Failure to implement constitution will have dangerous falloutsPrime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal last week sent two special envoys—Deputy Prime Ministers Bimalendra Nidhi and Krishna Bahadur Mahara—to India and China respectively, with a view to improving bilateral ties that have remained stagnant in recent times.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal last week sent two special envoys—Deputy Prime Ministers Bimalendra Nidhi and Krishna Bahadur Mahara—to India and China respectively, with a view to improving bilateral ties that have remained stagnant in recent times. Anil Giri and Sarin Ghimire spoke to Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala, who has constantly been in touch with international stakeholders and has kept a close eye on domestic political developments, about Nepal’s relationship with the two neighbours, the art and practice of effective diplomacy, restructuring of local bodies before local level polls and party politics within the Nepali Congress (NC).
How do you look at the handling of international relations by the previous government?
We still need to bring the peace process to a logical conclusion. I have no hesitation in claiming that if there is anyone who understands the Maoist party, it’s me. The previous governments did not pay much attention to the international dimension of Nepal’s sovereignty. And our relations with the neighbours, particularly the southern one, turned sour. The Oli government signed some agreements with China, which is a good initiation. But it failed to strike a balance between our two neighbours. Oli tried to play one neighbour against the other, the way Mahendra and Birendra did in the past. That’s not the kind of nationalism that is ideal in these times.
Besides the Indians and the Chinese, I have been in regular contact with Western officials.
At present, there is no foreign policy in our country. There is an Institute of Foreign Affairs, which requires a complete revamp. There are multiple new dimensions to national security. Think tanks have to be established to improve our diplomatic prowess.
In certain quarters within the NC, there’s a belief that Deuba is continuing with traditional factionalism.
Yes, he is trying to do that. Once he asked me if I voted for Ram Chandra Poudel (during the party’s General Convention). I said, “Yes, of course! I even voted for Sushil Koirala.” But when they made mistakes, I criticised them too. I have also supported Deuba in certain endeavours. I was the sole person to stand by him when we joined hands with the Maoists to form the new government. I prefer to be seen as a member of the NC, not of a particular faction of it.
Do you think there is a risk of continued factionalism in the NC?
It is the party president who seems to be encouraging factionalism. That is not the right thing to do. Deuba should have a constructive dialogue with Poudel. Deuba is the party president; some members voted for him, others voted against him. He had earlier asked for a stake within the party with Girija Prasad Koirala and Sushil Koirala. I want him to rise above the politics of factionalism. We have been trying to help him do that, but haven’t been successful. The polarisation
within the NC will not do the party or the country good. Deuba may become the prime minister in about nine months, but it will be difficult for him if a significant proportion of party members do not support him.
How convinced are you that Prime Minister Dahal will hand over the prime ministership to Deuba after nine months?
It is not certain how the present government will move ahead—whether it will be able to hold local level elections, for example. The next couple of months are crucial. If the NC president is taking the handover of power for granted, it may not be the right thing to do.
What’s your view about the reduction on the number of local bodies to 565?
It is impractical. I do not know how this number was arrived at. Out of 565 units, 377 are in the hills and the mountains, and 188 in the Madhes. Geographically, the hills and the mountains are larger, but not in terms of population. The technocrats seem to have forgotten that the constitution was amended to take the population of the Madhes into account. The new number, however, will lead to a smaller representation of the Madhesis. And it will make federalism difficult to implement. Restructuring of local bodies will naturally take a lot of time. Instead, if we have the vision and if the Madhes-based parties agree, we could hold local level polls in February-March based on the current Village Development Committees.
But will that not be against the spirit of the constitution?
It will be. We have to a make a correction in the constitution. And we have to demarcate the federal boundaries. For that, we need to take the Madhes-based parties on board. We can hold provincial and central level elections together, which will be in accordance with international practice. Conducting local polls will send a positive message to the people that political parties are at least trying to get the country on track. Failure to do so will jeopardise the constitution’s implementation.
What are the potential political fallouts of the failure to implement the constitution?
Many factors, both domestic and foreign, are at play here. We have to understand that Nepal is strategically located and there are many international stakeholders. And India and China are not the only important international players.
How can Nepal as a sovereign nation manage all these diverse factors?
There has been a recurring trend here. Whenever India was displeased with us, we tilted towards China. It is a difficult task to maintain a balance, which BP had tried to do. But late king Mahendra did not understand it. It is extremely important to strike a fine balance; I’m not sure who among the present crop of leaders is capable of it.
How can we take advantage of our strategic location?
The previous prime minister reached a number of agreements with China. As we are a responsible country, we have to accept written agreements to maintain our credibility—but not at the cost of alienating India. Recently, a Chinese professor visited Nepal. But he did not come straight from China. He came here after visiting Delhi. This has symbolic meaning. We should understand the nuances of international diplomacy. Both India and China have security concerns here, which we should address prudently. We have not been successful in doing so. It has now come out that Nepali leaders promise one thing and do something else.
What would be Indian concerns regarding secularism in Nepal?
We should have told Delhi it was not possible or that we would try. Why do we have to commit to something that we cannot deliver? Our neighbours are worried about the influence of Christianity in Nepal. It is our responsibility to address such concerns.
I am not against secularism. But what I am saying is that we should take the concerns of international actors seriously.
Going back to domestic politics, how flexible are you about addressing Madhesi demands, particularly about federal demarcation?
This is my personal—and not the NC’s—opinion. The constitution was approved by over 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly members, but the Madhesis and some other groups were not happy with it. The earlier demand of “Ek Madhes, ek Pradesh” (one Madhes, one province) is no longer there. The current demand is for two provinces in the Madhes. Even that does not seem to be acceptable to others. The present Madhesi Morcha is a moderate force. But there also are some radical forces in Madhes and I see some youths getting attracted to such forces. What will happen if more of the educated Madhesi youths get drawn to secessionist forces?
There is a federal model with seven provinces that was signed by KP Oli and Sushil Koirala. That can be a starting point for our discussion. I think the Madhesi Morcha will accept it. I do not know why the UML is backtracking from its earlier commitments.
The current provinces have very different population size. Yet the provision is for them to send the same number of representatives to the Upper House. This is unfair.
Another contentious issue is language. Nobody can deny the importance of Nepali as the country’s lingua franca. But why not accord greater importance to other national languages? For example, Limbu can also be used for official purposes in Province One. There are only nine scripts in the country. Languages with scripts should be given official status. It is about respecting people and their language. The kind of rigidity on constitutional amendment that the UML is showing is risky.