Murari Sharma: Shiva Sharma’s Satu and Nepali Politics

As a child, I had read a story about Shiva Sharma who begged for a living. One day, a generous benefactor gave him a sizeable quantity of satu (roasted corn flour) in alms. Shiva Sharma came home and put the sac of satu at the foot-side of his Spartan bed. He lay down in his bed and began to think how he could sell part of the flour, make some money, invest in a farm, get rich, get married, have children and punish his children if they did not behave. When he motioned his leg how he was going to kick his misbehaving children, his leg hit the bag, and the satu was spilled on the dirty floor aborting his dream. Next day, he went to beg again.

In November 2013, Nepalese political leaders handed voters big pouches of satu full of empty dreams: A new constitution within a year, higher investment, higher growth, better education and health services, more jobs, higher income, more energy, more drinking and irrigating water, more roads. The voters have put the bag of flour near their bed and rewarded those with their votes who sounded more credible and who were not directly responsible for throwing their old sac to the floor last time. As you note, there is a slight variation in the Shiva Sharma story: Here the leaders, not the voters, kick the bag to the floor.

Nearly three months after the election, Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress has been elected prime minister by the Constituent Assembly. He has not been able to put together his cabinet because he would not cede the Home Ministry to his main coalition partner, the CPN (UML), and the UML would not join the NC-led government without the Home portfolio. Nepal’s case is not as bad as of Lebanon which took 11 months to form government, but that is small solace.

The NC has argued that when it supported Madhav Nepal of the UML, which was smaller than it, for prime minister, and given both the Home and Finance ministries to his party; therefore, the UML should reciprocate this time. That is logical. So is the UML argument that since both the president and the prime minister are from the NC, it should have the Home affairs.

The 7-point agreement between the NC and the CPN (UML), the largest and second largest in the CA II, to form coalition government, write the constitution within a year, and serve the public interest is in tatters before the ink has even dried. It now looks increasingly likely that political leaders will kick the sac of satu to the floor, as in the past, while they enrich themselves.

Most of the 601 members in the CA I got richer and more powerful. They pocketed the monthly salary, meeting allowance, housing allowance and other benefits as well as took foreign trips. Meanwhile, the voters suffered waiting for their leaders’ promise come true. Indeed, the Nepalese are more democratic and prosperous now than ever before. But if you put it in perspective, the picture changes completely.

For one thing, most of these improvements have become possible from the remittances the Nepali nationals send by selling their sweat and blood in alien lands, mostly working in appalling conditions. Second, all those countries that started the journey of development with Nepal – like South Korea and Singapore – have gone far ahead. Even Bhutan and Maldives that came along much later have superseded Nepal.

So there is no room for consolation. If the Nepali people have to be grateful to their leaders, it is only for issuing passports and for not preventing the youth from leaving the country for foreign employment.

Today, nearly three million Nepalese work in the Gulf, Malaysia and elsewhere, many of them in dangerously inhospitable weather of 50 C and awful conditions. The British newspaper Guardian reported that 400 Nepali laborers constructing the World Cup Stadium in Qatar died due to heat, exhaustion and poor health and safety conditions. The situation is similar across the Middle East. These workers send money home so their families can eat well, get medical treatment, send children to school, and support the national economy.

Sure, economic development takes time even if leaders do their best, which they have not. But they have not delivered what they could in the short-run, either. No new constitution in five years, though they promised it in 2008 within two years. No justice for the victims of the Maoist insurgency. No better education and healthcare. No local elections. No drinking water and electricity. In 2013, our leaders kicked down the old sac and handed us a new bag with tons of promises, the new constitution within a year, growth, jobs, drinking water, energy, etc. once again.

The Nepali people are tired of the shenanigans of petty minded and self-centered politicians. They want what their leaders have promised. They don’t understand why their leaders are wasting so much political capital for an extremely limited objective of bagging one ministry, however strategic it may be.

Both the NC and UML will do well by meeting half way for the country’s greater good. They will be rewarded handsomely for this in the next election. If they cannot trust each other with the Home Ministry in view of the expected local elections, then the ministry could be given to a small party in the coalition that poses no threat to either. Either way, the Home Ministry should not stand between the Nepali people and the stable government and new constitution.

The coalition of the NC and UML has had the potential to offer both. Together, they enjoy near two-thirds majority in the CA II for providing stable government and for approving the new constitution. They are also close on contentious issues like the number and nature of federal provinces as well as the form of government, which had prevented the CA I from writing the new constitution.

There is also a meeting of minds on federalism, as both want a small number of economically viable multi-identity provinces. The NC wants powerful prime minister and titular president, whereas the UML wants to divide executive powers between a popularly elected president a house elected prime minister, a la France. This is a small difference that could be easily reconciled.

The NC and UML have a critical choice to make now. If they want to emulate the UCPN (Maoist) in arrogance and irresponsibility in CA I, they should continue fighting over trivial matters and kick Shiva Sharma’s sac of satu to the floor. If they want to remain competitive in the next election, they should compromise and work together to deliver the new constitution and good government.

As such, the NC being the largest in the CA II has more responsibility to find modus vivendi with the UML and other parties. And the UML claiming almost equal strength should behave equally responsibly as well.

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Politics, Morality and Right to Recall

Murari Sharma:

Although the Constituent Assembly II has received a fractured mandate to govern, it could not be clearer in in its mandate for writing a new constitution within a year, as the major parties have pledged in their election manifestos. But as things are developing in Kathmandu, one gets the sense that none of the major parties actually want to deliver the statute as promised.

The background first. In the 601-member CA II, 240 seats are assigned to direct elections and 335 to proportional representation, and 26 to nomination. From the first two categories, the Nepali Congress (NC) has 196 seats, the CPN (UML) 175 seats and the UCPN (Maoist) 80 seats. Smaller parties have secured the rest. The nominated slot is yet to be filled.  Once that is done, the NC will approximately have 205, the UML 181 and the Maoists 84 seats.

Evidently, no single party has received the magic number of 301 for the governing majority. Yet the NC and UML together will need only 15 members from other parties to approve the new constitution by a two-thirds majority, as stipulated by the Interim Constitution. And their positions on such key contentious issues like the nature of federalism and form of government, left outstanding by the CA I, are close if not identical.

But the post-election developments strongly suggest that none of the major parties, contrary to their pledge in their manifestos, is eager to deliver a new statute within a year. To write the constitution quickly, the NC and UML need to work together in government and in the CA II and try to take on board the Maoists and other parties. The Maoists, the largest party in the CA I, are not a major player this time but they enjoy nuisance value.

However, neither the NC nor the UML seems in a mood of compromise on the division of posts and perks in the government to be formed. The NC would not accept elections for a new President, and yield Home and Finance portfolios. The UML would not participate in government unless it gets the presidency and Home and Finance ministries. The bitterness arising from this lack of compromise on government will spill over to the work of the CA II as well and make the collaboration, needed for timely writing of the law of the land, very difficult.

Incidentally, under the Interim Constitution, there is no need for electing the President until a new constitution is adopted. And the division of portfolios between the two parties is a matter of political give and take. The unwillingness of the NC and UML to accommodate each other makes it abundantly clear that none of them is in a hurry to deliver the constitution within a year.

To boot, if the new President is elected now and the constitution is written within a year, his term would be one year plus the time to conduct parliamentary elections. Why any of the senior UML leaders would want to become President for a year or so? To let the newly elected President serve for 4/5 years, the new constitution will have to be delayed accordingly.

The NC is not in a hurry either. Sushil Koirala has had an understanding with his deputy Ram Chandra Paudel to serve as Prime Minister for the duration of writing the constitution and then handover the post to him. Why would Koirala want to shorten his premiership if he can prolong it by delaying the new constitution?

In other words, neither the UML nor the NC wants to write the statute within a year or two.

The Maoists do not want the constitution to be written by the CA II at all because they do not have the numbers to bend it their way, without which they would not compromise.

Politicians seldom feel moral shame when they breach their vows and pledges. Niccolo Machiavelli has said, “Politics has no relation to morals.” Centuries later, Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” Even though times have changed, the relation between politics and morals remains constant, unchanged with the passage of time.

All politics is personal. The NC emerged the largest party in the recent election under Sushil Koirala, who should have had the moral privilege to be automatically nominated by his party to lead new government. No. Koirala had to defeat Sher Bahadur Deuba who also staked his claim as the leader of parliamentary party (LPP). The post of President and Finance and Home ministers have become non-negotiable for the NC more because the incumbent President Ram Baran Yadav is from the NC cadre and certain powerful members of the party have claimed those portfolios and less because they have an issue of principle.

In the same vein, the UML leaders want a “respectable share” of key posts more to resolve their internal power struggle and less to serve any national or constitutional cause. None of the top three leaders — Jhalanath Khanal, Madhav Nepal and KP Oli – wants to become President for a year or so. But each of them wants the other to take the high post and get out of the way so the remaining two can become the party chairman or the LPP. The LPP has become lucrative because of the fractured mandate in the CA II that opens the door for realigning the parties and becoming Prime Minister.

One engages in politics for post and power. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in hard bargains in politics, where morality has little room anyway. But there must be a virtual line where personal interest ends and national interest begins, so the former does not trump the latter.

Everyone can judge politicians, but only history and voters can award them consequences. History’s judgement and consequences often occur after the subject has faded from power or vanished from earth. Only voters have the opportunity to judge and reward or punish politicians in every election cycle. We must ask ourselves, have we as voters done our job well this time?

Perhaps not. We have once again given a fractured mandate to the CA II and returned mostly the same old faces who had failed us in the CA I. We missed the opportunity to set right what was wrong the last time. In the next election cycle, we must give a clear mandate, as well as exercise our right to hold leaders accountable and to reward and punish them. Equally important, we must demand that the right to recall our elected representatives is included in the new statute to keep our leaders on their toes.

Only then, politicians will behave, act in a morally upright fashion, and deliver. Otherwise, we voters will continue to complain about politicians, and leaders will continue to pursue their personal interest with impunity.

Yet, this must be said: Even robbers, thieves and pickpockets have their own integrity, whose breach is punished with corporal pain and even death. So we voters have every right to expect some level of morality, integrity and accountability from our representatives this time and every time.