Murari Sharma: Main lessons of local elections

Recently, Nepal has completed two phases of local elections in six provinces, covering 617 local bodies, town and village municipalities, in 67 districts. It leaves Province 2 with 127 municipalities in 8 districts for the third phase. The election result in the first two phases has imparted important, some expected and some unexpected, lessons for Nepali politics.

First, people were eager to participate in the elections. The average participation level reached 71 percent. It was only expected in view of the fact that local elections were conducted after a hiatus of two decades, during which time the local bodies were run by bureaucrats.

Second, Madheshi leaders, now organized around the Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal, were disconnected from Madheshi voters. RJP leaders had called on the Madheshi voters to boycott the election. But the voters enthusiastically participated in the 14 Terai districts where the elections have been held in the first two phases. Voter participation in these districts was much higher than several hill districts, including Ramechhap, Dolakha, and Bhojpur. The RJP leaders had not expected it.

Third, broad-based politics triumphed sectarian identity politics, at least this time. The CPN (UML) and the Nepali Congress, which believe in broad-based politics, emerged as the largest and second largest parties from the elections winning in 276 and 226 local bodies. Among the pro-identity parties, the Maoists came a distant third with 84. The Federal Socialist Forum and Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic) bagged only 8 and 7 mayors. Other pro-identify parties did not win any mayorship at all.

Fourth, boycotting elections is a poor strategy if the majority is willing to participate in them. Sure, when King Gyanendra organized local elections before he was suspended, the mainstream political parties did not participate and those who were elected could not assume their office, proving the whole exercise a fiasco. But this time, RJP lost the opportunity to participate in the polls in the 14 Terai districts due to the boycott and some of its senior leaders and many supporters defected to other parties to take part in the ballot.

It would be apt to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt here. He has said, “In our personal ambitions we are individualists.”  All leaders pursue their personal goals and forget about the common good until the next election is due. But RJP leaders failed to read the mind of the Madheshi voters, who want better schools, hospitals, sanitation facilities and roads. So the Madheshi voters participated in the local elections and supported those political parties that could potentially deliver.

That is not to suggest that identity politics has no role to play. Such politics has relevance to energize the oppressed people to fight for their rights. But it often ends in disaster if it is not contained in time. The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests, identity politics “has troubling implications for models of the self, political inclusiveness, and our possibilities for solidarity and resistance.” It appears that Nepali voters have understood the negative implications of identity politics before their leaders and voted against them.

The CPN (UML)’s performance in the election has surprised the leaders of other political parties, particularly of the RJP. The RJP leaders had publicly vilified the UML leader KP Oli as insane needing treatment in a mental facility and dubbed his party as anti-Madhesh and anti-Madheshi. But the UML secured an unexpectedly good result in the Terai districts. According to some assessments, it is likely to repeat its impressive performance in the remaining 8 Terai districts, the heartland of Madheshi uprising since 2006, on 18 September 2017 in the elections for 127 local bodies, if the RJP demand is not met by that time.

The RJP leaders have demanded that the Constitution must be amended before the third phase of elections, something India has openly backed. But there is a serious constitutional problem to meet the demand.

A democratic constitution must protect the due process and provide equal protection all citizens. If we claim the Constitution of Nepal 2015 as democratic, then we cannot hold the first two phases of elections under the un-amended Constitution and the third phase under an amended constitution without breaching the due process and without treating the voters in the first two phases and in the third phase unequally.

So the mainstream parties and the RJP must not do anything that shreds the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Both sides sit down and move to the middle in order to preserve the sanctity of the due process and equal protection of the Constitution while keeping the door open for amending it as necessary for the greater good of the country. Though politics is a game of possibilities, the political parties should not go too far to undermine the law of the land every time they have problem or disagreement.

The local elections and their result had made this clear. But it is yet to be seen whether our leaders have understood their voters’ desire and sentiment.

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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.

 

Murari Sharma: Dream come true?

Imagine how you would feel if you waited for something for decades but when it arrived, some of your brothers and sisters did not like it. Excitement and frustration simultaneously.

The Nepali people have been feeling that predicament today. They have waited for 65 years for a constitution written by their elected representatives. Such a charter — Constitution of Nepal 2015 — has been finally promulgated today, on 20 September, by President Ram Baran Yadav. Most people seem happy, but some are clearly agitated.

The demand for a people-written statute has been around since 1950. King Tribhuvan had, at the time of removing Rana oligarchy, promised to call elections for a constituent assembly, but that did not transpire.  Kings gifted the statute on their own — Tribhuvan in 1951, King Mahendra in 1959 and 1962 and King Birendra in 1990.

Although the 1990 document was written by a group of political leaders, who were instrumental in forcing King Birendra to abandon the party-less panchayat system and embrace multiparty democracy, they were not elected by the people at that time.

Only the political change of 2006 opened the door to a constituent assembly afresh. It also immediately led to the suspension of the monarchy, which was abolished by the assembly in 2008. Unfortunately, the first assembly died in 2013 without delivering the law of the land, owing to major disagreements on several issues.

Federalism stood at the heart of such disagreements. Some outfits opted for several ethnic states, while others for a few multi-ethnic states. The dispute failed and destroyed the first assembly. The second assembly, elected in 2013, has been able to sort out the issue providing for seven states, though not everyone likes them.

Five things put pressure on Nepali leaders to deliver the constitution this time around.

First, the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), which preferred a few multi-ethnic states, secured nearly two-thirds majority in the assembly and formed a coalition government with smaller parties, enhancing their number and confidence to sail the charter to the finish line.

Second, both Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and UML leader KP Oli were personally men in a hurry. The ailing Koirala wanted to promulgate the statute on his watch. The ailing Oli wanted to become premier before his health compromised his ambition. Therefore, Koirala and Oli promised each other support to realize their respective ambitions.

Third, the devastating chain of earthquakes and aftershocks in April and May this year — they killed nearly 10,000 people, destroyed nearly 7 billion rupees worth of property and affected one-third of the country’s population — spurred the coalition to switch to a high gear. When the people and country destroyed by the natural calamity were crying for relief and reconstruction, it was in bad taste for the leaders to quibble over the fine prints of the charter.

Fourth, the Maoist leader Prachand cooperated with the coalition to protect himself from being marginalized further, to neutralize his pesky deputy Baburam Bhattarai, and to preserve as many agendas of his party as possible before monarchists, Hiduists, extreme leftists and secessionists hijacked them.

Fifth, external players — countries and organizations — piled pressure to tilt the constitution in favor of their respective clients in Nepal, in a way that threatened the power base of the main leaders. India openly lobbied on behalf of the minority parties from the plains. Christian organizations lobbied against any compromise on secularism.

Consequently, the constitution became a priority for the Big Three parties. These parties made compromises and agreements leading to the approval of the new statute. It would have been unquestionably ideal if all parties had agreed on the document and everyone in Nepal had welcomed it. However, that did not happen. Such lobbying created a situation of ‘now or never.’

Based on the celebrations in most parts of the country, it seems that most people liked the new statute, even though it is far from perfect. But some parties and people, mostly in the plains, found it unacceptable because it, as they argue, does not meet their demands and aspirations.

They have hit the street in protest. Some have abandoned the constituent assembly and joined forces that always opposed the assembly. Others too have joined protests. In the ensuing violence, nearly three dozen people — including eight security officials — have lost their lives.

The plains have been shut for nearly a month now. The army has been mobilized and curfew has been imposed in several places to control violence. People have had terrible difficulty going about their daily business. Schools have been closed. Hospitals have been attacked.

Both the pro-constitution and anti-constitution parties have blamed each other for this situation. The former have contended that the latter have become the instruments of the anti-constitution forces. The latter have accused the former of not listening to their genuine grievances.

Under the surface, the new charter is personally offensive to naturalized citizens of Nepal — such as Rajendra Mahato — for it prevents them from holding certain top posts, something that was allowed in the Interim Constitution.

There is some truth on both sides. The big parties did not wait until the minority parties were exhausted to come to the negotiating table to resolve the differences. The minority parties thought India would intervene on their behalf. New Delhi did by sending the Indian foreign secretary to Nepal, but it was already too late.

Constitution is not a Bible or Quran, written in stone; it is a living document that can be changed, as time and need necessitate. In the days ahead, both sides should show maximum flexibility and find a common ground for peace in Nepal. Neither bullying by the majority nor terrorizing by the minority will bring peace and reconciliation in the country. The discords, including on federalism could be sorted out, in the future.

Nepal has waited for so long for a constitution written by the people’s representatives. Now that it is in our hand, we should find a way to rally around it despite its flaws, which can be removed gradually.

I congratulate the Nepali people for the new constitution.

Everyone is better in advising others

Murari Sharma

Conventional wisdom says those who live in glass houses should not pelt stones at others. But if you are big and powerful, you can put the wisdom upside down and constantly throw boulders at others’ door. Take the USA in the world and India in South Asia.

India, the elephant in the South Asia room, has been chaotic politically ever since its independence from Britain. The partition, three wars over Kashmir, Khalistan, continued Bodo, Naga and Naxalite problems, war with China, Assam uprising, Gorkhaland agitations, frequent communal riots, to name a few crises.

Gujarat, the home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been in the eye of storm at least twice in last 15 years. The  Patels have currently been agitating for a caste-based quota for their relatively wealthy business clan. Nearly a dozen people have been killed in the related violence, but the government has refused to concede.

In 2002, Modi as chief minister presided over Hindu-Muslim communal riots  in Gujarat that killed more than 2,000 people.

Neither India nor Modi appreciate external intervention in their internal affairs. Be it a suggestion to accommodate the Patel clan’s demand for the quota, to talk to the Kashmiri rebels or to protect minorities from majority excesses. I am sure Modi hated western countries for denying him a visa or ostracizing him in other ways over his dubious role during the Gujarat riots.

Curiously, the same Modi lost no time to exhort Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to accommodate the demands of some Madheshi parties, in a clear interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. His home minister went several steps ahead and announced, in his own words, “India will safeguard the interest of 10 million Indians living in Nepal.”

Sure Koirala should have talked to Madheshi leaders on his own. But that does not justify Modi’s and his home minister’s intervention, which is objectionable at least on three different levels. First, Madheshis are Nepalis. They are not Indians living in Nepal. Surprisingly, only a few Madheshi leaders objected to the Indian home minister’s highly derogatory statement for them.

Second, both Nepal and India are wedded to Panchasheel, the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Accordingly, Nepali leaders have rarely, if at all, inserted themselves in India’s internal affairs. They did not open their mouth in direct or indirect support of Gorkhaland demanded by the Nepali speaking Indians. You may say who would listen even if they said something, but it is also a question of principle.

Third, how would Modi feel if Koirala exhorted him to meet the Patels’ demand, accommodate the Kashmiris people’s will or concede the Gorkhaland demand, in a quid pro quo. If you want respect from others, your should respect them as well.

To be fair, Modi is not the first Indian leader to interfere in Nepal’s issues; he has only continued the vapid, old tradition. Besides, he was invited by our Madheshi leaders to intervene. And if every Tom, Dick and Harry representing the western countries finds himself qualified enough to stick out his neck, why not Modi?

Yet the question of principle remains. Modi is, therefore, guilty of breaching Panchasheel, flouting the golden principle — do to others what you expect from them — and engaging in gratuitous paropadeshe pandityam — wiser in advising others than doing it himself.

Nepal’s commentariat is guilty of such pandityam as well. Most pundits have never been in politics; neither have they had the experience of running any organization — forget a country. Yet they dish out their vacuous wisdom generously as if they knew politics inside out.  This is their omniscience run amok.

Its consequences are obvious for everyone to see. The high priests often offer simplistic and impractical solutions for complex issues. For instance, they say only the Big Two — Nepali Congress and UML — must show flexibility and compromise for consensus over the draft constitution, not smaller parties. It takes two sides to tango, though the Big Two should take the lead, for power comes with responsibility.

I am sure our wise heads are fully aware that Nepal is one of the most divided countries on earth. Perhaps no other country of our size has as many political parties as we have. Yet our high priests suggest that the Big Two, Three or Four — at different times — can bring on board nearly 100 parties with conflicting ideas, 125 ethnic groups with different priorities, and 28 million people by showing a little more flexibility.

All this however does not exculpate the Big Two, Three or Four of their failure to lead. Their imperious ad hocism has been appalling. They first approved six states without explaining the basis — ethnicity, geography, viability, political demand. At the first whip of discontent, they swiftly opted for a seven-state model, again without expounding the underlying logic.

If the Big Ones had based their decisions on some coherent logic, real facts and established process, they could have explained their agreement away more easily. The smaller parties that have hit the street too would have found it more difficult to justify their opposition.

The public does not care about federalism. Two recent public opinion surveys and the public consultation over the draft constitution have manifested it. Minority leaders need states to rule. Federalism will not be a panacea to Nepal’s poverty and instability, but it is worth trying.

The Big TWo, Three or Four have failed in their leadership, partly they themselves have differences and partly they have shunned the participatory decision-making process.

Part of the trouble now is that minorities have conflicting territorial claims for their states. The Big Ones could sort it out by bringing the Madheshi and Limbu leaders together and resolve their mutual claims over Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari or the united-farwest group and Tharus over Kailali and Kanchanpur, the key contentious points.

This is a simple measure that could help resolve the complex problem. If it does, it will not hurt anyone. Granted, neither negotiations nor solutions are as straightforward as they look from outside.

Yet, dialogue paves the ground for understanding the severity of the problem in hand and for give and take. The best outcome of negotiation is one that makes everyone almost equally unhappy.

More states may easily resolve the problem, but that is not a viable option. Already, seven states are too many. They will eat up most of the revenue for administrative costs, leaving little or nothing for investment in development. But if there is any prospect to go back to the six-state model, why not.

Oscar Wilde’s has said, “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.” I have passed it on. But I am aware, as John Steinbeck has said, “You only want it if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.”

Our leaders may dismiss the panditocracy’s paropadeshe pandityam, but what about Indian leaders‘. Conventional wisdom gets often beaten in politics and power play.