Federalism is more suited to a country of such diversity like NepalThe government recently tabled a constitution amendment bill in Parliament in an effort to make the constitution broadly acceptable, particularly to take into confidence the Madhesi Morcha,
The government recently tabled a constitution amendment bill in Parliament in an effort to make the constitution broadly acceptable, particularly to take into confidence the Madhesi Morcha, which has been agitating against the statute since its promulgation last year. However, two weeks into the registration of the bill, the country’s political fault-lines have been further exposed, with the main opposition and the second largest party, the CPN-UML, declaring that the amendment proposal lacks adequate justification. Tika R Pradhan and Shashwat Acharya spoke with Barsha Man Pun, former finance minister and a key aide of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, about the amendment proposal, the opposition it has faced and the political and societal polarisation it has engendered.
A part of the deal in August with the agitating parties that paved the way for Dahal’s election as prime minister was to register a constitution amendment bill at the earliest. Why did it take months for the government to table the bill?
Amendment to the constitution is related to the implementation of the constitution. About 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly members endorsed the constitution; the rest boycotted the process. The amendment proposal is aimed at making the disgruntled forces take ownership of the constitution and to implement the statute. But the amendment bill is neither precisely how the agitating parties like it to be, nor exactly how the government wants it to be. So it is an attempt at finding common ground. It took a while to table it as we had to hold discussions with all the political forces—the Madhesi and Janajati as well as the opposition parties—and bring them on board. We are still in the process of creating a conducive environment for consensus.
Is the current crisis a result of the government’s inability to convince the UML?
The three major parties promulgated the statute. Even the UML is agreed on the necessity to bring those forces on board that remained outside the constitution-making process. Oli himself has presided over one amendment, whose shortcomings the present bill aims to address. We held several rounds of discussions with the UML before tabling the bill, but it still disagrees with its content. Efforts to establish common ground and seek consensus on the content are ongoing.
The amendment proposal is not only being opposed by the UML, but also by some Madhesi leaders. How does the government justify the bill in the face of opposition from two different sides of the political spectrum?
Implementing the constitution is not possible without amendments. At present, the political forces can broadly be catagorised into three groups—the government, the opposition and the disgruntled forces whose concerns the amendment aims to address. We should find common ground among all these three forces and create an environment to facilitate passage of the bill.
But with the main opposition and some other parties like the RPP taking issue with the bill, its passage does not look likely.
It is natural for parties to have their own position on the bill. But the bill is intended to forge common ground among various political parties, foster national unity and implement the constitution. As such, passing the bill is the responsibility of the UML as well as of other parties. I am confident that sooner or later an agreement will be reached and the bill will pass.
The bill is even being decried as anti-national. How would you respond to such a charge?
It is cheap political propaganda. If the criticism is about having a Tarai-only province, then the UML has already accepted Province 2. If amending the constitution itself is anti-national, one amendment has already taken place under the UML’s leadership. So the accusation that the bill is anti-national is baseless. We can understand that, as the opposition, the UML is being critical of a bill proposed by the government or playing some kind of vote-bank politics. Contrary to what the UML claims, the bill promotes national unity and facilitates the implementation of the constitution, which would not have been possible by keeping a big section of the population dissatisfied.
But the UML is also a big force.
We promulgated the constitution together with the UML, and it agrees that it needs to be implemented. However, the major issue here is to bring the parties that boycotted the constitution-making process on board so as to broaden the acceptability of the statute.
What would the government offer as a way out of the current stalemate?
The government is open to refining the amendment bill, which is what both the UML and the Madhesi Morcha want. But the bill will not be withdrawn. The UML cannot block House proceedings indefinitely. It is a democratic party whose manifesto declares that it will not obstruct daily life. Recent protests and obstructions are in violation of that claim. Implementing the constitution is a national responsibility, which the UML as the main opposition cannot shirk.
Is the government trying to tire out the UML?
On the contrary, the idea is to bring it on board. The government’s policy is to formulate a win-win situation for all the political forces. We are not playing a game of political arithmetic to garner a two-thirds majority required to pass the amendment bill without the UML; we are trying to convince the UML to support the bill.
If that is so, where do you think things went wrong?
The Madhesi Morcha did not demonstrate adequate political honesty, flexibility and maturity. It asked for an amendment bill, but did not support it whole-heartedly when it was tabled. The Madhesi Morcha and the Federal Coalition seem to be apprehensive that extending support to the bill would benefit the Maoists and the Nepali Congress. This has in fact disadvantaged the Morcha in that it has created room for suspicion about its intention. Its political weight and credibility would have enhanced had it accepted what was on the table and left the remaining issues to be settled by due political process.
The Oli government, through some of its utterances, widened societal polarisation. The Morcha went to the other extreme to perpetuate the polarisation. The current government is trying to bridge the differences. Its priority is to implement the constitution, hold elections, provide the country with structural stability and pave the way for economic prosperity.
Speaking of elections, do you think it is possible to hold them by April?
Mid-April is the target, give or take one or two weeks. But elections will take place. The Local Level Restructuring Commission will submit its recommendation soon, after which local level polls will be conducted. Major parties as well as the Madhesi Morcha are ready for elections. The amendment bill is meant to facilitate elections.
Hasn’t tabling the bill further increased the societal polarisation that you speak of?
There were protests organised by the UML in Province 5, which is natural given the party’s objection to the bill. The people there may be concerned that changing federal boundaries can make things administratively inconvenient for them. But there are ways to address such concerns. The issue is slowly becoming clearer to the people and the protests have subdued now.
More than administrative inconvenience, the issue seems to be the separation of the hills from the plains.
We have a rather incomplete view of nationalism. People from the hills think of themselves as nationalists. But the Madhesis and the Tharus are Nepalis too. They are the ones protecting our borders so far. Until 50 years ago, before the eradication of malaria, there were no people of hilly origin in the Tarai. At the same time, there are some people in the Tarai who harbour extremist, communal and secessionist views. So a judicious policy would be to isolate such views by taking ordinary citizens into confidence.
If the main issue about Province 5 were the separation of the hills from the plains and the erosion of nationalism, then Province 2 would have been an even greater threat. Moreover, many unequal treaties, dubbed extremely anti-national, were signed not when the plains were separate from the hills but when the whole country had a unitary form. So that is not the issue. The need of the hour is progressive nationalism that can accommodate the country’s diversity, not one that thrives on blaming foreigners for our problems. Essentially, it means securing our purse tightly and not blaming others, as the saying goes.
How would you respond to critics who argue that the Maoists opened a Pandora’s box by implanting the idea of ethnic federalism?
Yes we launched the idea of federalism to address the grievances of those who were marginalised by a Kathmandu-centred state. A federal system is more suited to a country of such diversity like Nepal than is a unitary system. The kind of federalism the country has now embarked on is based neither purely on identity nor totally on geography. This has eroded support for it. But federalism is necessary for the country, and we will refine it as we move along. India, for example, started with 13 provinces but has 29 now. Our constitution is very flexible and progressive; it will address the concerns of successive generations of Nepalis.