No Time for Squabble



What had started out as cold war has escalated into a hot war of verbal punches and counterpunches between President Ram Baran Yadav and his supporters on one side, and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and his supporters on the other. This is unfortunate. Both sides should step back from the brink and end the war to avoid a much greater disaster for the country. 

Both sides have made mistakes that led to the current situation. They must take responsibility for same and mend their ways. 

To start with, Prime Minister Bhattarai announced fresh elections for another constituent assembly without amending the Interim Constitution, which has no provision for them, just before the Constituent Assembly died on 27 May 2012. That was wrong. He could not hold the polls on 22 November as announced. As soon as the scheduled date passed without polls, he lost both the moral right and the mandate to govern, and waded into an area that is anything but moral or constitutional. 

The prime minister and his minions frivolously dragged the President over the coals with speculations that the President was going to stage a coup to dismiss the government. If they knew for sure, the prime minister should have raised the issue with the President and put an end to unnecessary speculation that pulled the President into unwarranted controversy. The prime minister failed in his responsibility to do so. 

In the Westminster system, the parliament notionally or actually elects the prime minister as its leader. The prime minister then decides the operational aspects of the parliament – when to convene, what to present and when, and when to close or dissolve. The Speaker only takes care of the procedural aspects of parliamentary business, the day-to-day administration. As the leader of parliament and government, the prime minister is primarily responsible for resolving political and constitutional crises. But Bhattarai has failed in this obligation. 

He has delegated the responsibility of negotiating with other parties and end the crises to his party chair. Delegating responsibility is not wrong, but assigning responsibility to a wrong person is. For negotiations, Bhattarai has relied on a man who enjoys zero credibility with opposition leaders and who has his own personal agenda to advance. If his negotiator fails to forge consensus with other leaders, the prime minister remains ultimately responsible for it. 

When the prime minister addressed the nation on the day the elections should have been held, people and pundits had expected that he would announce his resignation. It would have been the right thing to do for him, both morally and politically. But he touted his insignificant achievements, blamed the opposition for the political impasse, announced a new date for the vote, and made it clear that he had no intention of quitting. 

Unfortunately, none of his achievements was worth the media’s time. Management of Maoist combatants would have been a stellar achievement for a non-Maoist prime minister, but not for a Maoist prime minister, because Maoist recalcitrance was the reason that the issue was hanging fire in the first place. Heaping all the blame on opposition parties would have been fine if the prime minister had resigned on moral grounds at the end of his statement.

A leader who cannot solve the problems facing the nation forfeits his moral right to remain in his position. But what Bhattarai essentially told the people in his address was this: Folks, I proved incompetent in my job and failed to make opposition parties agree with me; but please overlook my incompetence and keep me in my job. He did not mention what he would do differently to strike agreement with other parties to make the freshly announced elections possible.

Let us assume for a moment that the President was an employer and the prime minister his employee. Why should the employer retain an employee who has failed to deliver or to outline how he is going to improve his performance in the future? The employer would be right to either fire the employee or give him one more chance to perform. He gave the employee one more chance. Some may quibble that the prime minister is not the President’s employee, but I am talking about the context and spirit, not the players. 

The President’s letter, giving the government seven days to build consensus, was that one more chance. Unfortunately, the prime minister fired back, describing the letter as unconstitutional, though he had to beat around the bush to make his point. He should rather have taken the letter in his stride and tried to forge consensus within the given time. Surprisingly, although he blamed his negotiator Prachanda, Bhattarai continues to rely on him to save the government. 

Most startlingly, the prime minister publicly pronounced that he would rather get killed than leave Baluwatar. He has been inciting his supporters to agitate. These are the most bizarre things I have ever heard from a sitting prime minister. 

Is the President’s letter unconstitutional? No, it is within the ambit of the Interim Constitution, as cited in it. 

That does not mean that the President has made no mistakes. He has. For instance, the Interim Constitution stipulates that the President work with and through the prime minister on policy matters. However, the President repeatedly bypassed the prime minister and engaged with party leaders, directly asking them to resolve the constitutional crisis. So much so that he even invited the party leaders to meet him by issuing a formal letter without inviting the prime minister. The President should not have done that, at least not formally. If Bhattarai smelled conspiracy against him in that step, he has ground to do so.

Moreover, under the Westminster system, consultations between a constitutional head of state and executive prime minister are not for public consumption. What happens between the queen of England and President of India and prime ministers of those respective countries seldom makes it to the news or public debate. However, Sheetal Niwas itself failed to appreciate and observe this decorum, and furthermore, to caution party leaders who met with the President to comply with this age-old practice. 

However gripping, the blame game will not end the constitutional crisis. Since no political consensus emerged within the given seven days, the President has extended the deadline. The prime minister and other political leaders must use this valuable time productively to find consensus. Negotiations will succeed only if each party thinks of not only what it wants but also what other parties are likely to accept. It is a time for reflection, flexibility, compromise, and relentless quest for an accord. 

Frankly, no party in Nepal occupies moral high ground. Nepali people know that their politicians are no holy saints who have renounced every worldly pleasures; they are in it for power and perquisites. Therefore, political leaders should stop blaming and demoralizing each other by using acrimonious and inflammatory rhetoric, which will only make consensus harder, for the next election. 

Elections are the inevitable solution to this constitutional crisis. Former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokhrel has underlined, and the incumbent Election Commissioners agree with him, that they should be held constitutionally. The prime minister is mainly responsible for building consensus and amending the Interim Constitution to hold the polls he has unilaterally announced for April next year. 

If the prime minister fails to rise to that challenge within the timeframe given by the President, he must quit. Otherwise, the President, as custodian of the constitution, must step in to restore constitutionality under Plan A or Plan B. He does not have to share his Plan B now, as some leaders and pundits have demanded. Already a laggard, Nepal has no time to waste on endless political squabbles.

Published in Republica

Published on 2012-12-02 01:15:03

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