Thirteen-year old Suraj Thapa works as a kitchen boy at a highway dhaba on Jalandhar Bypass, well cared for by his Sikh employers. But why is Suraj here in the first place, rather than attending school in his home district of Pyuthan in western Nepal?
Since the unification of Nepal two-and-a-half centuries ago, the state has failed to provide for its citizenry, pauperising it through expansionary wars, hereditary autocracies and royal dictatorships. The poorest have had to migrate for survival, reaching back to when Gorkhalis turned up at the gates of Ranjit Singh in Lahore.
Opportunity for growth
When the 1990 People’s Movement ushered in democracy, the opportunity for economic growth and equity seemed finally at hand, a time to shed Kathmandu-centricism and the historical marginalisation of whole communities. Nepal would now be able to parlay its size, sovereignty and abundant natural resources for material wealth, to emerge as an exemplary nation-state of South Asia.
Before five years were over, however, the Maoists had picked up the gun against the embryonic parliamentary system. Evolution of the polity was derailed and the economy stunted; the process of ‘de-employment’ has been ongoing now for 17 years, a decade of conflict and seven years of chaotic ‘transition.’
The poorest from hill and plains cross the open border to the south, swelling the ranks of the labouring Nepali underclass, from the wheat fields of Punjab to the apple orchards of kalapahad (Himachal) and the bylanes of Bangalore. The less-poor go to the Gulf and Malaysia. At least six million of Nepal’s 27.5 million able-bodied are outside today, also severely depleting the voter rolls for the upcoming elections of November 19.
Crows in a fog
The so-called transitional period has become almost as long as the conflict itself, with the economy held hostage and the state directionless like a crow in a mountain fog. The Maoists came above ground following the massive and peaceful People’s Movement of 2006, but they cheated on the peace process by holding on to their combatants for six years instead of the promised six months. The historical monarchy was abolished by political consensus, but the Republic of Nepal was weakened from the start by its progenitors.
An electoral farce was enacted in April 2008, with aggression and reckless propaganda making the Maoists the largest party by far in the Constituent Assembly (CA). The electorate was trapped by the hurried announcement by Jimmy Carter (as a parachutist election observer) that the polls were just fine; and by the Chief Election Commissioner of the day who declared that the polls were to be seen as part of the peace process. Given the sullied elections, the Assembly was robbed of gravitas and credibility; after extending its two-year term by a further two years, the CA collapsed in May 2012 without delivering a document.
Throughout the period of the CA’s life, the Maoists continued to consolidate their grip on society, weakening the bureaucracy, police, the army and, finally, the judiciary. Ignoring the pain among the victims of conflict, they developed a tacit understanding with the Nepal Army, the former enemy, to scuttle the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Their goal of blanket amnesty for perpetrators sowed the seeds of long-term social discord.
Perhaps the most dangerous development during the CA’s term was the calibrated manufacture of inter-community polarisation, in the context of defining federalism. Cross-cutting divisions were activated between hill and plains communities, between castes and ethnicities, with the sizeable Dalit population losing out at every step.
The Maoists prepared the stage for crony capitalism, with all-out corruption whose scale went from lakh to crore to arab in a handful of years. Deftly, the comrades transformed from revolutionaries to casino operators, real estate mafiosi , and kickback merchants swimming in telecom, hydropower and other honey pots. Steadfastly stonewalling district and village-level elections, they helped extend the culture of graft to the grassroots.
The Interim Constitution’s stricture on governance-by-consensus proved a bane, and over time the polity came under the grip of the “four-party syndicate” steered by the UCPN-Maoist Chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’). It was this political cartel which, in early 2013, decided to hand over the reins of the government to the sitting Chief Justice, compromising Nepal’s tradition of separation of powers.
With the political leadership divided between the opportunists (Maoists) and the inept (the ‘democratic’ flank), the international community had a field day with Nepal’s internal affairs. Overseas donors provided ample funding for constitutional debates, but managed mainly to divert political activists into workshops and seminars. Beijing, nervous about its Tibet underbelly but also seeking to create new geopolitical realities, sought to increase its influence on the Home Ministry. Astoundingly, New Delhi seemed to outsource its Nepal policy to unaccountable ‘agencies’ and obnoxious individuals and, as a result, got caught in a quagmire of micromanagement.
Country without jurists
One more try at writing the Constitution was needed, hence the polls next week for Constituent Assembly-II. Unfortunately, the ‘syndicate’ has ensured that the foundations are weak. There is no threshold percentage, so the forthcoming House will likely be hugely fragmented. The size of the Assembly at 601 members is unwieldy, and the nature of the ‘proportional list’ allows party leaders to play favourites. The plains Dalit, in particular, have been abandoned in the various compromises made. The unkindest cut was to discard the very concept of vetting, allowing war-crime accused to become candidates.
Given such flaws, the meaningfulness ( saarthakata ) of the CA-II can only be ensured by guaranteeing clean elections. Even if Constitution-writing takes time, in this country without jurists, there will be a Parliament for the next four years. Representative government will provide a buffer for the economy and give continuity and direction to the state. The polls will also help separate the judiciary from the executive, and salvage a modicum of dignity in the international arena — including assigning an ambassador to India, a seat that has been vacant for more than two years.
The elections are also crucial to impede the growth in tandem of the radical left and the Hindutva-right, the former led by Chairman Dahal and the latter manned by those energised by the prospects of Narendra Modi in India. The road to socio-political stability is ideally along the lines spelled out by the late Biswheswor Prasad Koirala half-a-century ago, a social democratic state where fundamental freedoms will help reverse the injustices of the past and present.
Nepal’s normalisation is dependent at this stage on representative government built on the basis of kosher elections, reversing the momentum towards money and muscle in politics. The dangers emanate from the UCPN-Maoist of Dahal and the breakaway faction of Mohan Baidya. The leaders of the Nepali Congress, the CPN (UML) and Madhesbadi parties are unable to block the elections even if they want to.
What would Chairman Dahal (and Vice-Chairman Baburam Bhattarai) do if they perceive the UCPN-Maoist party faring considerably worse than in 2008? This is a critical question, for the temptation would be to try and hijack the outcome through booth capture, stuffing of ballots and threatening voters and candidates alike with the Young Communist League — as was done the last time. The UCPN-Maoist is also far ahead of the other parties in the ability to buy votes, and the spending would be upped sharply in the final days.
The other critical question is whether Mr. Baidya and his party will seek to disrupt the polls as a whole, or help fight Mr. Dahal on the issues. It is a fact that Mr. Baidya was unfairly treated by the ‘syndicate’ in talks on participating in the elections, but he does the people an injustice with the run of bandhs and bombings of the past month. In the penultimate days, he is emerging as a spoiler and, in that sense, acting as a Dahal accessory.
In the days before the ballot, Mr. Baidya has managed to divert the attention of the electorate from the issues that are vital for the upcoming elections — responsibility for the weakened sense of national sovereignty, heightened impoverishment, squelching of local government, loot of the exchequer, communal polarisations, and candidacies of accused perpetrators.
The upcoming election is one more attempt to end the run of debacles that has dogged the people of Nepal through history, and to reach for normalcy, in democracy and in peace. That journey begins, once again, by trying to keep money and muscle from influencing the ballot box on November 19.
(The writer is a civil rights activist and journalist based in Kathmandu.)
Nepal is making another try at Constitution-writing, hoping that a free and fair election exercise this time will give deliverance