Letting the Madhesi crisis fester will be against the national interest

  • Mahesh Acharya

May 30, 2016-

The Madhesi protests continue to prolong with no resolution in sight as negotiations remain stalled. Last week, the agitating Sanghiya Gathabandhan, an alliance of Madhesi and Janjati forces, boycotted for the second time an all-party meeting convened by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. Sanghiya Gathabandhan’s protests in Kathmandu against the new constitution attracted a large number of Janajatis. The Nepali Congress (NC), the main opposition party, has been taking the lead in putting pressure on the government to address the Madhesi demands. Dewan Rai spoke with Mahesh Acharya, a key interlocutor on the Madhes issue from the NC, about the reasons behind the current political standoff, the NC’s role in the Madhesi agitation, the problems that are likely to arise if the impasse persists, and the position of the NC on the Madhesi Morcha’s demands, local elections, among others.

Why have talks with the Madhesi parties stalled?

I see some reluctance on the part of the ruling parties to conclude the negotiations. The prime minister should take a lead role. Merely calling for talks, just to show that they are taking place, is meaningless; those who are being called should feel that the talks will lead to a resolution. The government should spell out where the differences lie. We were moving towards an agreement on the Terms of Reference of the committee meant to look into the demarcation of federal boundaries.  

But disagreements arose about the number of provinces in the Tarai-Madhes. The day before the prime minister left for Delhi, he unilaterally formed a committee led by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa. This led to an erosion of trust, which may be regained through some informal discussion. Even among the three big parties, there were some disagreements on how to address the demands of the agitating groups. Prolonging an issue born of dissatisfaction with the constitution is against the national interest. 

Are the three big parties holding talks among themselves to come up with a united position?

There has not been one after the last all-party meeting—at least not that I am aware of. There has not been much progress on the issue because the ruling parties have not shown the flexibility needed to resolve it.

As the constitution was promulgated under the leadership of the NC, how responsible do you think it is for the failure to accommodate the Madhesi aspirations?

Various communities had diverse, and sometimes conflicting, expectations from the constitution. We were under the obligation to promulgate the constitution within the agreed-upon time frame because it would have been more damaging if the second CA could not deliver a constitution. We were able to create an environment of trust that the demands of various communities would gradually be accommodated. So the NC’s leadership did not sit idle after the constitution’s promulgation. It opened the door for amendments and proposed two amendments. Although there are technical and constitutional aspects to it, I maintained from the outset that it was a political issue that needed a political resolution and we held a series of dialogues to that end. Both sides—the NC, UML and UCPN (M) on the one side and the agitating parties on the other—are responsible for the current situation and for finding a solution. 

We have already had the first amendment to the constitution, but the Morcha leaders have not taken ownership of it. Was the amendment rushed without their consent?

The Morcha leaders did not take ownership of the amendment, but they did not say it was a step in the wrong direction either. It gained broad acceptance. The two amendments about proportional representation and constituency delineation based primarily on population have sent a positive signal to the various disgruntled parties. They led to a change in the form of the agitation. Regular consultations took place, but common ground remained elusive.  

What is the NC’s position on the Morcha’s demand for two provinces in the Tarai?

The Morcha wanted six points to be incorporated into the Terms of Reference of the committee that would examine federal delineation. They wanted the committee to have a binding authority. The NC did not have an issue with that. There is a wide range of opinions on the issue of demarcation and we wanted to reach a consensus. The agitating parties demanded two provinces in the Tarai, which the NC thought was too restrictive, although it did not have an issue with some changes in the boundaries of the provinces in the Tarai. However, some parties did not agree to it, which stalled the negotiations. 

The Morcha leaders have said that they are holding talks with the NC and Naya Shakti to find a common position before negotiating with the government. Could you please elaborate on your discussion with the Morcha?

There was a round of discussion with the Morcha and the government under the NC’s initiative. As the constitution was promulgated under our leadership and as we are the largest political party in the country, it is our responsibility to create an environment conducive to talks. We are deeply convinced that outstanding differences on demarcation can be resolved through talks. 

We have repeatedly urged the protestors to shun extreme measures like resorting to blockades and violent demonstrations. We have also asked the government to come for talks with a genuine desire to address the demands of the agitating forces. We feel we were very close to finding common ground, but there was a crisis of trust. We are encouraging both sides to keep engaging in talks, with the hope that a resolution is imminent.  

Implementing the constitution does not seem to be easy without an agreement with the Morcha. What sort of challenges do you foresee in the constitution’s implementation?

I agree that this is our biggest challenge at the moment and we are running out of time. The current parliament’s tenure ends in about 20 months from now. Before that, we will have to hold new elections, not only for the House of Representatives but also for the National Assembly, as we need both houses to formulate laws. And we need to conduct local elections before holding elections to the National Assembly. The commission formed to look into the restructuring of the local constituencies has a constitutional mandate to submit its recommendations within a year. Within that tight time-frame, we also need to create institutions conceived by the constitution. As I said earlier, we should not let disagreements over the constitution linger on. 

What is the NC’s view on the government’s announcement to hold local elections by November?

We cannot have any disagreement over holding local polls. It was our government that proposed them. But some constitutional issues are intertwined with the issue of local elections. Holding local elections in a hurry without restructuring the local constituencies may invite more controversies. The NC is for holding local polls in accordance with the spirit of the new constitution. 

Many fear that a constitutional crisis will be inevitable if the current standoff between the government and the Morcha continues. What in your opinion can be a middle path to extricate the country from the current impasse?

We have to revisit the point when both the sides felt that a solution was on the horizon. Unfortunately, we could not grab the moment. I think the ruling parties should shoulder two solemn responsibilities. First, they should be driven by the realisation that letting a crisis of the present magnitude fester would be unwise. Otherwise, not only will the acceptability of Nepal’s constitution be a matter of national contention, it will also be made an international controversy. Second, as the crisis partly emanates from the ambiguity in the ruling parties, they should have the confidence to seal the deal. We have been urging the prime minister to find a middle path through formal and even informal talks.  

It is not a flawless constitution. But it is a democratic constitution and there should be no hesitation to amend it. Only then will it incorporate diverse aspirations. Democracy is a system that accommodates every view to the greatest extent possible, not one that lets the ruling parties impose their views. If the current mentality continues, we will definitely head towards a serious constitutional crisis. The differences are a more a result of a clash of egos than any serious theoretical or substantive disagreement. Given the heavy workload we have, we should move ahead swiftly, sensitively and sagaciously. The constitution has institutionalised some important achievements; we should not lose them. It is time for the prime minister, and also other leaders, to demonstrate real leadership. 

Published: 30-05-2016 08:39

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