Potion to Cure



Nepal’s body politics has been terribly sick for quite some time. But its caretakers are seeking treatment only for the symptoms, not the disease. If we do not insist on treating the disease now, it will likely lead to a bigger regret later. 

The caretakers, who fight all the time for power, have given the patient wrong food and drinks and administered nostrums that have worsened the condition further. They gave us hope that election to a Constituent Assembly (CA) and abolition of monarchy would prepare a potion to cure the disease. The monarchy was abolished and the CA elected. But the CA could not produce the potion because the caretakers poisoned it to death with corruption, mistrust, discord, and self-centered myopia. 

Evidently, the immediate cause of the CA’s death was the caretakers’ self-centered myopia on a key ingredient of the potion—nature and number of federal states. The Maoist caretakers wanted 14 states based on ethnicity in the hills and on geography in the plains. The Congressites and Marxist-Leninist wanted 7 to 13 that merged identity, geography and economic viability. The Madheshis wanted one, at most two, state(s) in the Tarai and more than 10 up in the hills. They all stuck to their guns to shoot the CA to death.


Both internal and external factors caused the discord. Internally, the Maoists hope that a fragmented Nepal will succumb more easily to their dream of proletariat control. Their rhetoric that they are trying to redress historical injustice on minorities is a false facade. The NC and UML want states that are viable and that preserve multiculturalism. The Madheshi parties want few states in the plains so they can use their economic weight, strategic location and proximity to India to bend the entire country to their will. 

Our neighbors and friends have their own worries and agendas. China, for instance, is worried that ethnic federalism in Nepal could send a wrong signal to its poor and restive minority provinces in the west. India, on the other hand, is eager to see that the Tarai has no more than two states to make Nepal its de facto province. Western countries want to expunge their sins of genocide committed by them against the native people in their countries or colonies by encouraging ethnic federalism in Nepal and to have unobstructed freedom to convert minorities to Christianity.

They must be already drawing the battle lines for a civil war between Hindus and Christians in Nepal 20/30 years down the road.

Just before the CA died on May 27, 2012, the caretakers seemed close to agree on 11 states under time pressure, leaving the names and boundaries as the only sticking points. The emerging agreement fell through as the Maoists and Madheshi parties backtracked at the last minute, at the behest of their external backers. You may recall that Madheshi parties opposed the deal after a friendly diplomat urged some of their CA members at a dinner to unleash a storm against multiple state proposals in the Tarai. You do not need an enemy if you have a friend like that. 

Federalism is an emotive issue. To strike an agreement, the caretakers should have, in addition to identifying identity and viability as the basic parameters, assigned weight to them and assessed their implications. But they did not. Negotiations on the issue, therefore, were ordained to fail from day one and they did. Nothing has changed since. The caretakers wasted their time—some trying to keep their chair and others trying to snatch it. Short of a miracle, the gulf on federalism is unlikely to be bridged in the next CA unless a new approach is pursued. 

There are two options which can prevent the CA from being poisoned to death by the same factors once again: one, formation of a constitution drafting committee and putting the draft constitution it comes up with for an up-and-down vote in the new CA; two, having a referendum on the nature and number of federal states during the next general election. 

A few weeks ago, Bhagirath Basnet and I had argued about the need to constitute a constitution drafting committee and put up the committee’s draft for an up-and-down vote in the CA (Oligarchs and elections, April 3). That is a shortcut. However, I understand that this shortcut will not be acceptable to those parties that fear that public opinion is not on their side. 

The most democratic and viable way to narrow the disagreements on the nature (ethnic, regional, or geographical) and number (5 to 14) of provinces in federal Nepal and neutralize unwarranted external interference will be a referendum. Such a referendum will empower the Nepali people to express whether they want a few economically viable states and low taxes to support them or too many economically unviable states and high taxes. The CA can then decide the names and boundaries of states. 

It will not be outlandish to have such a referendum on the nature and number of states. Several countries —including Canada, Switzerland, Finland, France, the Philippines and Germany—have provisions for initiatives or propositions for such referendums at the national level. The US has it at the state level. States in the US hold such referendums together with general elections, at a small additional cost of printing an extra ballot paper and putting an extra ballot box at each polling booth. 
For instance, in the November 2012 elections alone, 38 US states conducted referendums on 174 propositions, including on the right to die, genetically modified food, same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. Voters voted to choose the president, members of congress and members of state congress, as well as to express their views on the propositions, in the same visit to the polling booth or with the same click online.

In Nepal, Article 157 of the Interim Constitution provides for a referendum on “matters of national importance.” Nothing could be more important for the country now than taking a decision on federalism. If the cabinet decides and the president approves, just the way constitutional hurdles for the election have been removed, the referendum could be held by simply placing an extra ballot box at each polling booth and an extra ballot paper, as in the US. 

We know the limitations of our caretakers. They could not produce the much-sought potion, and killed the machine meant to produce it. They could not hold the election on their own in accordance with the Interim Constitution, so they appointed temporary caretakers and mauled and raped the constitution to do it. Like fish out of water, they are desperate to get back into the pond. They want your vote but they do not respect your vote or the due process. The caretakers will not go for the referendum unless the Nepali people insist on it. 

Therefore, the Nepali people now have a choice to make. They can insist on the referendum on the nature and number of federal states to ensure the preparation of the right potion by the new CA. Or they can let the caretakers have their flawed way that is sure to prevent the preparation of the potion to treat the ailing Nepali body politics, and at best, to produce a potion that the majority of people may find abhorring when the cost of running so many states begins to break their back.

Maybe the New Year will give us wisdom to treat the disease from which the Nepali body politics is suffering, not just its symptoms.


Published on 2013-04-21 01:15:20


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