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After the quake, constitution-making & politics damage Nepal

CK Lal | Updated on: 4 July 2015, 14:16 IST

The fall

  • Nepal, earthquake-ravaged, needs $7 billion for reconstruction.
  • But wary of an inefficient government, few are lending.
  • A broken political system compounds the problem.

The struggle

  • Millions have lost homes, are set to bear the brunt of monsoon.
  • Government is without money, trying to woo donors, lenders.
  • Devolution of power is urgent, but politicians prefer status quo.

The crisis

  • Four parties made a deal to rush through an incomplete constitution.
  • The SC struck down the status quoist, anti-federalist deal.
  • The Nepali elite blames India for its politicians\' machinations.

Two months, and 326 aftershocks, after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake wrecked Nepal, the people have begun to put their lives back together. But a decrepit polity hobbles them.

The distinctive sound of the capital Kathmandu these days is the whirring of thousands of jackhammers pounding damaged buildings to dust.

Rescue and relief is officially over; rehabilitation is labouring along; but reconstruction is still a long way away even as the monsoon, expected to be under par this year, has arrived.

The scale of the calamity was such - an estimated eight million people affected and over half a million houses damaged - that the government initially had no clue how to deal with it. To make matters worse, the international community was reluctant to loosen its purse strings, apparently unsure of the government's capability to use it well.

Broken politics

Now, though, the government is trying to win over donors and lenders. It hosted an international donors' conference on June 25 to raise the $7 billion needed for reconstruction. The donors pledged $3 billion.

Will the pledges translate into tangible progress on the ground? That will depend on how well Kathmandu can assuage the donors' concerns over corruption and political instability. It seems aware of this.

Perhaps, it was to impress the potential donors and lenders that government meant business that a deal was hastily signed to rush through an incomplete constitution.

Nearly seven years after declaring itself a Federal Democratic Republic, Nepal continues to rely on an interim statute. The statute isn't designed for the federal system, and is contested by the status quoists, the Maoists and the federalists.

The Nepali Congress belongs to the former group. It remains one of the main players in the country's politics, an erosion in its credibility over the past several years notwithstanding.

Although it still advocates parliamentary democracy and liberal economics, the party seems to think that history ended with the formation, in 2013, of the 2nd Constituent Assembly - where it's the largest party - and no further changes are required to the existing arrangements of governance.

The Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), better known just as the UML, is a Dengist outfit; its views on economy, nationalism and cultural purity mirror those of the Chinese communists.

Perhaps to impress lenders, the political parties made a deal to rush through an incomplete constitution

The party has a vast network of businesses, transport cartels, NGOs, loyal mediapersons and militant cadres, and operates more like a corporation than a political party. It wants to lead the government - it's currently a junior partner in the ruling coalition - to enlarge its patronage network.

The United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), UCPNM for short, comprises the largest chunk of Maoists who had waged a decade-long civil war to establish a People's Republic. It has now splintered into half a dozen groups, each claiming to be the torchbearer of the revolution.

The UCPNM, with two former prime ministers in its fold, badly wants to break with its violent past and gain mainstream acceptance as a practitioner of developmental politics.

In the first week of June, these three Pahadi-Bahun parties, as well as a Madheshi-Janjati front, came together to make a deal.

Dealing a cunning hand

The leaders of the four parties met at the official residence of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and drafted a 16-point agreement.

It's purpose: to give Nepal a much-awaited constitution through what has been called the 'superfast track'. The 'track' essentially dispenses with all the rules and procedures of constitution-making laid down in the Interim Constitution.

Together, the Nepali Congress and the UML have a nearly two-thirds majority in the Constituent Assembly, which also functions as the legislative parliament, and could have easily rammed through a constitution of their liking.

However, by taking the UCPNM along, they could not only get the new constitution ratified by a three-fourths majority but also give it revolutionary sanction.

Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar of the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic), who is always waiting for crumbs from the high table, was invited to give the exercise an inclusive veneer.

There is little new in the 16-point settlement. It merely seeks to institutionalise the status quo, keeping the issue of federalism in suspension ad infinitum.

Nepal needs $7 billion for reconstruction, but international aid is hard to come by

It does promise to set up a commission to demarcate the boundaries of future states. However, the catch is in the clause that will transform the Constituent Assembly into a legislature as soon as a half-written statute is passed.

The catch is this: in the Constituent Assembly, people are elected to vote according to their conscience. In the legislature, party whips will make them rubber-stamps. And since the parties in power seem to prefer administrative federalism rather than autonomous entities based on sub-national identities, the deal all but erased the gains of the Madhesh Uprising of 2006-07.

Having shared the government with status quoists several times over the past seven years, Madhesh-based parties were hesitant to challenge the deal from the street. It was left to a few civil society activists to ask the courts to examine its legality.

Holding out hope

In a landmark decision, a single-judge Supreme Court bench of Justice Girish Chandra Lal ruled that the Constituent Assembly can't be dissolved before it completes the job it was elected to do - the promulgation of a complete constitution in accordance with past settlements enshrined in the interim statute.

The four signatories of the deal have come out strongly against the judgment and parlour parleys in Kathmandu are being laced with racial fears - Justice Lal is a Madheshi, as are the country's president, the vice-President and the chief justice.

It is not known whether India, a prominent player in all political settlements in the past, had thought through the consequences of such a conspiratorial pact among Nepal's dominant political players, and yet kept silent.

The Permanent Elite of Nepal, however, is already blaming New Delhi for the political aftershocks in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

The ruling offers the signatories of the 16-point pact a chance to bring it in line with the letter and spirit of the Interim Constitution they themselves had adopted.

The order has also restored the sanctity of the Constituent Assembly. It's now for its members to rise up and assert the sovereignty of the people rather than meekly follow directives of their leaders who have made politics dysfunctional.

It won't be easy, and it will take time.

For now, however, the government has another challenge at hand: to convince the international community that its anti-judiciary posturing and populist politicking will not interfere with post-quake reconstruction and socio-economic recovery.

First published: 2 July 2015, 23:26 IST
CK Lal @CatchNews

The writer is a noted journalist and political columnist from Nepal.