Nepal’s reckless experiment
From The Times of India (2 July, 2012)
The failure to draft a Constitution has catalysed fresh crisis in the Himalayan country
Even for a country in such continuous turmoil, the past month has been tumultuous for Nepal. The Constituent Assembly failed to draft the Constitution, but was not even allowed a ceremonial departure. The Maoist party, which held the entire country in thrall for 10 years of war and six years of ‘political transition’, finally split down the middle. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai announced an impossible election for Novem-ber 2012 even as the other political forces organised to push him out of office.
The Constitution-writing lacked credibility from the start, with the assembly’s rules of procedure promoting radical posturing at the cost of consensus. Because the Constituent Assem-bly of 601 members was made to double as a legislature, government formation took precedence and served to further heighten animosities. Somewhere during 2010, the work of the assembly was hijacked by a handful of party bosses, with Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) as ringleader.
The entire four-year drafting exercise was conducted under the shadow of the gun, the UCPN-Maoist having held on to its combatants till the very last. Throughout, the Maoist leaders exacerbated matters by threatening revolt and ‘state capture’ even as they became part of the national establishment.
Dynamic demagogue that he is, Dahal used the bait of government formation to corral leaders of the Congress, UML and Madhesbadi parties. He got them to agree on a directly-elected presidency, to serve his plans to become autocrat-for-life. The party bosses also agreed to a constitutional court, which would have weakened a Supreme Court that has stood as a bulwark against impunity.
The saddest departure was on federalism, which pushed Nepal towards communal strife, hill-plain and ethnic-caste. Dahal cynically exploited the situation, helping to establish a binary in the discourse between the proponents of identity-based federalism and the anti-federalists. Neglecting economic geography as a viable criterion, the Maoist and Madhesbadi forces sought to ram through single-identity provinces in a country of mixed habitation, and to cheat the plains people of the wealth of the highlands.
The best that can be said about the four wasted years of the Constituent Assembly is that the period served as a nationwide immersion course on demography, identity, pluralism, governance and geopolitics. The slate needs now to be wiped clean and the subsequent attempt made more rigorous.
Ironically, the demise of the Constituent Assembly had nothing to do with the polarising debates on federalism, separation of powers or form of governance. On the final day of May 27, the prime minister neglected the interim Constitution’s requirement of consensus and went ahead to announce elections. Promulgation of the Constitution would have kept the legislature alive, which would in turn have invited a no-confidence motion to oust Bhattarai, given that the Maoist party was about to split.
Bhattarai’s self-absorption knows no bounds, to the extent of presenting himself as India’s chosen one as a means to gain and retain power. The Maoist-Madhesbadi coalition he leads was formed on the promise of communal entry into the Nepal Army, and cancellation of court cases on conflict-era atrocities. As head of government, Bhattarai has single-mindedly undermined due process in multi-ple spheres, exemplified by his recommendation for presidential pardon of a Maoist convicted by the Supreme Court in an honour killing case.
The split among the Maoists, with Mohan Vaidya hiving off with the CPN-Maoist, had less to do with ideology and more with Dahal’s exclusive control of the UCPN-Maoist. Most importantly, the chairman monopolised control over the party coffers, built with extortion loot, milking the exchequer, false billing on the peace process and, lately, gigantic kickbacks in telecom, hydropower and other sectors.
In core ideology, Dahal, Bhattarai and Vaidya share their commitment to ‘state capture’ and one-party communist state. The difference is that while Vaidya says it straight, Dahal-Bhattarai mouth ‘tactical’ lip service to multiparty politics, especially within earshot of western and New Delhi interlocutors.
The Maoist triumvirate is responsible for the severe weakening of the nation state, internally and externally, and for the continuous economic devastation of 16 years and running. The hundreds of thousands of poorest Nepalis, swelling the ranks of migrant labour in India bear witness to the conflict and its ongoing aftermath.
In the latest instance, Dahal-Bhattarai have fomented further political and economic distress by letting the Constituent Assembly die without charting a constitutional roadmap. Amidst the prevailing rancour, President Ram Baran Yadav is now urging the political parties to work towards a consensus government.
The need of the hour is to stabilise the society by putting in place a unity government capable of restoring rule of law, restarting development activi-ties, and creating conditions for economic growth. Once the government is formed, and some hope restored, the country has to move towards local and national elections.
Ideally, the national elections would bring a five-year parliament, which would consider a draft Constitution prepared by a panel of experts. That panel, meanwhile, would ensure that four years of debate in the Constituent Assembly and among the Nepali citizenry is not squandered.