13-19 February 2015 #745

Lengthening the fuse

Nepal’s leaders need to settle their disputes across the table and not on the streets

In all the daily blow-by-blow coverage of the intricacies of the constitution debate, we don’t see the forest for the trees. So, to recap, here is the story so far: ever since a decade-long insurgency ended in 2006 with an India-brokered process and the country turned from monarchy to republic, from war to peace, the former Maoist rebels and other political parties have been trying to write a new constitution. There have been two elections to Constituent Assemblies, coalition governments have come and gone, deadlines have been missed and extended.

Today, except for the extreme left Baidya and Biplab factions of the Maoists  (that boycotted elections and are not represented in the Assembly) and extreme right (that wants to restore a Hindu monarchy), there is broad agreement that Nepal should be a federal, secular republic.

What ostensibly is holding things up is the kind of federalism. The Maoists and their allies want 8-10 provinces named after Nepal’s main ethnic groups, whereas the centrist governing coalition proposes only 6 provinces with more neutral, geographical names. But even here, the two sides have narrowed down their differences.

Lately a new dispute has come up about whether three districts in the eastern Tarai and two in the west should be part of the Madhes or hill provinces. Since this is tangled up with the political ambitions of wannabe political warlords and geo-strategic interests over future high dams on the Kosi and Karnali, it is more intractable. But even here there are workable compromises proposed.

Which means the real reason for the delay in the constitution is not the constitution at all, but a dispute about how the top leaders of the main four political forces will divide up the spoils after the constitution.  

There are two elephants in the room: India and China. As the architect of Nepal’s peace process, India prefers autonomous federal units including those along the border plains. China, on the other hand, takes a dim view of ethnic provinces in the mountains because of sensitivities about Tibetan nationalism. Despite this, both countries share a common strategic interest in ending Nepal’s prolonged transition so that the buffer state they share is stable.

On the 22 January deadline, a push by the NC-UML ruling coalition to put the constitution to a vote was met with vandalism by members of the Maoists-Madhesi opposition alliance. Since then, talks have been stalled and the constitution is in limbo.

In order to improve their bargaining positions when negotiations resume, the opposition Maoist-Madhesi alliance has announced a street movement focused in the plains, while the ruling NC-UML has set in motion a process to put disputed elements of the constitution to the vote in the CA. Both sides are waiting for the other to blink first.

In the past week cracks have appeared within the opposition alliance. The controversial appointment by the UCPN(M) on Monday of infamous floor-crosser Lahr Kyal Lama to a nominated proportional representation seat in the CA has raised hackles among some of the Maoists’ Madhesi partners.

The Madhesi parties themselves are distancing themselves from the Front’s leader, Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar who appears more accommodative and proposed a last-ditch formula to save the constitution which was rejected by his partners. They suspect he has been enticed with a senior government position if negotiations succeed.

The Maoists themselves have been considerably weakened by the double mutiny within their party, which is why they need to piggy back on the Janajati and Tarai-based parties. The revolution has now turned from a class struggle into an identity-based one. The party has rightly calculated that with more than half of Nepal’s 30 million people now living in the plains, the Tarai will be the new epicentre. And since political change in Nepal over the past 50 years has come through street movements and not elections, the opposition is looking at mobilising in the plains.

On Thursday, the parties informally agreed to postpone the CA meeting until further notice to give time for back-room negotiations. That will lengthen the fuse to buy time for a compromise, but risks prolonging the uncertainty and testing the public's patience.

So, in summary, we were (and are) very close to an agreement on the constitution. It’s just power-sharing that needs to be sorted out. In the coming weeks the leaders need to delink day-to-day politicking for power from reasoned bargaining on the constitution. They need to press the reset button, and settle their disputes across the table and not on the streets.

Read also:

A stir within, Om Astha Rai

Bullet and/or ballot, Anurag Acharya

Cracks in the Madhesi front, Om Astha Rai

All set for talks

Solutions from within, Editorial

The 'F' word, Editorial

The anti-climax, Editorial