Friday, June 26, 2015

Dispute deferred

This article appeared in Republica on June 15, 2015.

The 16-point deal among four major parties has raised hope of a constitution. Poles apart and bitterly divided for a long time, the parties reached an agreement after the country faced great devastation in the wake of the April 25 earthquake. The unity and solidarity shown by Nepali people in the aftermath of the quake even amidst government apathy must have shamed leaders to iron out differences. UCPN (Maoist) Chair Prachanda and CPN-UML Chair KP Oli, who couldn't see eye to eye and constantly traded insults against each other, warmed up and backed down from their rigid positions. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala also let go of his adamant stance of incorporating the term "pluralism" in reaching the current deal.
But the picture is not rosy yet. Apparently the deal has been reached to deliver the constitution, but the real intention of the major leaders is to be part of the lucrative reconstruction process post-quake. Sushil Koirala government received widespread condemnation for its sluggish approach to relief delivery in quake affected areas, so much so that even after a month of the quake people in certain hinterlands had yet to see any relief materials. The mismanagement and allegations of wrongdoing tarred the government image more. Finance Minister and Home Minister fought with each other to hold command of relief process. The personal secretary of the Finance Minister resigned from his post after allegations of ferrying zinc sheets meant for quake victims to his home with the intention of selling them.

Seizing this opportunity, KP Oli, eying the PM post, wasted no time in criticizing the government sluggishness, conveniently forgetting that his loyal comrade Bamdev Gautam is in charge of the influential Home Ministry and shoulders equal blame. Oli was being impatient for the post for long as his party had struck a "gentleman's agreement" with the Nepali Congress that CPN-UML would lead the government after the promulgation of the constitution.

Adoption of the fast track route and summary process of constitution making would pave way for UML to ascend the throne with possible help from UCPN (Maoist) as Prachanda, who wants to emerge as the kingmaker after the second Constituent Assembly (CA) poll debacle, has assured his backing to Oli. This would drive the wedge between the ruling coalition and Prachanda will seize the opportunity to play his role. Be that as it may, given his proximity with the southern neighbor establishment, Oli seems all set to become the next PM.

Nepali Congress, on the other hand, is trying hard not to lose power at any cost and turn the incumbent government into a national unity government under its leadership. The PM seems to be in two minds. On the one hand, he seems to want to be remembered as the executive head under whose tenure the constitution got promulgated. He may even be offered the post of the country's President by CPN-UML. But he too doesn't want to be left out of the reconstruction process. If he is able to handle that process well, his legacy will be written in golden letters of the country's history.

However, it would be better if the PM honored the agreement with the UML and stepped down rather than opting to head a national government. NC should take the role of a strong opposition. Fickle voters didn't learn the lesson from the CA-I polls to give any single party the majority in CA-II polls, so there is no reason for the NC to perpetuate the uneasy coalition with UML (it was unnatural as well because the biggest and the second biggest party generally don't make a coalition government).

Moreover, democracy becomes strong when there are checks and balances against government authoritarianism and a strong opposition can warn it against any misdeeds. One of the reasons why Maoists went into a further slump was that they didn't assert the strength as the opposition to the government's anti-people decision of hiking consumer good prices; rather they seemed to collude with the government. That caused their shameful loss in by-elections. If NC is assertive in its opposition role and takes the opportunity to go to the people and deliver them succor, it can win a comfortable majority in the next parliamentary election.

This political tug of war, however, has exacerbated the contentious issue of federalism although the recent deal seems to have put a lid on the can of worms. The major bone of contention between the parties was/is the issue of federalism and the real deal has been deferred to the yet-to-be-formed Federal Commission. Explosion is imminent after the promulgation of the constitution once the Commission starts functioning. Some fringe parties have taken offense exactly on this deferral charging the four major parties of bypassing the sovereign CA to allocate names and boundaries of the provinces. But since they have not got people's backing—they were ignominiously drubbed in the second CA elections—their voices may not amount to anything substantial.

However, since the issue has not been completely addressed as yet, federalism can still put Nepali politics in limbo for a long time. Many years will be wasted before this issue is settled. It is noteworthy that federalism and secularism were never the agendas of Janandolan-II. Democratic and left parties were fighting against their common enemy—monarchy—but the issue of federalism had not been floated. Although the Maoists, during the so-called People's War, had incited people that the unitary system had been responsible for the entrenched inequality and the solution lied on federating the country the issue gained traction only after the Madhesh uprising.

Hot on the heels of the uprising, Maoists tried to cash in on the issue by supporting even ethnic federalism proposed by Madheshis and Janajatis that has the potential of sowing seeds of ethnic strife. Nepali Congress and CPN-UML were hesitant on federalism, but nonetheless agreed to make it their party agenda fearing the loss of votes in the CA polls which they did regardless.

The logical settlement of federalism issue will put the wayward politics back on track. But that seems unlikely as the Federal Commission may meet the fate of several commissions of the yore—submitting its report but not having its recommendations implemented. Political appointments will compromise the integrity of the Commission.

Federalism will prove to be an expensive experiment for a poor country. The better solution would be improved decentralization with strong local governance whose benefits reaches the remotest and the most underprivileged part of the country. The federalism backers didn't allow local elections to be held of whose necessity everyone felt in the aftermath of the earthquake as it would have ensured accountability. If we go beyond the shrill rhetoric of a handful of leaders, the majority of the population opposes federalism. Let there be a referendum to settle this contention for once and all.

No comments: