23-29 September 2016 #827

Not playing ball

On the first anniversary of the seventh constitution in seven decades, Nepal is stuck again.

Bhanu Bhattarai

After the bloodshed in the Tarai that followed the promulgation of the ‘fast track’ constitution last year left nearly 60 people and a dozen policemen dead, it is once more decision time. The onus is on Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal on his return from India to carry out a second amendment to the constitution to satisfy Madhesi and Janajati dissidents.

But on the first anniversary of the seventh constitution in seven decades, Nepal is stuck again. The first constitution in Nepal’s history that was drawn up by a sovereign assembly elected by the people is supposed to be the last step in a peace process that began with the ceasefire in 2006. 

There is hardly any precedence in recent world history of a constitution being passed by nearly 90 per cent of elected representatives. Despite that there was dissatisfaction in the Tarai, which some Madhes-based parties used to launch an agitation aimed at gaining back the support they had lost in the 2013 elections. The protests turned violent, and brutal police response on the streets led to many deaths. 

The hurried promulgation of the constitution, despite misgivings from New Delhi, then led directly to a border blockade supported by India that crippled the country’s economy. The human disaster of the earthquake was followed by a humanitarian disaster of the blockade. 

Through Nepal’s recent history of Maoist violence, the 12-point agreement in Delhi, the downfall of the monarchy and the decade-long transition after 2006 we have seen the impact of geopolitics on Nepal’s internal affairs. 

Although both Nepal’s neighbours say they want stability here, recent decisions have shown that one of them prefers ‘controlled instability’. Many believe that some of the agitating parties that observed Constitution Day this week as a ‘black day’ and burnt copies of the statute may be acting at the behest of this outside force. 

It is difficult to see how supporting such divisive politics of ethnicity benefits any domestic or foreign entity. How does uncertainty, anarchy and a constitutional limbo help a country with which we share a long, open border? 

The main message that Pushpa Kamal Dahal attempted to give to both his Indian interlocutors and the public back home during his New Delhi visit this week was that he had restored India-Nepal bilateral relations to its earlier bonhomie. He may have succeeded in giving that impression in New Delhi, but back home the joint communique and purported secret deals have reinforced the belief that Nepal’s leaders have once more sold out to India.  Even if it is not true, the perception that he did so is neither good for Dahal, nor for the country. 

The fact that two of the four main demands of the Madhesi parties were addressed within five months in the first amendment is actually proof of the pragmatism and flexibility of the new constitution. It showed that democracy is alive and well, and taking legitimate democratic decisions. The Madhesi parties who want their other two demands to be fulfilled through the second amendment are a part of the constitutional process to press for those changes. The fact that they are working to achieve those ends through committees in the legislature is a healthy sign. 

As we have emphasised in this space before, the demands of the Madhesi parties on border demarcations of the two Tarai provinces and the demand on citizenship cannot be fulfilled without the UML being on board. And the UML seems set to make it as difficult as possible so that it can extract its pound of flesh. 

This deadlock is delaying all pending legislations governing the implementation of the new constitution which stipulates local, provincial and national elections to be held by January 2018. As former CA Chair Subhas Nembang says in an interview (page 13), the Election Commission’s deadline for poll preparations have already lapsed. If voting at all three levels cannot take place in a little over a year, it could lead to a constitution crisis and bring us back politically to square one. 

Parliamentary elections need to be completed by January 2018, and elected federal assemblies can only function if local and provincial elections are held so that the National Assembly can elect a president and vice-president. That in turn is only possible if there is agreement on the number of provinces, their boundaries — and for this the Madhesi parties need to be on board and the UML has to play ball. A deal is not in sight, and time is running out.  

Read also:

There is a draft, Editorial

Autopsy of a blockade, Editorial

The China syndrome, Editorial