Political January 2013
By Achyut Wagle
It was not surprising that an ever-elusive consensus in the present day Nepali politics was not arrested even this time around, though to humiliation of a presidential decree.
President Dr Ram Baran Yadav’s call to the political parties of Nepal to form an all-inclusive consensus government has not materialized even after the eighth deadline elapsed, as of penning down these lines. It was not surprising that an ever-elusive consensus in the present day Nepali politics was not arrested even this time around, though to humiliation of a presidential decree. But what is most engrossing question here is not why it did not materialize, but why did President Yadav at the first place choose to issue such calls to the parties to forge a consensus, the impossibility of which was absolutely foregone? Even if such a consensus evolved over time by any chance, the presidential dignity and credibility that had remained largely intact over these turbulent years of political transition will have been irreparably tarnished by then. During these two months, since his office began to issue seemingly never-ending series of deadlines to parties, but all in vain, his action has been seen as unwise by the people.
Not only that, at one instance, President Yadav also gave a naïve public speech which was construed as throwing political weight behind Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai, the rarest thing expected from him. ‘Creating a consensus for a new government around the incumbent one would add jewel to the crown,’ he was quoted by the media as saying in a public function in Pokhara during the first week of December.
Though it later turned out that the President was quoted out of context (the message the President was trying to convey was something like “I would not mind if the consensus is formed for Dr. Bhattarai to continue as the Prime Minister and other parties joining that government), the damage was already done. The president could have avoided making any such statement altogether. The two acts by President Yadav-- calling to parties for consensus to form an electoral government and, at the same time implicitly favouring incumbent Prime Minister Bhattarai to head that new government -- are in apparent contrast. A very strong fraction of Kathmandu’s political high-circle attributes this Presidential blunder to the prowess of senior Indian National Congress Leader Dr Karan Singh, who called on Yadav in the first week of December in the pretext of inviting the latter in an academic function of Banaras Hindu University. In essence, this act of calling for consensus for new government on the one hand and supporting the incumbent prime minister on the other defeats the very purpose of presidential call for a new government.
Then, the most crucial questions here are: what prompted him to do so? And, who ultimately has benefitted politically from this entire episode. As for the prompters, there are three theories on the float. First, the president in fact knew that no such consensus was tangible even in farthest horizon, yet wanted to call for it. Because, the failure of the political parties to act upon his call would pave the way for his ‘more assertive role’ in the present day Nepali politics. But that seems flatly implausible, as he has not done enough scratching whether he can actually assume the position of an executive president, even if he wished so. The second theory is that he was sincerely concerned about the prolonged constitutional vacuum and wanted to build a moral pressure on the political parties to work out a tenable solution to it. Even that was the case, he should have gauged on what would happen ultimately if his call did not yield any result. And, more importantly, there are no constitutional way outs available to push the present government out of power and form a new government. Without such constitutional backing, the president was naturally ill-equipped to adventure into such never-ending game of calling for consensus. His guts and practicalities, both, are not permitting him to randomly pick a figure of his like as the next prime minister. And, for the third, there is a section of political analysts who take his recent call as the success of a game plan by the UCPN (Maoist) and the Indian establishment which are making every possible effort to retain Dr Bhattarai as the prime minister as long as possible.
This argument appears relatively convincing. The only impediment to PM Bhattarai and the Maoists to continue in power was none other than the president himself. President Yadav’s public image is way above that of Prime Minister Bhattarai and the person who can announce the removal of Bhattarai from his post is, of course, the president only. At least, they saw it that way. Since there is not any constitutional clarity on the further course to change the government, the Maoists feared that if president acted in this line, he might get a popular support. But, if the president’s image got obliqued by some machinations, his moral authority would dwindle sharply, as it did by his current faux pas. Hence, there were advices from largely unassuming quarters to thrust him into this vicious game of calling for a new CONSENSUS government. This has provided room for the UCPN-Maoist’s to consolidate its campaign against the President alleging him as harbouring dream of becoming the executive head of the country. When the credibility of the president substantially erodes further, it will only be easier for the UCPN-Maoist and Prime Minister Bhattarai to consolidate the grip on state powers.
Not only vindicated by the circumstances but also in essence, the president’s this call for consensus was a premature and novice adventure to say the least. His implicit intention of calling for consensus government seems to hold the elections for a new constituent assembly (CA). But, he did not realise the fact that without a lot of ground work and a thorough review of the past failures, holding a new elections is impossible and likely to be futile like in the past even if they were held. The last CA was too big to deliver a constitution and the CA members both elected by people and handpicked by the party leadership across the board were apparently under qualified for the job of writing the law of the land. This was proved by their four-year tenure that ended without delivering a new constitution. Therefore, before thinking of another election, there must be a single national voice on the very size of the CA, the mechanisms of assigning constituencies and eligibility for candidacy to CA membership. Further, the constitutional bodies like the Election Commission have expressed their concern over the absence of required legal framework to conduct the polls of any objective.
There is another question that must be answered by the top hats of the parties to be represented in the CA. In the last CA, members of the House were hardly given opportunity to debate and contribute in originating and finalising the proposed provisions of the new constitution. They were virtually herded in as per the wish and whim of their respective party leaders. Only a handful of top leaders participated in whatever deliberations that took place and the rest of the CA members just blindly followed them. If that were to be the case, why do we need an extensive new CA through very expensive elections? If everything is to be decided by ten or twelve people, then it is appropriate to form a commission of these very people with some technocrats in it to write the new constitution. Then a new legislature elected after promulgating this constitution may ratify it. The scope of amendment is and should always be there. The fact of the matter is that, whatever may be written in the new constitution, no matter whether it is written by a commission or a CA, that is going to spark controversy of this or that form, for reasons that people have now more sectarian and irrational expectations which are impossible to be addressed by any balanced, democratic and forward-looking document called constitution.
These are some of the issues, the institution like Presidential Office of the country should have considered before jumping into ‘deadline business’. At present, there seems no viability of such a government that can accommodate every force of the country. Then, an all inclusive roundtable under the president’s sponsorship could be an alternative, which can help chart a future course of the nation.
Even if the elections were to be held, it is now proper to hold them to select a form of the constitution itself, not the members of CA. This means, every contesting political party should first draft a full version of the constituent of their liking and go for the ratification by the people for the vote. This indeed will reduce a lot of complications. People will know at the first hand what is in different verson of the constitution presented by the parties. It will invite a meaningful debate and provide room for input. This will also help for faster face of political polarization between, the Left, Right and the Centre forces. More importantly, this will mainifest the intentions of eacdh party before people could vote for any of them and, above all, will give a good homework for political leaders to talk and act sense with acceptable degree of coherence in preparing a feasible draft. In view of sharp divisions along ethnic and communal lines, this proposition contributes to diffuse the tensions before the adoption of the constitution. Various facets potential federal set-up will get space to be debated in public. Then the ultimate promulgation would be lot easier than in any other deemed process.
Instead of indulging into self-degrading course of action like issuing deadlines for the parties, the president should now focus on rescuing the country from the current mess. For this, he does not necessarily need to go beyond available constitutional jurisdiction. For instance, he can hold a comprehensive round-table in the form of consultative meet. There could be several other ways and means available. But, he will in a position to make a difference, if and only if, he maintained a dignity that suits to the first president of a new republic nation-state. His recent move was undoubtedly far below that mark.