The way to salvage the Nepali dream of a federal republic is to hold elections soon without giving in to the destabilising demands of some political parties
Five years ago, day before yesterday, at midnight, Nepal became a republic, ending the nightmare that was the monarchy. Except for a military show with cannons and camouflage in Kathmandu’s playground of the rulers, celebration was subdued, not because there is nostalgia for royal rule but because Nepal’s hopes for a new dawn are fading. Today, Nepal is, as the old folk saying goes, like a “crow lost in the fog.” It has been unable to find a path ever since the leaders of its biggest parties let the Constituent Assembly quietly die on May 27 last year — again at midnight — after paralysing it for years on the pretext of finding consensus on federalism. The casualties have been devolution of power and inclusion — power today is as firmly entrenched in Kathmandu as during the monarchy, and it is still firmly in the grip of the “high-caste” men.
If Nepalis thought politics had hit rock-bottom last May, they were wrong. Instead of making the best of a crisis to seek a fresh mandate, the parties took the country deeper into a constitutional no-man’s-land. With the Maoists refusing leadership of other parties and the others refusing the leadership of the Maoists, the parties wasted 10 more months haggling over who would form the next election government. Their choice couldn’t have been more ironic: after all, it was Khil Raj Regmi, the present “chairman of the council of ministers” cum Chief Justice who had refused to extend the term of the Assembly. In addition, it was also Mr. Chief Justice who, from behind the scenes, oversaw the passing of a broad-ranging constitutional amendment that made his own ascension to the seat of executive power possible. As a result, not only have the parties failed to write a republican constitution, they have also shattered the interim one, making all possible courses open to controversy and challenges.
Five years after the end of monarchy, it appears that Nepal is back to being a political regime where might is right. An unsavoury use of this raw power, a slap in the face of the republicans, took place earlier this month when the parties, with the powerful Maoist party as the chief architect, elevated Lokman Singh Karki, a royalist lackey responsible for suppressing the revolution in 2006 that ended the monarchy-military regime, to a powerful, bureaucratic position created to check corruption. The fear now is that the institution, instead of checking corruption, will be used to settle political scores.
There is a perception that “foreign pressure” led to Mr. Regmi’s appointment and Mr. Karki’s rehabilitation. Public opinion today is that it is foreign powers, especially India, who call the shots in republican Nepal. This has led to anger and resentment, given the fierce sensitivities Nepalis harbour on sovereignty. Geopolitical considerations aside, blaming foreign pressure, conveniently enough, has become an excuse for Nepali politicians to hide their shortcomings. The leaders claim that they are helpless in the face of foreign pressure, an excuse offered by the senior leaders of both the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) in the prelude to Mr. Regmi’s and Mr. Karki’s appointments. This follows tirades in previous years from the Maoists against “Indian lords” and an admission from them that the “keys to Nepal lay elsewhere.” But the hypocrisy is that the same parties, including the Maoists, court India, and collude among themselves to appoint their supporters in powerful public positions, all the while trying to avoid the fallout by blaming foreign pressure.
There are some genuine grievances about the perceived Indian “intervention,” and it is for Delhi to introspect if their approach needs course-correction. But this resentment is being tapped into by forces seeking to derail the political process altogether. There are attempts to revive the narrow nationalism of the royalist era, comparing the current political development to a step towards Sikkimisation. This traditional “nationalism” has been self-serving, and proven disastrous for nurturing Nepal’s economy, as well as a new identity and culture. It is precisely this narrow prism that has made the Kathmandu state and its elites paranoid about the cross-border ties of the Madhesi population with India, and stalled the creation of an inclusive sense of nationalism.
Obstacle to polls
A year after the end of the Constituent Assembly, does it look like the crow will find its way out of the fog of politics? That depends on how quickly the parties can get a fresh mandate from the people, who, after all, are the real guardians of nationalism. For now, the major obstacle to elections is an unstated alliance of the Kathmandu elites, who are opposed to identity-based federalism, and the radical communists, who disagree with the entire “peace and constitution” line of the mainstream Prachanda-led Maoists.
Flawed as it may be, the quickest and safest way to polls is holding it under the CJ-led government, as mandated by a political road map of the parties. By making new demands, and hoping to destabilise the current election arrangement, the ultra-right and the ultra-left are seeking to reverse, partially or fully, the current course to elections. Only when their attempts are defeated, and elections take place by the year-end, will the path to an inclusive and federal republic, the progressive dream, become clearer.