Murari Sharma: Nepal’s democracy is at stake

The proposal to amend Nepal’s constitution for the second time within a year has polarised the country. It has divided the political parties, the Nepali population, and even the neighboring countries. At stake is Nepal’s democracy.

Obviously, the ruling coalition is pushing the amendment to accommodate partly the demands of the Madheshi regional parties. These parties want to make Hindi a national language, to open the highest posts to some naturalized citizens, to allocate the upper house seats based on population, and to separate hill and Terai states.

But the amendment has no future. The Madheshi regional parties have said they will not accept the amendment without further changes to accommodate all their demands. The opposition has vowed to continue preventing the discussion in the house and protesting in the street.

Foreign backing for and against has made the amendment even more toxic. India has openly sided with the Madheshi regional parties. China has tacitly supported the opposition to thwart India from furthering its strategic advantage in Nepal.

In this situation, one expects the government to find a compromise acceptable to all sides. But Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has failed to do so.

Dahal’s legendary arrogance and propensity to self-harm have come in the way. They had sunk him and his government in 2009. This time, they are preventing him from seeking a common ground, which will be possible only all three sides move to the middle.

Besides, the coalition itself is putting Dahal in a tight spot. Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of the Nepali Congress Party and the largest coalition partner, has been waiting for his turn to replace Dahal. He seems in no mood to give credit to Dahl for the safe-landing of the Madheshi regional parties, in view of the elections in the early 2018.

Even for Deuba, it is not going to be a smooth sail. The Madheshi regional parties, which lost significant ground in the 2013 elections, would not want to hand him victory and cement their previous loss further in the next vote. The opposition leader KP Oli, who has become popular due to his anti-amendment posture, would want to cash his popularity for his party, not for the Nepali Congress.

Such bickering between democratic leaders and parties has given room to neighboring countries to advance their self-interest in Nepal at the cost of Nepal. When they were together, they promulgated the new constitution in 2015 despite strong external opposition. They reached the 16-point agreement prior to the promulgation of the constitution in the similar circumstances.

However, the problem before us is not beyond resolution. If all sides come together, then there will be either no problem to resolve or it would be easy to solve. But if anyone suggests that the current impasse is caused by only one side, they are either partisan or lying.

People and institutions are guided by self-interest: Self-preservation and self-promotion. Such self-interest may range from eating and drinking to keeping immigrants out. You will fail if you ask people to forgo their self-interest, as they define it for them and not as you define it for them, at their cost.

Whatever we say and do is motivated by self-interest, and the collection of self-interest is the national interest. Even this preachy article is self-promotion aimed at advancing the national interest.

In other words, you cannot divest self-interest from the national interest. So we who claim to be in the middle should be practical and fair to all sides. Otherwise, the extreme right and left will threaten democratic institutions and even hijack democracy itself.

For example, Donald Trump won the presidency in the USA because the mainstream candidates failed to recognize the self-interest of the common people. The Brexit and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany also fall in this category.

Nepal has seen it all. Now former King Gyanendra has issued a statement indicating that he is prepared to save the country. The fringe Maoist parties and Terai separatist groups are fishing in troubled waters. The disgruntled people may throw their support behind these fringe elements, as they had done behind the Maoists only a two decades ago.

So the government must take a step back and begin discussions with all sides in the present impasse to find a common ground before it is too late. Otherwise, Nepal’s democratic institution and democracy will suffer an unspeakable damage in the days to come.

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Murari Sharma: Nepal heading into crisis

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is rushing blindfolded to a precipice with his proposal to amend the constitution. If he does not listen to the calls to open his eyes before it is too late, he will fall off, taking the country with him. That is scary.

Dahal’s blindness to the apparent facts is baffling. He needs 396 votes out of 595 in the parliament to approve his proposal, which he does not have, even if all his coalition partners stick with him.

Here is the math. The UML and other parties that have 200 members are openly opposing the amendment. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party, a coalition partner with 27 members, has made it clear that it would not support the amendment.

Besides, the Madheshi parties, with around 18 seats, have said they would support the amendment only with further concessions, without mentioning what.

It gets even more complex. Some leaders of Dahal’s own party have openly opposed the amendment in full or part. The Nepali Congress Party, the largest coalition partner, has the same problem.

A five-year old child can see this simple math, but Dahal does not see or care.

Why? Enter India. Dahal has been pushing the amendment to appease India, rather than satisfy the Madheshi parties. Indian leaders want the amendment and the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu had overtly lobbied the Nepali leaders to deliver it.

What is India’s motivation? India has provided development assistance to win the hearts of the Nepali people in virtually all sectors of the economy: From education and health to agriculture, roads, and power.

India has also sought to integrate Nepal in its security and economic architecture since it became independent from Britain and punished whenever Nepal has defied its dictate.

The 1950 treaty provides the framework for such integration. It established common security interest and granted equal rights to each other’s citizens in residence, trade, contracts and movement. Further steps followed.

For instance, in 1953, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru extracted agreement from his counterpart Matrika Koirala to coordinate the two countries’ foreign policy, only to be pushed back by a fierce opposition in Nepal.

The 1965 letter, exchanged as part of the 1950 treaty, has stipulated that Nepal acquire all defense supplies from India and obtain India’s approval before importing them from third countries.

India has punished Nepal whenever its dictat has been defied. For example, it imposed an economic embargo on Nepal in 1969/70 to chastise King Mahendra for removing the Indian check posts from the Nepal-China border.

In 1989/90, India imposed the second economic blockade (reduced the number of transit points from 14 to 2) because King Birendra imported Chinese weapons without Indian approval.

The king paid a huge political price. The blockade crated enormous shortages and angered people. The banned democratic parties launched a democratic movement, tapping the anger, and India support it. The movement reduced the king to a constitutional monarch.

The growing protests ended with the induction of multiparty democracy, and the king became a constitutional monarch.

Similarly, King Gyanendra lost the monarchy in 2008 for insisting, among other things, on making China an observer in SAARC.

Indian punishment has extended to the elected leaders as well. For instance, in 2009, New Delhi openly prevented Pushpa Kamal Dahal from becoming prime minister again because he had criticized India.

In 2015, India imposed the third economic embargo when Prime Minister Sushil Koirala refused to delay the promulgation of the new constitution written by the constituent assembly.

New Delhi said Nepal’s Madheshi parties had obstructed the border, but it was only partly true. The Madheshi picketed some border points, notably Birgunj, but India curtailed the flow of sensitive goods, such as petroleum and medicine, from even those points where there was no obstruction.

In 2016, India openly campaigned against Prime Minister KP Oli because he had criticized the Indian economic blockade and had signed trade and transit treaties with China to reduce Nepal’s economic dependence on India.

Dahal succeeded Oli by promising to become friends with India and amend the constitution. And he is trying to keep his pledge. He is aware that, if he fails to deliver, he will lose his chair.

But he has bitten more than he can chew, substantively and constitutionally. In substance, the proposed amendment covers re-demarcation of state boundaries, citizenship, language, and representation in the upper house.

The boundary issue is by far the most explosive. The Madheshi parties insist that all districts in the plains should come under one Madheshi state or two  Madheshi states. The Hill people do not agree with that demand.

Dahal has sought to placate the Madheshi parties by disengaging the hill and plain districts in State 5 and by referring other plain districts to a boundary commission. But the districts in State 5  have raised the hell of protests against the proposal. That is a clear indication as to what could happen if a similar solution is found for the remaining plain districts.

On citizenship, the Madheshi parties want foreign women married to Nepali men to obtain Nepali citizenship as soon as they initiate the process of renouncing the old citizenship and to have all the rights of the Nepalis born in Nepal.

No other country in the world has such a generous provision. For instance, it takes 7 years in India for Nepali women married to Indian men to get Indian citizenship. It takes 2 to 5 years in Western countries. India prevented Sonia Gandhi, a naturalized Indian citizen, from becoming prime minister. The United States bars such citizens from becoming president.

On language, the Madheshi parties want Hindi to be recognized as one of Nepal’s national languages. India has included Nepali in its constitutional schedule. But it has no fear that the Nepali language will crowd out Hindi there. In Nepal, Hindi might wipe out Nepali language and identity altogether.

The representation in the upper house is relatively simple to resolve. Currently, each state is given eight members, regardless of their size, as the two senators from each state in the United States. The Madheshi parties want the representation based on population only. An accommodation is possible by setting aside the equal minimum number of seats to each state and assigning the rest based on population.

Constitutionally, amending the statute requires the consent of the two-thirds of states, which are yet to be created. Yet, the first amendment had gone through early this year because no one raised its constitutionality.

But this time, the UML has placed the matter front and center, and the Supreme Court is hearing cases in this regard. If the court sticks to the letter of the constitution, the amendment would be impossible without fulfilling the due process.

Politicians blame each other for the impasse, and partisan political pundits parrot their leaders. Do not believe them. Actually, the issues on the table are complex and delicate, and they cannot be resolved without concessions and compromises from all sides.

The solution must be found to hold the elections, due in a little more than a year, and avert a constitutional crisis. It can be found if Prime Minister Dahal removes his blindfold and opens his mind. Otherwise, he will fall off the precipice, taking the country with him.