There is no alternative to elections: Baburam Bhattarai
PRASHANT JHA, A week after Nepal’s Constituent Assembly got dissolved without delivering a constitution, the political stalemate in the country shows no signs of being resolved. On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai spoke exclusively to The Hindu about the events of May 27 and the future roadmap. Excerpts:
Q. When you took over, your stated agenda was peace and constitution. The Constituent Assembly is gone, and Nepal does not have a constitution. What went wrong?
A. I am highly disappointed that I couldn’t fulfill my promises in the given timeframe. My focus was on the completion of peace process and making the constitution by May 27. On the peace front, my party and I took some unilateral measures and virtually completed the peace process though it is yet to be completed in essence. About the constitution, the problem was the very retrograde and status-quoist thinking of major political parties like Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (UML). They were dead against federal restructuring of the state. On that issue, talks broke down, and we couldn’t meet the deadline. The CA unfortunately got dissolved, and I was forced to fix the date for new elections. I am disappointed, the whole political class has got discredited, and Nepalese people are right to blame the political class for this fiasco.
Q. Can you tell us what exactly happened on May 27?
A. Contentious issues like citizenship, form of government, and electoral system had got more or less settled. The most important issue was state restructuring. When the negotiations started on May 27, my understanding was that NC and UML would realise that the Madhesis, Janjatis and other oppressed classes and regions would not accept a constitution without federal restructuring on the basis of national or ethnic or linguistic identity. I had hoped they would realise this and at least settle for 10 states based on what we call, national, and they term, ethnic, or linguistic identity. Unfortunately they didn’t accept that reality.
If you remember, almost two-thirds of the CA members had signed a petition against federal structuring without identity. If we forced it in the CA, it would have been rejected by the members. We had to find a solution by accepting national or ethnic identity. NC and UML leaders stood adamant, and didn’t accept this. We waited till late in the evening. I tried to extend the CA’s term by some means, but there was no agreement on that issue. As per the Supreme Court ruling, the CA’s tenure was to expire by midnight. The government had no option but to declare elections.
Q. There were some reports of an agreement that afternoon. Were you close to a deal?
A. There was no agreement. Talks broke down here at the PM’s residence in the afternoon. Then we decided – let us go to the assembly hall, and reach an agreement there. In case that does not happen, let us follow the procedure; take the recommendations of the CA’s State Restructuring Committee and the State Restructuring Commission to vote. If any of the recommendations got a two-thirds majority in the CA, well and good, and it will be accepted. If not, then at least the CA members would be satisfied and we could find some other means. Unfortunately, some NC and UML leaders were dead scared of facing the CA members. Instead of going to the assembly, they went to the chamber of the chairman of CA in the Singha Durbar (government secretariat). They just wasted time. It was a very embarrassing situation. The assembly expired without even starting the last session.
Q. Was the possibility of an emergency discussed?
A. As a last resort, I had proposed let us declare an emergency and extend the CA tenure. Within NC, Sher Bahadur Deuba supported it. Unfortunately, other NC and UML leaders didn’t accept it. And without concurrence of all major political parties, I couldn’t declare an emergency unilaterally. The President had to sign that declaration, and it would have had to be approved by the legislature-parliament by two thirds majority. So I had to go for elections.
Q. NC leaders say there was a way to save the parliament but you were not in favour of it.
A. This is an utter lie. These people, they just wanted to have a constitution without federalism. That is the core issue. Madhesis, Janjatis and Maoists very rightly opposed that. That’s why they forced the dissolution of CA. For me, it was a lifetime dream to make the CA a success. I made efforts to amend Article 64 of the constitution (which would have enabled extension) or use any other means to save the assembly. But there was no co-operation.
Q. But could parliament have been saved without the constitution.
A. There was no way. The interim constitution stated that the legislature-parliament would continue only after the constitution was proclaimed.
Q. The opposition believes this was pre-planned, and has labelled it as a Maoist ploy to capture state power.
A. 100 per cent lie. On the morning of May 27, I met the President and told him by the evening, I will come with the constitution and resignation. You can verify it from the President. This is on the record. I had told all leaders along with the constitution, my resignation will be submitted to the President. This was my public standing. They are spreading total lies, and it reflects their standard of morality.
Q. Did you consult other parties about the decision to hold elections?
A. At the end, everything failed. The Supreme Court had already declared that the CA’s tenure would expire by midnight. I left the chamber, and declared in front of 50 people, the only option is to declare elections. Only one and a half hours were left, and so I called a Cabinet meeting which decided on elections. If I had not done that, there would be another constitutional crisis and a political vacuum, which would have been very dangerous.
Q. There appears to be a constitutional vacuum even now, with the legitimacy of your government under question.
A. That is not true. There are ambiguities because the interim constitution did not visualise that the CA would get dissolved without passing a new constitution. There is no interim arrangement about the government. But the interim constitution is very clear that state authority and executive rights are vested with the council of ministers. The President is a ceremonial head. This government is fully constitutional and legal, and will continue till the next elections.
Q. But the president has called your government a caretaker arrangement. Do you expect a tussle with him?
A. He has not used the word ‘caretaker’, and has only reminded me about the provision of the constitution. I don’t expect any tussle. I believe the President won’t overstep his constitutional limits. He is the ceremonial head of state. Council of ministers will continue to function as executive authority.
Q. How do you plan to get to the elections, given that NC and UML have already said they will not accept it till you step down?
A. NC and UML, because of their retrograde and status-quoist position, are getting isolated from the masses. They are scared to face the people in the next elections. They will slowly realise their limitations. Since they claim to be democratic and committed to peaceful politics, if they don’t accept elections, what are the other democratic means?
Q. Are there constitutional hurdles to have new elections?
A. Some legal gaps are there. That can be fulfilled through ordinances. Once there is understanding with political parties, the President can issue orders. Constitutionally, there are no hurdles because the SC has already ruled in favour of elections. The ruling is as good as constitutional provisions.
Q. But there are already doubts being cast about the elections. Can it deliver a constitution? What if it throws up a similar result? Can the country afford another four years?
A. There is no alternative to elections. The tenure of 4 years can be changed. Once elections are held, through political consensus, new CA can reduce its tenure to one year or two years, and can continue as legislature-parliament.
Q. One of the alternatives being proposed is the reinstatement of the CA.
A. I don’t think it will be a good political move. People won’t accept it. We have already wasted four years. When we tried to extend it through constitutional and legal means, these political parties opposed it. Once it is dissolved, they are raising the issue of revival. This is absurd. People won’t accept it and there is no constitutional provision to revive it.
Q. Royalists are now claiming that since roadmap of parties has failed, it is time to get the monarch back. What is your response?
A. I don’t think monarchy will make any comeback again. That is a part of history now. They will try to fish in troubled waters. Nepalese people have been so well educated through the democratic process. Alternative to democracy is democracy, not autocracy or monarchy.
Q. How do you see India’s role in the last few days of the CA? Some forces are insinuating that the dissolution is a foreign conspiracy.
A. It is an internal political process. Political parties should take the responsibility for whatever has happened within the country. As the head of the government, I take a major share of responsibility. Of course, we need the cooperation and goodwill of our neighbours, especially India. But in this process, India, China and other international power centres played a very neutral and constructive role. There is no reason to blame them in any manner.
Keywords: Nepal political crisis, Baburam Bhattarai, Nepali Congress, Maoists, Communist Party of Nepal, Constituent Assembly