Even amidst the growing gloom and looming uncertainty, there was something to cheer this week. First, the government shelved its plan to present a supplementary budget, which would simply have bled the exchequer dry. It would have been very difficult to justify another budget near the end of the fiscal year from a UML-led government to follow on from the existing budget, also unveiled by a UML-led government.
The second bright spot is the decision of Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal to continue to head the sub-committee of the Constitutional Committee of the Constituent Assembly (CA), tasked with narrowing down differences among the political parties on the contents of the new constitution. Pressed by party hardliners, he had said he would not continue a few days ago, proposing Vice Chairman Narayan Kaji Shrestha as a replacement.
Such a move would have effectively reduced the sub-committee to an ineffectual body, like so many that we already have. An earlier taskforce headed by Dahal and manned by the leaders of NC, UML, Madhesi and other small parties had settled over 100 disputes, almost all of which were relatively minor. Most of these settled disputes cropped up just because the small parties in the various thematic committees of the CA wanted to make their presence felt.
One of the major differences – over the appointment of the chief justice of the Supreme Court – has been nearly sorted out. The independence of the judiciary hinges on how the chief justice is appointed. Through the taskforce and sub-committee, it was finally agreed to have the chief justice appointed by a constitutional committee headed by the executive head (of the government).
However, two major disputes are yet to be resolved and they have the potential to derail constitution-writing as well as the peace process – the form of governance, and the shape and nature of the new Nepali state (that is, what kind and how many federating states we will have).
The bigger political parties have so far not shown any sign of compromising. The Maoists want a directly elected president, UML has proposed a directly elected prime minister, while NC is for the continuation of the existing Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, wherein a prime minister is elected by parliament and is answerable to it.
Of course, this is an area where NC can compromise if there are guaranteed safeguards against authoritarian tendencies. This is not just a concern for NC, of course; ordinary citizens will want to be reassured that the form of governance chosen will help usher in good governance and make the state accessible to the people, rather than open the door to an authoritarian or totalitarian regime.
Federalism is a trickier issue. In order to sound revolutionary and populist, political parties went for federalism. The Maoists rue this in private, saying they had not envisioned state demarcation along ethno-lingual lines, and UML feels the same way. Even the Madhesi parties acknowledge in private that an autonomous 'ek Madhes, ek pradesh' (a single autonomous Madhes state) is not possible.
But the risks of political fallout have made them reluctant to admit this and deal with this sensitive subject in a pragmatic manner. There never was a serious, nationwide debate about whether or not we needed federalism or whether we were confusing decentralisation (of power and resources) with federalism. Now even those who rushed to welcome federalism in haste are aghast at the turn of events.
We are past the debate over whether or not we need to evolve into a federation. Managing the aspirations of different communities who see a federal state as the only guarantor of their identities will be a tough task. Having federal states demarcated on the basis of true decentralisation (look at India, which is a federation only in name), resources, and economic viability is the best possible outcome we can hope for now.
That is where the Dahal-led sub-committee can play a big role. So his decision to continue as its head needs to be applauded.