Between a rock and a hard place

  • There might be civil conflict if we drive the constitution on the basis of a resurgent nationalism and refusal to accommodate differences
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
Experience of the last decade shows that different armed groups in the Madhes can be operated and backed by clandestine political forces prior to political negotiations

Jan 4, 2017-As final negotiations take place among the mainstream parties over the current political deadlock, considerable challenges remain ahead for Nepali politics.

The most important component of Nepal’s political transition is the next round of elections to the federal, provincial and local levels. Only a year remains before the term of the current Legislature-Parliament  ends, requiring Parliament to clear the path for future political processes before that deadline.

In such a scenario, the current crisis of the legitimacy of political solutions being sought may be a trifle compared to the constitutional and political challenges that may emerge next year. In addition, there is a threat of civil conflict from two different dimensions—one from the Madhes movement and another from the 

nationalist royalist movement.

Politics of contention

One agenda of political contention is whether a constitution amendment is required to appease the Tarai-based political parties that are leading the Madhes movement. So far, the CPN-UML’s position has been that it wants to move ahead with the elections without giving in to the demands of the Madhesi Morcha—an alliance of disgruntled Madhes-based political parties. The current government, however, was formed with the central assumption that elections are not possible without appeasing the Madhesis through a constitution amendment.

The Supreme Court has not prevented Parliament from moving ahead with the constitution amendment process. However, it has asked the body to take note of Article 274, which requires any decision about boundaries of the provinces to be approved by the provincial parliament. Although Parliament can formulate laws regarding the rights of provincial assemblies until provincial elections, amendments to the federal boundaries require the consent of the provinces.

Another challenge facing the political parties is Article 296, which limits the term of the current Parliament to January 21 of next year. It means that Parliament has to pave the way for future political processes, including elections, before it is dissolved.

Madhesis and royalists 

The situation in the Tarai will continue to play a major role in shaping the future course of politics. An alternative voice is emerging in the Tarai that sees people’s interests as being separate from those of the Tarai-based parties claiming to represent them. The UML itself is seeking to make inroads among the Dalits and women in the Madhes, while separatists continue to intensify their activities.

At this moment, there is no guarantee that members of the Madhesi Morcha will gain popular support. However, given the self-proclaimed role of India as the 

guarantor of the Madhesis’ interests, a lot will depend on the meddling of our 

southern neighbour. Our experience in the last decade shows that different armed groups in the Madhes can be operated and backed by clandestine political forces prior to political negotiations.

As long as India continues to interfere in Nepali politics, the next round of elections will not be possible without coming to terms with the Madhes movement, whether or not we accept its existence.

Another threat of potential civilian conflict comes from an unexpected quarter—the former monarch.

Gyanendra Shah’s statement two weeks ago and the seemingly disproportionate knee-jerk reaction from the government indicate that something more fundamental is taking place in the Nepali political landscape. 

A new political grouping, the new nationalist force campaign (Rashtrabadi Shakti Abhiyan) is attempting to forge a formidable alliance. The force, confident of support from external powers, is preparing for a show of strength in the streets with the promise of participation by Gyanendra Shah himself.

Whether such a movement is merely intended to counter the UML-led Nepali nationalism, or it will become a real alternative to ensure ‘stability’ in Nepal is yet to be seen. However, the rise of the force does indicate a fundamental shift in Nepali politics that can lead to civil conflict.

If anything, the rise of royalist nationalism, and the continued backing of India to the Madhesi Morcha, could force the mainstream political parties to come together rather than face an uncertain future after the dissolution of Parliament next year.

Two possible scenarios 

Even if the political parties, including the UML, come to an agreement with the Madhesi Morcha, many challenges will remain. The first issue of contention will be the sequence of elections. At this moment, local elections are the most 

feasible as they only require the consent of the Tarai-based parties to move ahead. National elections require demarcation of constituencies to 165 from the existing 240 and will generate a lot of dispute.

The second issue of contention will be power-sharing. Parties in opposition will continue to obstruct parliamentary proceedings, delaying formulation of new laws required to propel Nepal into a new political structure. The third source of conflict will be elections. All the parties, like the UML at present, will immediately switch to electoral mode and attempt to build up their constituents.

What will happen to the agenda of nationalism and federalism, however, is anyone’s guess. The power of nationalism in deciding electoral outcomes was demonstrated during the 2013 Constituent Assembly (CA) elections. The primary reason for the loss of Maoists in the 2013 CA elections was the resistance of the pahade (hill) Hindus.

The Maoist’s agenda of federalism, inspired by Lenin, was a strategy to ride on the wave of ethnic sentiments and create a strong totalitarian centre. Formation of ethnic states was only a ruse to manage ethnic sentiments, which the communists had realised was more potent than class consciousness.

An ethnicity-based federal state required the sacrifice of pahade Hindu nationalism, which was also seen as the only way to weaken the NC and the UML. However, this strategy by Baburam Bhattarai to align the Maoists with the Janajatis and the Madhesis backfired because the pahade Hindus refused to sacrifice their nationalism. On the contrary, they propelled the UML and the NC to power and turned Prachanda into another Gorbachev.

The factors described above provide us with two scenarios. The first one is that if we attempt to drive the new constitution on the basis of a resurgent nationalism and a refusal to accommodate differences, we might be entering a path of civil 

conflict. The second is that if we are able to resolve our differences on federalism and move ahead, then the salience of nationalism in deciding national election outcomes may gradually go down over a period of 12 months. However, this is only possible if contentious issues like demarcation of constituencies are resolved as early as possible and resentment generated by provincial boundaries is managed well.

Published: 04-01-2017 08:10

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