We have a joke that Nepal has six directions: north, south, east, west, up and down. Indeed, Nepal is the most vertical country on earth, the terrain rising from 150 ft above sea level on the border with India in the south to more than 29,000 ft on its northern border with China, all within a horizontal distance of only 80 miles. It is this altitude variation that gives Nepal its stupendous scenery, and one of the highest per capita potential for hydropower generation in the world. But you wouldn’t know it visiting Kathmandu today â€“ the capital is suffering 12 hours of daily power cuts.
There are other signs of governance failure. Every day, nearly 1,500 young Nepalis fly out of Kathmandu airport to find work in the Gulf or Malaysia, and as many walk across into India. Twenty percent of Nepal’s population of 30 million is working outside the country. One in every five people in Qatar is from Nepal, there are 600,000 Nepalis working at gas stations and plantations in Malaysia, and at least 2.5 million are migrant workers in India.
A Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006 pushed the country’s economic development back decades. Eight years after a ceasefire was signed, Nepal has gone from war to peace, from monarchy to republic, and held two elections for truly representative elections to a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.
The Assembly missed its 22 January deadline on drafting the new constitution after the opposition led by former Maoist rebels resorted to vandalism and chair-throwing to prevent a vote on the draft.
The ruling Nepali Congress and its coalition partners have tried to press home the advantage of their two-third majority in the Assembly to put their draft of the constitution to the vote.
The hope is that this issue will be settled in the House and not on the streets. For once, Nepal’s leaders need to rise to the occasion, see beyond their petty personal interests, and behave like statesmen and not party bosses.Â Successive public opinion polls have shown that most Nepalis don’t really care about what kind of federalism of form of government the country has as long as they donâ€™t have to migrate to find work, and have affordable quality health care and education.
The peace process has allowed some former guerrillas to join the national army, investors are just waiting for the politics to stabilise, and one last bit of work remains: writing a new constitution.
The former guerrillas swept the first election in 2008, but the Assembly failed to agree on a new constitution and was dissolved. The Maoists lost the second election in 2013 and are now in the opposition with their regional allies from the plains bordering India. The main point of disagreement is over whether or not Nepal should be a federal republic, and if so, how future provinces should be demarcated and named.
The Maoists and their allies want 8-10 provinces named after ethnic groups which traditionally live in those areas, whereas the centrist parties in the governing coalition propose only 6 provinces with more neutral, geographical names. The Maoists accuse the Nepali Congress of being status-quoists out to protect the privileges of ‘high-caste’ groups from the mountains who have traditionally ruled Nepal, whereas the ruling coalition feels the Maoist formula will lead to ethnic strife and the disintegration of the country. Then there is the royal-right RPP-N that wants to restore the Hindu monarchy, and has been emboldened by its strong performance in the last election, and the rise of the BJP in India.
Despite seemingly intractable differences over federalism in the new constitution, the top leaders of the main political forces have narrowed their differences in the past year. They have also made compromises on other disputed issues such as whether to have a presidential system or retain the current parliamentary model. So, what is holding things up? Power and vanity.
The politicians are stuck not so much because of their ideological differences over the constitution, but because of disagreements about who should lead the government after the constitution is promulgated. The negotiators, who include at least six former prime ministers, are putting the cart before the horse and have squandered their public support. In marathon closed-door meetings over the last few months, they have tried unsuccessfully to come up with an acceptable power-sharing agreement. And that is what is really holding up the constitution.
Despite a ruinous war and the fecklessness of politicians, Nepal has taken dramatic strides since 1990 in reducing poverty, and meeting the United Nations targets for health and education. The key to this achievement has been grassroots democracy that brought up elected local leaders accountable to the people. We know what works, Nepal is living proof that decentralised democracy delivers development.
What the new constitution needs to ensure is that the grievances of groups traditionally excluded from political decision-making are given a voice through genuine political devolution, past injustices are redressed and no one is left behind. A democratic and inclusive constitution would guarantee that.
Luckily for us, Nepal’s two giant neighbours India and China although politically poles apart, both want Nepal to be stable and prosperous. They aren’t really competing for influence or a strategic foothold here. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Kathmandu last week bearing promises of more trade and aid. Indian Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi’s visit in August last year reset bilateral ties and unlocked joint hydropower projects that were stuck. For the first time in decades, Nepalâ€™s investment climate is looking upbeat.
Nepal is at an important crossroad in the coming week. One turn will keep the country bumbling along on the path of continued instability, fractious politics and economic decay. Another will allow us to forge a deal on the constitution, fix the politics and catch up with the rest of the world.
Seeing Nepal’s enormous potential for wasted natural resources and human capital, there is reason to be a short-term pessimist. But one canâ€™t help being a long-term optimist about Nepal.
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