Floundering in a constitutional vacuum, Nepal’s slow-motion revolution marks time
FOR a man who has just led his country off a constitutional cliff, Baburam Bhattarai, Nepal’s Maoist prime minister, seems remarkably relaxed. Squeezing Banyan in for an interview in his Kathmandu office on June 9th, he is about to head off to grace a convocation at a medical college. So it is business as usual, despite the legal vacuum his government has inhabited since the term of a 600-member elected Constituent Assembly (CA), which also served as the parliament, expired at midnight on May 27th. So ended its abortive four-year effort to agree on a new constitution. As midnight neared, Mr Bhattarai called an election for a new CA, to be held in November. He was prime minister when the music stopped, so has remained in the post.
Mr Bhattarai has some legal backing. The Supreme Court ruled that the CA could not enjoy what would have been yet another extension. And Ram Baran Yadav, the opposition politician who holds the (largely ceremonial) presidency, has not cried foul. But other opposition leaders are calling for Mr Bhattarai’s head. A 22-party coalition, including the two biggest non-Maoist parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the UML (for “Unified Marxist-Leninist), is campaigning for his resignation and refusing to accept elections without it. All sorts of solutions are aired: reconstituting the old CA; a national convention; elections for a new parliament that could then approve a constitution.This legalistic debate is the latest form of a long revolution in the desperately poor Himalayan republic of 30m people. It has also involved a ten-year insurrection by Maoists that had killed over 16,000 by the time it concluded in 2006. The Maoists then made common cause with the mainstream parties against the monarchy and the abusive army that propped it up. The ensuing election in 2008 saw the Maoists emerge as the largest single party, and King Gyanendra was forced to preside over the end of his dynasty as Nepal became a republic. It is still trying to work out what sort of republic it wants to be.
In public, at least, it is accepted that Nepal should be “federal”. But that is where the trouble starts. The country is a mosaic of dozens of languages, ethnicities, religions and, in a largely Hindu society, castes. Yet the bureaucracy, government, press and economy are dominated by the upper castes from the Nepali highlands (Brahmins and Kshatriyas in Indian terms; Bahuns and Chhetris in Nepal) who make up perhaps 30% of the population. That has marginalised other groups: the Madhesi people of the plains bordering India; the Janajatis, “indigenous” groups who speak Tibeto-Burman languages; and Dalits, once known as “untouchables”. Those groups, and others, now want their rights. (Source: The Economist:)
Their resentment, harnessed by the Maoists during the war, is still an important element of the party’s political appeal. Mr Bhattarai and his comrades are upper castes from the hills, just like NC and UML leaders. But they manage to present themselves as riders of a wave of Madhesi, Janajati and Dalit assertiveness, rather than as people resisting it. In contrast, the NC and UML risk becoming seen as the parties of the upper castes.
The Maoists’ critics see their courting of the Madhesis and others as a cynical strategy for achieving their long-term goal of absolute power; and as playing with fire over the dry tinder of identity politics. The new constitution was to have both a prime minister indirectly elected by a parliament, filled partly by proportional representation, and a directly elected “executive president”. The Maoists’ opponents fear the ambition of Mr Bhattarai’s comrade, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (once known as “Prachanda”, or “the Fierce One”) who led the party through the long war. They think that, if elected, he would want to be president-for-life. Mr Bhattarai says Maoists have abandoned their totalitarian past, to become a “new type of Maoist party, who believe in a peaceful and democratic way of changing society”.
Not everyone is convinced. But, lending credibility, a hardline Maoist faction that accuses the leadership of selling out is close to quitting the party. And Mr Bhattarai points out the irony of accusations about his undemocratic tendencies, when he is the one pushing for an election. The Maoists are not the only ones whose commitment to democratic values is being questioned.
Indeed, the disagreement that scuppered the CA was not over the Maoists’ sincerity. It was about how to meet the demands of disadvantaged groups in the new federal structure. Between ten and 14 possible states or provinces were identified, most of them to be named, at least in part, for one minority. The implications of “ethnic federalism”, as it is known, terrify some. “They are trying to pit Nepalis against one another and turn this country into Afghanistan,” according to Sushil Koirala, the NC’s president.
Baburam the bogey man
“Every ruling class raises this bogey,” snorts Mr Bhattarai. Madhesi groups rose up in a bloody street movement in 2007, but Nepal today does not look on the brink of ethnic conflagration. Yet it would make a peculiar sort of federation. The various social groups are spread across the country. Nowhere would the “identified” group have a simple majority. Some argue democracy itself should reduce Bahun-Chhetri dominance over time. In fact, since the democratic reforms of 1990 that dominance has entrenched itself. Ethnic federalism seems to be a vote-winner, and as likely to prevent violence as to cause it.
So there is a less apocalyptic way of looking at all this. The parties are grappling with complex issues. Tempers have become heated at times, the CA has failed to resolved things, and politicians have a worrying record of pursuing their aims by sending men onto the streets with sticks. But for now, the violence is largely verbal, and the political gaps seem bridgeable. Playing politics the democratic way, which some argue will never work in fragmented Nepal, is holding it together so far. And Mr Bhattarai’s relaxed demeanour is that of a man who thinks he is winning. Source : The Economist