Murari Sharma: Nepal’s Ping Pong Politics

Ping pong is a great game. Ping pong diplomacy has served China and America well. However, ping pong in Nepal’s politics is destructive.

China made ping pong diplomacy famous. It developed close and friendly relations with other countries by actually promoting table tennis matches between the Chinese players and their counterparts from elsewhere, particularly from the United States.

It all started when an American table tennis player missed his bus in Nagoya, Japan, when he was practicing with a Chinese player. As the court closed and the American player had no team bus to carry him, a Chinese player invited him to the Chinese team bus. They exchanged gifts, and a journalist asked the American player if he would like to be invited to China, he said yes. This news was published.

After initially rejecting the idea, Chinese leaders decided to invite the American table tennis delegation. The American team visited China in April 1971. This was the first step in the rapprochement between the erstwhile two enemy nations and it paved the way for the first ever visit of Communist China by an American president in 1972. Now China is America’s largest trading partner.

However, ping pong in politics means shifting responsibility — throwing the ball in the opponent’s court. Though politicians across the world play this game shamelessly, Nepali political leaders have been the best in playing it most clumsily. It is evident in respect to the new constitution, supposed to have been written more than four years ago.

The Constituent Assembly, elected in April 2008, could not write the constitution in five years, including the extended period. Political parties could not agree on the number and names of provinces, the type of government, and judicial independence. They blamed each other for the failure, though it was a collective failure in which Maoists, then the largest in the assembly, had the greatest share.

The main parties had philosophical and tactical differences on the nature and number of states, chief executive and judiciary. The Maoists insisted on 14 ethnic states, executive president, and the political control of courts. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), the second and third largest in the assembly, did not agree. The NC fought for 6/7 multi-ethnic states, executive prime minister, and independence judiciary. The UML wanted executive power divided between president and prime minister, while standing between the other two on other issues.

This disagreement led to the dissolution of the assembly in 2013 without drafting a new constitution. The current assembly, elected in November 2013, has set 22 January 2015 as the deadline for promulgating the constitution, which seems to be slipping fast.

The big three have stuck to their guns, so far. The NC and the UML, the largest and second largest in the assembly, which are seeking consensus, have said that they would promulgate the constitution by a two-thirds majority, as the Interim Constitution provides, if no agreement is found. Unwilling to compromise, the Maoists and other fringe groups have threatened to launch nationwide protests if the constitution were approved in that manner.

The differences do not exist among the big three alone. Other parties represented in the assembly too have even starker differences in philosophies and demands.  For instance, the Rastriya Janamorcha opposes federalism; Madheshi parties oppose ethnic federalism in the Terai; hill ethnic groups oppose multicultural states in the hills. Similarly, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Thapa), the fourth largest in the current assembly, opposes secularism and republicanism, and wants to reinstate Hindu state and monarchy. Other parties are opposed to this demand.

Amidst these contradictions, even the supposedly omnipotent God cannot evolve consensus. Consensus might be the best means of resolving differences if comes through negotiations.  However, it is not one of the fundamental requirements of democracy, and imposing it by the minority over the majority is essentially authoritarian.

There is a Nepali proverb: Hold back the plough yourself and beat the oxen for not pulling it. The Maoists and other fringe parties are doing it to prevent the constitution from becoming reality. There are only two ways to overcome this impasse.

First, friendly countries, particularly India, can put pressure on political leaders to find consensus and force them to adopt a new constitution by a two-thirds majority if the consensus is not found. Such interference would be undesirable. Besides, even friendly countries are divided in their opinions.

India, the most influential of all, seems to prefer one state for the entire Terai, which is not acceptable to the majority of Terai residents. It has not made its position clear on the model of government and judiciary. India may find it imprudent to give one more reason for the majority of Nepali to hate it. China seems to oppose ethnic federalism in the hills and a single state in the Terai.

Other countries do not have sufficient political levers to make a difference. For instance, a Western ambassador in Kathmandu has complained that the Nepali leaders have refused to consider the cost implications of federalism. Maoists and regionalist leaders have abandoned the economic viability to create numerous ethnic states for their narrow interests. More states mean more ministers and parliamentarians and more room for political patronage.

Second, civil society can generate enough pressure on political parties — if it works in concert, as it had done to defuse the Maoist indefinite strike in May 2010 – to promulgate the constitution by 22 January 2015.

However, civil society is also divided along political lines. Those in the middle are stoic about the form of government — presidential, prime ministerial or mixed. They have also failed to inform ordinary people about the parochial interests of politicians in creating more states, which would mean unsustainable taxes and lack of resources for development activities. And they have remained deafeningly quiet about the need for judicial independence, a sine qua non for democracy

It was refreshing that the governor of the Nepal Rastra Bank said in New York that the more states means higher taxes to run them. I wish he had said the same thing in Kathmandu. I have also occasionally heard some businessmen (they are mostly men) worrying about higher taxes if there were too many states. However, business organizations have not presented their collective position on the number of states and their cost implications.

Civil society’s indifference about federalism and judiciary will harm the country irreparably.

In my study of the federal structures of India, America and Britain, I have found that Nepal will have to employ 40,000 additional bureaucrats in average for each additional state, even after the redeployment of the existing staff.

The salaries, allowances, office accommodation, etc. of these employees would cost at least 12 billion rupees for each state annually. If we have more than four or five states, these states will eat up every penny of revenue, leaving nothing for development. If there are no resources for development, Nepal will not be Switzerland; it will be Somalia.

The independence of judiciary is vital to protect the citizen’s human rights and fundamental freedoms from against ever-expanding state control and state excesses. Otherwise, we may end up as a totalitarian state, as the Maoists and some other political groups want.

Politicians want many states that will create many political posts to occupy and give them more opportunities for political patronage. Those in power will play ping pong and maintain the status quo. Civil society should concertedly press the politicians to finalize the statute by consensus or by a two-thirds majority by 22 January 2015.

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