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Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

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The Cabinet’s endorsement of the Second Amendment to the Constitution has left no one happy. Not even its chief architect, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, sounds content. Like all compromises, the seven changes don’t satisfy anyone in Nepal’s zero-sum politics where the kakistocrats are used to winners taking all.

The opposition UML, still smarting from having being removed from power in a coup in August, is angling for revenge and has decided not to make it easy for the Maoist-Centre’s Pushpa Kamal Dahal to sit easily on the prime minister’s chair. The Nepali Congress, wavering as always, is not even able to convince its rank and file about the wisdom of backing the amendment. Defence Minister Bal Krishna Khand of the Congress, is openly critical of the amendment, especially the plan to chop his district in half. The Madhesis are divided about whether to back the Amendments, but they cannot be happy with the fact that their original demand for a single Madhes province spanning the Tarai has now been watered down to such an extent that it is unrecognisable. Prime Minister Dahal himself looks war weary, and prefers to issue directives to bureaucrats and hobnob with Indian godmen-tycoons.

The anger is spreading, especially in the five districts of the mid-western mountains which have been shunted around like pieces in a game of Chinese Checkers. The UML has been the most vocal opponent of this move to take out five districts from Province 5, and fuse them into Province 4. This is the UML’s heartland and the party sees it as a Maoist-NC ploy to dilute its vote bank. Others consider it as a strategic outside move to keep the plains and hills separate, and to cut off access of the central mountains to the Indian border.

Why does Province 5, which Dahal has informally put forward as a lollipop for the Tharu community, not include Kailali and Kanchanpur — the districts with the highest concentrations of West Tharus? Actually we know the answer: because the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba would have none of it. Deuba has also insisted that Kailali and Kanchanpur remain in his Province 7 stronghold and not in a Tarai province. In the east, the dispute over the fate of Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari which deadlocked negotiations on the amendments for most of 2016 is mysteriously not an issue any more, again because they are the vote banks of powerful local politicians.

The other six points in the amendment concern the relaxation of rules on naturalised citizenship for foreign wives of Nepali nationals, recognising as official languages those spoken by a majority in a province, and determining the number of representatives from each province in the federal Upper House. Mixing populism and vote bank politics with boundaries and languages can be volatile in an unstable transitional democracy like ours. But nothing seems to deter our male kakistocrats from being narrow-minded and short-sighted.

It is clear that the amendments are more about gaining an upper hand in present power politics and ensuring future electoral vote banks, than an effort to address the real demands of the Madhesi and other marginalised communities for autonomy. The Madhesi parties are on a permanent agitation mode and are keeping their radical options open with an eye on cashing in on disenchantment with the constitution for local and provincial elections next year.

To be sure, the reason the amendments look watered down could be because Dahal was trying to appease the UML and keeping its coalition partners in the Nepali Congress happy, while showing the Madhesi parties and India that he has tried his best to push the amendments through. In doing so, however, he appears to have antagonised everyone. It is unlikely that the amendment that has been registered will get the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament without the UML, the second largest party in Parliament, on board.

The long and short of it is that such arbitrary and inconclusive amendments, instead of steering the country finally towards stability and prosperity, will keep us tangled in day-to-day politics. It will polarise Nepali society further, and make local, provincial and federal parliament elections even more difficult to hold before the 21 January 2018 deadline. The only solution is for the Maoist-NC coalition to sit down one more time with the UML and Madhesi parties to hammer out a sustainable and meaningful agreement on setting aside intractable disputes for now, and conduct free and fair elections. At the moment that sounds like a tall order.

Analysis by Kunda Dixit 

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