Suspended animation

From the Hindustan Times (4 December, 2012)

The rest of South Asia, which notices Nepal only when there is bedlam in Kathmandu, has been under the false impression that matters have stabilised politically in the past half decade. The ‘people’s war’ did end six years ago, but the prevarication on the peace process and never-ending political turmoil has extracted an extraordinary toll from the people.

Manipulated by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN-M), in its four years, the constituent assembly contributed to a loss of confidence in the democratic process. The proof of national disrepair is found in the millions of citizens seeking low-end jobs in India, the Gulf and Malaysia. The poor are more impoverished.

The one hope remaining is that the elections in April 2013 will help stabilise the polity and halt the economy’s relentless decline. Sadly, society remains trapped in the double grip of UCPN-M chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) and his deputy, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. The two are competing for power within the UCPN-M, but both seek to sabotage the elections to allow time for their party to recover from a drastic break-up in June.

On May 27, 2012, the Maoist duo engineered the collapse – not dissolution – of the constituent assembly and derailed the interim constitution. They announced elections for November 22 without a constitutional amendment or bothering with an all-party consensus, as demanded by the constitution. Bhattarai did not resign when the election commission declared in July that the date was impossible to keep, and not even when November 22 came and went.

The opposition was reduced to imploring the very person who prides himself as a parliamentary rejectionist to follow parliamentary tradition: resign after failing to hold elections. Meanwhile, Bhattarai dares the opposition to generate a people’s movement to oust him and warns of a maelstrom if President Ram Baran Yadav seeks to fulfil his constitutional responsibility to protect the democratic process.

Upon the demise of the assembly in May, the proper course would have been for the president to dismiss the prime minister and call for a consensus government to organise elections. However, the ability of the Maoists to instigate public violence, the weak opposition of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) (CPN-UML), and the timidity of Kathmandu’s civil society seem to have deterred the head of State. His action was limited to declaring Bhattarai’s Maoist-Madhesbadi coalition a ‘caretaker’.

Amid the prevailing confusion, Dahal immediately got the parties mired in a campaign to reinstate the dead assembly to fulfil his personal agenda of foisting a directly-elected presidency on Nepal. Five months were wasted in debate, time that should have been spent preparing for elections.

It was only in mid-autumn that the ghost of the assembly finally departed and all agreed on elections. But thereafter, disagreement has continued on who will lead the consensus cabinet, with Bhattarai having no qualms about proposing his own name. The simplest outlet would be for the Madhesbadi coalition partners to signal their preference for a consensus government, but they are as yet reluctant.

Instead of reaching out to the opposition, the Maoist-Madhesbadi leaders have sought to bolster the perception that New Delhi helped set up the coalition and remains a steadfast supporter. The erosion of values is evident when a prime minister uses his time at Jawaharlal Nehru University as a badge of honour for the conduct of politics in Nepal. His radical supporters, knee jerk anti-Indianistas all, are nonplussed to say the least. So instead they are concentrating on a media campaign to malign and preempt the president to allow Bhattarai to continue his arbitrary rule.

No one can accuse Yadav of adventurism as long as holding free and fair elections in the spring remains his agenda. After numerous meetings with the polarised parties, on November 23, he finally issued a call for a consensus government under Article 38.1 of the constitution. Under Article 158, which allows the president to ‘remove obstacles’ in the absence of parliament, he would give that government a limited mandate to adjust electoral laws and fill vacancies in the supreme court and election commission.

The lethally lethargic Congress party is finally set to announce chairman Sushil Koirala as its candidate to lead the government, and he is emerging as the common choice of the parliamentary opposition, including the Madhesi leader Upendra Yadav. All eyes are now on the Madhesbadi parties of the present coalition.

Ideally, the forthcoming polls would be for a parliament of five years, to give confidence to the people after the long meanderings. The election campaign would provide the opportunity to debate matters that have animated the polity – presidential vs prime ministerial system, definition of federalism and separation of powers. Directing an expert committee to do the preliminary work, the parliament could transform into a constituent assembly for debate and promulgation.

President Yadav’s deadline for consensus, already renewed once, expires on December 7. He cannot extend the deadline indefinitely without weakening the position of the head of State in a country of failed institutions. So, before long, it will be incumbent upon him to move. At the extreme, he would have to dismiss Bhattarai, name a new prime minister and ask the latter to prove consensus within a time frame.

It would be best if Yadav did not have to act to save the situation. And Bhattarai’s interest in long-term politics may yet have him backtrack, for his current trajectory can only lead to confrontation for which history will blame him and his backers.

Nepali politics has been locked in suspended animation since the monsoon planting season and the autumn harvest festivals. As we enter the traditional winter of discontent, before an accident occurs, the path must be cleared for elections in April.

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