Nepal's ambitious political transformation suffered its most serious setback Sunday night when its popularly elected and inclusive Constituent Assembly (CA) collapsed without delivering a constitution. Judicial strictures and deep political divisions prevented a further extension but history will judge the current political leadership harshly for failing to meet the long-standing aspiration of citizens to draw their own social contract. The parties spent far too much energy squabbling over government formation and power-sharing. The issue of integration of Maoist combatants dragged on for years. Senior politicians did not engage intensively in constitutional debates till very late. The CA itself was reduced to a mere rubber-stamp, and contentious issues were never put to vote. The breaking point was the issue of federalism. The Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) — reluctant federalists at best — were keen on postponing the issue for a future parliament. But a constitution without specific agreement on identity-based federalism was unacceptable to the Maoists, Madhesis, and ethnic communities.
The only silver lining is that things could have been worse — a constitution not owned by marginalised communities who constitute over half the population, or a state of emergency. The Baburam Bhattarai-led government has now declared elections for a new CA in November. The NC and UML have opposed the move, questioning its constitutionality. They have also, regrettably, urged President Ram Baran Yadav to be assertive. The President would be well-advised to operate strictly according to the spirit of the interim Constitution, which envisages a purely ceremonial role for him. Any adventurism would risk the stability of state institutions and deepen polarisation. As unpalatable as elections may be to the NC and UML, there is no other alternative but to go back to the people. The interim Constitution is based on the principle of political consensus and the onus lies on the current caretaker Maoist-Madhesi government to reach out to the other parties. An agreement is needed to decide on the new election framework. All parties should also reaffirm their commitment to basic principles like republicanism, secularism, federalism, democracy and inclusion. A lot of work was done by the CA committees, and this must be safeguarded as Nepal's national property which can be used in the future as a basis for discussions. If Nepali politicians do not stop their brinkmanship and work together, they not only risk all the achievements of the 2006 janandolan but also their own political survival.