By Nepalis, for Nepalis

From The Kathmandu Post (30 January, 2015)

The international community must pull back and let the political players arrive at a dignified conclusion

The past couple of weeks have witnessed unprecedented divergence between the Nepali state, as represented by the coalition partners Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML, and the international community, mainly the Western powers and India. On the whole, one can say that the very public positioning of international actors has added to the turbulence of the native constitution-writing process.

This writer’s conviction that foreign involvement is acceptable in protecting human rights and representative democracy does not apply to the current flurry of activism by the internationals, which seems geared to influence constitution drafting, specifically in relation to federalism. Some of this activism may be linked to a well-meaning desire to ensure ‘inclusion’, but the focus has been on public statements rather than discrete lobbying. This has done a disservice to the populace that voted in such high numbers in the elections of November 2013, and is selective because it privileges the Maoists and Madhesi Morcha (and ignores the Rastriya Prajatantra Party- Nepal as the fourth largest party in the Constituent Assembly).

The state players

One must of course start with the blunders of the players at the front, viz the leaders of the NC and UML, who actually can muster the two-thirds majority required to adopt the constitution. However, they have not been cognisant enough of the dangers of communal politics and the hill-plain distancing, nor have they been tactical in tackling the Maoists.

The Maoists propensity to subvert the constitutional process for personal agenda (mainly Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his fears emanating from conflict-era excess and financial misdemeanours) is such that it is doubtful anything will make the chairman a team player. Not to be outdone, Baburam Bhattarai stonewalled the constitution-writing for months on end in the committee he headed, making it imperative to go for a decision in the CA plenary.

It is in countenancing the Madhesi Morcha, presently in the improbable embrace of the Maoists, that the NC/UML leadership has erred the most. In particular, and astoundingly, the coalition government has acted as if the Janajati and Madhes movements never happened, and the failure to reach out in Cabinet formation and governmental appointments can be termed nothing less than exclusionary.

The vote in the CA plenary of January 25 that established the Proposal Drafting Committee (PFC) was required, and it was important not to accede to the demand for extra time requested by Dahal and some ambassadors—that would have scuttled constitution writing altogether. But now, the NC/UML are required to redouble efforts for compromise and consensus, in particular with the Madhesi Morcha, while devising a way to prevent a
Maoist filibuster that is sure to come.

The internationals

One continues to wonder at the level of understanding of the polity by the over-active embassies, and what sense of long-term accountability the plenipotentiaries may carry for their actions. Without further explanation, I would simply state that the Ian-Martinisation of the diplomatic firmament seems not yet to have dissipated, so long after the departure of the chief of UNMIN.

The Western embassies, erstwhile stalwarts of human rights in Nepal , are silent on the government’s attempts to ram through a perpetrator-friendly Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And not to utter a word of concern for the 11 months that Nanda Prasad and Gangamaya were on hunger strike! The body of Nanda Prasad, 131 days now in the Teaching Hospital morgue, is a mute and devastating testimony of this subjectivity on human rights and humanity itself, and also the failure of the rest of us, citizens of Nepal , to fight for the weakest in society.

Why such pick-and-choose silence and activism? To hazard a suggestion: does this selective activism of the heretofore proactive Western embassies and donor missions have to do with the outsourcing of Nepal policy to New Delhi, in the context of the transforming geopolitics of Asia linked to China’s extraordinary and forceful rise? Granted, a lengthy proposition, but a one-word answer would suffice.

Southern concerns

In an extraordinary departure, over the past two weeks, the ruling parties have bestirred themselves to confront the international community (in this instance, the Western embassies and India). The finance and foreign ministers summoned the ambassadors to Hotel Radisson, while the UML’s Khadga Prasad Oli disagreed with the Indian ambassador’s suggestion that the vote in the plenary be postponed by a few days.

The positioning of all-important India has been difficult for the Kathmandu polity to fathom since the advent of Narendra Modi, given the inter-regime state of flux in that country. There is a disjunction between what Kathmandu politicians hear from counterparts in New Delhi and what is said to be Indian policy on the ground, as emanating from the diplomats and operatives.

Amidst this confusion, India is perceived to have taken sides on the constitutional debate, at one with the Western embassies, wanting the NC and UML to go with a certain definition of ‘consensus’ that underplays the decisive mandate from voters of the Tarai-Madhes, midhill, and mountain. The sticking point is federalism, and the incongruity lies in the fact that key New Delhi interlocutors visiting Kathmandu recently have conceded that the plains-only province idea is flawed, but Nepal is nevertheless asked to carry the formula to its conclusion ‘because it is now too late’.

Issue at hand

India is seen to be supporting one or a maximum two plains provinces and, truth be told, this seems to go against India’s own geopolitical interests. More importantly, the formula would distance the populated plains people from the natural resources and economic possibilities of midhill and mountain. Between this, and the plans for a strong centre with a directly-elected president, the contradictions are rife in an ineffectual ‘constitutional debate’ that seems aimed at creating ‘ceremonial’ provinces.

Multicultural plains provinces would be best if the ‘north-south’ prescription according to economic-geography is rejected, meaning a plains province that has a synergetic Madhesi-Pahadiya mix. Regardless of individual propositions, however, one has to work with whatever definition is ultimately deployed. But the fact is, we are stuck today where we were five years ago when the first CA collapsed, ie, on the matter of defining federalism.

The immediate challenge seems to have to do with the placement of the eastern-most plains districts (Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari) and the western-most (Kailali-Kanchanpur). The Morcha would like to have both within one province each, and there have been suggestions of central administration and other formulae. There is now said to be such an undercurrent of acrimony in these two regions that any attempt at breaking the deadlock will have to begin here.

Behind the public posturing, the leadership of the NC, UML, Morcha, and UCPN (Maoist) have been trying to do that. But each time a solution seems within reach, Pushpa Kamal Dahal leaves the room for ‘consultations’ and returns to disagree. The same happened on January 22 when the Morcha coordinator Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar suggested that the forthcoming PFC be allowed to proceed with framing questions on three pending issues (constitutional court, electoral system, and state restructuring) while allowing extra time for agreement on federal delineation. Dahal left the room, only to return with a thumbs down.

There is a need today for furious behind-the-scene efforts to revive the Gachhadar proposal while addressing the concerns of Morcha leaders. This will require the NC/UML to go slow on proposal formulation while simultaneously abandoning their grating rhetoric.

A word of caution should also be addressed to the Madhesi Morcha leadership and the energetic internationals, that if there is a deadlock in constitution writing and another collapse of the CA, it will be open season for radicals of all stripes. If the deadlock leads to the collapse of the second CA, the Hindutva agenda may well come to centre stage. At that time, no one will be talking of the hill and plain divide, and we will be in another terrain altogether.

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