By Kanak Mani Dixit – Many Western diplomats and development-walas, cheered on by their Kathmandu plaudits, tend to portray Nepal as a failed or failing state. The alternative view would describe a resilient polity finding its balance despite the chicanery of national politicians and unremitting external interventionism.
Nepal emerged in 2006 from the under the weight of Maoist killings and state atrocities to finally promulgate a Constitution in September 2015, overcoming the suffocating embrace of Western aid agencies and overt activism of Indian diplomats and intelligence-walas. It has had to contend with the Great Earthquake of 2015 and the Great Blockade of the same year, and an almost-successful attempt at state takeover by a narcissistic anti-corruption czar. Last month saw the drama of an attempt to impeach the upright Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sushila Karki.
The citizens at the grassroots had been prevented from choosing their representatives for two full decades, which bureaucratised and corrupted local administration and prevented the injection of new blood into politics. However, overcoming these obstacles, Nepal has finally arrived at the vitally important local level (village, town and city) elections.
The polls, whose first phase happened on May 14 and the second stage is scheduled for June 14, mark a step towards implementing Nepal’s new Constitution. Within the next year, this needs to be followed with elections for seven newborn provincial councils, and national parliamentary elections. Nepal will have ‘normalised’ only when the present oversized House, an extension of the Constituent Assembly elected in 2013, is replaced by the new Parliament.
The gravest danger of recent times has been the attempt to divide the citizenry between hill pahadiya and plains madhesi, but fortunately the fight has remained one between the plains-based ‘Madhes-baadi’ parties and the Kathmandu state. While the plains politicians, many of whom lost elections in 2013 and don’t have a seat in Parliament, have created endless hurdles in attempts to implement the Constitution, the ‘national’ politicians of Kathmandu refuse to exhibit the inclusive spirit that permeates the new charter they themselves adopted.
The Constitution has bad press in India because, rather than read the document, New Delhi’s observers have preferred to follow MEA’s geopolitical positioning (which ‘noted’ rather than welcomed the promulgation). The Constitution has impressive progressive features adopted through due democratic process, but because it was written by politicians rather than jurists, applying the provisions will be a great challenge.
As far as local bodies are concerned, the Constitution provides unprecedented executive, legislative and judicial powers to village and urban units. Three provinces having already voted on May 14, the second stage involves four provinces that include within them all of the Terai plains. The plains-based parties, which recently coalesced into the Rastriya Janata Party (RJP), have been able to manipulate the weaknesses of the present Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition government to force unconscionable compromises in conduct of the elections.
More importantly, as this is being written, the RJP leaders seek to shift the goalposts between the first and second phase of elections. Through immediate amendment to the Constitution, running roughshod over parliamentary procedure, they want to increase the number of local bodies units in the plains, adjust the electoral college system for the Upper House, and redefine the boundaries of the newly minted provinces — essentially setting a Lakshman Rekha between hill and plain.
All of which is a travesty of constitutionalism, as the proper entity for amendment of provisions of substance would be the newly elected Parliament rather than the caretaker House of today. Among other things, redrawing of boundaries should require concurrence of the federal units concerned, rather than be a matter of unilateral decision by the centre.
Seen from the vantage of Kathmandu, India very much wants to be a world player but has failed to build a global voice even in these times of geopolitical and economic convulsion. From Brexit to the South China Sea, the Belt and Road Initiative and the multiple crises from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa, few seem to be asking for New Delhi’s position and perspective. And it remains intriguing that for its massive presence at the centre of the Subcontinent, India is not able to take South Asia together on its plans.
One possible reason for this state of affairs is that members of New Delhi’s civil society, including its hallowed commentators, have a tradition of following MEA positions when it comes to foreign relations (including neighbourhood policy). As a result, watchdogging suffers, institutional memory dies, blunders are made by policymakers.
Against such a backdrop, one feels constrained to suggest that New Delhi’s commentariat does not exhibit curiosity on Nepal, even though the country lies adjacent to India’s most important and impoverished States by politics and population density. This suggests the intelligentsia’s willingness to neglect India’s ‘peripheral regions’ such as North Bihar and Purvanchal. Democratic stability, social transformation and economic growth in Nepal will have an immediate downstream impact on Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal to begin with (and vice versa), but this requires a pruning of geostrategic thinking and increased sensitivity to economic growth and social justice in the borderlands.
The weakness in civic oversight of foreign affairs means that there was no demand for accountability when, for example, India’s power players got cosy with the very Maoist leaders (Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai) who built their violent movement on the basis of anti-India vitriol. And if the observers were observing Kathmandu with more care, there would have been less of a shock when Nepal pivoted to the north, and even joined the Belt and Road Initiative last week, all of which was accelerated by New Delhi’s attitude and actions in relation to the new Constitution.
No one perhaps doubts the need for Nepal and India to lift their relationship to a mature and transparent level, so that diligent discussion can begin on crucial bilateral matters. These include the open border, job migration, security concerns, mutual economic growth, environmental issues including pollution and climate change, and India’s increasing desperation for water. As for China becoming suddenly proactive on Nepal, New Delhi should try and shift its perceptional gears on the Himalayan range.
‘Connectivity’ was a term propagated by Indian diplomats, but Beijing is running away with the ball. Even if it stayed away from the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, New Delhi may want to open up to the idea of trans-Himalayan commerce through the Nepal corridor. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway will arrive from Lhasa and Shigatse to a point north of Kathmandu by 2020, and the roads from the south are already being upgraded to receive goods and passengers.
‘Stability in democracy’
The results of the first phase elections have been telling. The CPN-UML and Nepali Congress have emerged as the two largest parties, with the Maoists a distant third but with ability to tip the balance. Kathmandu Valley has thrown up two new parties with a modernist urban agenda, while Baburam Bhattarai and his Naya Shakti have receded further into the shadows. The poor showing of the Hindutva-oriented Rastriya Prajatantra Party or Kamal Thapa should give pause to India’s cultural revivalists that have an eye on Nepal. The results also augur well for the RJP, were its leaders to agree to join the second phase elections.
These civic polls are the harbinger of long-lost political stability, for they will anchor the new Constitution. This will in turn lead to economic growth, and already the International Monetary Fund is predicting a dramatic turnaround for an economy long in the doldrums, with the GDP growth for the current fiscal forecast at 7.5%.
News reports indicate that New Delhi may be in the process of pulling back from its proactive presence in Kathmandu in relation to constitutional implementation, including taking a back seat on the matter of local elections rather than continue with the proactivism of the past. This would, to begin with, leave Nepal’s plains-based leaders free to speak for the people they represent. It would also help secure the ‘stability in democracy’ that the citizenry of mountain and plain have craved for all these years.
(This article was originally published in The Hindu of India on May 20, 2017. Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding editor of the magazine Himal Southasian.)