Convictions and Modi-fications

From The Kathmandu Post (23 May, 2014)

The elevation of Narendra Modi to unexpected heights and the decimation of the opposition in India has led to urgent self-appraisals by the ‘commentariat’ of Kathmandu. The same intelligentsia which was indulgent towards the royal autocracy and subservient to the Maoist momentum is being careful not to express itself openly, until it becomes clear how strongly the Modi wind blows across the ‘das gajaa’.

The burning question is how the arrival of Hindutva votaries in India’s executive branch will impact Nepal, in relation to the significant recent changes in the polity, viz secularism, republicanism and undefined-but-declared federalism.

There are three kinds of Kathmandu commentators out there: the first lot has gone dead quiet as it awaits key appointments in New Delhi before adjusting the sails; the second category is jubilant at Hindutva’s victory and hopes fervently that the southern tsunami will cross the open border to help turn back the clock; the third group plays it safe by maintaining that Nepal is not significant enough to engage Modi’s interest, and so there will be no policy modification.

This columnist’s position is that Modi has the willpower to push through unexpected shifts in bilateral relations, and Kathmandu must do its homework to stay ahead of the curve.


Diplomatic protocol

We know (or should know) that Narendra Modi will not be held back by diplomatic protocol if he feels his political agenda requires certain changes in sub-continental policy, including in relation to Nepal. This is why, rather than wait for New Delhi to make the move, Kathmandu must come forward to place its agenda and interests on the table. That the prime minister-elect has invited Southasian heads of government to his swearing-in on Monday indicates an unexpected opportunity for regionalism, making it even more important for Kathmandu to express itself with clarity and conviction.

While for long decades Nepal reaped advantage of a special hearing in New Delhi due to the personal rapport between leaders of the ‘Independence generation’, the last of the stalwarts departed with Girija Prasad Koirala in March 2010. The Indian bureaucracy became increasingly decisive on India’s Nepal policy, while the singular inability to appoint an ambassador to New Delhi for more than two years has reflected the abandonment of self-respect by Kathmandu’s political elite.

Kathmandu must use the time of regime change in New Delhi to take the bilateral relationship away from the bureaucratic and ‘agency’ fold and back to the political, one in which Nepal’s own sovereign interests are clearly articulated. But you and I know that the first instinct of the national elite will be to seek New Delhi’s blessings rather than to set one’s own national agenda.


Secularism paroxysm

The nation-state of Nepal was declared secular, federal and republican by the Interim Constitution of 2007, a political compromise document meant to ease the Maoists into open society—a different matter that the latter cheated whole-heartedly on their promise. It is on the basis of these three fundamentals that civil society and the political class are asked to help build an energetic democracy that upholds sovereign manoeuvrability, local governance, human rights, fundamental freedoms, social justice, economic growth, equity and the safeguarding of identity.

The 1959 Constitution of Nepal did not describe the country by faith and it was the 1963 Constitution which, for the first time, added the qualifier ‘Hindu’; King Mahendra’s autocracy needing the prop of religion. The 1990 Constitution repeated the description of ‘Hindu kingdom’, though some did argue that the reference was more to the monarch having to be Hindu. The Interim Constitution 2007 used the term ‘dharma-nirapeksha’ to declare Nepal secular (Article 4-1).

Census data says that 20 percent of Nepal’s population is not Hindu and the matter becomes more complex when you consider the syncretism that is a matter of national pride, in particular the Buddhist-Hindu crossover. It is hardly advisable to subsume a country with such a large proportion forming minorities under the majoritarian rubric.

The remaining question is whether a proactive ‘secular’ qualifier is required in the basic law, as in India (after the Preamble of the Indian Constitution was amended in 1976 by Indira Gandhi). India may have needed the terminology to ensure inter-faith harmony, particularly between Muslims and Hindus.

In the case of Nepal, with a significantly different history and demography, there may not be a need to pointedly exclude religion, if there was another way to achieve the same purpose of separating church from state. The simplest path would be to avoid reference to religion at all, in the act of defining the state in the preamble of the new constitution while guaranteeing complete freedom of religion and conscience.


Republican democracy

The Nepali citizenry could have easily watch-dogged a constitutional monarchy after the Janaandolan of 2006. The fact that the monarchy of Nepal was in 12th direct line of succession from the founding king, Prithvi Narayan, gave it a legitimacy that few other constitutional monarchies of the modern era had. Then along came a king, Gyanendra, whose idiotic attempts at dictatorship weakened the monarchy, already debilitated by the palace massacre of June 2001.

As a participant in the 2006 Janaandolan, there is no doubt in my mind that the people agitated against royal autocracy rather than against the institution of the monarchy. The kingship was done away with as a sacrifice to the aboveground Maoist leadership and their need to look ‘revolutionary’.

And yet, with the republic having been ushered in as part of political compromise, and the interim years having been spent trying to build democracy-in-republic, it would be foolish to go back to constitutional monarchy. Such a revived kingship, in whatever form, would return with such force that it would act as a brake on democracy for the foreseeable future. A stable, peaceful, democratic republic is what Nepal must become, while thus far we have been left holding only ‘republic’.


Federalism contestations

It was the attempt to define the provinces of federal Nepal that triggered the demise of the first Constituent Assembly. The societal polarisations remain today, though somewhat softened by the November 2013 elections. The two main planks of political activism during the first CA were: one or more plains-based Madhes provinces and the privileging of the larger ethnic groups in conceptualising of provinces.

To begin with, citizens of a free society have every right to speak against federalism, for which they cannot be tarred loathsome anti-nationals. Furthermore, one must reject the prejudicial labelling of ‘anti-federal’ anyone who maintains that federalism should be according to Nepal’s specific demographic, geographic and economic reality.

This writer’s own position, open to contestation, is for federal provinces of north-south orientation based on economic-geography, which will: ensure economic integrity of individual provinces; obviate a powerful centre; promote better protection of cultures and identities; and promote within-province ‘equalisation’ and equity. In this day and age, we do not need bantustans in the hills nor should the overwhelming number of poor in the Tarai-Madhes plains be cheated of the present and future bounty of the Mid Hill and montane tracts.

As in republicanism, secularism and other matters of national interest —in federalism, too, Nepal must maintain its elbowroom vis-à-vis the neighbours, to take its own transparent decisions. Only then will Nepal become the exemplary state of South Asia, a goal well within its reach.

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