Sunday, May 27, 2012

An Honorable Albeit Hopeless Quest

It should sting every Nepali deep that the nation ended up squandering four precious years on a quest that was so honorable – and yet so hopeless.
The promise of a constitution written by elected representatives of a free and sovereign people was an integral part of Nepal’s first democratic dawn in 1951. Internal political machinations and external double-dealing delayed and then killed that hope when no less a personage than B.P. Koirala abandoned the constituent assembly for direct elections to parliament in 1959.
Instead of continued bickering with the palace and other political parties over the constituent assembly, B.P. considered elections as a more viable instrument of consolidating democracy.
Political maneuverings deepened despite the Nepali Congress’ two-thirds parliamentary majority, as rival parties refused to cede the political space they had held before the first gauge of popular preference. The monarchy, for its part, set out to articulate its expectations of a distinct political role in keeping with Nepali realities.
Amid the escalating Cold War between the East and West, intensified by the Sino-Indian rivalry, external dynamics favored the rise of an assertive monarchy. Yet the narrative of Nepal’s democratic deterioration focused almost exclusively on the lack of a popularly drafted constitution.
While the Nepali Congress and the assortment of communist factions accused the monarchy of harboring unappeasable anti-democratic proclivities, votaries of democracy understood the specific realities of the country. Even after the People’s Movement of 1990, after all, the Nepali Congress refused to go down the constituent assembly road, insisting it would detract from the more important tasks on hand. A compromise document between the three principal forces was widely hailed as the world’s best constitution.
By the time of the second People’s Movement 16 years later, the constituent assembly became the dominant demand of the times. The Maoists had successfully portrayed such an assembly as the ultimate assertion of the supremacy of popular sovereignty. The Nepali Congress, anxious to deflect attention from its own role in the decline of democracy twice, went along with the Maoists. Ever the fence sitter, the CPN-UML had an easier time acceding to the new agenda.
It was clear, however, that the constituent assembly alone could not guarantee the democratic stability that had long eluded Nepal. At best, the history of the process internationally was mixed. The Nepali Congress, in particular, could not explain how it would deal with the opening of Pandora’s Box – its preferred metaphor while it consistently rejected the Maoist demand during much of the People’s War. The Nepali Congress’ acceptance of the constituent assembly was merely another way of spiting the palace.
Still, not all hope was lost. But the process began to falter amid the mutual distrust and recriminations among the signatories to the 12-Point Agreement. By abandoning its ideological commitment to constitutional monarchy, the Nepali Congress deprived itself of one half of its relevance. At a philosophical level, too, the party botched things. It never explained how issues that were never part of the April Uprising ended up assuming national urgency.
In allowing the Maoists to drive the process before the constituent assembly elections, the Nepali Congress eroded its ability to oppose the former rebels’ policies and practices after their impressive electoral performance. Acceding to ceaseless demands through endless amendments to the interim constitution, often outside the ambit of democratic discourse, the Nepali Congress sunk to the depths of depravity. Unfortunately, it no longer had the monarchy to kick around. That the Maoists and the UML seemed more wedded to the logical conclusion of the ensuing process was striking but irrelevant, given the doubts hanging over their commitment to reaching any destination.
Any political change is bound to raise popular expectations. It is the job of political parties to temper them in keeping with reason and reality. Granted, the exaggeration of ethnic, geographical, religious and other grievances was a useful tool against the monarchy. A proliferation of microstates in a sliver of territory between two regional giants could never make geo-strategic sense.
The Maoists’ behavior demonstrated that they had merely joined the political mainstream to perpetuate their revolutionary agenda to some unformulated end. The UML never extricated itself from its deep-seated institutional ambivalence. The onus naturally fell on the Nepali Congress, but its fall to irrelevance was too precipitous for even the faction-ridden party leadership to comprehend.
External machinations were no doubt instrumental in breeding chaos over the last six years. While the political establishment lost the moral ground to blame foreigners, the voice of the ancien regime was deliberately discredited to point of limiting its ability to explain the thin line dividing foreign goodwill and interference.
Foreign powers, for their part, became bolder in claiming their stake in our future. In the end, the normally reticent Chinese, too, acknowledged that they were meddling in Nepali affairs. (Professor Hu Shisheng, the director of the South Asia department at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) implied in an interview with the BBC Nepal Service the other day that, while others countries were interfering to split the Terai from Nepal, Beijing was meddling to keep the country intact. The sentiment acquires added seriousness considering that the CICIR is affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security and overseen by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.)
In this CYA moment, the blame game is bound to continue, especially over Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s decision to call elections to a new constituent assembly. When the dust settles, the political actors will find themselves focusing on their individual political interests before being able to exhort a message of common purpose with any credibility.