Elections should, and will, take place whether or not RJP-N is on board

  • Interview Narayan Kaji Shrestha
- Post Report, Kathmandu

Jul 31, 2017-

More than a month and a half after he was appointed to the top executive post, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba finally expanded his Cabinet last week. Deuba’s seems determined to hold the third phase of local elections on time (September 18) as well as the provincial and general elections before the constitutional deadline of January 21 next year. However, for both “technical and political reasons”, uncertainty remains over whether the the polls can be conducted within the deadline. Tika Ram Pradhan and Shashwat Acharya spoke with Narayan Kaji Shrestha, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister and senior leader of the CPN (Maoist Centre), about the government’s preparations for the elections, the prospects of resolving the Madhesi issue and the recent developments in his Maoist party. 

 

Why do you think the government took so long to expand the Cabinet? After all, you are also a coalition partner. 

This has to do with the prime minister’s working style. He kept deferring the process for one reason or another. The delay is indeed very unpleasant; it shouldn’t have 

happened. I won’t comment on the Cabinet picks, but what is obvious is that the issue of inclusion should have been prioritised better.  

What’s your assessment of the coalition government’s performance so far?

This government has to be assessed on the basis of its primary responsibility, namely to hold the third phase of local polls (by bringing the disgruntled Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal on board) and the provincial and general elections before the constitutional deadline. To that end, the government recently formed a Constituency Delineation Commission. Moreover, the Election Commission (EC) has been making necessary preparations for the elections. I suppose the government will announce the poll dates in a few days. We are holding talks with the EC about whether provincial and general elections can be held simultaneously, whether a single vote can be counted towards both the first-past-the-post and the proportional representation, and whether the use of Electronic Voting Machines is appropriate. 

The government has also been holding informal talks with the RJP-N with the intention to convince it to take part in the polls. But there’s still uncertainty about its participation. Although there have been speculations about what will happen if the remaining polls aren’t held by the stipulated date, I don’t want to think down that line, because the elections have to happen and they will happen irrespective of whether there is an agreement. 

What explains the failure to overcome the uncertainty about the RJP-N’s participation in the elections?

The uncertainty prevails because of the RJP-N, not the government. It is the government’s responsibility to fulfil the RJP-N’s demands—other than the one about constitution amendment. And the government has been making efforts to that end. We still hope the RJP-N will come on board and participate in the polls. 

Would it be fair to say that constitution amendment has taken a backseat? 

There’s lack of clarity on how to take the amendment process forward. The RJP-N is demanding the passage of the amendment proposal. The government lacks the required two-third majority in Parliament for its passage. The government is willing to take it to a vote if—and only if—the RJP-N agrees to honour the outcome. Although the government is making efforts to garner the required number of votes to pass the bill, it cannot guarantee its passage. It’d be good if the bill passes, but if it doesn’t, the RJP-N can make the amendment its election agenda. Failure to pass the bill now doesn’t mean that the agenda will perish. But taking it to a vote will at least break the current deadlock. 

Do you think the forces carrying the Madhesi agenda—the Madhesi Morcha earlier and the RJP-N now—have run out of political steam?

That was inevitable. They were blowing the issue out of all proportion. Their agitation was based on the exaggerated claim that the constitution deprives the Madhesi people of all rights. Maintaining that a federal democratic republic is not an accomplishment for the Madhesi people is plainly misleading. If there is any group in the country that has obtained a separate province based on identity, it is the Madhesis. For various groups including the Madhesis, the constitution has a provision of proportional representation, both in elections and in employment. Some raised a hue and cry about the citizenship provision despite that fact that the Nepali state adopted a very liberal stance on citizenship. Similar is the case with provincial working language. In the face of such realities, the Madhes-centred parties couldn’t have sustained their agitation by continuously drawing the support of the Madhesi people.

 

Still the protests lasted a while and can erupt again. If the constitution is indeed an accomplishment for the Madhesis, what explains the protracted agitation?

There are four reasons behind the Madhesi agitation. The first is some objective realities of the Madhes. Two issues in particular stand out. The first is about proportional representation, which the first amendment to the constitution has addressed to some extent. It’s still abstract and needs to be made more concrete. The second is about federal delineation, which is subject to continuous debate, revision and evolution.

The second is the Madhes-centred parties’ self-interest, which could be furthered by playing up the Madhesi grievances.  The third is the role of external forces. And the fourth reason is that the parties which endorsed the constitution could not explain its salient features to the people.  

But these reasons notwithstanding, the major parties need to be flexible to bring the RJP-N on board and offer it a measure of face-saving. Extending such an olive branch goes beyond the short-term calculation of how strong the RJP-N currently is; it is necessary to strengthen Nepal’s long-term unity and prevent the rise of extremist forces.

Speaking of external forces, have you noticed any change in India’s policy on Nepal in recent months, say after the appointment of Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri?

I don’t see any substantive changes. There may be superficial attempts at conciliation, but the fundamental Indian policy on Nepal remains unaltered. India’s Nepal policy 

certainly affects us, but the main issue is whether Nepali political parties can show an ability to tackle our internal problems. Till the time our leaders can do so, Nepal will 

continue to suffer. While I acknowledge our shortcomings, the outlook that our politics won’t be stable or that we cannot solve our problems ourselves and embark on the path of development and prosperity until an external power changes its ways is a serious impediment. 

Recently, there has been some talk about both the dissolution of the Maoist Centre for having outlived its utility of revolutionary change as well as its merger with other parties. How do you look at these propositions?

Party dissolution has never come up as a serious proposal. No one should even entertain the possibility that our party will dissolve. We are holding discussions on how to transform the party to bring it in line with contemporary political realities.

As far as unity with splinter groups is concerned, efforts from our side are ongoing. I even believe that for a country like ours, a broader leftist unity is desirable. We need to reflect on why such a unity has been elusive despite the huge potential it holds.  

You may claim to be the country’s most revolutionary party, but how would you respond to the criticism that it continues to shift to the right and that it’s almost without direction in terms of its ideological compass?

Our party has its share of shortcomings, which we have introspected and acknowledged. There’s definitely been some erosion in our revolutionary character. There’s been a deviation in party policy and an increase in individualistic anarchy. Our ties with the proletarians, who helped form the party, have weakened. There’s been a gradual bourgeoisisation of the party. But when it comes to the ideological-political mandate, there is little doubt that ours in the best revolutionary party in Nepal’s political history and communist movement. Some of the most progressive agendas enshrined in the new constitution are a result of our party’s struggle. 

At present, we are participating in peaceful, competitive politics. We want to implement the constitution and make it a vehicle for delivering development and prosperity, 

establishing social justice and laying the foundation for socialism.  

Published: 31-07-2017 07:03

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