What do you do if you’re the high-caste leader of a democratic party faced with a vote that will end your caste’s supremacy?
You avoid voting at all costs. This is what the leaders of the Nepali Congress party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) did in Kathmandu on May 27. Their refusal to compromise with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and other parties led to the failure to pass a new Constitution and the dissolution of the country’s only democratically elected body, the 601-member Constituent Assembly.
This was an unforgivable betrayal of public trust: the citizenry had waited for four years for a new Constitution that would mark the birth of a “New Nepal”.
It also plunged Nepal into a constitutional crisis: the country now has a caretaker President, a caretaker Prime Minister, and a caretaker Cabinet, but no representative body. The judiciary, the bureaucracy and the security forces remain, of course.
But no one is sure what is legitimate and illegitimate now. The Prime Minister has called for elections for another Constituent Assembly in six months. The President is mulling over his options, which are few. With no clear way forward, Nepal is, for now, a constitutional Neverneverland. Was it worth it?
To the leaders of the NC and CPN-UML, it obviously was. They threw everything away over the issue of federalism. Nepal has over a hundred ethnic nationalities and nearly as many languages. But all government institutions, and most non-government ones as well, are monopolised by high-caste Hindus.
Brahmins and Kshatriyas — called Bahuns and Chhetris in Nepal — occupy almost all national space. This is a glaring, undeniable fact and it holds true for all the political parties (including the Maoists), every media house, the entire private and NGO sectors, and the vast informal networks of power — including the well-heeled of Kathmandu who exert immense influence over confused donors and ambassadors.
During the 10-year-long “People’s War”, the Maoists promised the excluded (that is, the majority) autonomous federal states named after each area’s ethnic nationalities. This proved very popular. (Though the 2011 census data is not out yet, it’s safe to say that Nepal’s population comprises 15 per cent Chhetris and 12 per cent Bahun. The Madhesis, Janajatis and other excluded groups amount to over 60 per cent.)
Once the peace process was underway, the issue of federalism got another boost from the newly formed parties of the Madhes, or the south-eastern plains. In 2007, they separated from the Maoists and other parties, demanding an autonomous Madhesi state.
In 2008, the Maoists won almost 39 per cent of the vote in the election for the Constituent Assembly, becoming Nepal’s largest party. The Constitution that resulted was bound to reflect their agenda.
For the NC and CPN-UML, the challenge on the political front was to ensure that the future polity remained democratic. Their vision was firm: they wanted the Westminster model.
On the social front, they had no vision at all. Out of social conservatism or perhaps sheer apathy, they had over the past two decades resisted Nepal’s multiple civil rights movements, consistently delaying or opposing the rights of women, dalits and ethnic nationalities, though these are all important votebanks.
Indeed, the women, dalit and ethnic members of the NC and CPN-UML have had to defy their party leaders several times to pass socially progressive legislation. Their leaders have in turn tried to rein them in by issuing whips.
For NC and CPN-UML Assembly members from various ethnic nationalities, federalism became a core part of the civil rights movement: only by decentralising power would they be able to end the monopoly of high-caste Hindus.
After much debate, and a two-year delay, the Assembly finally proposed two alternatives on federalism: to create either 14 or 10 ’ethnic states’.
Flouting democratic procedure, the NC and CPN-UML leadership refused to entertain these proposals, by turns opposing federalism altogether, or proposing six or eight states named after geographic features.
As lines hardened along caste and ethnic lines, a bloc of over 320 Assembly members across party lines declared they would vote in favour of ethnic federalism. The NC and UML leadership began to threaten its defiant members with a whip and with expulsion.
Terrified of putting the issue to a vote, the leaders of all the parties decided to shunt aside the Assembly and to meet, instead, in closed-door sessions, to seek a consensus. The plan was for the Assembly to rubber-stamp their decision at the end. The demoralised Assembly cooperated with this. Serious doubts are now emerging as to how sincere the party leaders were about seeking consensus.
Till the last, they holed away from the public, meeting sometimes at the Prime Minister’s residence, sometimes in his office, and sometimes in holiday resorts. All to no avail. Whatever agreements they reached one day were invariably broken the next day after meeting with fierce public opposition. The exact events of May 27 — now known as a “black day” — are only slowly emerging.
The party leaders spent the entire day in closed-door meetings, refusing to come to the Assembly. At five o’clock word leaked that they had come to an agreement after the Maoists, Madhesis and ethnic nationalities had compromised. An agreement had been reached. Then, mysteriously, the agreement broke apart. Those covering events from up-close claim that the NC and the CPN-UML backtracked at the very last minute, demanding that the Constitution hold off on the subject of federalism altogether. This was unacceptable to all the others.
At the Assembly, members picketed, demanding that a meeting begin; but the Speaker never came to the Assembly to do so.
At midnight the Assembly expired. Everyone who had trusted the leaders was left feeling grief-struck and gutted, and very disillusioned.
The NC and CPN-UML leaders had betrayed the very principle of democracy. And they had done so for the lowest possible reason: they wanted to preserve Nepal’s high-caste monopoly. With democrats like these, who needs autocrats? It is not tenable to shut out the majority. It will also not be accepted: the demand for inclusion is too strong in Nepal.