Himalayan Frontier

Nepal: Political Rivalries Stymieing Constitution-making

13 Feb, 2015    ·   4835

Pramod Jaiswal explains the conundrums in Nepal's constitution-making process 

Pramod Jaiswal
Pramod Jaiswal
Senior Fellow, China Research Programme (CRP)
After the ruling alliance of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) wanted to draft the constitution with two-thirds majority, the opposition of Maoists and Madhesi parties boycotted all the Constituent Assembly (CA) proceedings. The ruling alliance and the Maoists were party to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement almost a decade ago but are now not even in talking terms. Though they had fought ‘war’ against each other in the past, they had never stopped talking to each other. However, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has sent a formal letter asking them to return to the CA.

Nepal’s political parties could not deliver the draft of the constitution on their self-imposed 22 January 2015 deadline as they were stuck on issues such as federalism, like the previous CA.

Differences on Federalism 
In Nepal, federalism is a subject of most contentious and polarised debate that is approached through various perspectives, such as: change (pro-identity based federalism) vs. status quo forces (federalism on the basis of viability); pluralist vs. mono-culturalist; historically marginalised communities vs. upper caste hill dominance; and political de-centralisation vs. administrative de-centralisation.

By and large, the new political forces that emerged in Nepal after the promulgation of the 1990 constitution – such as the Maoists and the various political parties that arose from social movements of Madhesis, Janjatis etc. – associate themselves with the former, while traditional parties such as the NC and CPN-UML associate themselves with latter categories.

The newly-emerged political parties would like to prioritise identity recognition in the federal scheme, so that marginalised social groups can enjoy a degree of demographic dominance in the units. In Madhes, they demand two provinces in the Tarai, carved out on an east west horizontal axis. This will give political empowerment to Madhesis in the eastern plains and Thaurs in the western plains.

On the contrary, the NC and the UML want to create a federal scheme that prioritises administrative viability. It will give demographic dominance to hill Hindu upper castes who have exercised power for long. In Madhes, they also want to carve out provinces on a north-south vertical axis that connects the hills and the Tarai. Differences also exist in regard to boundary-demarcation of districts in the Tarai. The NC and the UML want it integrated in the hills while Madhesi wants to retain it in the plains.  

In order to get the constitution passed through their model of federalism with six federal provinces, the NC and the UML are prepared to use their two-third majority in the CA. The Maoists and the Madhesis demand that the constitution should reflect the spirit of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the aspirations of the Madhes movement rather than their number in the CA. Subhas Nemwang, Chairman, CA, acquiesced with the NC and the UML and initiated the process. The Maoists and the Madhesi parties boycotted the CA and announced an agitation.

Emergence of KP Oli
At present, K P Oli, Chairman, CPN-UML, has emerged as a powerful leader and he is solely responsible for the souring relationship between the ruling alliance and the opposition. His statements have polarised the Nepali society like never before while Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has no authority over the situation.

Oli, who was once an armed revolutionary, inspired by the Indian Naxalbari movement in the late 1960s, left the path of violence and joined a mainstream party. He has strongly stood against the Maoists and their ideas of federalism and republic. Additionally, he was not pleased with the peace process aimed at mainstreaming the Maoists.

Political analysts such as Prashant Jha state that Oli played a key role in mobilising non-Maoist forces to come together against the then Maoist PM Prachanda’s efforts to topple the army chief in 2009. He explains that one of Oli’s closest confidantes, Bidya Bhandari, was viscerally opposed to respectful integration of former Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army. Oli also believed that the first CA, where the Maoists had a majority, was not the best platform to promulgate a constitution and actively worked to subvert it. Experts believe that Oli’s strong hardline position is to weaken Maoists in the hills and the NC in the plains – to help UML to emerge as the single largest party in the next election.

Option for India
India, being a major stake holder of Nepal’s peace process should use its leverage, invest political capital in creating pressure on the ruling alliance and the opposition to return to the table and work out a consensus. Modi, during 2014 Nepal visit, reiterated that the constitution must be a product of consensus among all major political forces; it must not be a product of a numbers game for that will invite problems. He remarked that while a constitution is being drafted, it must be done in a manner that gives a sense of ownership to the Maoists, the Madhesis, and the pahadis. The constitution is the document of compromise and the debate to make Nepal inclusive must ensure the aspiration of historically marginalised peoples towards making all citizens equal, and simultaneously not making them unequal via federalism.