The political class now faces its final challenge

For over six decades, Nepal's democratic, left and ethnic movements have waited for this day — when a popularly elected and representative Constituent Assembly would usher in a new social contract for its diverse peoples. But the country's date with history on Sunday, when the term of the CA expires with the possibility of extension ruled out, could swing either way. At midnight, true to Nepal's political tradition, major forces could strike a last minute deal and promulgate a federal democratic republican statute. Equally, the country could be staring at a political and constitutional crisis with the CA dissolved, without a constitution having been written. Not only would this be a betrayal of the long political struggles where thousands have lost their lives, it could well push the country into years of instability and multiple ethnic conflicts.

The uncertainty comes from a fundamental political divide about the nature of federalism, and what should be incorporated in the final constitutional text. While the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Madhesi parties, and Janjati (ethnic) MPs across party lines stand on one end of the spectrum, the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) represent the other pole.

The latter two forces are in favour of promulgating the constitution, while postponing the issue of state restructuring. The federal model, they argue, can be determined by the transformed legislative-parliament which will continue to exist if the constitution is done. The Maoist-Madhesi-Janjati combine has rejected this. Instead, they seek a constitution with specific agreements on the names, numbers and territorial boundaries of the new federal structure. They have demanded a firm commitment that the 14 state model, prepared by the CA committee on state restructuring, or the 10 state model, recommended by the State Restructuring Commission, should be clearly mentioned as the basis for federal demarcation. Both these models have two provinces in the Tarai plains, and demarcate boundaries in a way where ethnic communities will have a demographic advantage in several hill provinces. NC and UML have termed it ‘ethnic federalism', and said it would be unacceptable.

Many argue, logically, that it would make sense to preserve the achievements and work of the CA by framing a constitution and leave contentious issues for later. But the trust deficit is so deep that marginalised communities do not have faith in assurances. A Madhesi Minister told The Hindu, “There is already an in-principle commitment to federalism in the interim constitution. The entire rationale of the CA was to restructure the state. Both the 10 and 14 state models are products of constitutional mechanisms. If we can't get federalism now, the elites will conspire and stall it forever.”

All sides are also under pressure from their respective base. Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' has already been warned by his more radical party colleagues that if he gives up on identity-based federalism, they would split away. The Madhesi street is radical, and the parties know that if they compromise, their own political survival will be at stake. The NC and UML have their own constituencies, predominantly hill upper castes who seek to resist federalism at all costs.

If Nepal is to have a constitution by Sunday night, the real challenge is in bridging this trust deficit and balancing these multiple constituencies. Madhesi and ethnic politicians will have to understand that in the remaining one day, they cannot possibly get a full-fledged federal structure. They could instead negotiate hard on principles and guarantees that the transformed parliament will indeed deliver federalism within a specified time-frame, and the next elections would be held both for the national and provincial legislatures. At the same time, Nepal's two older parties must wake up to the new political dynamic and movements. The aspirations of excluded communities cannot be brushed aside; identity has to be recognised as a key element of federal restructuring and the recommendations of legitimate constitutional bodies on federalism cannot be discarded. If they do not relent, and the CA collapses without a constitution, it will lead to the irreversible radicalisation of Madhesi and ethnic politics.

Nepal's political class, which has shown great maturity in transforming the country from monarchy to republic, war to peace, and from a Hindu kingdom to secular state, now faces its final challenge: summoning all the statesmanship at its command in order to have a new federal, democratic republican constitution on May 27.

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