28 November-4 December 2014 #734

Let’s get back to work

Stop haggling over power-sharing, and let the people’s representatives find a way out of the constitution deadlock

When the government went into hibernation for the SAARC Summit last week, Dialogue Committee Chair Baburam Bhattarai tweeted that since nothing was going to happen for a week, he was off to the movies. Now that the South Asian jamboree is over, it’s time to get back to work.

It doesn’t take a dead-heart transplant surgeon to figure out that this is a deeply unequal country. Aside from having the most dismal Gini coefficient in Asia, there is a long history of keeping out a large section of the population from political decision-making. The most glaring example of this is the traditional domination of hill ‘high’ caste groups in government, bureaucracy and politics. Just look at the surnames on the doors of Singha Darbar, Shital Niwas, Naryanhiti, NAC, NOC, NEA or NTA.

The new constitution is an opportunity for us to set right this historical wrong. It is probably the only chance we will get to spread out income, opportunities and power more equally among Nepalis. Compensating for centuries of exclusion calls for affirmative action in favour of the class, caste, ethnic group, gender which have been systematically sidelined.

The debate before us in the last few weeks before the 22 January deadline to finish writing the new constitution is to bring about structural devolution that would ensure societal equilibrium while at the same time being viable and just. A purely territorial 6-state federalist model as envisaged by the ruling coalition will not redress the deep sense of injustice felt by Madhesi, Janajatis, or Dalits. But the single-ethnicity 10-state federal model espoused by the Maoists would exacerbate inter-ethnic friction instead of safeguarding stability, building cohesion and fostering economic development.

Since this element of the new constitution has such far-reaching consequences for Nepal’s future, it needs to be addressed with cool heads and rational debate. The tragedy of the past six years is that a matter of such long-term import for the nation is being handled by vengeful and venal politicians with extremely short time horizons.

In fact, there is now firm indication that the debate in the Dialogue Committee is deadlocked not because of federalism, but because of disagreement over who should be president, prime minister and CA Chair the day after the new constitution is promulgated. If all this is political foreplay, then it is even more discouraging. 

However, in case the real stumbling block is power-sharing and not federalism, then that gives us an opening on the constitution. The problem with the negotiations so far is that although the people elected members of the CA and their preferred political parties, the four top leaders of the four main parties are behaving as if they can decide everything among themselves.

And now that they have proven that they can’t agree, it’s time CA members asserted their sovereignty, and put forward their own views on the constitutional deadlock. Our guess is that with the power-sharing equation out of the way, members of the CA will show more accountability and come up with an acceptable compromise.

Nepal has been a four-party dictatorship since 2006. The quadrilateral feud between the four netas means that federalism has become a zero sum game. Any compromise would be taken as a defeat by all sides. Handing decision-making to CA members would lift them out of rubber-stamp status, and restore power back to where it belongs: the people’s representatives.

After saying recently that a solution to the federalism deadlock could be found “within two hours”, CA Chair Subhas Nembang this week cast doubts about whether a final draft of the constitution would be possible in two months time. Deadlines are elastic in Nepal, and if we have waited eight years for a new constitution, a few more months would not matter. However, extending the deadline is not a good idea because it would prolong the uncertainty and allow cynical politicians to play divisive ethnic politics like Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the UCPN(M) is doing now.

Get back to work, stop haggling over power-sharing, and let the people’s representatives find a way out of the constitution deadlock. 

Read also:

Frivolous federalism, Bihari K Shrestha

Constituional déjà vu, Damakant Jayshi

Off the people, for the people, Anurag Acharya

PR for PR, Trishna Rana

It’s the constitution, stupid, Editorial

Asking the right questions, Anurag Acharya

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