Elusive horizon

Print edition : September 24, 2010

NEPALI CONGRESS VICE-CHAIRMAN Ram Chandra Poudel goes to cast his vote in Parliament.-PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

Having failed to elect a Prime Minister for the fifth time, Nepal continues its quest for democracy to make Jan Andolan II a success.

TWO months after the resignation of Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal as Prime Minister, Nepal's Parliament is yet to find a successor. The five rounds of voting yielded no majority for the two contestants for the post Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda' of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and Ram Chandra Poudel of the Nepali Congress (N.C.). The support for either of them has broadly reflected their numbers in the 601-member Constituent Assembly, which functions as the country's Interim Parliament.

As things stand, the sixth round of voting could be equally inconclusive. The CPN(UML), or UML, and the combination of parties from the terai, have chosen to abstain from voting. It may be useful here to recount briefly some recent events that preceded the current impasse.

Elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in April 2008. The Assembly was mandated to provide a Constitution within two years. Against forecasts, the Maoists won 30 per cent of the vote and 40 per cent of the seats. The N.C. and the UML, the hitherto mainstream parties, trailed behind, with each getting about 20 per cent of the seats. The rest of the seats were won largely by a combination of Madhesi parties.

This was in a mixed system of first past the post, as followed by India, and proportional representation. Had only the former system been followed, the Maoists would have won a majority. They were allowed to form a new government in August 2008, and Prachanda was elected Prime Minister. In less than a year, in May 2009, Prachanda resigned after President Ram Baran Yadav declined to dismiss the Army chief, as recommended by the Prime Minister.

Madhav Kumar Nepal was then elected Prime Minister. He headed a government with the support of 22 parties. The ensuing period saw little progress in the primary task of drafting a Constitution. The Maoists called nationwide protests and caused disruptions in Parliament demanding the resignation of Madhav Nepal.

With the Constituent Assembly's two-year term coming to a close at the end of May 2010, hectic negotiations were started. These resulted in a three-point all-party agreement, literally at the stroke of midnight, providing for the extension of the Assembly's term by a year to enable it to complete its task of drafting the Constitution; the resignation of Madhav Nepal; and the continuation of the peace process, notably integration of Maoist cadre into the security forces, return of seized properties and disbanding of the Youth Communist League. There were differences on the sequence of implementation of the terms of the agreement.

However, Madhav Nepal resigned after a month in the larger national interest. The Maoists are accused of non-implementation of the third element of the agreement where action is required from them.

The periodic votes in the Assembly to elect a new Prime Minister turned out to be futile exercises. The principles involved in this stand-off are not always clear. The Maoists claim that as the largest political party they have a right to form the government, while the N.C. claims it is now its turn to nominate a Prime Minister as the other two major parties had their nominees as Prime Minister.

It was a game of controlled musical chairs as it were. A grand coalition would be needed against the Maoists, who account for 40 per cent of the seats, if either the N.C. or the UML candidate is to be elected. Alternatively, a Maoist nominee can be elected with the support of any of the other three parties or groupings.

PEOPLE'S WILL

However, the minutiae of these arithmetical calculations detract from the purpose that informed the Nepali political classes in 2006 when Jan Andolan II (People's Movement II) had created an extraordinary situation by ending the direct rule of the monarch. Rising against the power of the state and going beyond what the political parties were willing to settle for, the people had sought to create a new paradigm.

Thus came about the formation of a new Parliament through a process of negotiations and the promulgation of an interim Constitution.

It was a stark example of the principle that in the ultimate analysis, the will of the people must supersede legal niceties.

The preamble stated: We, the people of Nepal, in exercise the sovereign powers and state authority inherent in us now, therefore, do hereby promulgate this interim Constitution of Nepal, 2063 (2007), prepared through a political consensus enforceable until a new Constitution is framed by the Constituent Assembly in order to institutionalise the achievements of the revolution and movements till this date. Exercise of the people's will, if contentious, can also lead to civil war or anarchy. In the case of Nepal there was a large measure of agreement, if not unanimity, on the course to be followed. The operative approach was one of political consensus. It is this consensus that has ceased to exist, leading to the current miasma.

CARETAKER PRIME MINISTER Madhav Kumar Nepal (right) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' leave Parliament after voting for the Prime Minister's post in Kathmandu on August 23.-PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

The results of the 2008 elections were unexpected. There was nationwide relief that the insurgency was over, and the country could look forward to a stable future after years of brutal conflict. There was satisfaction that the Maoists had been persuaded to give up arms and join parliamentary politics.

Ironically, the mainstream political parties hoped that the Maoists would not do too badly in the elections and thus be disheartened. But the results gave the Maoists twice as many seats as either the UML or the N.C. Instead of being gradually weaned into politics, the Maoists were now thrust into governance.

The earlier national consensus was based on the assumption that the Maoists would be democratised, but not, in fact, be in the business of governance. And that the politics of Kathmandu would continue much as before, with only minor variations. The elections changed all that. It was the beginning of the end of consensus.

There was, and continues to be, a state of denial on the implications of the people's mandate. The people may or may not have voted for the Maoist manifesto, but they certainly, and most demonstrably, voted for change. They wanted a change from the manipulative politics of Kathmandu. And they wanted delivery on the pent-up expectations. The stunning defeats of many of the stalwarts of the N.C. and the UML, who today hold high positions in government, was a clear signal of the people's distaste and displeasure. That the Maoists could gauge the mood of the people was also seen in the representation they gave to the middle and lower castes of society, to women and to younger people in each category far outstripping the other major parties.

The nine months of Maoist governance, from August 2008 to May 2009, were not distinguished by any significant achievements, even taking into consideration the obstructive approach of the other parties. Additionally, what became a major source of concern were the activities of the Youth Communist League. It was increasingly felt that the party had not abjured the politics of violence. Added to this were the conflicting signals from the Maoist leadership, which alternated between commitment to multiparty democracy and the establishment of a people's republic. The Maoists had not wholly internalised the fact that it was their acceptance of the democratic process that demonstrated the people's willing support for them, far more than they could ever hope to achieve through an armed struggle.

The election of a Prime Minister on the basis of majority numbers, should it happen in the days to come, does not resolve the political problems in Nepal. The Constituent Assembly is on extension, three months of the one-year period has already passed. Even if a draft Constitution is formulated, it cannot be adopted without a two-thirds majority which, given the present numbers, will be possible only through a consensus.

The continuing stand-off is providing a breeding ground for speculation on unhealthy scenarios. For some months now, there has been concern about a right-wing reaction in Nepal. This will have unforeseeable consequences both for Nepal and its neighbours. In recent days, there has been talk of Maoist support for the restoration of a cultural monarch, with suggestions that the monarchy was removed at the behest of a foreign power.

What is implied is that the Shah dynasty is the only guarantor of Nepal's sovereignty against foreign intrusions, a theme often found in the past pronouncements of the former king Gyanendra. These may be wishful thinking or pressure tactics. Clearly, any attempt to turn the clock back would be a betrayal of what Jan Andolan II was all about.

Politics of old

Regrettably, the excitement of the possibility of a new Nepal emerging out of the people's movement and the harsh lessons learnt from the insurgency has been overtaken by the politics of old in Kathmandu, to which all parties today seem subject. While one cannot predict the eventual outcome, in some respects the past cannot be recreated. The genie of people's expectations be it from the Madhesis, the Janjatis or other ethnic groups cannot be put back and must receive some measure of satisfaction. No less important, the culture of subservience ingrained in a feudal society has dissolved, never to be recreated. One can only hope that all the political parties will rise beyond political arithmetic and look to the future of Nepal. For this, it would be necessary for the Maoists to display by both words and action their commitment to non-violence and democracy, and for the others to abjure the manipulative and personalised politics of the past and seek greater connectivity with the people's aspirations.

Deb Mukharji is a former member of the Indian Foreign Service. He was India's Ambassador to Nepal (2000-01) and is the author of Magic of Nepal and Kailash and Manasarovar: Visions of the Infinite.

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