With the people having voted with their head and heart, Nepal is back on the track to constitution-writing and a turbulent democracy
The elections on November 19, largely unsoiled, returned Nepal to representative democracy, ending a period of rule by a political syndicate that had severely weakened the polity. Until the last moment, it was feared that the UCPN-Maoist may be able to mount the kind of election-time blitzkrieg of the earlier polls in 2008. It was not for the wanting, but the party failed to hijack the process, weakened by a split in the organisation, a disbanding of ex-combatants, and the evaporation of fear across the land.
The run-up to the elections was anything but promising. The interim government of Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi had been formed against the principle of separation of powers, and he seemed much too beholden to the “High Level Committee” dominated by UCPN-Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’). Many believed that the breakaway Maoist party of Mr. Mohan Baidya was secretly aligned with Mr. Dahal, even more so when the campaign period was vitiated by the former’s bombings and bandhs. While Mr. Baidya will have to answer for the violence, as the election date drew near it became clear that his agenda was Mr. Dahal’s all-out defeat.
Critical issues were being bypassed in these second-time elections for the Constituent Assembly — the plunder of the exchequer, the stonewalling on local government, the weakening of state administration, a liaison with alien “agencies,” communal adventurism, the wounding of the judiciary and the candidature of accused war criminals. The last-minute leak of an audio tape, with Mr. Dahal exhorting his followers to use all instruments of electoral fraud, had everyone expecting the worst.
The worries proved unfounded, mainly because the UCPN-Maoist leaders had already converted into the feudal oligarchs of Animal Farm. Distanced from even their own cadre, wallowing in nepotism, and unwilling to descend from their mansions and helicopters, the cohort did not seem to know that the ground had shifted. Without their ability to intimidate, the people would vote with their eyes and ears.
It helped enormously that the Home Ministry and Election Commission had ensured security, assisted by unprecedented support from the Indian government in preventing politico-criminals using the open border to cause mayhem. The first-time introduction of voter ID cards changed the atmospherics at the ballot centres.
Kept informed by an alert media, including Nepal’s energetic network of FM radio stations, the voters of plains, midhill and montane regions acted in unison to penalise the miscreants. All over the disparate communities and geographies, a kind of “cloud intelligence” emerged, with the people voting in favour of democratic sanity. The absence of debate on the issues did not matter — the voters did not need coaching.
The Maoists and their allies among the plains-based Madhesbadi parties were chastised for having derailed the first Constituent Assembly. They were punished for having promised social justice and an end to marginalisation but using the time in power to line pockets, and to keep society unsteady and unproductive for more than seven years after the decade-long conflict ended in 2006.
On the issues, the defeat of the Maoist and Madhesbadi leaders was mainly linked to the definition of federalism. The hill voters were aware that Mr. Dahal’s “single-identity” formula for upland provinces would deliver only Bantustans, advancing a handful of satraps while destroying the hopes of growth and development. The plains voters rejected the Madhesbadi leaders who had championed a peculiar plains-only province of 500 by 20 miles, an entity which could only deepen poverty in the flatlands.
The eclipse of Dahal
In the early hours of November 20, as the first-past-the-post results started coming in, Mr. Dahal and his deputy, Mr. Baburam Bhattarai, panicked. Thinking that they were about to lose in both the constituencies they had each contested from (they eventually won one each), and before the counting on the proportional list had even begun, they directed the cadre to abandon their posts.
In the month since, the UCPN-Maoists have been in a tailspin, taking contradictory positions and losing even more credibility than demanded by the electoral reverse. They claimed systemic fraud while conceding the inability to provide evidence, declared countrywide malfeasance, other than where they had won, and threatened boycott of the Assembly while proceeding with victory celebrations.
But it was Mr. Dahal who has lost the most, after 23 years as unchallenged party supremo. His hopes of becoming a directly elected president-for-life are dashed, and Mr. Bhattarai has suddenly started a Facebook campaign to unseat the chairman. By rights, Mr. Dahal should have resigned his post, but that would be a ticket to political oblivion in a radical party that faked its democratisation.
The chairman has therefore desperately sought to save his own skin. He demanded revival of the “syndicate” with himself as chair, only to be rebuffed by the triumphant Nepali Congress and CPN (UML) parties. Nevertheless, by threatening to keep his party out of the Assembly, Mr. Dahal was able to stall the work of government formation and completion of the Assembly’s membership for a full month. This hiatus allowed time for discord to arise between the Congress and UML, as the two largest parties in the House (196 and 175 out of a total 601).
In the end, the two parties provided a sop to help Mr. Dahal manage his humiliation. On Tuesday, December 24, a compromise was reached on a high-level committee to be formed once the Assembly meets, to “assist” in the constitution-writing. When formed, this entity will have to be watched so that it does not challenge the authority of the sovereign, elected Assembly. That having been said, Tuesday’s compromise now allows the Assembly to sit and also form a government — likely to be led by Mr. Sushil Koirala of the Congress.
Those members of the Kathmandu intelligentsia ever-willing to mop up after Mr. Dahal have tried to come to his rescue by proposing fascinating interpretations of the election outcome. One pundit sought to draw a distinction between the “mataadhesh” and “janaadhesh” (voters’ mandate, which he suggested need not reflect the people’s mandate). Others warned the Congress and the UML not to ignore the “progressive” agenda of the Maoist and Madhesbadi, whereas the people had voted in the most progressive manner possible in sidelining the brazen communalists and rank opportunists.
The New York Times reported the rather startling news that Nepal had taken a sharp turn to the right, whereas the people’s vote had elevated the social-democratic middle of Nepali politics vis-à-vis the radical left and emergent right. The proponents of Hindutva did make some inroads with the RPP-N party of Mr. Kamal Thapa bagging 24 proportional seats, but he did not get the landslide some had predicted and did not win any first-past-the post constituency. Mr. Thapa’s wooing of Mr. Narendra Modi just before the polls seemed to have backfired with the voters.
The people gave the UCPN-Maoists 80 seats and a decent third place, just enough to keep them in the political and constitution-writing process, but without the numbers to hijack the drafting. The ballots have been cast in a manner that forces the UCPN-Maoist to democratise if it wants to remain relevant, with or without Mr. Dahal at the helm.
The parties have committed to promulgate the constitution within a year, which will require tackling of the contentious issues that agitated the last Assembly. Ideally, the people will get a document that defines federal provinces according to economic geography rather than the parochial and self-defeating “single-identity” and “plains-only” formulae. The debate over declaring Nepal a secular or Hindu state can be resolved by simply avoiding reference to religion. As for governance, hopefully the parliamentary system will be selected rather than a directly-elected presidency or hybrid “French model.”
For all of this to happen, the two largest parties must cooperate, in government formation as well as constitution-drafting. Humility should be the companion of the Congress and the UML throughout, given that it was not their chequered record but the people’s “cloud intelligence” that has placed them in the driver’s seat.
While a level of skulduggery will continue in Kathmandu politics as elsewhere, the return to open society assured by the November elections will give a fillip to the economic revival that has already begun. At long last, the people may reap the benefits of normalisation, and they have no one to thank but themselves for this fine turn of events.
(Kanak Mani Dixit is a civil rights activist and journalist based in Kathmandu.)