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Bringing consensus back in Kathmandu

Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, November 17, 2014

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on his second visit to Nepal in less than four months next week, he will be busy laying out his vision for SAARC and meeting leaders from across the region. But there will also be a strong India-Nepal bilateral element to the visit.

He will, in an act of great symbolism, cross the open border from Bihar and visit Janakpur in Nepal’s southern plains first – where he will pray at the Janaki temple and address a public meeting. He will meet the entire spectrum of the Nepali political leadership in Kathmandu, besides visiting the Muktinath temple close to the China border and ending his trip at Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Modi will undoubtedly play up the special relationship between the two sides, the shared religious and cultural heritage which will be music to his Hindutva base back home, and the role of the open border.

But what is bound to strike the Prime Minister is how deeply polarised Nepali politics has become since the last time he visited. Nepal’s second elected Constituent Assembly has a self-imposed deadline of January 22 to draft the statute but Kathmandu is divided as the deadlock over key constitutional issues deepens. The ruling Nepali Congress-Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) alliance is on one side, even as the opposition parties, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Madhesi forces of the southern plains, are on the other.

The polarized landscape

The differences are both on substance and process.

In terms of content, all parties – including the former rebels – are committed to basic principles of liberal democracy. But the three big issues that have divided Nepali politics in recent years are to do with the restructuring of the state. At the heart of it lies a simple question. Will power in Nepal continue to be exercised by leaders of hill Hindu upper-caste communities and remain concentrated in Kathmandu, or will it be equitably shared among Nepal’s diverse social groups across the country?

On the form of government, the NC and UML have jointly proposed a reformed parliamentary system, with provisions like disallowing a no-confidence motion for two years after an election, to provide for a stable government. The Maoists have traditionally insisted on a directly-elected presidential model. But their position seems to have softened after their last electoral drubbing as they realise that there is greater leverage for smaller parties in a parliamentary system.

On the electoral system, the NC and UML are keen on a full First-Past-The-Post model, on the lines practiced in India. But the Maoists and Madhesi parties, as well as marginalised social groups like Dalits, hill ethnic tribes and women, have pushed hard to continue with the mixed electoral system that was used for the CA elections. This would include FPTP constituency seats, but also Proportional Representation – where parties get seats according to percentage of votes polled. Within PR, parties have to nominate candidates based on principles of inclusion .This model made Nepal’s legislature the most inclusive in terms of gender and minority representation in the whole of South Asia. For instance, the last CA (elected in 2008) had 33% women.

And finally, most contentious of them all, is the shape of federalism. NC and UML are late, reluctant converts to the idea of federalism. If at all the state has to federalize, they prioritise principles like administrative feasibility and economic viability. The two have jointly proposed seven states at the moment.

While Maoists had flagged the demand for federalism during the war, it is primarily an outcome of the Madhesi movement of the plains. Madhesis – with extensive ethnic, kinship, linguistic ties with people across the border in Bihar and UP – have long been excluded from Nepal’s power structure. Hill ethnic groups, called the Janjatis, too are fervent advocates of federalism. These constituencies want restructuring to take into account the principle of identity. This does not mean ‘ethnic federalism’ for irrespective of the way in which states are carved out, each province will be multi-ethnic and no community will have any special advantages. Indeed, the last CA elections decisively rejected any extreme variant of ethnic federalism.

But excluded groups want state restructuring in a manner that will make them demographically dominant; it will also involve naming states in a way that recognized the history of the marginalised groups who consider it their traditional ‘homeland’. Maoists and Madhesis, for instance point out that in six of the seven provinces proposed by NC and UML, hill upper-castes are in a majority, which will give them political and electoral benefits. Madhesi forces also want to see at most two states in the Tarai on an east-west basis, while NC and UML are keen to slice away key districts with a resource base in the east and west and merge it with the hills. The issue of names, demarcation particularly in the Tarai, and demographics lies at the heart of the federal debate.

Numerical arrogance

But what has made these substantive differences particularly worrying is the NC-UML gameplan to ram through their model through a majority vote in the CA. The interim constitution prioritises consensus in the CA. And while it does say the statute can be passed with a two-thirds majority, the spirit of the entire peace process – which moved Nepal from war to peace, brought Maoists into the mainstream – rested on partnership between all these four forces.

Within NC itself, Madhesi MPs have begun a campaign against the proposal forwarded by their own party – the party is now bullying its MPs to toe the line even though the CA does not have the whip principle. Maoists and Madhesi MPs have made it clear any attempt at unilateralism will see them resigning from the house. Maoists may well be tempted to flirt with radicalism if doors of mainstream politics are shut for them. It is obvious that a vote may lead to a constitution, but that constitution – like the past six constitutions in Nepal – will neither be durable nor broad based enough to win popular legitimacy.

On the perils of majoritarianism, Nepal needs to look back at its own past. In 1990, a small far-left outfit opposed the unilateral manner in which the then palace, NC and UML together wrote a constitution through a commission rather than a CA. That small outfit was dismissed as irrelevant. The group went on to begin a war, and in less than a decade succeeded in forcing the political mainstream to throw away the 90 constitution and accept a CA. The group’s name – Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Another small party registered a note of dissent in 1990, asking for federalism and linguistic rights. They too were dismissed. In 2007, the Tarai burnt with precisely the same agenda. Kathmandu was forced to accept it. It is 2014, and if the forces which led the movement in 1990 try to repeat history and what they did then, the consequences will follow.

Indian good offices

It is in this context that Modi visits Nepal. India has been deeply engaged as an actor in the Nepali transformation – so turning a blind eye to the domestic turbulence there is not an option. While Delhi need not involve itself in the specifics, as the facilitator of the peace process, it is incumbent on India to tell Nepali politicians to work together, to negotiate in good faith, and to conclude the constitution in a manner that has universal acceptability. The principle of consensus amongst the four major forces must be encouraged because only a constitution which has broad buy-in will lead to peace and a stable political order, which is what India seeks in Nepal for its own interest.

If there is a will to negotiate, a compromise is likely. Maoists may be persuaded to accept a parliamentary system which they earlier so despised. An electoral system which prioritises FPTP, but has PR to ensure inclusion, can be a workable model. NC and UML though have to internalize that Nepal is multi-cultural even though power has been centralized in Kathmandu with some; federalism which takes into account this history of discrimination, addresses the legitimate aspirations of excluded communities is an imperative for stability.

Why a strong message on these lines has become particularly necessary is because the 2006 peace framework – which India facilitated – is being challenged by forces on the far right and far left. A radical Maoist splinter is on the verge of taking up arms, the former king spends most of his time lobbying to return to the throne, and Hindu right wing outfits have challenged the declaration of secularism. The Hindu right in particular seeks support of the Sangh Parivar. Modi has so far rightly desisted from playing any such games. He is right in emphasising shared heritage, but any statement that will potentially derail the Nepali transition to secularism is ill-advised.

Modi mentioned the Nepali peace process in his speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort as well as at the UNGA session in New York. He spoke of the bold experiment where arms have been left for texts, where the path of war has been left for the path of Buddha. He also said in Nepal that the constitution has come from the womb of the peace process. This shows a remarkable understanding of the spirit of accommodation that has dominated Nepali politics in the past decade. This spirit is necessary again, as Kathmandu enters the last lap to institutionalize its achievements. India can help by reminding Nepal to see this process through, together.

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