Unholy alliance would’ve jeopordised the constitution
As the May 27 deadline for the Constituent Assembly approaches, the parties last week were busy negotiating a new government acceptable to major forces inside the CA. The negotiations saw the inking of a five-point agreement that promises a consensus government led by Nepali Congress before May 27, but only after the CPN-UML and Nepali Congress agreed to join a Maoist-led consensus government led by PM Baburam Bhattarai. In order to shine a light on
the turn of events, the Post’s Bidushi Dhungel and Gyanu Adhikari spoke with Bimalendra Nidhi, a Constituent Assembly member from Nepali Congress who is a member of the Constitutional Committee and Dispute Resolution Subcommittee. Nidhi, a prominent Madhesi leader in NC, is close with former prime minister and a candidate for the future NC-led government, Sher Bahadur Deuba. Excerpts:
Why are the parties focused on government formation while the deadline for the constitution is so close?
Consensus has two aspects. One is the agreement among the parties on the national agenda. Also, since the government has to play an active role in implementing the national agenda, it’s better if the government is based on consensus. The last four years are marked by the practices of majority governments being formed and disbanded. Naturally, if we have a consensus government, we can focus better on the constitution. This logic is shared by the parties, civil society and the international community.
How exactly is the issue of consensus government tied to that of constitution-writing? Which constitutional issue will be solved with the formation of such government?
The Maoists had been claiming that the peace process would not be completed without a Maoist-led government. And the Nepali Congress claimed that the constitution-writing should be concluded with the leadership of NC, and it’d be meaningful to have a NC-led consensus government to bring out the new constitution, especially since it was NC that brought the Maoists in the political mainstream.
The NC was opposed to a government led by PM Bhattarai until last week. Then it agreed to join a government led by PM Baburam Bhattarai. What caused the turnaround?
We saw that the Maoists, UML and other parties, in principal, agreed to a Congress-led government that will finish the constitution before May 27. But the Maoists said that if they agreed to be a part of Congress-led government, why couldn’t the Congress participate in a Maoist-led government? Are they ‘untouchables’? Based on this argument, the even if it is for five or 10 days, a consensus government was formed under Maoist leadership. It was agreed in the five-point agreement that a Congress-led government will be formed before May 27. Before the Maoist would join a Congress-led government, Congress had to join the Maoist-led government; this issue was raised quite forcefully by the Maoists.
A ‘signature campaign’ was already underway to topple PM Bhattarai’s government by bringing a no-confidence motion in the parliament. Why did Congress and UML change their minds and decide to continue with him?
At that time, we, Sher Bahadur Deuba and I, were against the signature campaign whereas Ram Chandra Poudel wanted it. We wanted the Maoist and Madhesi Morcha to be ready for a NC-led consensus government. Seeing that Baburam Bhattarai was reluctant to resign, Poudel and some UML leaders like KP Oli started a signature campaign. Deuba and I, as well as Krishna Prasad Sitaula, stopped the signature campaign. The main reason for it was that toppling Baburam Bhattarai’s government was a game of numbers. Poudel tried to reassure that Baidya faction would support us. We said although we could topple the government with Baidya faction’s support, the faction’s commitment to the constitution is open to question. We didn’t want to form a government in a way that would jeopardise the constitution. The mainstream in the Maoists is for peace and constitution. So we argued that a no-confidence motion against Bhattarai with the help of Baidya faction would compel us to make many unholy alliances.
So who will lead the government formed by NC?
Ram Chandra Poudel is the leader of Congress in the parliament. But an earlier decision made by Central Comimttee—which hasn’t been changed yet—says that Deuba is the candidate for a consensus government and Poudel for a majority government.
Some, such as SD Muni, who is considered an expert on Nepal in India, say that it might be Sushil Koirala.
I don’t know who SD Muni will make the next prime minister (laughter). But Sushil Koirala is a tyagi, someone who sacrifices a lot. Although he is the party president, so far, Koirala ji hasn’t told anyone that he wants to be prime minister. He recently said in Khotang that our party’s candidate is Ram Chandra Poudel. So, officially, there are two candidates—Poudel and Deuba.
Whenever there is a change of government in Kathmandu, there is a lot of talk about Indian influence in Nepali politics. Did you notice it this time?
Let’s be clear on one point. On matters related to Nepal’s peace process
and constitution—how the state should be restructured, form of governance, nature of states, women’s rights, citizenship rights—all the embassies in Kathmandu like India, America, Finland, Switzerland, Norway and France make experts in their countries available to our politicians. Billions of Rupees has been spent on Nepal’s peace process—on politicians, CA members, political scientists, experts, and, of course, journalists. There is no sector that isn’t willing to receive support from the international community. So let’s accept that the diplomatic community in Nepal is directly and indirectly involved in the peace and constitution-writing process. All ambassadors, whether Indian, American or Chinese, meet political leaders to inform them about their government policies and learn about Nepal. This is the right and duty of the diplomatic sector.
Going back to government formation, can you tell us about the gives and takes,
the bargaining, that took place between the Maoists and Congress to form this
There were no gives and takes regarding the government—except that Congress would join a Maoist government in exchange for the Maoist joining the Congress government later.
Didn’t any constitutional issues become part of these negotiations over government formation?
The five-point agreement says that we’ll reach an agreement within three days on state restructuring and form of governance. The reality is that there’s no agreement on these issues.
You’ve been watching the negotiations closely. Where do you think the meeting point will be on these issues?
Congress has been saying that just as the society is multiethnic, multi-religious and multilingual, the states should be formed on that basis. Congress doesn’t think that it should be based on single ethnicity. The thematic committee of the CA gave us 14 and six states. The State Restructuring Commission’s report gave us two different models: 10 plus one, and a six-state model. Congress has proposed seven states. The Maoists have come down to 10 states from 14. If everyone agrees on the seven states proposed by Congress, we can be flexible on forms of governance. On this we think that the supremacy of the parliament should bind both the president and the prime minister. If necessary, we can compromise on a directly-elected president. Although, we have to say, this system is not best suited for Nepal.
Let’s change the topic, a faction of the Congress has been pushing for an “indivisible Far West”, which’s been creating confrontation between those who support the demand and primarily the Tharus mobilising against it.
I can’t comment much on it. Making demands, such as the indivisible Far West, is not illegitimate. Everyone is looking in their position and forming a basis for their demands—some have based it on region, others on ethnicity, language and community. That is natural. But when the states will be formed, it will not be like what the Maoists, Congress, UML or the Madhesis want. Until the four forces in the CA come to an agreement, none of the states will be formed. My understanding is that federalism means compromise and negotiations. That’s the crux of it.
Some have accused the Nepali Congress of being conservative on federalism by not accepting ethnic states. As a Madhesi leader, do you see the party line being conservative?
Federalism has been understood differently by those not only within Congress, but within the Maoist party, UML and the Madhesi parties. There is conservative mindset in all parties—the leadership in all parties hasn’t understood and accepted it easily. Congress, in its manifestos and other party decisions, is committed to a federal, democratic, republican Nepal. So the charge of being conservative is false.
There’s a crisis in Nepali Con-gress in the Madhes, agreed?
Even non-Madhesis in the Nepali Congress have been saying that the party hasn’t been able to understand Madhes. This is true to an extent. Within the united Congress, those who came from the Nepali Congress-Democratic appear to be more committed to the issue than others. The party itself adopted it only after the Madesi Andolan. That might be the reason for the perception. Also, let me point out that the Maoists did not bring up the issue of federalism and Congress tagged along. The Maoist concept of autonomous states was not based on federalism; they were based on the theory of communist structures.
What are your views on the number of states in Madhesh?
Madhesi Morcha has been demanding for One Madhesh One State since the beginning, something which Congress opposes. I personally think that four or five states in the Madhes will be better for rights and welfare of the Madhesis, in terms of their reach in Nepal’s national politics, inclusion and opportunities. But this is my personal view.