Nepali Congress General Secretary Krishna Prasad Sitaula has been an active interlocutor between the ruling and opposition parties in ongoing negotiations. In the same role, Situala helped bring the Maoists into mainstream politics, starting with the historic 12-point Delhi accord. Kosh Raj Koirala and Biswas Baral sat down with the veteran Congress leader to better understand the prolonged impasse and ongoing talks.
What in your view is the major obstacle for a breakthrough in current talks?
At the root of the current impasse is the atmosphere of mistrust between the ruling and opposition parties that originated with the CA’s dissolution on May 27 and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s unilateral announcement of new CA polls. The proposal for new CA polls should at least have been discussed with Nepali Congress and CPN-UML. Since, there is a fear among opposition forces that the ruling coalition wants to capture the whole state power. Bhattarai announced new polls knowing fully well CA polls was no ordinary election and they could only be held through broad political consensus.
PHOTO: KESHAB THOKER
Apparently, political parties were near a breakthrough in current negotiations before prime minister Bhattarai backtracked. Was that the case?
Even Bhattarai had in the past said that there is no alternative to consensus government. In fact, there was an understanding between all parties that new polls should be held by April/May. There were agreements on 240 electoral constituencies and reduction in PR seats. The opposition parties had proposed that Bhattarai government should clear constitutional hurdles on the basis of agreement among parties. We had agreed that there would be a package deal on clearing the political impasse and constitutional hurdles. Instead of insisting that the ruling coalition be punished for its unilateral decision on polls, the opposition allowed it this most honorable exit. If the government had agreed to this proposal, there would have been a consensus government in place a month ago.
Where did things go wrong then?
At the outset, prime minister Bhattarai was positive on this option. Both he as well as Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal had hailed it as a very positive suggestion. But only days later, Bhattarai sent a message through his emissaries that since the parties were so close on important issues, why wouldn’t the opposition join his government for a few days?
How do you interpret Bhattarai’s insistence that the opposition join the ruling coalition, even if for just a few days?
Why should we join the government for such a short period? There should be some logic. Like I said , we have allowed Bhattarai a graceful exit. Why doesn’t he accept it?
Prime Minister Bhattarai has been saying that since the opposition has been treating him as an ‘untouchable’, he has no incentive to reach out to them as well.
If we really wanted to go ahead by boycotting him, why would we ask him to implement a consensus agreement? In fact, it is the duty of the prime minister, who is responsible for the current state of political and constitutional vacuum, to take the initiative to establish political consensus. Now that the opposition parties have managed to create an atmosphere of consensus, why doesn’t he take the initiative to implement our earlier agreement?
The ruling coalition believes there will be no CA polls under Nepali Congress leadership. Is Congress really against election?
This is a blatant lie. Among all the political parties, Nepali Congress is the most committed to periodic elections. Let us look at historical facts. Why couldn’t elections be held between 1950 and 1955? Because a Congress-led government could not be formed during the period. But as soon as there was NC-led government under Subarna Sumsher, polls were held. After the 1990 revolution, there was election under the leadership of Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. In 1994, a full-strength NC-led government decided to go for mid-term polls, where it lost its stature as the biggest party. The 2000 election was held under Girija Prasad Koirala, as were CA polls in 2008. Nepali Congress believes periodic elections are the soul of democracy. Thus, more than who will win the next CA polls, NC is more worried about if there will be any election at all. Let us not forget, nearly five years have elapsed since the last polls. If there is no election now, democracy will be under threat. It is the historical duty of Congress to safeguard democracy.
Do you believe that the ruling coalition is against new polls instead?
Yes, post-split, the Maoists must know their electoral prospects are dim. They must also feel that since it was UCPN (Maoist) leadership which announced CA polls, elections should be held under the same party. I don’t think Baburam Bhattarai is serious when he accuses Congress of not wanting to hold elections. This is only an excuse to cling to power. If there is no broad-based agreement by January 9, the chances of CA polls by May will be significantly reduced.
How have you seen the role of the Madhesi parties in the ruling coalition?
I don’t want to comment on the Madhesi parties beyond saying that they want to prolong their tenure in government. I believe the bulk of the responsibility for breakthrough rests with the party with government leadership.
Of late, PM Bhattarai has been talking up the option of a third-party, neutral candidate. Will this be acceptable to Congress?
If there is third-person leadership, the state of chaos witnessed in Nepal between 1950 and 1955 will be repeated. At a time a government led by the biggest party in the country has failed to hold election, how can a neutral candidate, without any public mandate, succeed? That will only complicate the situation.
You say that there should be broad agreement between the parties. The ruling coalition has also been saying that there should be a package deal. How are the two sets of proposals different?
Look, let me say this again, all issues have already been settled. The only hindrance to a breakthrough at this point in time is the refusal of Baburam Bhattarai to make way. You see, there are no differences on the minimal agreement needed for May polls. This includes removing constitutional hurdles, adequately staffing the Election Commission, declaration of electoral day and establishment of consensus government to achieve these goals.
There is also the argument that if the country goes for new polls without institutionalizing past achievements, post 2006 achievements would be under risk.
The interim constitution clearly provisions for a constitution of a federal, democratic republic. The new CA cannot override this principle. The current practice of accusing someone of being anti-federalist, I believe, is a part of electoral politics. No party at present is anti-federalist.
What about the demand that past agreements be tabulated before agreement on new polls?
This goes without saying. The work carried out by the old CA will serve as the property of the new CA.
Is consensus government under Congress leadership the only way out at present?
That is the need of the hour. There is no question of government leadership from among the ruling coalition. We believe the ruling coalition must accept the responsibility for the one-sided decision on May 27. That leaves Congress and UML. Since UML has already made an institutional decision to back Congress, Congress leadership becomes natural. Another thing is that Congress settled its prime ministerial candidate after UML and Maoists asked us to do so, to show them that we were serious. To put forth new preconditions now is not right.
A great deal has been made of the apparent differences between Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and vice chairman Baburam Bhattarai over new government formation. What do you make of it?
In my discussions with the two leaders, both had accepted the proposal that the current government would clear the legal and constitutional hurdles, after which it would make way for NC-led government. But two days later, Bhattarai went back on his words, and asked Congress to join his government instead. This shows that at the heart of the current crisis is Baburam Bhattarai’s bal hath (childish stubbornness).
How has the prime minister been stubborn?
Let us compare Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal. I have known both for a long time. Both come across as highly ambitious, more than is necessary at times. But in today’s context, I believe Baburam Bhattarai has become addicted to power. At least, Dahal had resigned on moral grounds over the disagreement over the appointment of Army chief in 2009. But even after Bhattarai made an enormous blunder by unilaterally announcing election on May 27, he seems not to have realized his folly yet. This, I believe, is a historical failure of Baburam Bhattarai. Even though I am his political adversary, I would like to remind Bhattarai that any politician who leaves behind value-based politics in his quest for power will sooner or later fall down, so hard he will never be able to stand up again. But there is still time for Bhattarai. He should not fail to understand the need of time and situation. He could still add a feather to his cap by taking personal responsibility for the formation of consensus government.