25-31 July 2014 #717

Promises to keep

The NC-UML coalition must stick to its self-imposed deadline of finishing the constitution by April
Anurag Acharya
When the Seven Party Alliance led by Girija Koirala signed the 12-point agreement with the Maoists in New Delhi in 2005, he was taking a gamble. The Congress and Communists were like oil and water. But there are no permanent enemies in politics, and the two parties ended up in the same interim government after the conflict ended. Both Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Koirala knew that they were in a partnership for peace.

Later, even when their alliance frayed due to clashing personal ambitions over who should be the first president of the republic, they were still united by a common political agenda to remove Gyanendra Shah from the throne.

As a democrat, it wasn’t difficult for Koirala to be convinced that Nepal must become a secular republic. However, it was the 2007 Madhes movement that actually pushed him to the limit of his personal values when he was forced to agreed to declare Nepal a Federal Secular Republic.

Until then, the ‘autonomous ethnic region’ declared by the Maoists during the conflict was more of a recruitment strategy than a political stance. Despite their rhetoric against Bahun-Chettri hegemony in state power, the comrades did not take up caste and ethnicity as an agenda per se. However, egged on by the sentiments of Janjatis, Dalits, Madhesis and women who together form the party’s most ardent supporters, the Maoist leadership had no choice but to lead the demand for identity-based federalism. Hence, the groundwork was laid for a working unity between those seeking ethnic identity in the hills and those demanding regional identity in the Madhes.

They may not admit it now, but the NC and the UML couldn’t hide their disinterest and disdain for the identity debate back then. They were more keen on getting the Maoists to surrender their arms and dismantle their militia. Sushil Koirala and Jhala Nath Khanal deserved credit for putting positive pressure on the Maoists to hand over the cantonment keys and initiate the rehabilitation and integration process, even though it was the Maoists who were ultimately lauded for their democratic transition.

Two years later, during last year’s election campaign in the Tarai, a NC candidate told me why the first CA had to be scuttled: “A constitution delivered by a Maoist government would have ruined the prospects of democratic parties in Nepal and abetted the Maoists in India.”

It would be foolish to assume that the NC and UML can promulgate a constitution on their own this time. The NC-UML have simply swapped positions with the Maoist-Madhesis, and both have been under the illusion that they can bulldoze a statute by excluding other parties.

Of the outstanding issues, none is more divisive than that of identity as the basis of federalism. Luckily, we have not one but two State Restructuring Commission reports to guide us on the matter. In a political landscape dominated by conservative male Bahuns, one cannot expect the leaders to be thrilled at the idea of sharing state power with the hitherto marginalised.

But the fact that the parties in principle agree on the need to address demands for identity and inclusion is a positive sign.

The main disagreement is over the structure of federal states and their names. The commission report submitted by Madan Pariyar has suggested two states in Madhes. A separate report submitted by three members of the commission also suggests two states in the Madhes, excluding three districts in the east namely Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari and Kanchanpur in the west.

Some Commission members seemed concerned about the possibility of Kathmandu being paralysed due to a shutdown in the Tarai, and others noted that the responsibility of choosing the names of provinces should be left to the state legislature.

These are fairly negotiable issues that can be resolved as long as there is a broader consensus on declaring the constitution at the earliest. Negotiations are about give and take, and a solution won’t be hard to find if there is a spirit of compromise.

The return of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala from the US could finally inject a sense of urgency to the stalled debate in the CA. Koirala stepped into his cousin’s shoes with the unfulfilled promise to deliver republican Nepal’s first Constitution. The time has come to redeem that pledge.

Read also:

Misinformed, Misunderstood, Anurag Acharya

Federalism by any other name, Editorial

Constitutional déjà vu, Damakant Jayshi

Madhesisation, Trib Tharu

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