The more one analyses the current turmoil, the knottier the country’s problems appear. The opposition parties, chiefly Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, have been clamoring for the prime minister’s resignation in order to create a favorable environment for a new consensus government. The UCPN (Maoist), meanwhile, claims that there is no point in asking for the resignation of PM Baburam Bhattarai who has been declared a caretaker by the president. If the opposition has a point, so do the Maoists.
Without first fielding a credible candidate, it might still make sense for the opposition to ask the caretaker PM to step down (again!), but it also offers a strong excuse for Bhattarai to stay put: Without a clear alternative, why push the country into a total political vacuum? Let us for a moment keep UML aside and analyze Nepali Congress’ role in the current crisis. NC undoubtedly has a legitimate claim to the top post, a fact clearly reflected in the five-point May 3 deal where the four major political forces agreed to its leadership of the new government, to be formed after the promulgation of the constitution by May 27. But surely, NC’s case for leadership of consensus government (and ouster of the caretaker prime minister) would be much stronger if it could first finalize its PM candidate and only then seek the backing of other likeminded parties.
The Maoists can be forgiven for believing that the opposition, and particularly NC, is not serious about finding an alternative to the Bhattarai government. With NC divided right down the middle, nor can Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the ever-opportunist, be blamed for striving to widen the NC divide by dangling the bait of PM before Sher Bahadur Deuba. As NC struggles to come to terms with a bitter power rivalry, and with CPN-UML battling its own divisive tendencies, the Maoists must believe they can get away with even murder, particularly after the formation of the Dahal-led Federal Democratic Republican Alliance (FDRA). In the UCPN (Maoist) reckoning, the strength it lost when the Baidya faction walked away, has been recuperated with the formation of the new pro-federal alliance.
That said, there is no doubt that Baburam Bhattarai as a prime minister has been a failure, on multiple fronts. Of the legions of promises he made on assuming office, none of the important ones have materialized. The peace process, which would arguably have been the biggest achievement of his government, has been stalled for the last three months and with the disputes over integration still raging, it is far from done and dusted with (the Special Committee’s term extension on Friday is more symbolic than substantive). But Bhattarai’s biggest failure is indubitably the inability to live up to his promise of a timely constitution, the central plank on which he had assumed office. His continued claim on government leadership is even shakier after the Election Commission’s declaration that there will be no polls on November 22, a date which Bhattarai announced without consulting the two of the three major stakeholders in the post-2006 political process.
For all these (and a few more) reasons, Bhattarai must go. But again, why should the Maoists step aside when the main claimant for prime ministership, Nepali Congress, has failed to make a serious case for its leadership of new government? NC’s failing has been on two fronts. One, in its failure to pick a PM candidate and two, in its lack of vision for a post-Bhattarai scenario. As NC leader Narahari Acharya told Republica recently, the party does not have any road map of how it will take things forward if Bhattarai leaves office tomorrow. Then what? Besides, there is no legal basis for the formation of new government. The only way it can come into existence is through political consensus.
Urging the president to overstep his constitutional bounds without first taking the initiative to address the current deadlock through democratic means does not befit NC, the self-declared custodian of democracy in Nepal. If NC could only field a clear candidate by closing its ranks and spell out its future plans, it would put a great deal more pressure—both moral and political—for UCPN (Maoist) to make way.
As it struggles to put its own house in order, NC seems happy to fire potshots at the Bhattarai government from the sidelines. This brazen abdication of its responsibility, whereby it could have helped the country emerge from the current morass through a more proactive role, can be considered one more evidence of its eroding democratic credentials.
NC AND THE IMPASSE
NC’s abdication of responsibility to clear hurdles for consensus reflects poorly on the self-declared custodian of democracy.
Meanwhile, important ambassadorial posts are vacant. CIAA is without permanent office bearers. The Election Commission will soon be headless. There is no parliament to check the excesses of the executive; and with one after another retirement of its judges, even the Supreme Court is under strength. A government being run in the absence of these checks and balances, and one which has to rely on ordinances to push through its agenda, cannot be considered democratic. This gives credence to the theory that this is a part of the larger Maoist plan to capture the state by rendering democratic institutions dysfunctional.
Less disputable is the fact that the prolonged political and constitutional vacuum has invited an unprecedented level of foreign meddling. No wonder. India, besides ramping up its pressure on the Nepali political class to safeguard its self-defined interests at all costs, is also trying to forestall any possibility of the spillover of the instability in Nepal into its territories, often at Nepal’s cost. India’s construction of 89 new ‘observation posts’ along the Indo-Nepal border can be seen in this light. China, once happy to overlook the developments in Nepal as the country’s ‘internal affair’, has stepped up its engagement here, its keep-mum policy now changed to one offering ‘suggestions’ on what are clearly Nepal’s domestic affairs. Americans and Europeans are more vocal with their own suggestions than at any other time in the country’s democratic history.
Through the blatant abdication of their responsibility—with no less than the country’s sovereign status at stake—our democratic parties have been literally playing fiddle while the country burns. For any meaningful breakthrough, the political parties must be able to work together even amidst their differences, as they did at the start of the peace process in 2006. As was the case in the last six years, even today there is no alternative to consensus politics. If the parties refuse to internalize this self-evident fact on time, democratic forces will steadily be turfed out from national politics.