Better times for a battered countryWith the completion of local elections and new dynamics coming to the fore at the grassroots, one cannot but feel optimistic
When François Hollande was elected president of France in 2012, the celebrations in Paris echoed those from three decades earlier when another François had captured the imagination of the people. Describing the scene as the young came out in force to celebrate Hollande’s victory, The Guardian wrote: ‘In the cafes around the square, the modern-day storming of the Bastille was being re-enacted by those who had been there...Many of the youngsters had heard their parents talk of the great gathering at the Bastille in 1981 when France’s first Socialist president, François Mitterrand, had swept to power. Until last night it had been just another story… “Suddenly we knew how they had felt. It was like it was our turn,” said one.’
It is another matter that Hollande left the presidency in ignominy earlier this year, but for the progressive voting bloc in France, that moment five years ago heralded immense possibilities. I could not but help think of parallels between what happened then in France and what is happening now in Nepal. The Maoists had done unexpectedly well in 2008, but considering that they had to face off the Nepali Congress (NC) and the CPN-UML at the same time, whilst learning the ropes of competitive politics not to mention pushing for a radical agenda, that can hardly be said to have been a moment for the Left. Earlier, the 1994 election had brought the minority government of the UML to power but its term in office was short-lived. This time, the UML has an unassailable majority, with or without the backing of the Maoists or anyone else.
We will soon find out to what the UML and the Maoists intend to do with this mandate and although it might be a paradox to throw religion at our communists, this is perhaps the right time to remind the UML-Maoist combine of this wisdom from the Bible: ‘For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.’ Or, in the words made more famous recently by the comic character, Spiderman: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’
End of transition
Clichéd it might sound, but with the formation of the new government at the centre and seven more in the provinces, we will have finally completed the decade-long transition, with the country plunging headlong into the exercise of federalism on a scale and time almost unheard of. One central government, seven provincial governments, and 753 local-level governments trying to understand the extent as well as limits of their authority is surely going to be chaotic. The constitutional bench of the Supreme Court is likely to be kept busy as it goes about interpreting the Constitution and setting precedents while deciding the many disputes that are likely arise from all quarters. There is no doubt that it will be years before some semblance of a fully functioning federal state is realised, and it will cause a lot of heartburn among voters who expect rapid changes in their lives. But, that will be a small price to pay for what the country has accomplished on the road to this juncture.
Disagreements remain over the direction the country has taken, particularly since the earthquake and the 2015 Constitution. Surely, there are elements of the Constitution that make it less liberal than its predecessor. Yet, it is difficult to deny that the country has changed dramatically since 2006, even if the pace may not be as rapid as one would have liked. Since nothing is impossible in politics, there is always a danger of retrogression, either overt or otherwise, but with each new assertion of the people’s will such as the just-concluded election, turning back the clock is going to seem even less likely.
There are a number of signs that are indicative of progress over the past 12 years. The Maoist conflict has ended and Nepal is now a republic. It has also been declared to be secular (even if ‘secularism’ itself has been watered down to near-meaninglessness in the Constitution). We have electoral quotas that ensure representation of all the ‘macro-ethnic’ groups in the country, making all our legislative bodies highly diverse. There are also reservations in government education and jobs, including in the army. The government has been taken closer to the people with the restructuring of the state (even if it was not done to the liking of everyone, admittedly, a somewhat impossible proposition). We passed the ‘Gender Equality Act’ and also adopted the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (even if implementation has been quite shallow). Caste-based discrimination has been criminalised, as has domestic violence. Of course, we are far from experiencing total implementation of all these provisions but together these can also be read as indicative of what the country is aspiring towards. A case of viewing the glass more as half full than half empty.
Drivers of change
Most of these achievements would not have been possible but for some key episodes and actors, and perhaps this is the time to recall them all in brief. First, the Maoists. Whether one opposed their violent methods or supported them, there cannot be a doubt that without the insurgency, these momentous transformations would have come at a much later date, if at all. Also, had it not been for the animosity between Girija Prasad Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba, and the fracturing of the NC, we would not have had the fortuitous result of King Gyanendra believing he could pull off a Mahendra-like coup in the 21st century, managing not only to unite the perennially bickering political parties but also sending them into the arms of the Maoists and bringing a quicker end to the violence. Despite occasional misgivings, the army took the rupture of its ties with the palace totally in its stride while, despite the terrible living conditions they had to endure for years, the Maoists combatants stayed put in cantonments, and even though they felt abandoned by their party, wholesale rebellion was staved off.
In the first blush towards the creation of a New Nepal and the open assertion of group rights—at times to the detriment of the rights of other groups—relations between different communities appeared to be strained to near-breaking point. But, these ties never were severed, and we can be thankful that we were spared the kind of inter-ethnic conflagration that has consumed all South Asian countries at one time or another. Grievances are still aplenty and we can only hope that a stronger state has the confidence to become more liberal in its approach, certainly not an impossibility.
At the beginning of this year, following the failure of the government to amend the Constitution to accommodate Madhesi aspirations, things had been looking rather bleak. Now, with the local elections having taken place and new dynamics having come to the fore at the grassroots, one cannot but feel greater optimism regardless of what happens at the centre. There are now more than 750 experiments in governance on-going and the success of even a fraction of that number will mean more than what we had 10 years ago.