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Nepal Moves From One Year of Living Dangerously to the Next

By Biswas Baral, KATHMANDU: The year that started with the blockade of the India-Nepal border by Madhesi protestors ended with the obstruction of Nepal’s national parliament. At the start of 2016, the Madhes-based parties, as a part of their protest against the newly-promulgated constitution, stopped the entry of vehicles at key border points – and India had tacitly supported them. Those five months of the blockade, coming hot on the heels of the 2015 earthquakes, were a nightmare for Nepalis as they coped with severe shortages of daily essentials and rampant inflation.

On September 20, 2015, the second constituent assembly that was elected in 2013 – after the first one, elected in 2008, failed to produce a constitution – passed the country’s new constitution with the approval of over 85% lawmakers. This, in the eyes of the three major parties that were behind the constitution – the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) and the CPN (Maoist Center) – lent the document an overwhelming legitimacy. But the Madhesi parties and some Janjati organisations refused to accept the new charter. They hit the streets against the decision of the Big Three to impose the constitution on the basis of numerical supremacy. As protests spiralled, around 50 people, mostly Madhesis, were killed in police firing, further inflaming a volatile situation. The Madhesi parties decided that the best way to make Kathmandu heed their concerns would be to cut off the capital’s essential supplies, hence the border blockade.

The blockade would eventually be lifted at the start of February 2016, when the four-month-old constitution was amended for the first time, supposedly to address the concerns of the Madhesi parties.

The new amendment guaranteed proportional representation of Madhesis and other marginalized communities in government bodies. It also made ‘population’ rather than ‘geography’ the primary factor for drawing up electoral constituencies so that there would be more representation in the national parliament from the Madhes.

India welcomed the amendment and declared that the border was now open from its side. The Madhesi parties, bereft of India’s support, had no option but to agree to India’s decision. But unlike India, which seemed to be in a mood for ‘course correction’, the Madhesi parties never accepted the amendment, which they termed ‘insufficient’ since it was silent on their main demand of redrawing federal boundaries. There was a feeling among Madhesi actors that the Indian establishment had once again ‘used and abandoned’ them.

Whatever the reason for India’s support of the blockade – its desire to cultivate Madhesi parties or as an expression of its displeasure with Kathmandu – the then prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli milked it to maximum advantage. The aim of the blockade was to bring Kathmandu to its knees, but Oli refused to budge and was quite successful in portraying the Madhesi parties as ‘India’s stooges’ and in projecting himself as a bulwark against India’s ‘ill designs’ on Nepal. In playing up anti-India nationalism, he was also cultivating his core supporters up in the hills. It would not be wrong to say that during the five months of the blockade, anti-India sentiments in Nepal had reached an all-time high.

The disagreements that led to the blockade continued to simmer as the Oli government failed to resolve the key Madhesi issues. So at the start of August, the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ replaced him as prime minister. The Madhesi parties supported Prachanda in the belief that they could trust him more than Oli, who had come to be seen as ‘anti-Madhes’. Then, at the end of November, the new government of Prachanda tabled a bill in parliament to amend the new constitution for the second time, again to address Madhesi concerns.

Second time unlucky

The second amendment proposed to separate the hilly regions of province 5 so that this province, just like province 2, would be ‘Madhes-only’. The fate of the five remaining districts in Tarai-Madhes, the areas that were not covered either by province 2 or province 5, would be decided by a future federal commission.

On citizenship, foreign women married to Nepali men would now be eligible for Nepali citizenship when they renounced the citizenship of the country of their origin. On official language, all mother tongues would be included in the annexe of the constitution at the recommendation of the Language Commission (which already exists). On representation in the upper house of federal parliament, the other Madhesi concern, a total of 56 members would be elected from the seven provinces on a population concentration basis, provided that there are at least three members from each province.

India swiftly welcomed the proposed amendments. The Madhesi parties were once again circumspect. While the they had rejected the first amendment outright, they said they would support the second amendment, provided there were a few tweaks. Their main reservation with the second amendment was that it left the fate of the five disputed districts – Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Kailali and Kanchanpur – to the federal commission. The Madhesi parties wanted an immediate settlement of these districts.

They want two contiguous Madhes-only provinces spanning the entire length of Nepal. Only such a demarcation, they believe, will put the native Madhesis in plurality in these provinces. As it is, the new constitution divides the Madhes region among four separate provinces, with only one province, province 2, consisting exclusively of Madhesi territories.

The Madhesi parties also want the election of the upper house of federal parliament to be solely on population basis. (Again, the proposed amendment on this clause does not go far enough for them.) The main political actors contend that since the lower house will already be elected exclusively on population basis, it makes sense to ensure enough representation from smaller provinces in the upper house so that these provinces are not completely ignored.

On other demands, there are varying interpretations. For instance Federal Alliance chairman Upendra Yadav wants Hindi recognized as a national language, on par with Nepali. But this is seemingly not the demand of other Madhesi parties. There is also a dispute over the kinds of citizenship provisions the Madhesi parties want. But federal demarcations, again, is the main issue, and on this they have a common stand.

Currently, the UML and seven other small opposition parties have been interrupting the parliament for over a month against the proposed ‘anti-national’ second amendment. They fear that if the Tarai plains are completely separated from the hilly regions, it could ultimately lead to secession of the entire Tarai belt, something Madhesi intellectual C.K. Raut is campaigning for. India’s quick approval of the second amendment also makes the UML and its supporters suspicious that New Delhi is working hand in glove with secessionists like Raut. And they see the decision to include all mother tongues in the annex of the constitution as a Trojan horse to make Hindi a national language – something that is anathema to the nationalist UML.

Polls apart

Meanwhile, the constitution stipulates three sets of elections – local, provincial and federal – by January, 2018. If there are no elections, there will be a big constitutional crisis. But as things stand, elections are unlikely anytime soon. Madhesi parties say they will agree to elections only if the major parties make changes in the constitution in line with their demands. But with the opposition occupying over a third of the legislature, it will be impossible for the ruling parties to pass the amendment bill without its support.

Nepal has been completely taken up by these political and constitutional disputes in the past 12 months. As a result, governance has deteriorated and vital development endeavors have been shelved. Amid this political squabbling, earthquake victims have been denied timely help. They continue to shiver in their makeshift tents in the bitter cold. Another issue of national importance, the impeachment motion against Lokman Singh Karki, the freewheeling head of the main constitutional anti-graft body in Nepal, the Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority, has also been put on hold.

Since it does not have a two-thirds majority, the ruling Congress-Maoist alliance is increasingly inclined to declare the date for local-level elections by putting the amendment bill on hold. The main opposition has assured them that it will also agree to allow parliament to function if the government takes the electoral route. The Madhesi parties, however, rule out any elections unless the constitution is first amended.

The year 2017 promises more inaction and chaos. In all likelihood, the country won’t be able to hold the three sets of election by the stipulated time. If this happens, the Madhesi parties will argue that even the little remaining credibility of the new constitution has been lost. Extremist forces in the Madhes, chiefly led by Raut, could then see their influence increase. And the nationalist rhetoric of UML and the monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) will get more strident, further alienating the marginalized groups.

Even if the current parliament logjam is somehow broken and elections are held on time, the same populists could rule the roost, thereby again increasing the already dangerous level of political polarization. And no one knows what will happen if Raut throws his hat into the electoral ring. With Nepal’s mixed election system, he is likely to win at least a few seats, which will mean that the issue of the secession of the Tarai plains will formally enter Nepal’s parliament.

Losing the plot

As the political logjam drags on into the foreseeable future, the overarching national goal of Nepal graduating from Least Developed Country (LDC) status into a Developed Country by 2022 will be missed. Achieving the goal requires over 9% annual growth over the next five years; the current rate is under 4%. Healthy economic growth is also important for job creation. But with a stagnant job market and paltry wages on offer, more and more young Nepalis are looking to leave the country at the first opportunity they get. Already, every single day, around 1,500 people leave Nepal to work in the Gulf countries; there are many more undocumented workers who go to work in India.

Of course, it’s not all gloom in Nepal. The graduation target of 2022 may not be met but the UN still expects Nepal to graduate by 2024 on the basis of its superior human development record, even though the per capital income criteria for graduation will most certainly be missed. Individual actors like Dr Govinda K.C. (the crusading doctor who has single-handedly changed the face of medicine in Nepal) and Kulman Ghising (the chief of the country’s public power utility who has been able to dramatically cut down power-cut hours) provide another glimmer of hope. They are proof that individuals are capable of affecting social change even if the entire system is dysfunctional.

But without political stability accruing from a durable constitutional settlement, such examples of excellence will remain exceptions and never become the norm.

(Provinces of Nepal. The provinces, created by the new constitution, will be named once elections to their respective legislatures takes place. Image: Wikimedia)

(Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy)

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