How supportive will Modi’s government be of the process of change that currently lacks direction and consensus?
Sushil Koirala is already halfway through his first year as prime minister, facing the tall order of constitution-writing. The coalition government he heads is in shambles, and discredited, largely over the way eight Supreme Court judges were handpicked by a partisan judicial council and endorsed by the 72-member parliamentary committee that requires a two-thirds majority to reject any or all of them. Some committee members grilled some of the would-be judges in camera, asking pointed questions about their conduct, ranging from polygamy to financial corruption and inefficiency.
“This is no way to appoint judges. First you publicly discredit them, and then appoint them. This will lead to the collapse of the justice system,” says Srihari Aryal, a senior SC lawyer. Angry about the media coverage of controversies revolving around the new judges, and warning that the judiciary will be as discredited as political parties, Chief Justice Damodar Sharma told the judges that “a full court will go into media reports and take necessary action against them.” If the threat is carried out, the judiciary that is now perceived as politically partisan and wanting in institutional conduct, will come down heavily on the media and trigger a fallout on the political and constitutional-making processes.
Koirala backed the judiciary to the hilt and refused to have any review of the recommended names despite a senior judge writing a note of dissent. Instead, he instructed members of the Nepali Congress in the parliamentary committee to not bow to outside criticism. After all, he knows that the lack of cooperation within plays a smaller role in constitution-writing. External cooperation is more necessary.
So it was a lucky opportunity for Koirala to rush to New Delhi to attend the swearing-in of Narendra Modi as the Indian prime minister and solicit crucial support from the south in the peace and constitution-making process. After all, in Nepal’s clearly polarised political camps, the UPA and Left forces in India are perceived as the ally of the “progressive forces”, and the NDA in general and the BJP in particular as the ally of the “regressive forces”. With the power equation changed in Delhi, Koirala had to reach out to the new leadership there. Certain media reports and opinions have projected Modi as a threat to multiculturalism and, by extension, to the ongoing radical changes in Nepal.
It is still not known how much the Modi-Koirala meeting last Tuesday was able to dispel the fear in Nepal’s “progressive camp” that Koirala heads. Modi promised all support to developmental activities that Nepal would want from India, and hoped that the constitution would be ready within the stipulated timeframe (by mid-January) and stability restored in Nepal. Rajnath Singh, who has often expressed his unhappiness about the world’s only Hindu kingdom being transformed into a “secular” country, chose to leave it to the people of Nepal to decide. But Koirala gauged the Hindu sentiment that might dominate the new government by extending an invitation to Modi to visit “Pashupatinath and Muktinath temples at the earliest”, an invitation Modi readily accepted. He also handed Modi a replica of the Pashupatinath temple as a gift.
The presence of Ashok Singhal at Rashtrapati Bhavan and the host of saffron-clad sadhus — some of them votaries of a Hindu Nepal — has naturally upset Nepal’s “progressive camp”. However, the only solace for Koirala was the “best wishes” extended by President Pranab Mukherjee. Mukherjee and former PM Manmohan Singh separately told Koirala that things were moving in the right direction in Nepal.
But will Modi feel the same urge to support the process of change in Nepal that clearly lacks direction and pace on one hand and a consensus-based approach on the other? Koirala has reasons to miss the UPA in that sense. He had unsuccessfully invited Singh in the midst of India’s elections to Nepal to reiterate India’s support for the changes. There is also a move to have Mukherjee invited, as the “progressive camp” feels more comfortable with the actors who played a crucial role in bringing about Nepal’s changes eight years ago.
However, the tussle between the media and the judiciary and the latter’s loss of credibility will impact all aspects of constitution-making. That may force the international community to review its stance over the last eight years that democracy is about not only raising radical slogans but also holding leaders accountable.