by Monalisa Adhikari, Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.
July 11, 2012 (TSR) – The current impasse in Nepali politics, ignited by a lack of consensus on the issue of federalism, is an indication of two visible emerging trends: first, the shift from ideology to identity based political mobilisation; and, second, the eroding of the monopoly of a traditional political elite, largely owing to the bottom-up democratization process catalysed by identity based groups and intra-party feuds.
The lack of consensus on federalism was prompted by the rigid positions taken by Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML (Community Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist) and others who opposed federalism based on ethnicity, and the insistence of the Maoists and the Madhesi parties on ethnic federalism because of the push given by their own constituencies and interest groups such as the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities. Identity politics will be the defining feature of Nepali politics in the days to come. The recent feuds within the CPM-UML as well as the NC, where Janajati and Madhesi parliamentarians have threatened to quit if their parties do not accept ethnicity based federalism is a profound indication of the same.
With pressure groups touting ethnic federalism as the sole solution to end ‘exclusion’, major traditional parties such as the NC and the UML will have to renegotiate not only with the emerging political parties such the Maoists and Madhesi parties but also with ethnic, regional and other groups pursuing identity based politics. A more critical approach would be to first engage in a fresh and informed dialogue on state restructuring within and amongst the parties and then initiate a public debate and negotiate the differences among political parties. It clearly appears that without sorting out the issue of federalism, the political process is unlikely to move forward, even if the Nepalese people elect yet another Constituent Assembly in the coming days.
What has also become apparent is the fact that closed door negotiations between the chiefs of the political parties is not going to be left unquestioned by the party cadres and accepted as the final decision anymore. The culture of dissent within the political parties has become quite normal these days. Almost all the mainstream political parties have developed cracks from within.
The intra-party fractures visible in Nepal today indicate that political parties will need to balance opinions both within the party as well as between them. The recent split between the ‘hard line faction’ led by Mohan Baidya and the establishment faction of the Prachanda-Bhattarai alliance within the UCPN (M), despite continued talks between them, indicate that the Maoists will find it very hard to stay united. The ongoing detente between the two factions within the NC—led respectively by Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala—appears too cosmetic, as the party is still undecided about who will lead. The UML has also been facing the threat of internal division and trying hard to keep the party united. Added to these existing cleavages is the intense pressure of the identity-based coalition of Janjatis and Madhesis, which is likely to weaken the political strength of the UML.
For the Madhesi parties, fragmentation is not a new phenomenon. With the expulsion of Sharad Singh Bhandari from the Madhesi Peoples Rights Forum-Democratic (the largest Madhesi party), and Bhandari’s announcement about starting his own party, there is an ongoing competition between the two factions to woo party cadres and consolidate their positions among the Madhesis. Negotiations forged by a few dominant political figures in each party would now need revision if parties seek to consolidate their bases and avoid cleaves.
However, the current crisis in Nepal has been ignited not only by the inability of the political forces to address the above mentioned issues, it is also aggravated by older traits of Nepali politics, namely, myopic political calculations and reliance on brinkmanship as a means of negotiation. The current political calculations signal that the NC and UML are cheering the Maoist split, which in the forthcoming election may enable them to regain their lost honour in the last election.
However, the ground reality is much more complex. At the moment, the UML, the NC, and the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, along with a few other political parties, vehemently reject the decision of Bhattarai to hold elections in November 2012 for the new Constituent Assembly. Most probably, there is an uneasy realization dawning upon them (especially NC and UML) that they are most likely to lose any early elections not only to the Maoists, but also to a broader coalition of some of the Madhesi factions, Maoists and Janajatis which have coalesced together around their agenda on federalism. With the NC and UML both opposing ethnic federalism and the Maoists coalition with this broad alliance committed to ethnic federalism, the former is likely to become reduced to a negligible force.
Since the Maoist’s unprecedented victory in the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008, the NC and UML have always pointed to the fact that the Maoists should not be allowed to function unilaterally because while they might be the largest party they do not have a majority. With the possibility of a broader coalition of Madhesis-Maoists-Janajatis, the nightmare of the Maoist-led majority force already haunts the UML and the NC.
However, Nepal’s history demonstrates that whenever left parties shift towards the centrist position, the vacuum is often filled by a more radical faction of the left. So, while the UML-NC might feel upbeat about a UCPN (M) split for now, they might in the long run have to battle another radical left activism, which is where their tactical calculation might prove erroneous. The Maoist strategy of getting cosy with the identity interest groups and pushing for an identity-based federation will certainly endear them to a large section of the population, which may translate into votes for them in the coming elections. But when Nepal transitions to a federal set up, it is probable that identity-based political parties will emerge stronger and it is with this constituency that the UCPN (M) will have to compete. Myopic vision for short-term gains has been a key characteristic of Nepal’s politics, and despite frequent failures the Nepali political dispensation is yet to learn from them.
Leaving the key Constitutional agenda on federalism to be settled at the eleventh hour, the parties are currently busy squabbling over trivial issues such as the Prime Minister’s resignation and terming his call for election as unconstitutional. Parties demanding the resignation of the caretaker Prime Minister fail to realise that if they do not propose an alternative Prime Minister, the current one will have to continue to avoid a power vacuum.
Elections, whether it be for the CA or the Parliament— now or later— are inevitable. If the elections take place in November 2012, which seems very unlikely for now, there is still no guarantee that what could not be achieved in the last four years will be achieved now. And, if there is no election, the parliamentary vacuum would persist and its spill-over effect could erode all the governance mechanisms. Although a voice has been raised for the reinstatement of the CA, it must be noted that the 601 CA members have lost trust and credibility amongst the people. The politics of brinkmanship has left the country at a crossroads where fluidity is likely to dominate the Nepali political sphere.
However, after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on the night of 27 May, an executive-legislative vacuum persists, with political uncertainty looming large. Lack of serious political negotiation is at the heart of this impasse. Thus, to make the best of the worst, a more critical approach would be to enable a dialogue not only within and between political parties but also outside of them and seek to forge minimum consensus on federalism so that if the CA is reinstated or re-elected, it would take the constitution writing process forward. This would ensure that the people’s trust on the political parties does not crumble further, the national treasury does not bleed more profusely and governance vacuums are replenished.
The settlement of the issue of federalism is going to take a long time. Only through genuine negotiation efforts, timely discussions, and broader participation with groups asserting rights based on identity can Nepal break the impasse.
Originally published in IDSA.