There is a lot of suspense on the shape of the new government following President Ram Baran Yadav’s ultimatum to political parties to come to an agreement on new consensus government by today, a deadline which is likely to be extended. The ruling alliance led by PM Baburam Bhattarai seems to be in no mood to give in to the opposition demand to vacate office.
The opposition led by Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, meanwhile, insists that the PM should step aside before meaningful negotiations on new polls can begin. With the future course unclear, pressure has been mounting on Nepali Congress to declare its PM candidate. Kosh Raj Koirala and Biswas Baral talked to Nepali Congress Central Working Committee member Arjun Narasingh KC, who holds a masters degree in political science from Tribhuvan University, about the likelihood of NC-led government, internal divisions within the party and its role in national politics.
How does Nepali Congress view the President’s call for consensus government?
The President has been holding discussions with leaders from both ruling and opposition coalitions for the last five and a half months to find a way out of the current crisis. Nepali Congress has decided that new CA polls is the only way out. We want free, independent and intimidation-free election. This is the reason we have been consistently advocating for consensus government. Our position aligns with that of the President. Since the President’s relentless quest for consensus proved futile, he was forced to call for new consensus government. The party strongly opposes any attempt at deliberately misinterpreting the President’s honest intention of establishing broad consensus for new government. The President has taken this decision in good faith, realizing that there is no alternative to consensus government.
Why can’t the caretaker government under Baburam Bhattarai be transformed into consensus government?
First, we are yet to establish how committed the Maoists are to the concept of loktantra (democracy). We are still not in a position to accept their words at face value. On the other hand, the Bhattarai government has been a total failure politically, ideologically and morally after failing to hold the Nov. 22 election. In this situation, Congress believes its ouster is only way out of the current impasse. Nepali Congress has been steering the country’s political course since the signing of the 12-point agreement in 2005. Congress led the process of signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord, as well as the drafting of the Interim Constitution and declaration of the Federal Democratic Republic. This makes it a natural contender for government leadership. Also, consider that in the four and a half years, the Maoists have led the government twice and so have CPN-UML. Now it’s the turn of Congress. Besides this, Congress has a proven track record as a democratic party and has successfully held free and fair elections in the past. The 2008 CA polls were held under the leadership of Girija Prasad Koirala, an election which Congress lost badly. This shows the party was able to hold free and fair polls. This is the reason Congress has been claiming leadership with the promise to hold election in Baishakh (April/May).
The Maoists say they are not ready to accept Congress leadership since Congress is not ready to accept their leadership.
Congress will continue to claim leadership until the last moment. But the party’s broader mission is democracy and free elections. If there are alternative solutions which allow for free and free polls by April-May, we are ready to discuss even such alternatives. On the other hand, the Maoists have just made public their policy of exclusion against Congress and UML, which shows that the Maoists are intent on taking the country on the path of conflict, not consensus. We believe this is part of the Maoist ploy to capture state power by indefinitely prolonging its tenure at the top. The way they have ignored the two forces that have been at the forefront of national politics since the start of the peace process, it appears they want to revert to the path of conflict and state capture.
The President has called for a consensus government under Article 38 (1) of the interim constitution. What happens if the parties fail to build consensus by the given timeline?
Once again, I would like to emphasize that there is no alternative to consensus and the policy of exclusion that the Maoists have adopted doesn’t help find a way out. It is important that all options on the table be discussed. So far as the President’s call for consensus by a given timeline is concerned, he himself has established the precedent of giving the political parties extra time to resolve their differences. This time too, I believe the President will extend the deadline for consensus since there is no other alternative. The spirit of the interim constitution, which, remember, is the only constitution in Nepal’s history that has been prepared solely by people’s representatives, is embodied in the words consensus, cooperation and unity. This is the reason I say there is no alternative to consensus politics. But if the Maoists don’t abandon their exclusionist policies and remain wedded to the idea of state capture, democratic forces would be compelled to mount a decisive movement (against the government).
You hinted that a neutral third-party contender might be considered for leadership of new consensus government. Is that the party’s stand?
We haven’t said we will accept any such candidate, but unlike the Maoists, we don’t rule out the possibility. Congress will always make the first claim. Nonetheless, since new CA polls is our focus, we should be open to discuss all options that lead to this end.
Can you tell us who is the Congress candidate for government leadership?
The Congress is not as divided as has been portrayed in the media. Whenever the country faces a crisis, the party decides as one. This time too, our candidate will be chosen with consensus.
But who will be that candidate?
I am not in a position to say who the candidate will be in an official capacity. But we are very close to an agreement. Yet Congress maintains that ours is a political party system. Unless the ruling parties don’t make it clear whether Congress leadership is acceptable to them, the party will be in two minds whether to settle on a particular candidate. We have been careful since we have in the past witnessed a tendency to engineer divides within Congress party by luring certain leaders with the PM bait.
But at a time when even the parties in opposition have been asking Congress to pick its PM candidate, won’t putting forward one particular candidate help build pressure on the ruling alliance?
Do you honestly believe that our failure to pick a PM candidate is the main reason why there has been no consensus government under our leadership? Only Tuesday, the Maoists made an official stand that they would not accept Congress or UML leadership. Maoist Chairman Prachanda made it clear that no figure from outside the ruling alliance would be acceptable as a PM candidate. The moment we get the message that Congress leadership is acceptable to the ruling coalition, we will not delay naming our candidate even by a minute.
Hasn’t Party President Sushil Koirala been lobbying for his own candidacy of late?
It would be wrong to interpret his recent political discussions in this light. He has been lobbying for Congress government leadership. If tomorrow we decide he will lead the party into new government, then he will be our official PM candidate.
Since election seems to be the end goal of Congress, can’t the same end also be achieved by joining the current government?
This is not possible. If we go into new election under current leadership, there can neither be free and fair polls, nor will we be able to preserve our democratic values. This will be counterproductive not only for Congress but for the whole country.
Some of the Madhesh-based parties have said that they cannot support Congress since the party is anti-federalist. How do you respond?
The Congress as a whole is in favor of federalism. Let me remind you once again, it was during Congress leadership that the country was declared a federal republic. Under whose leadership was the interim constitution drafted? Congress again. The various political agreements with the Madheshi Morcha were also carried out under our leadership. So far as our ideological commitment to federalism is concerned, we are fully committed. But given that the country has 119 ethnic groups and not one of the 75 districts has the majority of even one ethnic group, we doubt ethnic states can preserve national unity and communal harmony. When I talk to Madheshi leaders, I often ask them: Why are you advocating for ethnic states up in the hills and mountains but want geographical divisions down in the plains? Why this double standard? As Congress believes such ethnic demarcations are harmful, it has pursued the idea of “jatiya pahichan bhetine, dwanda metine” demarcation (federalism which “recognizes ethnic identity but also rules out conflict”). I personally believe that the issue of single-ethnic state vs common state should be taken to national referendum which can be held side by side the next election. But if you continue to pick fights on this thorny issue, I doubt we will get a constitution even after new CA polls. Why not let the sovereign people decide?
Many accuse Congress of having no greater agenda than replacing the Maoist-led government with its own. Can you tell us what agenda does NC plan to take to the people in the lead up to the new CA polls?
First, we will remind people of how we have all along fought for universally accepted democratic norms and values. Two, we will make a pitch for social justice and inclusive politics through socio-economic transformation of the country by stepping on our rich socialist heritage. We would also request Nepalis: You gave those who didn’t believe in constitutionalism, those who have been saying that the concept of pluralism is not in their dictionary, a chance, and they failed. Now give Congress, a party which adheres to the values of constitutionalism, pluralism and rule of law a chance to draft a constitution for new Nepal.