Action will be taken against those who defy party decisions
When major political parties signed the five-point agreement to form a national unity government under the leadership of PM Baburam Bhattarai on May 3, an inkling of hope that differences on major outstanding constitutional issues would be hammered out and, at least, a framework of the constitution would surface by May 27. Just under two weeks later, and with exactly two weeks left for the deadline to pass, the UML is yet to join the government and the bones of contention on constitutional issues—federalism, in particular, and forms of governance—are yet to be agreed on. As General Secretary of the UML, Ishwor Pokhrel spoke to Bidushi Dhungel and Bhadra Sharma about why the UML hasn’t joined government, their stance on federalism and forms of governance, and where the points of compromise might be. Excerpts:
After signing the five-point agreement, it was understood that the UML was to join this government led by Baburam Bhattarrai. Why didn’t it?
W e refuse to join a Maoist-Morcha alliance. That isn’t the spirit of the five-point agreement—its spirit was based on the formation of a government of political consensus. The way in which things progressed, it looked like we were to join a Maoist-Morcha alliance. We were in favour of forming a national consensus government, not simply joining the alliance. An uncomfortable situation arose in the process of making UML a partner in the consensus government. Openly speaking, we were talking about moving forward procedurally and the Cabinet was formalised—we were fine with that. But the first thing that happened was that Ministries were restructured. It became the thing that had to be done first. The Cabinet was formed and first things first; the Cabinet portfolios began to be distributed. That too happened without our consultation. So we thought that because these steps were taken without our consultation as a partner, it was against the spirit of the five-point understanding.
The Maoist-Morcha alliance was there before the agreement was signed. Did UML not understand that? Or does UML feel duped?
No, to say we were duped would be wrong. The five-point understanding was a long time in the making and we were a part of it. It was understood that ministers would resign, unsettled disputes would be resolved and that immediately a national consensus government would be formed. We were in the midst of following through with all this procedurally. In the midst of all this, the Cabinet was formed. That’s all well and good since Article 70 if the Interim Constituent needed to be amended as the constitution-drafting procedure needed to be shortened. But where this amendment should have been the first thing the Cabinet undertook, the first thing that happened was ministry restructuring. We were not consulted. And on top of that, the portfolios were handed out without our input. Because of this, we didn’t feel that the situation was respectful towards us. So we said we’ll support the government and let this government cycle come to end and then we’ll move forward. There’s no need to politicise this further. We even told the government and PM of our grievances and they agreed that they made a mistake.
So there’s no chance of UML joining this government?
No, it’s just that as things stand; we don’t feel comfortable joining this government. We did agree on Bhattarai-led government. For now, we are busy with resolving disputed issues and we haven’t even talked much about joining government today or tomorrow. It’s not that we’ve said we won’t join the government, but this uncomfortable situation needs to be resolved.
Does the fact that the government isn’t a national consensus one deter the likelihood of consensus on unresolved disputes, and in turn, in constitution-drafting?
Yes there is a dialectical relation. In the absence of national consensus, it doesn’t help dispute resolution. When there’s a national consensus government, the environment immediately becomes relaxed. But at the same time, for a national consensus government to be formed, a sense of ease needs to be felt as a precondition. But you’re right; a national consensus government would make things a lot easier.
Moving on to federalism, what’s the UML stance on federalism and its model?
First of all, we cannot back away from federalism. It is the demand of the political development of the country’s recent past and it must represent that history. But we can’t go into many provinces. We can only go for mixed name and multiple identity states. We cannot go with federalism along single ethnicity lines—that wouldn’t be wise either. Identity is more than just ethnicity and so we have to go forward in a way where all are equal and multiple identities are respected. In terms of number of states, we’ve been talking about six, seven…
Yesterday, there was talk of near agreement on 11 states.
When talking about 11, the provinces would be named by the respective provincial authority (assembly) itself. If we go for seven or eight, then the names would be based on mixed identity. The agreement was on that much. Some friends from Congress and Maoists and ourselves sat down and talked about a possible 11-state model.
While the party is talking about multiple identity states, the Janajati caucus, among others, which includes UML CA members, have decided on single ethnicity provinces as produced by the State Restructuring Commission. They have even threatened to defy party whips.
In this entire constitution-drafting process, the caucus’ within the CA have been a cause for many problems. There are two/three factors that have led to this situation. One is that during the Maoists’ “People’s War”, whichever ethnic group they (the Maoists) sought to gain support from, they went on promising all groups their own states in an irresponsible, conflict-waging way. Second, because of our weaknesses, external elements also played their part in igniting this fire, treating Nepal as an experiment or testing ground for outside forces. Third, because of our feudal past, the inequality and prejudice faced by some groups has resulted in this situation. As far as the caucus’ not agreeing with the party decisions, anyone who understands politics should know that a person is proclaimed a candidate through the party’s election manifesto, according to the decision of the party, he/she becomes a parliamentarian candidate and then to talk about whether or not a whip is enforceable is absolute rubbish! That’s why if a responsible party worker or politician chooses to go against party decision, then the party will take action.
Is there a common point in the federalism discourse?
The point of agreement is on the fact that states cannot be carved on the basis on single ethnicities. We can be flexible on numbers when the first clause is accepted—no hard and fast on that. But the worry is that in Nepal, till date, we haven’t even been able to build one central parliament house, enough minister quarters, or give minimum facilities for ministers, and in such a situation, when do we intend to have assembly houses in each state if there are so many? When will the people’s wishes for roads and hospitals and health posts be fulfilled? Surely, it’s not just about making a chief minister of a certain ethnicity. Ultimately, Nepal is a country of minority people. We want to push for not that many states for this reason. But we can compromise a bit on the numbers if it is accepted that multiple identity states will be formed. That is the parameter.
The other important issue is forms of government. What is the UML’s stance?
Our firm decision on this is directly-elected prime minister and ceremonial president. That’s our formal decision and it’s based on the two problems seen in Nepal’s political history: authoritarianism and instability.
In terms of forms of governance, how to mitigate these two occurrences needs to be addressed. Also, what needs to be considered is how to incorporate social diversity in governance. Erosion has been characteristic of parliamentary politics. For example, the potential and capability of the people’s representatives today are like that of ‘C’ class development workers. They aren’t focussed on the formation of laws, policies and plans. Instead, he/she works in the capacity of a ‘c’ class development worker, focussed on transfers, promotions and bagging development projects in their districts. The result is that our laws and policies are not organised and in place—and it is this that needs to be addressed in deciding the new form of governance. That’s our stance.
Are others willing to comply?
We realise that some compromise is necessary too. Let’s hear what others have to say. If we go for directly elected president, it’s likely that social diversity won’t be represented. And according to world trends, the likelihood of authoritarianism arising is high. Likewise, the problem with a mixed model is that there will be dual power centres. So we should focus on reforming parliamentary practices.
There are two weeks left, is a framework constitution likely by the deadline, or are the parties going to ask for an extension?
An extension is a bad idea. Whatever is left over, the legislative parliament can handle. It’s almost become ritual to reach consensus and strike deals in the dead of night at the last moment and I imagine that this will happen again. I believe we will have a constitution by the deadline.