Listen to the people

The demand for referendums on crucial issues is growing in Nepal.

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire | Published: September 22, 2014 12:21:10 am
Nepal premiere Sushil Koirala. Nepal premiere Sushil Koirala.

The Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, to have the right to rebellion recognised in the constitution, during the early days of the first Constituent Assembly (CA). That move mirrored the UCPN-M’s insistence on a federal Nepal, with provinces enjoying the “right to self-determination”.

But the Maoists were not the only group raising the issue. Subsequent to the Maoists agreeing to lay down their arms, the year 2006 saw the rise of regionalism as well as the formation of new political parties in the plains adjoining India. Some of these parties echoed the same demand for more autonomy and self-determination.

A couple of weeks ago, the CA’s Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee, headed by former prime minister and Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, invited an unusual “expert” for his opinion on the constitution. C.K. Raut, a self-proclaimed activist who has held political rallies and lobbied in Delhi recently, demanded that the “right to secede should be incorporated in the constitution.”

A few days ago, he was arrested by the police and charged with “sedition”. While the case of an individual charged with sedition is a matter for the courts to settle, the bigger question this episode raises is where the constitution-making process is headed.

The UN country office, Western donors, developmental agencies and India have, in the past, directly or indirectly supported “ethnicity-based” federalism, with the right to self-determination. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the drift in the Indian approach by saying Nepal and India will embark on a journey to prosperity and development together. But the mess has to be cleared first.  The bureaucracy that conducted India’s diplomacy with Nepal for the last eight years may be the biggest stumbling block for Modi’s idea, unless it is reoriented and brought under a strictly political radar.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and his cabinet overruled objections raised by three ministers and announced the Project Development Agreement (PDA) on the 900 MW Upper Karnali hydro project, which will enable Nepal’s Investment Board (IB) and India’s GMR Group to sign the deal and move towards execution to meet the 2021 deadline for power generation. Timely conclusion of the project will, no doubt, enhance bilateral credibility, till date clouded by poor delivery.

However, a conducive climate for writing the constitution is necessary in order to confer legitimacy upon such projects. Most hydro projects with India have come under suspicion, with many people believing India wants a monopoly on Nepal’s rich water resources and hydro potential. But the one between GMR and IB was finalised after long deliberations, under the supervision of both PMs. Still, the larger question remains as to how serious Nepal’s politicians are about constitution-making.

Why did the Bhattarai-led committee, which has deliberately chosen not to invite anybody opposing federalism in principle, choose to invite an extremist who openly stated that his goal is to have the plains “liberated” from Nepal? Federalism, secularism and republicanism are new identities of Nepal that the major parties unilaterally announced, without soliciting public opinion, or through due parliamentary process.

These identities are yet to be institutionalised, since the parties have failed to deliver the constitution and face daily opposition. Raut’s campaign, his deposition before the CA committee and his subsequent arrest, as well as its condemnation by Bhattarai and some leaders of the Madhesi parties, demonstrate the differences of opinion even on issues like territorial integrity and sovereignty. Apart from federalism, the forms of government, democracy, the electoral system, judiciary, etc remain contentious issues.

With the September 6 deadline for settling these contentious issues passing, the coalition partners seem more determined than before to adopt the constitution by even a simple majority. The demand for referenda on a secular vs Hindu Nepal, on federalism and devolution, and on monarchy vs republic, is growing.

More than the outcome, people want their views recorded on critical issues. The leaders of the big parties can reject such public opinion at their own peril.

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