Murari Sharma: Battle for Constitution

To the horror of the Nepali people and the international community, the 22 January deadline to promulgate a new constitution of Nepal slipped unceremoniously. Rather than it becoming a day to celebrate the new constitution, it turned out to be a date of mourning for Nepali politics: The members of the opposition front hit and wounded their counterparts from the ruling parties and marshals by pushing and shoving them and by throwing mikes and chairs at them.

The people are angry with their leaders for letting them down, once again. The new constitution is necessary to conclude the peace process started in 2005, to set the country on a firm constitutional footing for political uncertainty, and to focus on economic and social progress. For those reasons as well as for peace in South Asia, the world community cares about order, stability and progress in Nepal, a country sandwiched by the nuclear and far from friendly India and China.

Actually, the people were not demanding more than what political parties have committed in their election manifesto 2013. The main parties had promised that they would produce the new constitution within a year to mitigate the public anger with them for their failure to submit the statute from the first constituent assembly. The Maoists were more specific in that they had pledged to seek consensus in the first six months and go for voting after that if no agreement was reached.

Yet, there were plenty of indications that the parties have forgotten or abandoned their election pledge. While the ruling parties are to blame for the arrogance of their two-thirds majority in the house, which they displayed on the eve of 22 January, the opposition front is culpable for its recalcitrance. Here are two clearest examples: Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the front’s leader, is collaborating with the CPN (Maoist) which does not want the constitution written by the assembly; he is also fomenting agitation at a time when he should have been seeking consensus.

Why? First and foremost, the Maoists are not motivated to promulgate the constitution from the second assembly. Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai had dissolved the first assembly in 2013 to obtain a two-thirds majority to have a free hand in drafting the constitution; but the opposite happened, pushing the party from the first to the third place. In this situation, the Maoists will naturally prevent the second assembly from issuing the statute, hoping that the next poll could give them greater strength.

Second, the winners of the 2013 elections and ruling coalition partners — Nepali Congress and the CPN (UML) — continue to differ from the Maoists on the four contentious issues — federalism, form of government, election system and judiciary — that failed the first assembly. The Maoists rejected their proposal on these issues out of hand and demanded its withdrawal. When the Maoists presented their proposal, the ruling parties dissed it as well. That was clearly a sign of troubles.

Third, the moment the Maoists deviated from their election pledge, it was clear that the statute would not materialize. They had pledged in their 2013 election manifesto that they would try for consensus for the first six months and go for voting to deliver the statute within a year; but as they saw that they could not prevail, they opposed the voting process entirely and threatened to use all means to prevent the voting.

To break the deadlock, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala took personal initiative to assure the front that their proposal was for negotiation, not written in stone. Indeed, he showed flexibility in the proposal by agreeing to include proportional representation for the lower house of parliament against the initial proposal. At least twice, two sides seemed to bridge their differences on key issues; but on both occasions, Maoist leader Dahal retracted.

Tired of this, the ruling parties decided to prepare the ground for the voting process to begin. In the wee hours of 6 January, the speaker allowed the Nepali Congress whip to propose a committee to formulate questions for the house to consider and vote upon. The Maoist and Madheshi lawmakers shouted slogan and engaged in violence. They broke mikes and chairs, manhandled the prime minister, hit KP Oli and others with the mikes and chairs, and attacked the marshals.

Dahal did not try to stop his party members and his Madheshi alliance members from violence and mayhem. Rather, he later displayed a sense of triumph for the violence and vowed to do it all over again, even more severely. Before that morning, many people I had spoken to had given Dahal the benefit of the doubt that perhaps he was having trouble carrying his front with him, but that morning changed that. Now most people I have spoken to say that Dahal does not want this assembly to draft and adopt the constitution at all.

Why does Dahal not want this assembly to achieve its goal? Is it his personal ambition to become executive president? Is his party’s goal to convert Nepal into proletariat dictatorship by stealth? Is it that he is under enormous pressure not to compromise from his front members? Is it the commitment that Dahal and his deputy Bhattarai have made in their letters in 2002 to the Indian prime minister’s office and to the Indian Intelligence Bureau?

It is a pity that no one has tried to find out exactly what promises Dahal and Bhattarai have made to the Indian authorities. Until those letters come to the public domain, people will continue to suspect that they could be Lhedup Dorjis of Nepal under their nationalistic veneer.

Whatever the reason and motivation of Dahal, the constitution is in limbo. If Dahal, with less than one-third lawmakers behind him, is no mood to compromise, then NCP and UML with more than two-thirds CA members would not kowtow to him either. The bulk of civil society supports the ruling parties. Unless Dahal and Bhattarai have promised to New Delhi to become Lhendup Dorji, India will not put pressure on either side of the divide. China is not directly engaged in Nepal’s politics. What other countries say would not cut in Nepal.

So, Nepal is unlikely to have a new constitution unless the CA speaker shows guts to take the first step towards the voting process, which may convince Dahal to assume a more realistic stance; unless the government is prepared to deal with its consequences; unless India advises all sides to compromise; and unless civil society puts its united weight on both sides to come to the middle. That means the Nepali people and the international community will face more mayhem and disappointment in the days ahead.

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