Sunday, August 17, 2008

Real Change In The Works

The principal political forces have struck a balance – or at least a semblance of it – in our post-monarchy state structure. The Nepali Congress has the presidency, while the Maoists control the premiership. The Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) hold the constituent assembly, while the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) controls the vice-presidency.
How factional dynamics within these parties play out remains the key imponderable. And the spotlight falls squarely on the Nepali Congress. Sher Bahadur Deuba suddenly jumped into the ring after Ram Chandra Poudel was touted as the token challenger to Pushpa Kamal Dahal for the top executive job. Why did a three-time premier agree to such a conspicuous losing proposition? 
Was this the outcome of last-minute confabulations among diplomats from countries traditionally influential in Nepal? Or did it stem from Deuba’s desire to live up to his given name in front of the man he once called brave? Or to reinforce the message that, come what may, he is the pretender to the premiership?
How long will the Nepali Congress deign to stay in the opposition? The UML’s populist Nine S’s program instantly goaded the party into alliance with the royalists. Although royalty has departed, sections of the Nepali Congress-friendly media have reached out to ex-royalist Prakash Chandra Lohani of the Rastriya Janashakti Party to endorse their view that the Dahal government cannot, by any definition, be considered consensus driven.
The Maoists would love to know what the Nepali Congress is really up to, but their own house remains messy. When Dr. Baburam Bhattarai issued that hard-hitting statement defending his nationalist credentials, it became clear that the former rebels have much more than residual resentment from the purge of 2005. 
Dahal, for his part, has resigned as chief of the People’s Liberation Army to become the entire nation’s premier. The analogy may not hold, but our new premier, under protection of the state army, must find himself counting Pervez Musharraf’s travails once he shed the uniform in Pakistan.
The UML remains the wild card, especially since it has four former deputy premiers constantly itching for the top job? Khadga Prasad Oli and Bam Dev Gautam may be tugging the party in opposite directions, but general secretary Jhal Nath Khanal has other ambitious comrades to worry about.
The MJF is an amalgam of rightists, leftists and centrists that ran old Nepal. In a party that still calls itself a forum, members are perhaps at greater liberty to ventilate their disagreements without having to own up ideologically relevant consequences. Yet the fault lines in the MJF appear more debilitating to the nation.
Despite such murky portents, the state can no longer postpone the process of writing the new constitution. Madhav Kumar Nepal, the former chief of the UML, and Bishwanath, former chief justice of the Supreme Court, seem to be the leading contenders to head the drafting panel. 
You could question the choice, since both were the principal architects of the doomed 1990 constitution. In a spirit of conciliation, however, you could also argue that these men desire to set things right this time. Upadhyaya, in particular, can be expected to exhibit more seriousness on the issues of language and ethnicity he had summarily dismissed during the 1990 drafting process.
The process is not going to be pretty. Those seeking inclusion in state structures have already sharpened their swords. What about those resisting exclusion? It would be a mistake to laugh off the recent call for an alliance between Bahun-Chhettris and Rana-Shahs. In the battle for survival, history offers a sobering lesson. It’s not how the Ranas and Shahs joined hands after the 1950 change. It’s how the Gorkha Parishad, supposedly the party of the Ranas, joined hands with the Nepali Congress after the royal takeover a decade later. As for the priestly caste, the kumai and purbia bahuns could finally settle their scores, now that we no longer have royal preceptors. Where do jaisis and khatris fit in all this?
Hindi, as Vice-President Parmananda Jha recently stated, could end up as an official language in the constitution. Could Urdu be a less credible candidate, considering the prominence of our Muslim minority? (Going by Indian media reports on the mushrooming of madrassas along the border, Arabic could be an equally potent contender, though.)
Still, real change may be in the works. During our last brush with democracy, all three elected assemblies died a premature death at the hands of ambitious prime ministers. Considering the strenuousness of its task, this one could get extensions ad infinitum. New Nepal, indeed.