31 July - 6 Aug 2015 #769

Faith in the future

Federalism is a fait accompli. Now we have to make it work to raise living standards
Om Astha Rai

Photo: Bikram Rai

The most frequently asked question in Nepal over the last eight years is: will there be a constitution? No one knew the answer, not even the astrologers. But the reason we were impatient and curious was that we thought a new constitution would spur economic development and raise living standards.  

Fortunately, Nepal’s new constitution is finally taking shape eight years after the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections. But better late than never. The enthusiasm with which thousands of people participated in the 15-day-long feedback collection was a manifestation of the people’s desire to get it over with. The CA seems to have rightly grasped the public mood.

The Business Advisory Committee of the CA has finalised a new schedule, aiming to promulgate the constitution by mid August. A 94-page-long report containing 186,946 items of feedback was tabled in a CA meeting on Tuesday, and the onus now lies on the CA’s Constitutional, Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee (CPDCC) to decide what suggestions can be incorporated in the draft and what cannot.

So, the question asked, debated and disputed over for so many years is no longer relevant. The new constitution finally looks within reach. Now, the question is: will the new constitution bring about peace, prosperity and political stability? Probably not. But no matter what, we need one. We need it to institutionalise the gains of the 2006 Movement, the non-violent pro-democracy protests that ended the conflict. But we also need stability to attract investors, create jobs and boost our stagnant economy.

Madhesi, Janajati and Hindu Royalist parties have vowed to burn the constitution for different reasons. Madhesi and Janajati groups want names and boundaries of federal provinces etched out in the constitution itself. Extremist Hindus are against a secular state.

The idea of a Hindu state was rejected in April 2006 when hundreds of thousands of people rose up against Gyanendra’s rule. The RPP-N is being swept along by the Hindu wave in neighbouring India and the support by certain groups there for Nepal to be the world’s only Hindu kingdom again. A more accurate Nepali translation for ‘secularism’ might be used in the draft, but the essence of secularism must be a characteristic of the new Nepal. No matter how many times the Thapa brothers break their heads, the state’s inclination towards a particular religion should become a thing of the past.

But the demand raised by Madhesi and Janajati is not only valid, conforming to the Supreme Court interim order, but also guaranteed by the Interim Constitution 2007. Passing the new constitution only after naming and demarcating federal provinces would be the best option. But that is precisely the point on which there has been most disagreement,  and deferring the date fixed for promulgating it would mean running the risk of losing the ground gained.  

Who knows what might unfold if the draft constitution is put on hold to buy time for naming and demarcating federal provinces? The 16-point deal based on which the new constitution has been drafted to create eight federal provinces on the basis of identity and viability might be challenged, or even scrapped. Should identity still be accepted as a basis of federal provinces? Haggling over boundaries could go one forever.

Madhesi and Janajati leaders fear that putting on hold names and boundaries of federal provinces is a ploy by the big parties to sabotage federalism. They believe that the people will be so fed up with the wrangling that they may no longer want federalism.

Their fears can be addressed with provisions for forming a State Restructuring Commission to carve out eight federal provinces within six months. The same draft also stipulates that the Legislative Parliament will endorse the commission’s report with a two-thirds majority within three months.

When something like federalism is already in the draft constitution, it becomes our constitutional right. No one can take that away from us. Fears about the big parties' backtracking from federalism are thus baseless. If the Madhesis and Janajatis think the big parties will abandon federalism, then their whole struggle for constitutional rights would be meaningless. Why are they demanding that the new constitution guarantee inclusion and proportional representation if they have no faith in it?  

However, the disgruntled Madhesi and Janajati parties must be engaged in the constitution- writing process. That is also a message sent by the people during the feedback collection this month. It could be that a fresh deal to supersede the 16-point agreement is now needed. Not dissolving the CA or restricting its role to that of the Legislative Parliament immediately after passing the new constitution might be one way to convince them.  

Read also:

Vox populism, Editorial

Federalism, republicanism and secularism, Anurag Acharya

The shameless, Foreign Hand

Let’s move on, Damakant Jayshi

Pro-Hindu activists call strike

Interim order and interim constitution, Binita Dahal

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