Monday’s deal between four major parties—Nepali Congress, UCPN (Maoist), CPN-UML and United Madhesi Democratic Front (UMDF)—to hand the leadership of election government to sitting Supreme Court Justice Khil Raj Regmi may have generated some hope for a breakthrough in the long-stalled political and constitutional process. But it has also sparked great controversy among politicians, legal eagles and civilians. In all likelihood, this deal, if it goes through, could prove to be a bane for the democratic process in Nepal. It will cripple national politics and seriously mar Nepali people’s collective psyche.
To begin with, the parties are divided over the issue. While CPN-UML called for yet another standing committee meeting to review its earlier endorsement of the deal, CPN-Maoist and other parties have vehemently opposed it. Even if the CJ holds the reins amid this controversy and top guns of the four major forces allow him to operate with relative freedom, election in June is still unlikely. Many legal and procedural hurdles need to be cleared. Electoral laws need to amended, election commissioners appointed. Election Commission will have to be given enough time to make necessary arrangements.
The clause in the nine-point draft proposal that entitles the High-Level Political Consultation Committee (a small coterie of top leaders) to remove the ‘chairman’ of the Interim Election Government within 15 days in case he fails to hold the polls on the stipulated date (June 5) has alarmed the CJ. He has justifiably expressed his unwillingness to take up the job, throwing the process of government formation under CJ in great uncertainty. What seemed like a decisive breakthrough only three days ago has proved to be just another tactic to prolong the deadlock (or to defer the crisis for next three months). Come June we will be back to where we are now, debating whether CJ should continue in office or his alternative should be explored from among the political leaders, while election will remain a far cry.
All this will take us back to the 1950s, the most destabilizing decade in the country’s history when we lost all achievements of the first democratic movement and the country became a battleground of dissenting voices, which proved to be fertile ground for Panchayat dictatorship. A review of the 50s may be relevant here.
Troubles started soon after Mohan Shumsher Rana took over the reins of a coalition government, following the 1951 tripartite Delhi agreement (between the Ranas, Nepali Congress and monarchy). The coalition could not hold CA polls as promised. Conflict between the NC and Ranas reached a new height. Mohan Shumsher’s government was dissolved and a 14-member cabinet formed under Matrika Prasad Koirala to complete the unfinished business.
But disagreements and dissents would play the spoilsport again. NC’s KI Singh and Bhim Dutta Panta launched an armed revolution raising the issues of land ownership and security. Later, Singh had to flee to Tibet and Panta was killed. King Tribhuvan then dissolved this cabinet and formed a five-member royal councilor’s government, which was somewhat similar to the proposed Interim Election Government, under his own leadership. Predictably, this government too failed. In between 1950 to 1959 we had eight unsuccessful governments which prompted king Tribhuvan to take the reins into his own hands. No sooner had there been parliamentary election in 1960 and first democratic government was in place, King Mahendra imposed Panchayat system. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
We are following an eerily similar path. The only difference is that there are no kings to usurp power. Bhim Dutta and KI Singh may be resting in peace, but Mohan Baidya’s Maoist party is threatening yet another armed revolt if the current dispensation tries to sideline it. And most notably, India’s meddling in Nepal’s political affairs has become blatantly conspicuous. Indian envoys tried to control every affair in Nepal during the 50s. Indian ambassador CPN Sinha, wrote BP Koirala at one time, “wishes that our country be like his district board, and he regards himself as the chairman of that district board.” Jayanta Prasad may not be as dominant as Sinha but it would be naïve to believe that his sudden appearance in Shital Niwas while political parties and the President were negotiating future government leadership was limited to exchanging pleasantries.
By falling for the designs of external forces, especially New Delhi (as some UML leaders have divulged in their Facebook accounts), political parties have belittled their own importance. People in the street have begun to say “It’s all New Delhi’s design, our leaders are mere puppets.” It is true that India has played the role of an effective moderator during major political movements in Nepal. But the situation is different now. In the past, what transpired between Nepal and India would be confined to a close-knit circle of politicians and a handful of intellectuals. The rest of the country would have no inkling about it. But with the proliferation of electronic and print media and informal information sources, the present generation of Nepalis (from school-going children to the elderly in the hinterlands) are much more aware of who is behind the scenes. This knowledge is seriously going to affect their collective psyche and self-esteem. Signs of submission are palpable.
A big chunk of political leaders and intelligentsia is deeply dissatisfied with India’s role. But they do not dare speak out. Political commentators talk about India’s meddling in metaphors and allusions. Fearing their criticism would offend the Big Brother depriving them of future powers and privileges, they try to avoid “India” in their discourse as far as possible. This fear psychosis will leave lasting imprint on the collective health of a sovereign nation.
Indian envoy’s appearance in Shital Niwas while parties and President were negotiating could not have been a coincidence.
Given the way the ruling Maoists conducted themselves over last one and a half years, it was evident we were headed in this direction. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai had proclaimed long ago that the key to state power lies ‘elsewhere’ and Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal had warned a week ago that ‘a dictatorship of a different kind’ was in the making. The cat is out: they have shown where the key to state power is and what kind of dictatorship we have to bear with—foreign powers dictating everything to national actors who act like characters in a puppet show.
Of course these designs could have been foiled. NC and UML could have played a crucial role in this. They could have joined Bhattarai’s government long ago by accepting key ministries—such as home and defense. This would have been the best method of taming the wayward Maoist and Madhesi coalition. Next, they should have opposed the Maoist proposal of election government under CJ outright and instead floated alternative candidates, at least five, forcing the Maoists to choose between them.
There is still time to avert this disastrous road. For this the political parties, especially NC, UML and CPN-Maoist need to unite and explore alternatives. After all, even if the CJ is given over the reins, election in June is highly unlikely. The time has come to reassure the people that they are governed by their chosen leaders, not by foreign diktat. Letting the CJ do his constitutionally-mandated job should be the first step in that direction.