The Constitution projecthttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-constitution-project/

The Constitution project

Parties in Nepal must not be diverted again by short term issues of power-sharing.

Parties in Nepal must not be diverted again by short term issues of power-sharing

Despite bomb blasts,the torching of vehicles and incessant strikes,the Nepalese people demonstrated remarkable courage in stepping out to elect their second constituent assembly (CA) on November 19,registering a record 70 per cent turnout. Ever since the last CA — which failed to fulfil its primary mandate of drafting a constitution — was dissolved in May 2012,democracy in Nepal has been on life support,with a single man heading the executive as well as the judiciary and even amending the interim constitution with a cabinet of retired bureaucrats.

Gauging from the results that are coming in,the people have voted against the UCPN(Maoists) and the Madhesis,choosing to support the Nepali Congress and the centre-left CPN(UML). As soon as these startling results started coming in,the Maoists and most of the Madhesi parties have not only boycotted the vote counting process but also threatened to stay out of the new CA,citing “election irregularities”. If they do not review their stance,it will take Nepal back to the 1990s. There is great danger that the whole process will be derailed,and the country will enter a phase of deep uncertainty.

Nepal has had six prime ministers in the seven years since the people’s movement of 2006 as the CA was reduced to a regular hung parliament with all the theatrics of forming and dismantling of governments. Even today,Nepal is the only country without a full-fledged constitution,an elected parliament,elected government or local elected bodies. Fuelled by the agonising 12 hours of daily power outage during winter,frequent strikes,charges of corruption and a bulky assembly squabbling for four years without delivering the statute,there was popular apathy against leaders who soon turned into caricatures in the public eye. Good governance became a rarity in a country where even the government was difficult to find.

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After seven years of drift,it will be in the fitness of things if there is a renewed vigour to confront the real issues and bring back hope in the common Nepali citizenry. Political stability,of course,remains the primary prerequisite.

There were a total of 127 political parties contesting these elections. By all the preliminary estimates,Nepal will again have a hung assembly,trickier than the previous one,with a diverse range of small political parties with just two or three seats. The pro-monarchy and pro-Hindu RPP (Nepal) party led by Kamal Thapa is also expected to fare well in the proportional representation system. Coalitions could be formed by negotiations and compromise but if the constitution drafting exercise is also started afresh to adapt to the new political circumstance,it could take a few more years,making the assembly yet again the locale of a political circus. It will be a pity if the national focus is on forming coalition governments and not on the more critical issues of drinking water,employment,power supply,security,and public health,for which there has been a great clamour by young voters.

During the tenure of the last assembly,the highest leadership of the country neglected the task of building democratic institutions and vital issues of strengthening the national economy,expansion of trade and export,attracting FDI and encouraging the private sector to take the lead in economic matters were disregarded. With a per capita GDP growth of a mere 3.6 per cent in 2013,more than 2 million young Nepalese are currently working either in the Gulf,Malaysia,Korea or India. The remittances they send back comprise nearly 25 per cent of the GDP but it has turned rural Nepal into a “home for the elderly”. The peak tourist season of October-November this year has also been hampered by the elections and bandhs,compelling most western countries to issue travel warnings against Nepal.

Made mute witnesses to the instability that the country has been facing,academic institutions,including universities,constitutional bodies and government corporations,even Nepal’s embassies abroad,have either been left vacant or filled by party cadres affiliated with one or the other coalition partner. The voters seem to have taken all these tribulations into account while stamping their verdict.

In the last elections held in April 2008,there was a discernible thrust to regionalism and sub-nationalism spearheaded by Madhesi parties by capitalising on emotive factors such region,language and caste. Then came a wave of demands for ethnicity-based federalism with tensions and disputes over territory,land and resources of states,administrative boundaries and the power of states within the union. It was on the issue of federalism that consensus could not be reached and the CA had to be dissolved. Now,the mood seems to be the opposite as a new paradigm has emerged in the balance of power within the new assembly. Voters found ethnic and identity-based federalism to be disruptive. The parties need to step back,engage in constructive dialogue and achieve consensus on the basic parameters of the new constitution without wasting time on trivial issues of ministerial portfolio distribution.

Nepal is on a risky path again. It is up to the Nepali Congress and the CPN(UML) to show leadership and accommodate the rightwing and leftist forces as well as the aspirations of their own voters to steer the country towards genuine democracy and economic recovery.

The writer is director,Centre for South Asian Studies,Kathmandu express@expressindia.com

Nishchal N. Pandey