A political deadlock impacting the constitution-writing process is nothing new in Nepal. But a vulnerable and loose equation, based on an understanding among discredited political parties — which have promised to “deliver the constitution within a year at any cost” — is hitting many road blocks. Members of the Constituent Assembly (CA) are getting more assertive this time round, compared to the submissiveness to their respective party bosses they displayed during the four-year tenure of the first CA. At one time — around early June 2012 — they had even collectively come round to the idea that they would just raise their hands and give an “aye” vote, if the leaders brought a draft of the constitution prepared outside and never debated in the House. However, the current assertiveness is more for personal gain.
The government has missed two scheduled dates for presenting the annual budget in the House. Parliamentarians cutting across party lines are demanding that each of them be given Rs 50 million for an “MPs’ development fund” that will cost about Rs 30 billion to the exchequer of an impoverished state. Corruption, or bargain for personal gain, is no more a matter of shame in Nepal. Official records show MPs bungled a huge amount allocated to them under the development fund last time, with a sizeable number of them pocketing even the secretarial expenses without setting up any “secretariat” or hiring any secretarial staff.
In fact, the party bosses, especially of the big three — the Nepal Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M) — have reason to promote corruption, or even institutionalise it. Having to appease MPs is a compulsion. These parties went to the polls for the second CA on the pledge that they would hold elections to local bodies — hasn’t happened in 19 years — within six months.
But neither the NC and UML — two parties in the coalition — nor the UCPN-M have moved the agenda forward. The reason: their hand-picked nominees run and control the local bodies that get huge development funds routed through the ministry of local development. They rule the local bodies and use the funds without any accountability, with corruption percolating down to the lowest level. Maoists argue that since Nepal is going to go federal with the new constitution, why go for an exercise (local bodies elections) that needs to be repeated as soon as the new constitution comes?
There may be some merit to what those opposed to local elections at this stage are saying. But there are other interests at play. The absence of representative local bodies has weakened the prospects of people and activists protesting against “corruption at the top”. The reason corruption has not been debated or raised in parliament even once in the last five years sends across a message not difficult to read.
A prominent media house, which had earlier supported the collaboration between the judiciary and the major parties to form the “electoral government”, now faces a contempt case in the Supreme Court after it serialised reports as to how cases of a certain nature were being heard and settled by specific judges. With the SC being accused of working closely with the executive or major parties, the government’s recent move to arm judges with sweeping powers — mainly against the media in contempt of court cases — is being seen as a way of shielding the judiciary from criticism. Media reports have not directly accused the “specific judges” of acquiring financial benefits, but underlying messages point out that the SC and judges are indifferent to the public mood. In other words, the executive and the SC are seen to be moving closer, not for the public good but to protect their own interests.
“Many countries have this kind of arrangement and laws. Nepal did not have it so far. Nobody should fear because of this law,” said Law Minister Narahari Acharya, in defence of the new statute. The government has so far shown only its reluctance to concede to the Bar’s demands of withdrawing it altogether.
Institutionalised corruption at the political level only brings into question the intention of “local actors” to deliver the constitution within a year. What will a constitution mean if the SC and the executive exceed the limits of constitutionalism, condone corruption and terrorise the media?