Where will Nepal go?

Murari Sharma

Confucius says only the wisest and stupidest men never change. Since we all pretend to be one of the wisest, we want others to change. So change becomes difficult.

Leading change is even more problematic. Mahatma Gandhi says, be the change that you want to see in the world. But do we want the inconvenience that change entails in us? Niccolo Machiavelli is right in saying, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

Institutionalizing change is the most challenging of all. It calls for accepting and internalizing new rules, values and institutions and submitting to them. It is difficult everywhere, because everyone wants to do it their way.

For instance, in Britain, Churchill could not accept that India could rule itself. He said, “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low caliber and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.”

Only recently, the proposal to change the voting system for fairer representation, called the alternative voting system, failed.

In the United States, slave owners in the south went into civil war with the north to prevent the freedom of their human chattels. Republican lawmakers in the House of Representative have voted desperately to repeal the Affordable Care Act, alias Obamacare, which partially socialized healthcare, more than 50 times.

In Nepal’s neighborhood, India is still nostalgic about the old Bharatbarsh and China about the old Middle Kingdom when they ruled much of Asia. It is not the geography, it is the people who are nostalgic. No wonder, institutionalizing political change has proved incredibly onerous for the leaders of Nepal.

We had that problem in 1990. The party-less Panchayat system was removed and democracy was restored. Panchayat leaders were sidelined and democratic leaders occupied the central ground. But the new leaders soon proved to be somewhat refined Panchayati leaders in their attitude and behavior.

The problem of institutionalizing change became even more serious after 2006. When the monarchy was first suspended in 2006 and abolished in 2008, political leaders simply transformed themselves into new royalties in their attitude and behavior, only by far worse. Take for example, health tourism and perks.

The royal family obtained treatment for common diseases in Nepal, occasionally went to India for complicated cases and flew seldom to the advanced countries for medical care. Now our democratic leaders travel to wealthy countries at government expense even for minor checkups and minor ailments like gastritis. You know who I am talking about.

During the Panchayat days, only the king and his immediate relatives operated over the law and enjoyed perks from the state — allowances, security compliment, vehicles, fuel, secretariat, maintenance expenses, etc. Now every political leader of some stature has secured these elaborate and generous perks.

Marx says, human quest for progress is constant. That includes better healthcare, perks and opportunities. Therefore, our political leaders are making hay when the sun is shining. But this is what sets them apart from statesmen. Statesmen like Washington, Gandhi, Mandela, Lee, etc. made personal sacrifices for the benefits of their countries, rather than making the hay for themselves.

Although Nepali leaders might be blamed for their own self-centric behavior, we the voters should also partake of some of this phenomenon. We complain about the same leaders all the time but elect them again and again. We can make and break leaders if we looked beyond family, tribal, ideological loyalty in the polling booth and can change the political landscape. That is the beauty of democracy.

We witnessed that in the second election for the Constituent Assembly itself. In the first CA, the Maoists were the largest party and the Madheshis as the fourth force. But the voters did not like their goal and methods. So in the following polls, they reduced the former to the distant third place and voted many Madheshi leaders out.

Consequently, constitution writing is inching closer to the finish line. But significant obstacles remain, mainly related to the number and the demarcation of states.

The number is significant. The more states means higher administrative expenses, higher taxes on the public, lower resources for investment in developmental activities and slower growth. A prudent tradeoff is required between each ethnic group having its own state and ability to deliver growth through increased investment in development.

The Maoists have realized the resources imperative now and came down from their 14 states to six or seven states now, as proposed by the Nepali Congress and UML. But the Madheshi leaders, according to Lalbabu Yadav, the professor of Tribhuvan University, are confused. They first wanted one state for the entire terai, but the plain districts with Tharu and hill people’s majority wanted to be no part of such a state.

Now it is not clear what the Madheshi leaders, other than Bijaya Gachhedar, are demanding and protesting for. Gachhedar, who endorsed the six-state model with two states in the Terai, now wants one more state there. But the problem is the majority in Jhapa, Morang, Kailali and Kanchanpur, which will be affected, do not accept his proposal.

Other Madheshi leaders’ demands, as Professor Yadav claims, are hard to discern. Before the six-state model was floated, they wanted no hill district to be part of Madheshi states. Now that they have won a Madheshi districts-only state in the eastern plains, they want some hill districts to be included in it. But the people of these hill district vehemently oppose this idea.

Protests mainly in the hill districts and partly in the Madheshi districts sank the six-state model, paving the way for the seven-state model, which pacified the agitating districts. However, Gachhedar has stood against this latter model and walked away from the four-party framework that had agreed on the six-state model.

Madheshi leaders have been fomenting unrest in the plains. Since people did not respond to their call for agitation, they have announced 5.0 million compensation from the would-be Madheshi state if someone died in protests, to lure the young people into violence. Three things are notable about this cynical announcement.

First, the leaders who made the call would not send their own children to protest in the hope of receiving 5 million rupees. Would they? Second, this announcement is unlawful incitement to terrorism. In a  developed democratic country, these leaders would have been hauled to jail right away. Third, western democracies do not compensate for the death of protesters unless the court finds the state responsible for using excessive and unwarranted force.

But in Nepal, everything goes.

Where will Nepal go now? Hard to predict. If the protests continue and violence spreads, there will likely be no new constitution; the country will face civil war and even potential disintegration.

I hope this is not the direction Nepal will travel in the days ahead. But the situation in the country makes one thing absolutely clear: Our leaders are failing in leading and institutionalizing change. Only time will tell who earns the most blame.


Tharus need a better deal

Murari Sharma

Tharus have received a rough deal in the draft constitution of Nepal with respect to federalism, and it must be remedied.

But first the background. Nepali political leaders, prodded by the April and May 2015 earthquakes and motivated by the impatience to change government, have finally come close to promulgating a new constitution. Though still far from certain, the statute now seems within the striking distance, after seven years.

Compared to some other countries, Nepal has taken longer to frame the new constitution. The Constitutional Assembly has been battling with the matter since 2008. Many other countries could write their constitution in a comparably short period.

For instance, the US constitution was drafted in less than 100 working days. The Indian constitution was written in less than three years. In South Africa, it took a little more than two years for drafting and adopting the document.

Why has Nepal taken so long? There are several reasons, but four of them tower prominently over others.

First, political transition is always difficult. Change is desirable but inconvenient. The system may change quickly, but people’s mentality and attitude do not. That was evident in Nepal. The powerful groups tried their level best to protect their existing privileges.

Besides, transition from monarchy and unitary state to republic and federalism was a gargantuan challenge. Federalism was very much needed to empower the marginalized and disadvantaged people, promote competitive growth and bring the best out of every region and people in the country.But the demand for ethnic states came in the way of federalism.

The Maoists and Madheshi parties rooted for ethnic federalism with 14 states. It would have satisfied a few ethnic groups while rubbing the others the wrong way in a country where there are 25 ethnic groups for 28 million people. In addition, that many states would have become economically unviable in a poor country like Nepal and a constant source of friction.

Second, change becomes particularly cumbersome to institutionalize when there is no clear political winner. The Maoists fought for proletariat dictatorship; the monarchy and democratic political parties sought to preserve the status quo of bourgeois, liberal democracy. Neither side was a clear winner. The civil war ended in a compromise. So the process of writing a new constitution was stuck in a tug of war in the opposite directions.

Third, the Maoists, who were the largest party in the first constituent assembly, squandered much time to sabotage the infant democratic values and institution rather than focusing on the constitution. Other parties should also share part of the blame, but the Maoists were at the steering wheel.

Fourth, even though the principal objective of the CA was to write a new constitution, political parties focused their energy more on changing government rather than on drafting the statute. There were five prime ministers in five years between 2008 and 2013.

The hope for a new constitution rose considerably after the elections for the second CA. Voters gave the Nepali Congress the largest number of seats, followed by the UML. Together the two parties secured the two-thirds majority needed to approve the constitution. They, which supported multi-ethnic and fewer but economically viable states, formed a coalition government.

Two things hastened the process of drafting the statute in the second CA. One was the motivation of the UML to head the government as quickly as possible. At the time of forming the coalition government, Nepali Congress leader Sushil Koirala had pledged to quit as prime minister when the constitution was promulgated. UML leader KP Oli is in a hurry to replace him, in coalition with either the NC or the UCPN (Maoist).

Oli had to check his ambition because the NC with its 205 seats in the 601-member assembly could block the constitution from being approved.

The other thing is the desire of the parties outside power to join the government for the country’s reconstruction, after the devastating earthquakes. Political parties expect considerable financial and political bonanza from the reconstruction activities.

Development partners have pledged more than 3.5 billion dollars for the reconstruction. The UCPN (Maoist) and Madheshi parties are now outside the government. They do not want the incumbent parties to get away with all of the benefits of rebuilding. So they were quick to give up their previous entrenched positions this time.

Political leaders’ greed for power and for reconstruction resources has cut the throat of procrastination on the constitution. Sometimes something good comes out from ill-intentioned actions. The statute appears within grasp now.

But it will solve some problems and unleash others. It will fill the constitutional vacuüm and lay the future course for Nepal.

New troubles have begun even before the constitution has been promulgated. Protests have started all over the country with diametrically opposite demands. Some for Hindu state, others against it; some for breaking the regions and districts to create states and others keeping them intact.

Madheshi and Hill minority leaders have declared that they do not agree with the six states that have been agreed on by the major political parties.

Some Madheshi leaders have demanded that there must be only one state for the entire plains. Other Madheshi leaders, particularly from the Tharu community, have called for more states in the plains.

While Hill minority leaders have been muted in renewing their old demand for ethnic states in the hills, they have found a common cause with the majority groups against breaking the districts and development regions to create states. Three districts and all regions have been broken to adjust them into six states. The unrest has emerged mainly in several districts in the western hills, including Baglung and Rukum.

The Madheshi, Hill minority and Hill majority people have their own reasons and logics for their opposition to the six-state structure or state demarcation. There is no way that everyone could be pleased. But some reasons appear more serious and logical than others.

Here are my thoughts on the six-state structure. One, six states are too many to sustain financially for a poor country like Nepal. Most of the resources will go to maintaining the government rather than investing in development. States lacking investment and growth will be a perennial source of trouble.

Two, denying a separate state for the people living in the plains from Daunne to Bardia is patently unjust. It is injustice against the Tharus, one of the most disadvantaged communities in Nepal; more so in view of the fact that the Madheshi in the east — from Saptari to Parsa — have been given a separate state.

Three, if demographic, communication and other objective imperatives exist for breaking the existing districts and development regions, they should be broken; otherwise not. In this light, in some cases, the demands for restructuring the country and preventing the breakup of any district or region are mutually contradictory.

Four, the six-state structure in which two states were envisaged for the plains was much better than the latest structure. The only thing that was necessary to change in the previous proposal was to give the state comprising Dhawalagiri, Gandaki and hilly districts of Lumbini land access to India by adding Nawalpur to it.

Let me emphasize once again, give Tharus a state from Daunne to Bardia.