Two days before the term of Nepal's Constituent Assembly (CA) expires, with the possibility of an extension ruled out by a Supreme Court order, differences between political parties have sharpened on the issue of federalism and the text of the constitution.

The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) have converged on Constitution with identity based federalism, while the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) have favoured promulgating the constitution, while leaving the issue of federalism to be determined by the ‘transformed Parliament'. According to the interim constitution, if the CA promulgates the constitution, it can then continue to exist as a legislature-parliament as specified in the new constitution.

Friday saw a series of intraparty and inter-party meetings, but positions only hardened, with all sides threatening the other to agree to their terms or face elections for a new CA.

A Maoist Standing Committee meeting concluded that the SC judgment encroached on the mandate of the executive and legislature, the government would not resign, and a constitution with federalism was non-negotiable.

Sources said that party vice-chairman Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran' categorically told chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' that if the party compromised on the issue of identity based federalism, his faction would split. He is also understood to be under pressure from his own party Madhesi and ethnic lawmakers on the issue.

Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai's press adviser, Ram Rijhan Yadav, said, “The conspiracy to undermine the aspirations of marginalised communities by going against federalism will be resisted.”

The Madhesi Front argued that either the ten State model, as proposed by the State Restructuring Commission, or the fourteen State model, as proposed by a CA committee should be the meeting point on federalism. Both have two provinces in the Tarai plains.

Minister for Information and Madhesi leader, Raj Kishore Yadav, told The Hindu, “Our entire battle is for federalism. If they betray us, I will go back to the Tarai; we will declare our own pradesh and have nothing to do with Kathmandu.” Another Madhesi front, led by former Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, closed down the Tarai for the seventh day, demanding federalism with an autonomous Madhes province.

Both the NC and UML, however, staunchly opposed the demand. NC leader Shekhar Koirala said, “There is no way we will accept the ten our fourteen State models. Let us promulgate a constitution with a minimal agreement on federalism, which will be decided later by Parliament.” When told the Madhesi and ethnic lawmakers say they do not trust NC's assurance, Mr. Koirala responded, “NC will not, shall not, cannot back down on federalism. We also have agreed that federalism should be on the principle of capacity and multiple identities.”

Those involved in top-level negotiations told The Hindu that there would be a period of intense polarisation for the next two days. One influential negotiator said, “Look, NC would like a constitution without federalism and Prime Minister Mr. Bhattarai's resignation. The Maoists, Madhesis and Janjatis cannot accept that. A middle way has to be found to have the constitution as well as protect the aspirations of marginalised communities.”

Sources said that if a compromise has to happen, NC and UML will have to accept identity based federalism, allow the government to continue till the issue is finalised by the transformed parliament, and agree that on this issue, the party whip will not be enforced in the parliament a key demand of ethnic lawmakers of mainstream parties. The Madhesis and Janjati MPs will have to understand that they cannot get full fledged federalism right now, and have faith in assurances A Madhesi leader, however, added, “There is a risk that in all this posturing, the entire process may collapse with the CA term expiring without the constitution.”

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