tarai.

Jha is an advocate at Supreme Court


Published: 04-02-2015 09:16

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