Last week, the home ministry issued a circular asking all heads of district administration not to attend any programme organised by NGOs. In a country where NGOs and international agencies, including the UN, carry larger clout in domestic politics and policy matters than local actors — some of the international donors have their “Project Office” inside the Supreme Court and many ministries — such a circular carries hardly any meaning. However, the circular comes at a time when international agencies have ceased to command more respect than the discredited political actors, and are seen as “partners in crime” for everything going wrong.
With the constitution in disarray and a total absence of accountability for things going wrong, political parties, especially the ones in office, seem to be trying to shift the blame on to “outsiders”. The government circular to the chief district officers (CDOs), many think, is a forerunner of more stern action coming the way of the voluntary sector.
Nepal has more than more than 60,000 NGOs spread across the country, working in partnership with external donors. Last October, the government issued marching orders to UN Resident Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick after he publically criticised the Nepal government for refusing to give the role the agency wanted in undertaking “humanitarian activities” after the earthquake. Kathmandu is also deeply suspicious of the UN’s political offices in the region. A senior government official alleged that these are “supporting some secessionist leaders and if they do not stop such activities, (the government) may ask them to shut down their offices”.
It is doubtful if the government can take such drastic steps considering the partnership the political parties, especially the eight parties that have together carried forward radical politics since 2006, have forged with the UN and the international community to take forward the peace process and the making of the constitution. The push, however, may come from a different segment of the political spectrum.
The radical sections in Nepal politics have in recent years found acceptance at home and abroad and drive the political process. But a large political segment, comprising mostly traditionalists and those who believe that key constitutional debates including federalism or unitary system, monarchy or republic and secularism or a Hindu state be settled through direct involvement of the people, if necessary through referendum, were ignored or excluded. These sections hold the international community responsible for their “exclusion”. However, with political stability, the common goal of the Nepali actors and the international community, far from being realised, the distrust among the two erstwhile partners and promoters of radical change is visibly on the rise.
New Delhi, which took the lead role in mobilising international support in favour of Nepal’s radical transformation, could have played a more constructive role by encouraging the Nepali political class to follow India’s Constituent Assembly model, wherein Jawahar Lal Nehru not only worked with conservatives in his own party including Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad but also with ideological adversaries like Syama Prasad Mookerjee to ensure the widest possible ownership of the future statute.
Instead, Indian authorities prodded Nepal to become a secular republic without any informed debate in the CA, in the public sphere or by giving any direct role to the people. These shortcuts amounted to denying space to political forces other than the eight parties that had come together against the direct rule of King Gyanendra for 14 months from February 2005.
With the eight-party alliance long broken and the content of the constitution considered inadequate and “unimplementable”, the political forces excluded earlier are putting pressure on the government to bring the old (1991) constitution back. “The 1991 constitution was the outcome of a long democratic movement by the Nepalese people and it envisaged constitutional monarchy and multi-party political system as the best guarantee for political stability. It must be restored,” says former mayor of Kathmandu, P.L. Singh. Singh described the constitution promulgated last year as “a document of conspiracy dictated by outsiders through the eight parties”. Recently, a group of people in western Nepal’s Nepalgunj area re-installed the statue of late King Birendra, a decade after the “radicals” had demolished it. Two weeks ago, the government was forced to restore power supply to Mahendra Manzil, a part of the royal palace which was confiscated by the government and where the 89-year old former queen mother lives as a state tenant, following massive public disapproval.
If the anger on the street over the current political mess takes a more organised and strident form, the government may further target NGOs to deflect attention. That may result in curbs on select NGOs, UN political activities and lead to state scrutiny of external monetary support to “radical, ethnic and secessionist groups”. But political stability and enlarged ownership of the state can come about only when all political groups — radical and traditionalist — sit across the table and arrive at a common vision for the constitution.