It is almost clear now that any form of political consensus on the issue of state restructuring is illusive. Maoist Chairman Prachanda made it amply clear from Khulamanch on Friday that there can be no compromise on ethnic federalism, a demand which is now dominant in Nepal’s polity. The opposition led by Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML will not relent from their stated position. They have opted for a multiple-identity model as the basis for federalism. Therefore, resurrection of the Constituent Assembly (CA), which was dissolved on May 27, as a break-through option from the current impasse seems unworkable. An agreement based on consensus on state restructuring will be a prerequisite for reviving the CA. Unfortunately however one can see wider and deeper divisions among and within major political parties over this critical issue. Within the Maoists, while Prachanda is still open to the idea of CA resurrection, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is totally opposed to it.
In the lack of constitutional provisions, options are shrinking. The President is bound by the Constitution and therefore cannot act unilaterally, even though he has declared Bhattarai’s government a caretaker one. PM Bhattarai, on his part, has said that he is willing to step down if a unity government can be formed which will oversee the next CA polls.
The other options that have been floated are reviving the 1990 Constitution with alterations or to have a non-political government. Both seem far-fetched. There is no legality in espousing revival of the now-irrelevant 1990 Constitution. A non-political government, in line with the Bangladesh model, will not resolve the struggle for greater recognition for identity in the country. In Bangladesh a non-political set-up followed a military rule,
which is not an option in Nepal. There is no alternative to political settlement over contentious issues of national concern. Moreover, every institution in Nepal, including the civil society and media, is politicised. It will be extremely difficult to put in place a non-partisan government that will not tow the line of dominant political factions in the country.
The other alternative, as proposed by many academics and experts, is holding a referendum on nature and names of provinces for the new federal structure. Some NC stalwarts have even proposed putting a draft of the constitution itself up for referendum. These people fail to realise that any polls henceforth to be held in Nepal will be a referendum in the truest sense, for political parties will contest the next elections either for or against the ethnic agenda. Also, it will be wise to ask whether it will be enough to hold a referendum on the issue of state restructuring only. In such a scenario, the demands of pro-monarchists and Hindu right groups who want a referendum on various other issues like secularism, republic and federalism, will also need to be heard.
The fact is that identity politics has taken roots in Nepal. Federal restructuring is the major demand of the ethnic and regional groups, who not only want decentralisation of power, but want institutional reforms to guarantee proportional representation and recognition of their rights, identity and distinct culture. Some indigenous groups are demanding preferential rights to natural resources and agradhikar. And although there could be some compromise on agradhikar by Madhesis, Janajatis and indigenous groups, they will not retreat from their struggle for protection and promotion of their rights and interests. The debate over the number of provinces also revolves around this. The demand for agradhikar would be willingly dropped as the horizontal division of provinces in the 11-province model gives “demographic advantages” to these ethnic communities, say experts.
The Maoists have pledged their all-out support to establishing ethnic provinces. Perhaps this is because ethnic demands were an important part of the Maoist “People’s War.” Although identity politics contradicts their class-based ideological framework, federalism is of greater importance to the Maoists, even if it is just to preserve their vote bank. Meanwhile, the NC and UML are losing their cadres and leaders from minority backgrounds because the ethnic groups are becoming increasingly suspicious of their party leaders’ commitment to federalism.
As it stands, going back on federalism is almost impossible. It is also the most crucial aspect of the country’s democratic transition. It is from the perspective of inclusiveness that one has to understand this sensitive issue. If federalism is not addressed, it can lead to disastrous consequences in a country which has more than 100 ethnic groups.
Already, a dangerous trend has come to stay where every Brahmin and Chettri (considered the elite class) is looked down upon as an enemy of “new Nepal.” This group that constitutes about 30 percent of the population are scattered all over the country and not all Bahuns and Chettris are the elites. Thus, while addressing the concerns of the minority groups, the trend of blanket stereotyping the majority has to be played down to avoid violence.
The last CA, which was the most representative institution of all, could not write a constitution as per popular aspirations. The Interim Constitution did not envisage a situation wherein the CA would not deliver. As a result, there is a constitutional vacuum. The political tensions are rising by the day, while consensus remains elusive. It would be ideal if a unity government could be put in place. Such a government could oversee the next election. Both the head of state and the judiciary could play a role here. After all, it was the Supreme Court which did not allow CA extension. If it is acknowledged that a grave constitutional situation has surfaced, the President can call for a unity government which can hold the next elections.
But this time, we must go for parliamentary elections. The logic being reduced number of seats. Another gigantic CA to the tune of 600-plus members is unimaginable. As it is, the last CA drew public fury over non-delivery and significant waste of resources. A parliamentary poll is thus a viable option. Such a parliament will elect a legitimate government and can also work as a CA to draft and adopt a new constitution. We had a CA which acted as a Legislature Parliament, can we not have a parliament which could act as a CA?
Shah is Associate Fellow at the Observer Foundation, New Delhi
The Kantipur Daily, 18 June 2012