22-28 August 2014 #721

Reckless federification

It doesn’t take a Nobel laureate to see that Nepal is lop-sided and top-heavy in favour of dominant caste and ethnicities

Nine months after the second CA was conceived leading to a phantom pregnancy, and six years after a barren first CA, things seem to be finally moving on the draft of the new constitution. We don’t know what is causing this sudden progress, and if it is outside pressure, we don’t want to know.

An informal summit of the top leaders of the three main parties (NC, UML and UCPN:M) that met on 10 August was itself a step forward. In fact, it was the first time since the November elections that the top leaders had even found time to meet to discuss the draft of a new constitution.

And they didn’t just meet over tea and biscuits, they actually agreed to agree, taking 'decisive action to move forward on the constitution draft based on the decisions of the previous CA’. We are so desperate for good news on the constitution that we grasp at straws, and some hailed the meeting as a ‘breakthrough’. That would be overdoing the optimism.

Still, there now seems to be an effort to create the right political atmosphere to take the document forward. Of the five committees set up to discuss various aspects of the draft, the Dialogue Committee chaired by ideologue of the Maoist party, Baburam Bhattarai, seems to be the most active. That is because the other committees need to have an idea of how far there is a consensus on the points of disagreement before they can sit down.

And the Dialogue Committee does what all committees do when they come up with an intractable problem: they set up a sub-committee. Many of the contentious issues are so substantial that they need intervention and agreement at the highest political level.

The CA has been working backwards from its self-imposed deadline of 22 January 2015, and the Dialogue Committee needs to come up with a broad agreement by early September. This is why the politicians decided to get cracking.

The job isn’t easy because the distance between the various parties on state restructuring and form of governance is as wide as ever. You know when senior politicians start thumping their chests in the media that they are trying to improve their bargaining positions in close-door negotiations. Pushpa Kamal Dahal is characteristically playing to both audiences by warning there will be no constitution if the NC and UML do not go along with his ethnicity-based federal model, and then saying his party was willing to be flexible on that issue.

One of the reasons the last CA lapsed, by the way, was precisely because Baburam Bhattarai abandoned an agreement on an 11-province federal model with mixed system of government that his party itself had proposed. It is now also accepted that for geopolitical reasons our neighbours were not so hot on ethnic enclaves on their borders. This time, there seems to be a broad consensus among the neighbours - and through them, in the international community - that the priority is a constitution that ensures stability. Politicians are also under pressure from public opinion to do it right this time.

This time, things are also diametrically different because the November elections showed that the public mood is against the formation of ethnic bantustans. As Bihari Krishna Shrestha and David Seddon argue in this issue, inclusion can be addressed without resorting to divisive and impractical federalisation.

To be sure, the monopoly on power by a centralised and self-perpetuating ruling class must be addressed not just as a matter of equity, but also to ensure future peace in this country. It doesn’t take a Nobel laureate to see that Nepal is lop-sided and top-heavy in favour of dominant caste and ethnicities. A new inclusive and democratic constitution must level that tilted playing field.

Ironically, it is good news that the real reason there hasn’t been faster progress on the constitution is because the political parties are too busy with intra- and inter-party feuds. It means there is reason to hope that they may realise the dangers of reckless federification.

As long as we keep egos, ambition and petty politics out of constitution-writing, we should be fine.

Read also:

Federal fundamentalism, Bihari K Shrestha

Federalism for the sake of it, David Seddon

Inclusion by any other name, Anurag Acharya

CA on track

The architecture of democracy, Bihari K Shrestha

Back to the centre, Editorial

Black day

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