Oli’s aversion to federalism and secularism becoming more apparentA proposal at UML top panel to review major achievements of the constitution does not portend well for the charter which has come under increasing threats, observers say.
Tika R Pradhan
Nepal’s constitution is in crisis. Six years since its adoption, it is running the risk of becoming irrelevant. Concerns are now growing if it is going to get scrapped altogether. And this campaign is led by a party that is governing the country.
On Saturday, Mahesh Basnet, one of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s close confidants, presented a proposal to review federalism and secularism at CPN-UML’s Central Committee meeting.
“Our party chair has agreed to hold deliberations on the proposal,” Basnet told the Post.
Both federalism and secularism are the main features of Nepal’s constitution which was adopted after years of struggle. The constitution, promulgated in September 2015, is considered to be a progressive one for transitioning the country from a unitary to federal system and shedding the “Hindu state” tag. The parties that pushed for the constitution even dubbed it the “world’s best constitution”.
Nepal held its first election under the constitution, which ushered in a new era for the country making it a federal democratic and secular nation, in 2017. Oli’s UML swept the elections and he was elected prime minister in February 2018.
Oli’s major task was to implement the constitution, strengthen federalism and uphold the spirit of secularism. Over the last three years, Oli has not only failed on governance fronts but also on the constitutional implementation part.
Observers say Oli’s aversion to republicanism, federalism and secularism is not new and that a proposal to review those coming from one of his trusted aides should sound an alarm bell, as the UML chair appears to have a scheme to unravel the constitution.
“Federalism, secularism and inclusiveness were never liked by three traditional forces of Nepal—the Army that consists mostly of Chhetris, merchant houses like Newars and Marwaris, and the Brahmins,” said CK Lal, a political analyst and columnist for the Post. “Oli has brought up this issue via Mahesh Basnet to appease them. This is a political tool to appease all three established forces.”
Oli, who has in the past made public statements that go against the spirit of federalism, of late has been showing his inclination towards everything Hindu. His visit to Pashupatinath on January 25 and plan to build a Ram temple in Thori of Parsa district have raised quite an eyebrow. In his interviews with Indian television channels in January also, Oli mostly resorted to Hindu and Hinduism.
Basnet was the one who led the campaign to gather masses from all over the country to establish the Ram temple in Thori, which Oli wants to develop as Ayodhyapuri, as he believes real Ayodhya lies in Nepal and not in India.
Observers say since federalism and secularism are the major features of the constitution, scrapping them would be tantamount to scrapping the constitution.
Shyam Shrestha, a political analyst, says Oli appears to be ready to go to any extent to derail the constitution.
A master politician, Oli is known for raising issues to draw the attention of the masses. In 2017, Oli went out on the hustings by upping anti-India rhetoric. After the promulgation of the constitution, to which India had expressed reservations, Delhi imposed a blockade, angering Nepalis. Oli cashed in on that public anger, and aroused nationalistic fervour. He won the elections to return to power.
When he found himself cornered by his own party members, Oli last year once again ratcheted up the nationalist rhetoric. His government published a new map of Nepal in response to India’s move of opening a road via Lipulekh to Kailash Manasarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
The new map, adopted by Parliament through a constitutional amendment with all parties showing unanimous support, depicted Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limipiyadhura as parts of the Nepali territory. India claims the areas as its own.
Oli claimed that he won’t let anyone encroach upon even one inch of the Nepali territory and that he would “bring back” the territory. But Oli has for now put that issue aside.
Observers say Oli’s disregard for the system had become apparent within months of him assuming office. When he dissolved the House for the first time on December 20 last year, there was widespread criticism that Oli was trying to trample upon the constitution. Though the Supreme Court restored the House on February 23, Oli again on May 21 dissolved the House disregarding the constitutional provisions that do not allow him to do so.
“Oli has been demonstrating anti-federalism activities for long. Now he seems to be trying to implement what he believes in–scrapping of federalism, which will mean making the constitution null and void,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political analyst. “It looks like he is trying to make it his party’s official agenda so as to use it as a tool to make the constitution dysfunctional.”
Many believe Basnet’s proposal at the party Central Committee must have come with the full consent of Oli. In the past also, Oli’s close aides like Gokul Baskota and Niru Pal have made public statements against federalism.
Sher Bahadur Tamang, secretary at the UML party’s headquarters, said that Basnet’s proposal was part of the suggestions asked for during the Central Committee meeting that concluded on Saturday.
“All suggestions, including Basnet’s, will be discussed during the party conference on amending the party statute scheduled for August 9-11,” Tamang told the Post.
Observers say Oli is currently taking a multi-pronged approach. According to them, by putting aside the ultra-nationalist, or anti-India for that matter, rhetoric and putting forward the anti-federal anti-secular agenda, he is trying to make peace with India.
“Oli is trying to send across a message that he would stand against federalism and secularism during the upcoming polls,” said Shrestha, the political analyst. “It seems that he has deployed his core leader to send a message to India that he is ready to do away with the constitution.”
After the second House dissolution, Oli’s position is gradually becoming untenable. A faction of his party led by Madhav Nepal has thrown its weight behind the opposition alliance led by Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba.
The opposition alliance of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) lately has been piling pressure on Oli. Even if the House dissolution is overturned by the court, scheduled elections are not far away–they will be held by November next year.
Oli hence is in a search for an agenda that he could peddle during the election campaign. Observers say Oli knows he cannot win the election again on the ultranationalist plank.
Maharjan, the political analyst, says proposals and statements similar to Basnet’s would soon come from other leaders in the party.
“The UML’s politics will soon be based on Hindutva. There is no doubt the constitution is under threat as the leading party is talking against federalism and democratic republican setup,” said Maharjan. “If we want to save these achievements, there must be a strong alliance and continuous debates and discussions. The trend is dangerous and we must defeat it.”