Nepal’s fleeting moment of optimism

Nepal’s constitution seems destined for a futile conclusion.

nepal protests
Nepal, a country of great diversity, has been defined in the image of certain communities, writes Bell [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

After years of trying, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly was supposed to complete a new constitution this week. So the spectacle of elected members hurling chairs across the chamber was dismaying – indeed embarrassing – to many people who watched the TV news.

However, this exhibition is the least of what Nepal’s rulers have to be embarrassed about.

Two factors lie at the heart of the chronic political dysfunction. First is the lust for power, and bitter rivalry, among the small club of party leaders. A big reason that the constitution – first scheduled to be complete in 2010 – still hasn’t been written is that they have been far too concerned with toppling a series of governments in order to enjoy another brief stint in office themselves.

The second factor is to do with different visions of Nepali nationalism, specifically the struggle either to replace or preserve a sense of national identity that was given its present form in the 1960s.

Identity politics

Nepal is a country of great diversity, but it has been largely defined in the image of certain communities, and not others. Most power, prestige and wealth is enjoyed by members of the dominant groups. The situation defines the present ideological differences between leaders, and also the political polarisation between sections of the public.

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The current “identity politics” is relatively new, but unlikely to go away. It is important, sensitive, and potentially incendiary – although warnings of mass violence seem greatly exaggerated.

If the new constitution is ever written, how successfully it deals with these issues is likely to be a key factor in the country’s future success, or continuing tribulations.

The immediate origin of the constitution-writing project lies in 2006, when a popular street movement toppled an autocratic royal regime.

A few months later a peace agreement was signed between parliamentary parties and Maoist rebels, ending a decade of leftist insurgency.

It was a moment of optimism. The universal public agenda was for a “new Nepal”, in which historic grievances would be addressed and state institutions reformed. If there was little consideration of the details, there seemed to be broad acknowledgement that many things that were unfair or unsuccessful about the “old Nepal” could be improved by constitutional change.

Giving too much

A well known Kathmandu intellectual told me that no sooner was the ink dry on the peace agreement than “the elites [started] muttering the parties have given away too much”.

Most of what’s happened since can be read as a concerted fight-back by the many and various beneficiaries of the previous constitution against making significant changes in the new one. It is sometimes argued by supporters of the current government that there is little need for a new constitution at all.

The most contentious issue has been the demand for federalism, which is especially championed by advocates for several historically marginalised communities.

The centralised state system has entrenched the dominance of upper-caste Hindus, and this can be reversed by a federal system designed to partly reflect the traditional ‘homelands’ of other groups. It is a demand to secure what they believe is their rightful place in the nation.

According to them, the centralised state system has entrenched the dominance of upper-caste Hindus, and this can be reversed by a federal system designed to partly reflect the traditional “homelands” of other groups. It is a demand to secure what they believe is their rightful place in the nation.

Opponents warn that such demands threaten the very essence of the country, undermining social harmony, and risking ethnic conflict.

However, while they have opposed this, and sometimes other measures such as a proportional voting system, designed to promote a more “inclusive” state, opponents have typically offered few alternatives to address the reality of discrimination and political “exclusion” faced by many – probably most – Nepalis.

This side of the argument presents itself as being against divisive “ethnic” politics and for “national unity”.

Instead of “identity based” federalism it proposes a model based on “economic viability”, in which, as critics in turn point out, most provinces would once again be dominated by the same upper-caste communities whose members have long been dominant.

There is, in short, no escaping identity politics, for either side. The debate has been confusing, deliberately misleading, emotional and alarmist. Yet – as they currently stand – the demands of marginalised groups hardly seem extreme.

Finding inspiration

Rather, they are inspired by – and similar to – what is practised elsewhere, from affirmative action in the US, to the regional assemblies and Welsh language education of the UK, to the quota system and identity based federalism next door in India.

The demand that new federal provinces be at least partly named after different ethnic groups (comparable to Tamil Nadu and so on in India) is merely symbolic, yet is unpalatable to traditional nationalists – and is one of the major stumbling blocks to completing the constitution. 

Many politicians have little to gain from compromising to complete the charter. Instead of leading their constituencies to the centre, they have often preferred to pander to their fears, thus strengthening their own short-term positions. They have little interest in change. Most have been at the top for a quarter century. If the country turned a corner it would presumably leave them behind.

The popular aspirations that came to prominence after 2006 were – it now seems clear – ahead of what dominant sections are ready to accept. The impression of a common desire for reform was, as that intellectual warned me at the time, illusory.

What is obvious now (and has been pointed out by world leaders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) is that only a compromise acceptable to all major political forces will produce a viable constitution. Reinstituting the old days, before new demands were raised, will not prevent future confrontations.

Despite Monday’s outbreak of chair throwing, the outlines of a compromise are clear, and have been for some time.

Yet reaching it, and making it work, will require constructive political leadership in the national interest, and few people in Kathmandu this week are expecting it.

Thomas Bell has reported on Nepal for over a decade. His new book of history and reportage, ‘Kathmandu’, is published by Random House India.

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