Whither Progress?

The govern­ment of Nepal would do well to shed the feel­ing of las­si­tude if it doesn’t want the people to take to the streets.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. M. Hali The writer is a prac­tis­ing jour­nal­ist. He con­trib­utes to the print me­dia and pro­duces doc­u­men­taries.

Nepal’s tryst with democ­racy is hardly a decade old and is still con­sid­ered ‘ work in progress.’ The cen­turies-old monar­chy was top­pled fol­low­ing a decade-long civil war in­volv­ing the Com­mu­nist Party of Nepal, com­monly known as the Maoists. On May 18, 2006, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives unan­i­mously voted to cur­tail the power of the King and de­clared Nepal a sec­u­lar state, end­ing its time-hon­ored of­fi­cial sta­tus as a Hindu King­dom. On De­cem­ber 28, 2007, a bill was passed in the par­lia­ment to amend Ar­ti­cle 159 of the Con­sti­tu­tion – re­plac­ing ‘Pro­vi­sions re­gard­ing the King’ by ‘Pro­vi­sions of the Head of the State’ – declar­ing Nepal a federal repub­lic, and thereby abol­ish­ing the monar­chy.

The en­su­ing elec­tions for the Con­stituent As­sem­bly on May 28, 2008 saw the Maoists elected to power but se­ri­ous charges of bad gov­er­nance led to their ouster and a vir­tual game of mu­si­cal chairs fol­lowed. As a re­sult, the Con­stituent As­sem­bly, which was charged with writ­ing Nepal's per­ma­nent con­sti­tu­tion, failed to deliver. Un­der the terms of the In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion, the new con­sti­tu­tion was to be pro­mul­gated by May 28, 2010; but the Con­stituent As­sem­bly changed the dead­line by a year be­cause of many points of dis­agree­ment be­tween po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

On May 25, 2011, the Supreme Court of Nepal ruled that the 2010 ex­ten­sion of the In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion was not in or­der. The dead­line for a new con­sti­tu­tion kept get­ting ex­tended. Even­tu­ally, on May 28, 2012, the then Prime Min­is­ter, Babu­ram Bhat­tarai dis­solved the Con­stituent As­sem­bly af­ter it failed to fin­ish the con­sti­tu­tion in its last ex­ten­sion, end­ing four years of con­sti­tu­tion-draft­ing and leav­ing the coun­try in a le­gal vac­uum. Elec­tions to a sec­ond Con­stituent As­sem­bly were held on Novem­ber 19, 2013 un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Chief Jus­tice Khil Raj Regmi but no party man­aged to se­cure a clear ma­jor­ity. Af­ter much po­lit­i­cal wran­gling and back­room ma­nip­u­la­tion, Sushil Koirala was sworn in as the new Prime Min­is­ter on Fe­bru­ary 11, 2014 and all po­lit­i­cal lead­ers pledged to draft a new con­sti­tu­tion within a year.

It is an up­hill task, which will re­quire a Her­culean ef­fort. Prime

Min­is­ter Sushil Koirala, who is a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian and a vet­eran Nepali Congress leader who spent 16 years in po­lit­i­cal ex­ile in In­dia af­ter Nepal's royal takeover of 1960, leads the coali­tion govern­ment. But the ques­tion that whether he will be up to the task lingers in many minds. Once a vi­brant and en­er­getic politi­cian, Sushil Koirala was in­volved in the hi­jack­ing of an air­craft for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses but time has mel­lowed him down. He has a pres­ti­gious name in Nepalese pol­i­tics. One of his cousins was the coun­try’s first elected prime min­is­ter, be­fore he was ousted in a coup in 1960. An­other cousin, Gir­ija Prasad Koirala or­ches­trated the afore-men­tioned hi­jack­ing in 1973, to fi­nance a planned armed in­sur­gency that came to naught. He went on to be­come prime min­is­ter four times be­tween 1990 and 2008.

Known for his aus­tere life­style, Sushil Koirala does not pos­sess any property and resided in a two-room rented house till he was elected as prime min­is­ter. He doesn't own a car or a mo­tor­bike nor does he have a bank ac­count. Re­cently, he re­turned $650 paid to him by the govern­ment as trav­el­ing al­lowance for a visit to Myan­mar, stat­ing that since he did not spend the amount, it should go back to the trea­sury.

Un­for­tu­nately, the same

is not

The coali­tion part­ners are stuck in the quag­mire of deal­ing with petty is­sues such as who would be re­spon­si­ble for au­then­ti­cat­ing the bills re­lat­ing to the new con­sti­tu­tion rather than pon­der­ing over the big­ger ques­tion of fram­ing the new con­sti­tu­tion.

true of his nine­teen-mem­ber cab­i­net, which mostly com­prises the old guard of Nepalese pol­i­tics. The cab­i­net, in­clud­ing the fi­nance and home min­is­ters, served in the 1990s, too, which is not com­fort­ing, since the era is re­mem­bered for cor­rup­tion, in­ef­fec­tive rule and the bru­tal mis­han­dling of a nascent Maoist re­bel­lion which pro­longed the strife. The Maoists ul­ti­mately ended up wag­ing a decade­long civil war.

The ouster of the monar­chy was fol­lowed by the prom­ise that the lower castes would be given equal op­por­tu­ni­ties. Iron­i­cally, the cur­rent rul­ing party ap­pears obliv­i­ous to the as­pi­ra­tions of the lower castes. Most of the pow­er­ful min­istries have been given to men be­long­ing to the high­caste. This is rem­i­nis­cent of a re­turn to the past and a fail­ure to re­flect the coun­try’s di­ver­sity. Nepalese Dal­its, for­merly known as un­touch­ables, com­prise one-sixth of the 28 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion of Nepal. Mr. Koirala did not give a party ticket to any Dalit, nor has he ap­pointed a sin­gle Dalit to his cab­i­net.

Com­ment­ing on the de­lib­er­ate sidelin­ing of the lower castes, pop­u­lar Maoist leader, Deven­dra Raj Pandey said, “It’s as if there was no move­ment in 2006 and no Maoist in­sur­gency for ten years be­fore that.” Like other in­tel­lec­tu­als, Pandey says that he would like to sup­port the Nepali Congress, but is put off by the party’s fail­ure to share power with lower castes or de­volve it to lo­cal bod­ies.

The Nepalese cab­i­net may have taken up the task of draft­ing the longde­layed con­sti­tu­tion and then hold a fresh elec­tion for pres­i­dent – all within a year – but there are nu­mer­ous im­ped­i­ments. To achieve the task, Prime Min­is­ter Sushil Koirala will have to re­duce the trust deficit be­tween his Nepali Congress and its coali­tion part­ner the UML. Pol­i­tics makes strange bed­fel­lows and the duo have ended up in a mar­riage of con­ve­nience. If the nup­tials have to last, they must over­come the mis­trust. In­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts and ob­servers have said that de­spite hav­ing been con­vened for over two months, the par­lia­ment ap­pears to be sans any agenda and the mem­bers ap­pear to be in a mode of lethargy. The govern­ment is yet to an­nounce its pol­icy and pro­grams. With­out a clear roadmap, there are no pa­ram­e­ters for tak­ing de­ci­sions. The coali­tion part­ners are stuck in the quag­mire of deal­ing with petty is­sues such as who would be re­spon­si­ble for au­then­ti­cat­ing the bills re­lat­ing to the new con­sti­tu­tion rather than pon­der­ing over the big­ger ques­tion of fram­ing the new con­sti­tu­tion.

Twenty six seats in the as­sem­bly are still va­cant be­cause of jock­ey­ing for in­flu­ence by vested in­ter­ests. Lo­cal coun­cil elec­tions have not been held in Nepal for the last 16 years, yet there ap­pears to be no ur­gency to hold them be­cause of ob­jec­tions by some par­ties. The ques­tion of the con­tin­u­a­tion of the present in­cum­bents in the chairs of pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent has been left in abeyance with the hope that the is­sue will be ad­dressed along with the pro­mul­ga­tion of the new con­sti­tu­tion. Con­se­quently, nearly all po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have ex­pressed reser­va­tions about achiev­ing the tar­get by the year’s end.

One would ex­pect the govern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Sushil Koirala to shed the feel­ing of las­si­tude that cur­rently pre­vails in the coun­try or the people would lose con­fi­dence in them and take the is­sue to the streets. In or­der to re­in­force as­sur­ance, PM Koirala should get his act to­gether, set his cab­i­net into mo­tion and at­tend to the task of fram­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion with­out fur­ther ado.

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