22-28 January 2016 #792

Stop, think, then ink

Protests about the shape and modality of federal provinces can go on, but not at the cost of further ruining the country

The Big Three and the Madhesi Front were close to a political deal last week in this roller coaster transition. Then, predictably, there was a hitch. The goal posts were moved again. The Front put forth another six-point proposal and the Big Three, particularly the ruling coalition leader UML, rejected it outright.

In retaliation, Madhesi negotiators promptly quit a joint taskforce formed to draft the deal, alleging that the establishment was not showing requisite flexibility. Prime Minister KP Oli, who is in the habit of firing first and asking questions later, bluntly accused the Madhesi parties of not being serious enough to end the impasse.

Despite an understanding between the two sides to set up an all-party mechanism to redraw boundaries of the proposed two provinces in the Tarai within three months, the negotiators are still playing hardball. Then there are the elephants in the room (various sections of the Indian establishment, intelligence and bureaucracy) that are sending conflicting signals to those at the table. The end result is that a deal that could end this senseless torture of Nepal’s 28 million people remains elusive even after 25 rounds of talks.

We suppose the delay is due to the need to appease hardliners. But if parliament endorses the first constitution amendment bill early next week without a deal with the Front, it won’t resolve anything. In fact, the uncertainties will be compounded as the agitators sharpen their knives to resume protests in the spring.

So, we suppose, the good news is that they are still talking to each other. The taskforce set up to negotiate has been dissolved, which is logical because it is the top leaders who take all important decisions anyway. A breakthrough is not only necessary but also inevitable now that both sides, and India, have run out of excuses to drag this on. They are just anxious not to be accused of perpetrating this crime against humanity.

Now the bad news. Even if a deal is signed, it may not end the street violence, political instability and economic crisis. The three month timetable just buys us time to resolve the provincial demarcation issue, it postpones the resolution. This means the two sides must use that time to build trust and work towards a durable deal.

The thorniest issue has always been the boundaries of the two proposed Tarai provinces. The Front is apparently willing to go along with a three-month hiatus, but is seeking a written commitment from the Big Three that the all-party mechanism will redraw boundaries of Madhes provinces exactly in the way it wants. That is not flexibility. That is negotiating with a gun to the temple, which in this case is a protracted border blockade.

We don’t know if the Madhesi Front can act on its own or has to wait for instructions from on high, but it must now join hands with the Big Three to pass the constitution amendment bill. The issue of federal boundaries should be kept open for discussion within the all-party mechanism. Even if the Front, with Indian backing, now forces the major parties to sign a deal to create two Madhes provinces, its implementation will be impossible. People in the disputed districts in the eastern and western Tarai which the Front forcibly wants to be included into the Madhes provinces will be up in arms.

It is time for Madhesi leaders to halt the protests, think wisely, participate in constructive debate within the all-party mechanism and then ink a deal on federalism. They should lobby for a strong and accountable mechanism that will reopen and revisit all the contentious issues relating to federalism.

Its recommendations will certainly be mandatory as the ruling parties have already agreed to authenticate it by getting it passed by Parliament. Madhesi leaders must realise that they are accountable not only to their constituencies but also to Nepalis living in the hills and the mountains. All the top four Madhesi leaders have become ministers in the past, and they must look beyond the narrow confines of their region which, by the way, is suffering more than any other from the Indian siege.

Nepal’s leaders have inflicted too much pain on the people by holding them hostage. They must redeem themselves by ending this cruelty, and work towards repairing what they have ruined. Our in-depth report on this issue shows that recovery may take decades.

Federalism is a work in progress, discourse on its relevance and protests about its shape and modality can go on, but not by strangling your own motherland.

Read also:

Down, down, down, Om Astha Rai

Elusive deal, Om Astha Rai

Madhesis quit taskforce, Om Astha Rai

Full-blown economic crisis, Om Astha Rai

Near a deal, Navin Jha

Better days to come, Bidushi Dhungel

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