KATHMANDU: THE streets of Nepal’s sprawling capital are choked with traffic and diesel fumes. The worst are lined with half-smashed houses and rubble—a legacy not of war but of a half-finished road-widening scheme. Well-meant but stalled, it has made getting around Kathmandu more awkward. Under monsoon rains, muddy swamps jam the traffic even tighter.
In a similar state is the half-done political reform in Nepal, whose nearly 30m people are wedged between India and China. A four-year effort to write a new constitution ended last May with the “collective failure” of the country’s politicians, admits Baburam Bhattarai, who was then prime minister. Nepal limps on with ad hoc rule by Khil Raj Regmi, seconded from his day job as chief justice. He has just called an election for a new constituent assembly, on November 19th.
A leader with the oomph of a “dishrag”, says a local observer, Mr Regmi shapes little. Instead a quartet of political parties mostly decides Nepal’s future. They agree (though some tiny ones do not, for now) that the election can go ahead, to be followed by renewed wrangling over a half-written constitution. A few optimists believe they could finish the job by 2017. The especially cheerful Mr Bhattarai predicts it will come much sooner.
Two of the four parties are keen, both thinking their political fortunes are rising and wanting to entrench a federal system of provinces. That would reward their backers: traditionally excluded indigenous groups, lowlanders, remote villagers of the hills, and the low-caste, such as dalits.
One is a group from the Terai, Nepal’s populous, lowland part bordering India. The second, more important, group is the Maoists, who gave up revolutionary war in 2006 and in 2008 romped to surprising electoral victory (or at least won more seats than any other party). Led by Nepal’s most charismatic figure, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or “Prachanda” (“the Fierce One”), assisted by Mr Bhattarai, they are proving politically adroit. In a striking gesture of conciliation, the Maoists agreed in April last year that the army need accommodate only 1,450 of their ex-fighters (not the 12,000 they earlier wanted “integrated”).
Such pragmatic concessions provoked a hardline Maoist faction to break away. It may prove a nuisance—for example with strikes, perhaps even violent ones, to oppose the November poll. But the Maoists gain more than they lose. In February the party dropped its anti-India rhetoric, achieving an accommodation with the neighbouring giant, which remains a powerful actor in Nepal’s internal affairs.
The two others in the political quartet are parties of the old establishment: the Nepali Congress and a Communist party (lefty in name only) known as the UML. They oppose any ethnic-based federal system that could threaten the traditional dominance of Nepali society by their own backers: hill Brahmins, or highest-caste Hindus, and Chhetris, who have long topped the social heap. They make up a bit less than a third of Nepal’s population, but run almost everything.
Their most diehard supporters resist more concessions to upstart Maoists, lowlanders and the like. Nepal has already switched from Hindu kingdom to secular, democratic republic, with partial use of proportional representation for elections. They hope to scotch or at least defer the next big reform—a shift to federalism.
That means delaying efforts to write the new constitution. Possibly outsiders would sympathise. China, remarkably, has made known its opposition to ethnic-based federalism in Nepal, fretting that Tibetans, just over the border, might get similarly uppity ideas. Yet both China and India talk mostly about promoting stability in Nepal; India is especially anxious that elections go ahead on time.
In the end India’s influence is much the greater. Its spies have been active in splitting parties it dislikes, and in ferrying favoured leaders to Delhi to shop and be flattered by bigwigs. Most important, its rapprochement with Nepal’s Maoists, along with old ties to the Nepali Congress, suggest it could chivvy politicians to come up with a constitution this time around.
It will not dictate what sort of federalism follows, though India wants the Terai politically stronger, giving it more influence over the hill capital. Nor will the process be smooth. But as Mr Bhattarai says: “we are in a transitional phase; our new democratic system is being institutionalised.” He has a stake in that, and in Kathmandu’s traffic, where he personally got the road-widening scheme started. He wants to finish the job.
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