Inching closerMajor parties now need to back amendments with political symbolism
Major parties rushed through the promulgation of the constitution on September 20 last year without taking Madhesi parties on board. What was supposed to be a joyous occasion became a trigger point for violent protests and a bloody crackdown—leading to one of the longest-running strikes in the country with untold sufferings for the public. The first amendment to the constitution, on Saturday, was supposed to be an event that would rectify the mistakes made during the constitution drafting process and one that would bring the Madhesis on board.
Yet it turned out to be another contested legislative event that seems to have failed to give Madhesis a sense of ownership over the content of the amendment.
Despite narrowing differences between the two sides over 30 rounds of negotiations, talks broke down on Thursday at the top level after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli reportedly threw yet another tantrum—telling the Madhesis to own up the draft amendment bill registered by the erstwhile Nepali Congress government with only minor revisions.
This was quite a setback for the progress made at the taskforce level that had convinced deeply skeptical Madhesi leaders that a compromise was still possible. In fact, Madhesi leaders had told major party interlocutors in the taskforce that some of the revisions on the amendment bill registered by Nepali Congress lawmakers would be acceptable to them, provided that a ‘package agreement’ was also reached, including on the provincial boundaries.The Premier’s belligerence was followed by deaths of three Tarai protesters in Rangeli in police firing on Thursday, giving an impression that the ruling parties were deliberately ratcheting up the tension.
It is a mystery why the reported progress was abandoned for a unilateral endorsement of the amendment without a buy-in from the Morcha. Many suspect that the endorsement was rushed through to please India, rather than to address the demands of the Madhesi parties. India on Sunday noted the parliamentary amendment as a ‘positive’ development but also cautioned that future negotiations should be carried out in ‘a constructive spirit’.
Now that the amendment has been endorsed, a careful analysis of the amended content shows that some attempt has been made to address Madhesi concerns—from reducing the number of ethnic clusters, to an out-of-box thinking on electoral constituency delineation. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the current 20 districts in Madhes would have 80 first-past-the-post constituencies out of a total of 165, provided that the major parties do not repeat their old tricks when creating new districts within the provinces.
While the amendment is not perfect, we call on all the stakeholders to take this as an incremental fight. Rather than taking a wait-and-see approach on how the protesters on the ground respond to adapt their strategy, Morcha leaders need to take charge and convince their constituency to alter the form of the protest. For their part, major parties need to expedite discussion and action on forming a political mechanism on deciding provincial boundaries, and as importantly, display the much lacking political symbolism that they treat Madhesi grievances as genuine.