A thousand Nepali mutinies(NEpal)

A thousand Nepali mutinies(NEpal)

To the outsider, Nepal is getting to look like a chaotic failed state. The government administration is non-existent; development work is at a standstill; identity-led agitations are erupting all over; the Maoists are finding it hard to fit into a government of political parties while their battle-hardened fighters have difficulty in respecting the populace; criminality rages in the Tarai.

On the flipside, a social scientist would say that only the chaotic moment, as chaperoned by Nepal's resilient political parties, can allow for a transformation of Nepali society, a process to be defined neither by neighbour India nor by the larger international community, including the United Nations. To those who express exasperation with the Nepali players, according to this argument, only peace, democracy and a state-structure defined by Nepalis themselves will have staying power. Also, Nepal is doing much better than so many countries emerging from years of violent internal conflict.

Over the course of the last few years, it has become clear that there is a fuzzy logic to the Nepali political process, where the reality on the ground can be diametrically different from what seems evident in the English-language discourse. When all seems lost amidst the cynicism of the unconnected Kathmandu intelligentsia and the various interlocutors who feed alarmist information to the donors and diplomats among others, one is liable to be surprised in the days ahead when everybody agrees on a formula or scheme that they had been vehemently opposed to the day before.

Speaker Subash Nembang looks to the future.

That, at least, is the hope today, when a thousand mutinies rage while Girija Prasad Koirala tries to hold together a contradiction-filled government. But wishes cannot deliver a constituent assembly election, and that is the event on which every hope for political stability and an equitable and inclusive society now rests. The critical importance of holding elections in November 2007 could be the one factor that ties everyone together – after each is exhausted in defending his/her certitudes, and when every community's (and political party's) demands hit a countervailing demand from another quarter.

Restarting democracy
The unique situation of Nepal is that everything seems to be happening at the same time: the demand for inclusion in a restructuring state, sparking a multifaceted debate that is still in its initial stages; the challenges of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) trying to maintain its heroic rebel posture even while serving within a government-and-parliament format; and the difficulty in restarting a democracy after it was mismanaged by the political parties and hijacked by Gyanendra – all of this in a relatively mature polity that has not seen a general election since 1999.

Against this backdrop, the vital importance of the Constituent Assembly becomes clear whichever way you look at it. And indeed, Nepali citizens are privileged today to be in a position to be drafting their primary document of state – learning from others in the Southasian neighbourhood (and elsewhere), yet devising a text that is unique to Nepal's history, its demographic diversity and its wildly differentiated geography. Let it not be forgotten that the lead-up to the Constituent Assembly is being conducted according to the mandate of the People's Movement of April 2006, which requires the political parties and especially the CPN (Maoist) to be morally obligated to seek the people's mandate through the ballot.

The pitfalls of not being able to conduct elections in November are there for all to see. The current eight-party government, which includes the Maoists, will lose all legitimacy; the royal rightists will think they can once again make a stab at power; and the political turbulence will have the international community aflutter about 'saving Nepal'. At that time, when the country experiences a loss of agency and sovereignty is compromised, Nepali power-brokers and opinion-makers will have no one to blame but themselves.

And so, preparing the conditions for a November election, as has now been decided through an amendment to the Interim Constitution, should be the priority during the month of July. The challenges come first and foremost from the need for a buy-in to the 'mixed' election format agreed upon by the political parties – most importantly, by the indigenous ethnic-community organisations, the Dalit groups and the agitated Madhesi factions of the central and eastern Tarai. While a 'fully proportional' election system might also have worked, the mixed system (with half of the seats in the Constituent Assembly to be decided through the familiar first-past-the-post system of electing candidates, and the other half in which the political parties are asked to select their members in the house in accordance with the proportion of communities in the population) does seem to have within it the kernel of a 'new Nepal'.

Indeed, the mixed system has the ability to throw up a completely new cast of players in the political arena, and it is important now for the political parties to indicate their bonafide intentions in order that the community groups to express their whole-hearted support for the election process. It has also to be kept in mind that a certain amount of campaign rhetoric and acrimony is a given, for the upcoming legislature will not only write a new constitution but also provide the government for the following couple of years.

If the communities are on board, that leaves the issue of law and order, which has three aspects: the Koirala government's abject failure to guarantee internal security and solidify state administration; the Young Communist League of the CPN (Maoist), with its proclivity to speak the language of violence; and the chaotic situation in the Tarai, where private and communitarian armies are being born by the day.

Can things settle down enough by the autumn, for an acceptably free and fair election to the Constituent Assembly to be held? We sincerely believe so. The spring has traditionally been the season of discontent in Nepal, and the upcoming monsoon will bring with it the balm of camaraderie and goodwill. But Nepal cannot rely on nature and culture to make the elections successful. The first task is to get the buy-in to the mixed system by the indigenous/ethnic and Madhesi groups. The second is to provide muscle and motivation to the police force and state administration. The third is to ensure that Gyanendra, the vainglrious person who is as yet king, is completely neutralised and unable to wreck the people's agenda for a November election.

When all this is done, we may find – surprisingly in the eyes of some – the situation looking very different in the next couple of months. Nepal has the ability to astound the world, when the state and citizens put their minds together.

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Himal Southasian