Last October, a vernacular newspaper reported that Ram Chandra Poudel, the Minister for Peace and Reconstruction, had spent a total of two months, out of the six months that he was in office, and tens of millions of public money to talk to 59 different disgruntled ethnic and political groups.
Poudel's aim was to settle differences among the groups. But his success rate left much to be desired. Only four talks led to agreeable conclusions. All others ended in failure, leading to further protests, demonstrations and shutdowns all across Nepal.
With those results, it's tempting to dismiss Poudel, a senior politician, as a misfit who doesn't know the first thing about how to work for peace, let alone run a peace ministry. But that would be too limiting a view.
Given how frequently disagreements appear to break out among various groups in Nepal these days, and given how easily those disagreements escalate into full-blown public disorder, it's worth considering that there might be something fundamentally wrong with the way we have come to approach the process of negotiation in Nepal. It doesn't matter whether the negotiation is between political parties and ethnic groups or between the labour and management of a company. Our failure-prone template seems to run like this.
Trust taken lightly: Besides the news-hogging shortages of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and electricity in urban Nepal, there's a severe shortage of trust. Trust is hard to build up and it takes time to sustain, but it's easy to lose because of a few missteps. If only those on one side of the table stopped making promises they know they cannot keep, or if they apologized when they failed to honour their commitments, much of our trust-related problems would go away. The problem starts when parties become eager to reach agreements and smile for the cameras even when they know that their steps ahead will start damaging trust-building exercises.
No clear rules of the game: Often, our parties do not take time to decide in advance what they will or will not accept in a negotiation. As a result, many of our negotiations become not a conversation to solve issues, but a way to buy time, continue to shift goal posts and paint the other side black for showing bad faith. This happens because the rules of the game get made up as parties go along. But it's only when a party is clear about what it will and will not agree to, that it will focus on what it can do. If most Nepali negotiations were publicly reframed to clarify what the non-negotiable rules are which all parties will adhere to, it would help all to not waste time trying to deal with one another over continuously shifting goal-posts.
No neutral transparency: If you watch minister Poudel in press conferences after each negotiation, you will see that he's busy explaining what the other parties said or did not say. He seems to forget that his task is to make the government's case to the public, not summarise others' positions on television. By his actions, he unwittingly decreases the levels of transparency. As an antidote, he can have the minutes of most of his meetings published on a website. This way, people can judge the contents for what they are.
To be sure, every negotiation has its own particular dynamics that cannot be pre-determined by a formula. But given how much of the present government's time is taken up negotiating with various groups, only to fail again and again, a different thinking is required. Activities that build or repair trust, clarify what's negotiable and what's not, and promote transparency are likely to create a better negotiating climate in Nepal.