It is an oft-heard line these days that Nepali society has become polarized into federalists and anti-federalists and the recent decision of various associations of indigenous communities to open a new political party seems to corroborate the idea that the fresh elections to the CA will be a showdown between the two camps.
To some extent, this is true, but it is not the entire truth. First, the allegation that two of the major players — the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML — are not against federalism is not tenable. The issue is not federalism per se but the kind of restructuring the state will have to undergo. While everyone understands that a Nepalese perestroika will have to heed the hitherto unheard voices of the marginalized and also bring autonomy to the new provinces that the state will be carved into, one cannot be outright dismissive of the apprehension voiced by many that federating the country into provinces on the basis of single identity will lead to disintegration and loss of the Nepali identity. Leaders of all ilk must seriously mull whether it will be wise to okay an ethnic identity based structure without considering the other dimensions such as economic viability, geographical advantages or disadvantages and the well-being of communities that would become minority within the boundary of the newly-formed province.
This is the first issue that must be sorted out not only among the major parties but also the new emerging force, the alliance of ethnic forces, before anything close to consensus is possible in the political landscape. Unfortunately, if the major parties could not agree on the issue then, and now, if the issue has grown to extent that it has become impossible to find a meeting point, there is not even little space for benefit of doubt that the issue will be resolved after the elections — whenever they may take place — usher in a new Constituent Assembly.
The most likely scenario is that the upcoming elections will give a clear majority to an alliance of forces espousing the single ethnic identity agenda, which would also include the Unified CPN-Maoist. But this might just be counting chickens before they’re hatched, for there’s always the chance that the trend of past electoral experience will hold true once again and we will end up with a situation in which no party or coalition has a convincing majority. Then, there’s the very likely eventuality that the polls will once again throw up a hung Assembly with the same old leaders, who have failed us time and again. If they are the ones who will once again be entrusted with the task of giving the new constitution, then the leadership would once again be grappling with the same issue with no end in sight.
Elections, we do need for without it the constitution framing process would continue to remain in limbo. Even if the likely scenario depicted in the preceding paragraph were to hold true and the much-awaited statute were to forever remain elusive, we need to give it a go as a popularly mandated body is the only means through which any decision, no matter how minor, will be able to gain legitimacy. No doubt, it appears that the scenario depicted above is pessimistic and this scribe runs the risk of being labeled a prophet of doom who sees the entire democratic process as a kind of trap; this is not my intention here. All I’m saying here is that the political leadership must be able to rise above their lust for power and be willing to accommodate each other’s viewpoint. Only then will it be possible to reach consensus. It requires courage and the readiness to accept that the agenda they are pushing and fighting for may not truly represent the aspirations of the people.
The country needs a referendum not on whether to adopt federal governance but on the kind of federalism that will be best for the nation wherein no community is marginalized in the process of centering other marginalized communities. This issue, like many other issues that were hastily pushed through immediately after the People’s Movement that overthrew monarchy, need to be put to vote. A case in point is the declaration of Nepal as a secular state.
Then there is also the issue of centre-state relationships that have to be pre-determined so as to avoid unwanted conflict later. Why not also put this issue up for people to decide? The new CA then will have a good starting point to begin with the major contentious issue already resolved. With issues such as forms of governance and distribution of power between the President and Prime Minister already worked out, the job of the new CA would be much easier as the members could then build upon what have already been achieved and at the same time also work on other less thorny issues.
Our leaders need to show a certain degree of maturity and sense of responsibility. This is certainly not going to come through revival of the dead CA, nor will it come by changing the government simply for the sake of change. Besides, as election, though it is a democratic process, may or may not chart a clear course for the country, referendum on all major disputed issues will be the only way to light the path for the country to follow.
Singh is a researcher with Center for Research Excellence.