RJP-N, SP-N unity imperative to create alternative force

Member of Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal Sharat Singh Bhandari says unity between his party and Samajwadi Party-Nepal is a must to create an alternative force. He says the ruling Nepal Communist Party, that rose to power on the planks of stability and prosperity, is failing in all sectors. Ram Kumar Kamat of The Himalayan Times spoke to him on contemporary issues. Excerpts:

Your party has been holding unity talks with Samajwadi Party-Nepal for the last few months. What’s the progress so far?

There is need to create a broad political platform to champion the cause of identity andempowerment of marginalised communities and groups.

In the second Constituent Assembly, there were seven Madhesi parties, including the erstwhile Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal, who had fought for the cause of Madhes jointly. The border blockade was the ultimate consequence of the movement launched after promulgation of the constitution. People across the Madhes then asked us: Why are you fighting for the cause of Madhesis and other marginalised communities separately? Why don’t you unite and fight for your cause jointly? People’s sentiment across Madhes compelled us to think about the need for unity between Madhesi forces. We started our journey of unity by first merging five parties — Sadbhavana Party, Tarai Madhes Democratic Party, National Madhes Socialist Party, Tarai Madhes Sadbhavana Party-Nepal and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Republican.

The Anil Kumar Jha-led Nepal Sadbhavana Party joined the unity process at the last moment when we were announcing our unity in April, 2017.  This is how six parties championing the cause of Madhesis and other marginalised communities merged. We did not make serious attempt to unify the Upendra Yadav-led Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal although we had thought of it at that time. The process of merging the six Madhesi parties accelerated after we visited Maleth of Saptari where five Madhesis were martyred during a protest. Upendra Yadav was also present with us at Maleth. We listened to the popular sentiment of Madhesi people that all Madhesi forces should unite to effectively fight for their cause. In the meantime, SP-N leaders raised the slogan of making their party a national outfit, which the RJP-N also agreed with.  In the past also, all the change seeking forces, including those that champion the cause of identity and empowerment of Madhesis and other marginalised communities, had joined hands to steer the movement for their rights.

After the border blockade, we formed a broad alliance of change seeking forces in Kathmandu in an attempt to form a broad national force. In this context, I think that in order to complete that task, the RJP-N and the SP-N should merge as soon as possible. This merger should not be related to just these two parties, but all the communities, including Khas-Arya, who see the need for an inclusive Nepal. Only an inclusive Nepal can ensure peace, stability and prosperity.

When will merger between the RJP-N and SP-N take place?

The way the two major political parties — Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the Nepali Congress — are trying to monopolise things in the country, there is risk Nepal will witness the rise of two-party system, which won’t be good for anybody, neither for democracy nor the country. We are a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country that basically demands pluralism. Those who dismiss the movement of Madhesis and other marginalised communities as a caste issue, must understand that this is not a caste issue, but an issue that is at the core of identity and empowerment of marginalised communities, which cannot be swept under the carpet. Unless these issues are addressed to the satisfaction of the affected communities, they will continue to be raised.

What are the key issues delaying unity between the SP-N and RJP-N?

We champion the same political cause — empowerment of marginalised communities — and we have major support base in the same geographical areas. Yes there are some ideological issues where we differ, particularly on the forms of government and electoral system, but I think we should continue debating the issues without the issues impeding our efforts to unify. The SP-N wants directly elected president and fully proportional electoral system. These issues are basically related to state restructuring. At present we have the prime ministerial form of government, also known as Westminster model. This government commands almost two-thirds majority in the Parliament and yet it has failed to ensure good governance. This government has shown authoritarian tendency. As this is happening in the prime ministerial form of government, the question that arises is what will happen if we have a directly elected president. I am saying all this to highlight the need for continuous debate on ideological issues. The proportional strength of our two parties should be taken into account in relation to the question of unification. We have almost similar strength in the Parliament and we run a coalition government in Province 2.

The only difference is that the SP-N has its organisation in almost 65 districts, which is slightly more than our organisational base.  Therefore, unity should be based on the basis of equality. We are for a system wherein the party will be run by a single leader but decisions will be taken by majority of office bearers. Our model of presidium did not work and we should avoid it in the unified party.

When will unity take place?

As both our parties have set the date for their general conventions, I think, It will be good to unify before the general convention so that we can hold our unity convention soon. Even if unity does not happen soon, we are ready to hold our general convention on the stipulated date and continue our efforts to merge our parties. One event should not affect the other. Although I cannot give you the exact date when our two parties will unite, I can say the merger will not take long given the  kind of seriousness with which both parties are holding unity talks.

Two members of RJP-N, Anil Kumar Jha and Rajkishor Yadav don’t  support unity. What do you have to say?

A few months ago, our party made two official decisions — to hold the party’s general convention and to hold talks for unity or alliance with SP-N. What we are doing is as per the party’s official decision. No member of the party has the right to go against the party’s decisions.

Both the RJP-N and SP-N are trying to create an alternative force but will it be possible? How can you challenge the NCP and NC, which have strong political base across the country?

If we talk about the strength of these two parties, then you should also remember these were the only two parties that ran the country after restoration of democracy in 1990 but what happened in the subsequent years when they failed to address people’s grievances? The Constituent Assembly was formed to address people’s genuine demands. The republican order, inclusion and federalism were neither the agenda of the NC nor the erstwhile CPN-UML. But multiple forces steered movements raising these issues in the last 20 years. These two parties have not been able to digest these issues and the Maoist party that raised these issues during conflict abandoned these issues. These issues can create fresh problems if the major parties fail to address them. Let’s not forget that there was no opposition party in the Panchayat era, but that system could not last long. My view is that if the genuine grievances of marginalised communities are not addressed properly, then their dissatisfaction can pose challenge to the country’s existence. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to address the demands of all communities and groups.

There was an attempt in the past to portray the grievances of Madhesis and other marginalised communities as regional and caste issues but now people know they are national issues and not an agenda of any specific community, class, community or region.

While it is true that we were elected under the new constitution, it is also true that the constitution has not been fully accepted by all. The NCP and NC are trying to suppress the agenda of marginalised communities on the basis of their parliamentary strength. The reality is that the more you try to suppress something, the more problematic it becomes.

How do you evaluate the government’s performance thus far?

Some people have wrong notion about us but they should know we do not oppose the fundamental features of the constitution. Republican order, federalism, proportional inclusion — the basic features of the new constitution — are basically our agenda. Our position is that articles of the constitution should conform with the spirit and directive principles of the constitution. The constitution says we are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious country. Therefore, the constitution should promote and protect these identities.

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had signed a document with us admitting that there was need to amend the constitution following which we extended support to Oli during the prime ministerial election. The PM signed similar agreement with the SP-N and therefore, the SP-N continues to be a partner in the government hoping that the constitution will be amended. In the pursuit of implementation of the constitution, the government failed to win the confidence of the NC, whose support was crucial to frame the new constitution. The government that won almost two-thirds majority failed to understand the message of the electorate that it should be ready to amend the constitution to expand its acceptability. People, who want the constitution to be amended, have sent their representatives to the Parliament and now they are raising their voice in the House.

The government gave the slogan of economic development and prosperity but failed to win the confidence of the people. When the government talks of achieving the goals of prosperity, we should understand that it must build conducive environment for the same. The government gave slogan of zero tolerance of corruption. It said it would bring prosperity. The government gave unrealistic slogan of railway connectivity with China. It also said it would run ships in our rivers. People got tempted by these slogans, but the government could not realise those goals because they were not realistic. On the other hand, the government’s actions were against its promises. Big corruption scandals, including wide body aircraft scandal and the 4 G corruption scandal have tainted its image. The Nirmala rape and murder and other cases of sexual violence are evidences of how bad the security situation is. The government failed in all these things and as a result our party which had extended outside support to the government withdrew it.

SP-N is also threatening to quit the government if the constitution is not amended. I hope the government mends its ways soon. Our country is badly affected by conflict and cannot afford another uncertainty or conflict. Our party wants to take part in all efforts to build the country if the government builds the environment for the same. We are a responsible force seeking resolution to our problems in a democratic manner. We do not want to create anarchy. A democratic government responds to all demands raised by democratic forces in a democratic manner. But this government appears to be working with authoritarian mindset. It wants to bring all key agencies, including National Investigation Department and Department of Revenue Investigation and Department of Money Laundering Investigation under the Prime Minister’s Office.  This has created terror in the minds of the public. The government does not seem to trust its own institutions. The PM signed agreement with ministers seeking their pledge for better performance, which is against the principle of governance. In all democratic countries, the higher authorities delegate powers and do not seek more powers, but here things are different. If a secretary errs, isn’t the minister morally responsible for poor performance? The government is making mockery of its operation rules.

The government’s handling of foreign policy has been criticised by experts. What is your view?

I have seen comments on the government’s handling of Indo-pacific Strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

I remember a song of Narayan Gopal which gives the message that if you want to appease everybody, you will end up losing the confidence of all. You cannot satisfy everybody. We must clearly say what our interests are without worrying about somebody becoming unhappy. The government is gradually losing foreign communities’ confidence. We should be able to stay as trusted friend of both our neighbours — India and China — without tilting towards any neighbour or without playing a neighbour against another. Ninety per cent of our transaction takes place with India due to our geographical uniqueness. I am for promoting connectivity with China, but not at the cost of others. We want to be self-reliant, but we cannot be independent by substituting dependency. We should not be part of conflicts between big powers. We should be friendly with all countries but that does not mean we should appease all because that’s not possible. Unfortunately, this situation exists in our country now.