The aandolan season has begun in Nepal. Women’s groups have started gathering outside the Constituent Assembly (CA), demanding children be eligible for citizenship against the mother’s name, not the father’s alone. A splinter group of ethnic and indigenous movements, led by former minister Padma Ratna Tuladhar, someone the Europeans and Americans have supported with huge funding for years, is pressing for ethnicity-based federalism. About three-dozen young parliamentarians from the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) have told the speaker, Subash Nemang, that the constitution should be delivered at any cost by the January 22 deadline.
While these three groups want the deadline maintained at any cost, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), the group that split from the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M), called for a partial bandh on Friday, demanding that the CA be dissolved and an all-party initiative launched for a constitution acceptable to all. Yet another splinter group, headed by Netra Bikram Chand, a combatant in the decade-long Maoist insurgency, has called for the revival of the dissolved “People’s Liberation Army”, coupled with an extortion drive, to complete the “unfinished revolution”.
Amidst these contradictory signals, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has shot off a letter asking Prime Minister Sushil Koirala about the fate of the process. “It is moving in the right direction,” Koirala’s non-committal response said. But like Nepal’s citizenry, the international community is now convinced that its trust and investment in Nepal’s political actors — who have monopolised power, politics, and the peace and constitution-making process since 2006 — were misplaced.
Except casting their votes to elect two CAs, the Nepali people are hardly involved in the constitution-writing process. The exercise so far has seen only the top leaders of the NC, UML, UCPN-M and the Madhes-centric groups take all decisions in the name of the people.
Even closed-door dialogues at the summit level end on a bitter note, with no agreement. Ethnicity-based federalism, a single province for the whole of Madhes — comprising 51 per cent of the population with most industries and fertile agriculture land — provinces on a north-south orientation linking mountains, hills and plains are the various contradictory positions taken by political parties with regard to federalism. While some major EU countries and the UN support this and even fund groups that favour ethnic federalism, officials at the Indian embassy are actively lobbying top politicians to not ignore Madhesi leaders.
During his first official visit to Nepal in August, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, however, said that India recognised Nepal as comprising “Himal, Pahad and Terai”, and that it was for the people of Nepal to decide. Modi’s message was received in Kathmandu as a contrast to the open support extended to a powerful and autonomous Terai, at the expense of the centre and other provinces, by the erstwhile UPA government. But the position of the officials at the embassy does not conform to Modi’s stand.
Federalism, like the model of government, and of the electoral and judicial systems, continues to be the most contentious issue. Nembang, perhaps, saw such confusion as an opportunity to display his ambition and project himself as someone who alone could still deliver the constitution by January 22, provided the House gave him absolute power to draft it. This only shows that Nepal is unlikely to get a constitution, if at all, after due process and debate. It seems that a failed House and its chair, in a last-ditch effort, just want to impose the constitution. But they appear to have underestimated the likely public fury and rejection of such a document.