The destruction of the April 25 earthquake provided Nepali citizens with a respite from the presence of the topmost political party leaders in their lives. Having hogged the news for more than a decade through an incestuous cabal that bypassed parliamentary practice, the leaders did not have the credibility to come forward to lead the rescue and relief effort.
But it did not take a month before they were up to their old tricks — the dust from the earthquake had not even settled when the power brokers raised a political sandstorm that had the ability to derail reconstruction. On the basis of personal career calculations, with no introspection as to naked past practice, they started an exercise to bring down the coalition government led by Sushil Koirala.
It was a clear case of opportunism rather than using the earthquake tragedy as opportunity to “build back better”. The most desperate in trying to turn the calamity to personal advantage were the Maoists, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai, both of whom went into overdrive. By contrast, the leaders of the Madhesi Morcha opposition, with longer investment in democratic politics, were circumspect.
Mr. Dahal is hounded by fears of international jurisdiction on human rights and money laundering, and also feels he must have a hand in reconstruction expenditure. This is why he wants to join government rather than serve as effective opposition during a critical period. Mr. Bhattarai, finding his own ambitions checked at every step by Mr. Dahal, with amazing hubris presents himself as candidate for tsar of the national reconstruction effort.
The sluggish performance of the Koirala government in the aftermath of the earthquake is lost on no one. The Prime Minister has not been able to lead from the front with spark and vision, nor generate collective ownership within his cabinet even at this time of crisis.
But comparative perspective is needed to gauge the Nepal government’s response, considering that the earth shook in the most difficult and densely populated mountain terrain in the world. The government was not as devastatingly inept as projected in the immediate aftermath — infrastructure and services remained in place and the authorities retained control over the miscellaneous international rescue force.
There is now a mood to change the government in order to prepare for the reconstruction effort, and there is a pre-existing agreement that Nepali Congress President Koirala will make way for the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) Chairman, K.P. Oli, around the time of promulgation of the new constitution. What is new is the demand for a ‘national government’ to include the Maoists and the Madhesi Morcha.
The most natural evolution is for Mr. Koirala to make way for Mr. Oli in an orderly fashion, and for the ruling coalition to appoint a national reconstruction body with professional appointments from outside the political realm. The Congress and the UML must avoid an unbecoming firefight at a time when there are still bodies to be recovered from under destroyed houses and landslide rubble. A political tug-of-war would serve only to deflect the need to plan reconstruction, including preparing for an international pledging conference, scheduled for June 25.
Says sociologist Chaitanya Mishra: “Political bargaining at this time would divert attention and utterly fail to recognise the human significance of the disaster and the need for recovery. It would prioritise political power over public service.”
The shift of the tectonic plates could not have been more inopportune. The Nepali state, severely weakened by a decade of conflict and another decade of confusion and intervention by foreign forces, from next door and from afar, was limping towards normalisation following the elections of November 2013. In March-April this year, the constitutional negotiations seemed to be moving towards resolution, with the Maoists on the back foot after the failure of an announced three-day national bandh.
That was when the earthquake struck, and it took no more than a couple of weeks of quiet before the political opportunists were casting about. But the hard-won Nepali democracy cannot be upturned by an earthquake, nor can geopolitical shifts be dictated by geological strata.
The overwhelming show of national and international military hardware and khaki prowess following the disaster sent an exaggerated message to the public that the civilian authority was weak in contrast. Indeed, for a whole month, Nepal was a staging ground for a dozen military rescue contingents, including India with the largest force and the United States and China. Nepal’s experience indicates a need for enhancing civilian capacity for disaster response in each of the countries of South Asia.
National constitution, local bodies
But the most pressing question for now is whether there is a need to go beyond reconfiguring the Congress-UML coalition, to expand it to include the Maoists and the Madhesi Morcha. Under any other circumstance this would be a travesty within democracy, but given the nature of Nepal’s transitional polity, the answer would be — yes, if the Congress and UML can leverage the invitation to national government into obtaining agreement on promulgation of the constitution and holding of local government elections.
National reconstruction is impossible to contemplate without the stability that would come with a constitution. Neither can it happen without elected officials in the village, district and municipality councils, which is the only way to ensure equity and accountability in the reconstruction planning and expenditure. The UML and the Congress have nearly two-thirds majority in the house, and given that they are ideologically divergent and under normal circumstances would be in opposition to each other, this is already a “national government”. It can be expanded further only if, gathering courage from the suffering visited on the citizens, the ruling coalition insists that the constitution be adopted by due process, including two-thirds majority vote if required, and a date is set for local elections in early autumn.
If the long-standing deadlock over demarcation of federal provinces cannot be resolved, the republic must be declared “federal” in the constitution, with the details to be worked out by an empowered commission.
The worldwide response to the Nepal disaster has been heart-warming, but has been concentrated on the high-profile rescue and relief phase. International attention is already tapering off, long before the reconstruction phase has begun, with the National Planning Commission still engaged in preparing the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA).
The Congress and UML must work to give new energy to government, taking the Maoists and the Madhesi Morcha on board only as required, and prepare for the pledging conference. The target of $6-7 billion will not be easy to achieve, as past experience with disasters elsewhere in the developing world has shown.
First of all, the ruling coalition must be able to broadcast the message of unity and common purpose, and prove its ability to plan and spend with competence and transparency. India, whose response to the earthquake was immediate and generous, can help in the reconstruction process by ensuring a substantial contribution to get the ball rolling. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had actually proposed hosting the pledging conference in New Delhi, and his visit to Kathmandu for the purpose would have positive impact both in terms of publicity and volume of contributions overall.
Nepal’s geography seems designed for natural disasters, from cloudbursts and floods to landslides, heatwaves, frigid spells, droughts, glacial outburst floods and earthquakes. The country has to learn to cope and respond, and one of the “gifts” of the April earthquake was the spontaneous rise of young professionals in the rescue effort, who now constitute a new category to engage in national reconstruction.
All the responders, from the young professionals to government officials and international supporters, must not lose sight throughout the rebuilding phase that it was the poor that were disproportionately hit by the quake — it was the houses made using mud mortar that collapsed. Therefore, the entire reconstruction effort must be anchored on social justice, which requires watch-dogging of the party bosses used to feudal era patronage politics and rule-by-syndicate.
Nepal could come out of this as exemplary in its response to mega disaster, but this will not happen for the wishing, and without political stability deriving from a new constitution and participatory local democracy. The alternative is continuing political disarray even as the monsoon approaches, to rain down on a landscape weakened by the tremors and aftershocks of April.
(This article was originally appeared in India-based The Hindu Newspaper. Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is Founding Editor of Himal Southasian magazine.)