How upper house has become inactive, to the extent of being irrelevantThe National Assembly has certain roles to play. When the lower house is dissolved and the judiciary is in crisis, it has an even bigger responsibility, but it has failed, analysts say.
Amid a series of onslaughts on the system by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli–dissolution of the House of Representatives twice and other unconstitutional moves like expansion of the Cabinet–and a deepening crisis in the judiciary, there is one institution that is alive. But while many are not sure of its “actual” duties, it has largely remained non-functional.
Since January 10, no one has talked about the National Assembly, except when two members had to be elected to it recently on May 20 and May 31.
Nepal’s constitution envisions a bicameral parliament–a lower house and an upper house. Both chambers have people’s representatives and they work in tandem to discuss and debate bills and enact them into laws. One of their duties is to hold the government to account and ensure good governance.
While the lower house is elected every five years, as per the constitution, the upper house is considered a permanent institution, whose term never expires.
Analysts say at a time when the Oli has tried to kill the lower house for the second time, it looks like his administration is trying to render the other chamber of the Parliament ineffective.
“The National Assembly has failed to perform its duties,” said Khim Lal Devkota, a newly-appointed member to the Assembly. Devkota is also an expert on federal affairs and local government.
The last time the upper house session was convened was on January 1. But the session was called only to fulfil the constitutional obligation, as the existing provisions say the gap between the two sessions cannot exceed six months.
At that time, Oli had dissolved the House for the first time and his decision was pending at the Supreme Court. During the 10 days from January 1 to January 10, the upper house barely debated on any core issues–rather it became a platform for Oli to justify his House dissolution move and castigate his opponents.
Even though Oli's earlier decision to dissolve the lower house was overturned on February 23 by the Supreme Court and its meeting was called on May 7, Oli continued to take steps to prove it was irrelevant.
Despite losing the confidence of the House, Oli continued his onslaught on the constitution and dissolved it once again on May 21, with President Bidya Devi Bhandari complying with him.
Experts on parliamentary affairs say politicians in Nepal by and large have never tried to strengthen the National Assembly because they never understood what it was for.
The constitution envisions the 59-member upper house, with 56 members elected to represent provinces–eight from each province–and three members, who are experts from different fields, appointed by the President on the recommendation of the government.
Nepal’s National Assembly, say analysts, however, became a place where political party leadership could “adjust” those politicians who could not make it to the House of Representatives or some others who needed “some political space”.
“The upper house was never developed as an entity that could hold the government to account,” Som Bahadur Thapa, a former secretary at the Parliament Secretariat, told the Post. “We are seeing the consequences today.”
Nepal’s National Assembly is a concept somewhat akin to the United Kingdom's House of Lords and India’s Rajya Sabha, or the Council of State.
Also called the “house of elders”, these institutions in the UK and India serve as a platform where representatives deliberate on, besides bills, a wide range of issues–from domestic politics and social issues to international affairs.
Analysts say the job of the upper house, in collaboration with the lower house, is to show the path to the executive and bring it back on track if it loses its way.
Of the 13 parliamentary committees that Nepal has, four are constituted solely with the members of the National Assembly.
The Legislation Management Committee, Sustainable Development and Good Governance Committee, National Concerns and Coordination Committee and Delegation Management and Government Assurance Committee are formed under the upper house so as to keep an eye on government’s actions.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an international non-governmental organisation supporting different governments in strengthening democratic practices, the concept of the upper house was derived with a vision that it represents the sub-national governments, acts as a body of experts of scrutiny and review, provides democratic check on the power of the lower house and provides wider representation.
Currently, over 80 countries have adopted the bicameral system of legislature with lower and upper houses, though their roles slightly differ from country to country, it says.
Radheshyam Adhikari, a member of the National Assembly who is also a senior advocate, said when the government, which has the prerogative to call the sessions and provide business, has ill intentions, not much is left for the assembly and its members to do.
According to Adhikari, who represents the Nepali Congress in the upper house, the Oli government is making every effort to prove the upper house irrelevant so that it can continue with its autocratic moves without obstacles.
“There is no denying that the National Assembly has failed to perform its expected responsibility,” Adhikari told the Post.
Devkota, who recently defeated Oli’s candidate Ram Bahadur Thapa to make it to the upper house, said the leadership of the assembly is complicit with the Oli government in making it irrelevant.
According to Devkota, if the government does not show interest in calling the upper house session, its chair Ganesh Timilsina should take initiatives.
Timilsina was elected to the post of National Assembly chair on the CPN-UML ticket. Timilsina’s role has come into question in the recent past also when the Constitutional Council made some recommendations to various posts.
“The upper house is envisioned as a permanent entity of the people’s representatives in order to ensure that there is no vacuum of the mechanism to raise the voice of the people,” said Devkota.
Oli’s second House dissolution decision is currently pending at the Supreme Court.
With questions being raised over the composition of the Constitutional Bench instituted by Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana, not a single hearing on the core issue has taken place as of now.
Experts say when almost all institutions have been failing to perform their duties and the judiciary is facing a crisis of its own of unprecedented proportions, the upper house can–and should–play a constructive role for good governance and to ensure that the constitution and the system do not get derailed.
Officials at the National Assembly, however, said there are no immediate plans, or at least they have not heard of any, to call its session.
According to assembly chair Timilsina’s aides, he has not held any consultations with the prime minister or the Ministry of Law and Parliamentary Affairs regarding calling the new session of the upper house.
“I don’t have any information,” said Ashok Poudel, a media expert at Timilsina’s secretariat. “I think the session of the upper house will begin within the constitutional deadline.”
If the upper house session is not called anytime soon, it must be called on July 10, so as to meet the constitutional deadline that bars more than a six month’s gap between two sessions.
Political analysts say the system and the constitution have collapsed in Nepal as those who are mandated to protect them are bent on trampling on them.
“It has become meaningless to talk about principles and systems where an individual is interpreting the constitution to suit his own interests,” said Lok Raj Baral, former professor of political science at Tribhuvan University.