As Samuel Huntington had predicted in Clash of Civilizations politics and conflicts have switched gears, from ideological to identity. Identity/ethnic politics has found its way into Nepal as well. It was mainly the disagreement over ethnic/non-ethnic federalism that prevented the Constituent Assembly (CA) from delivering a constitution in four years.
All groups must be empowered both politically and economically for Nepal’s speedy progress. Minority groups have rightly demanded federalism for greater political space. But they have overlooked economic viability of states. We need both, because one does not guarantee the other. For instance, federalism has not brought prosperity in Nigeria and economic growth has not unlocked political freedom and civil liberties in China.
Politicians reinvent new slogans for themselves to win elections and to secure and retain power in democratic countries. Identity politics is one of their latest inventions. To create vote banks, conservatives have embraced traditional values, jingoism, intolerance, xenophobia, etc. and communists have espoused communal politics.
For instance, the Tea Party (a wing of the US Republican Party), Swedish Democrats, Danish People’s Party, True Finns, Dutch Freedom Party, National Front (France), British National Party, and Bharatiya Janata Party have been promoting identity politics on the conservative side. The Communist Party of Great Britain, Communist Party of Greece, Communist Party of India, etc., have been doing the same on the progressive side.
In theory, communism is universalist and focuses on class struggle. However, communist leaders have justified their switch from universal to communal on utilitarian grounds. For instance, at the World Social Forum, Indian communist leader Prakash Karat said on January 18, 2004, there is a “convergence of interests and activities within the framework of a struggle against imperialist-globalization and the domestic classes and order which facilitates its destructive effects by utilizing reactionary divisive politics based on religion, caste and various forms of social chauvinism.”
In Nepal, the UCPN (Maoist) has made identity politics its central tenet. CPN (Mashal) Secretary-General has accused the Maoists (Kantipur, 3 June) of shifting their priority from Marxism and Leninism to ethnic politics and Maoist leader Prachanda of trying to “capture the presidency by playing the card of ethnicism.” Once the Maoists started it, non-Maoists also joined the bandwagon to create secure ethnic vote banks.
Ironically, when the world is becoming more globalized, Nepali leaders are trying to reintroduce tribalism, enticing and forcing ethnic groups to return to their roots and display intolerance and bigotry towards each other. The genie of communal politics is out of the bottle. Ang Kaji Sherpa, a Janajati leader, recently spewed venom against the Bahun-Chhetris publicly.
The key issue that divides the country is not federalism but the names and nature of states in the federal union. Maoist and Janajati leaders have failed to convince others that ethnic states, which they support, will be equitable, inclusive, and non-fragmentary. And the Nepali Congress and UML have failed to convince the others that non-ethnic states, which they support, will be equitable, inclusive and able to address the grievances of minorities.
Upper caste Madheshi leaders and population spillover have complicated the issue further. These Madheshi leaders have demanded a non-ethnic state for the entire Tarai that denies ethnic states for Tarai and Hill Janajatis. And population spillover in many regions is such that at least three different groups are legitimately demanding the same territories—such as Kailali and Kanchanpur in the west and Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa in the east—to be included in their states.
Neither can a complete constitution be written nor can communal violence be avoided without agreeing on the names and nature of states. A partial constitution could have been promulgated by May 27 leaving out this complex issue to be sorted out by the parliament, as the NC and UML insisted. But the Maoists and the Madheshi Morcha chose otherwise and let the CA die.
Nepal had waited for more than half a century to write a constitution through a CA. The NC had demanded a CA as far back as in 1951. But King Tribhuvan stalled and King Mahendra gave his own constitution in 1959. King Birendra and political parties jointly wrote the 1990 constitution. Only the 2006 political change paved the way for the CA, which came and went without delivering the constitution. Well, it was not totally unexpected, as conspiracies had started against the CA even before it was elected.
Prachanda has, in his January 2, 2008 video speech at Shaktikhor said that the Maoists would not let the CA election take place until they were certain of their victory and that the NC would not hold it until it was sure to win. After the CA came into being, Maoist leaders had reiterated umpteen times they would approve a constitution of their choice, not of compromise. Since they did not like their understanding with other parties on 11 states, they backtracked, let the CA dissolve, and called for fresh elections on November 22.
Now a constitutional crisis has gripped the country. The Baburam Bhattarai government announced fresh elections even though the Interim Constitution has no provision for them. The CA, which could have amended the constitution, has been dissolved. The president has designated the Bhattarai government as a caretaker one that cannot make policy decisions.
NC, UML, Maoists and Madheshi Morcha have blamed each other for this fiasco. Sushil Koirala, President of the Nepali Congress, sees external hand behind the Maoist-Madheshi Morcha’s action. While blaming a foreign power for their failure is all too common in Nepal, this time the evidence was unmistakable. A few days before the end of the CA, an Indian diplomat, SD Mehta, had asked Madheshi leaders in Birgunj to bring a storm if their demand for One Madhesh was not met. And more than 70 percent people in the e-kantipur poll and more than 60 percent in the Nepali Times poll blame the Maoists and Madheshi Morcha for the failure.
Although a democratic country must not shy away from getting a fresh mandate from the people on account of expenses, elections should not be trifled with as a means to fulfilling the narrow interests and parochial ends of a single party, and certainly not in a poor country with a fragile economy. What is more, unless the dispute over the number and nature of states is not resolved, this thorny issue will prevent the next CA from producing a constitution again.
The most democratic way to resolve the names and nature of states is a referendum which can be held during next election without much additional cost.
While CA did some good preparatory work, it could not justify the more than nine billion rupees spent on it over four years. It has been a gigantic political and economic loss. In retrospect, the money gutted by the CA could have been better spent on lifting several thousand disadvantaged minorities from poverty and providing them food, education, health, and drinking water.
Evidently, all CA members are collectively responsible for the failure, but senior leaders of the Maoists, NC, UML and Madheshi Morcha must accept the lion’s share of responsibility. They spent most of their time fighting for the chair, seldom participated in CA meetings and deferred serious issues to the last minute. In other democratic countries, leaders that fail to deliver accept responsibility and resign. But in Nepal, the prime minister and other senior leaders are holding their posts despite such a monumental failure.
Although strikes and shutdowns, organized by both majority and minority groups that crippled the country as the CA came closer to the deadline, have been withdrawn, it could be a lull before the storm. The issue of federalism is going to be explosive once again when it comes before the legislature.
The most democratic way to resolve the names and nature of states will be a referendum— asking people whether they are in favor of ethnic or non-ethnic states—which can be held together with the next election without much additional cost. Alternatively, comprehensive public debate and political interaction between the majority and minority groups and between minority groups themselves could be promoted to sort out this issue.
While Samuel Huntington has been right in his political prediction about identity politics, we must not allow it to make us bigots and inflict violence and pain upon ourselves. It can be done if politicians act more responsibly.