The instructive words from Shital Niwas on Sunday had forced the parties into a marathon meeting which finally resulted in an agreement on Wednesday. Although the parties have been notorious for backing out of agreements, the decision to go for elections has 'resolved' the deadlock for now. The ghost of the Constituent Assembly can rest for the time being, but nobody can say for certain that the elections will take place in April.
The opposition NC and UML were not in favour of reviving the CA because they did not have numerical strength in the dissolved house, but neither were they super keen on new elections for fear they may lose. But now, the vertical split in the Maoist party and the multiple splintering in the Madhesi camp has suddenly boosted the NC and UML's interest in new elections.
The Maoists and Madhesi parties wanted to revive the CA because that is their comfort zone. They tried their best to avoid going to polls because they realise they do not command popular support anymore and may not retain the same political strength in the polls. The fear of intervention by the President and unrelenting opposition may have forced them to agree on elections, but members of the ruling coalition have a 'plan B' up their sleeve and will bargain hard to retain leadership in the electoral government, unless there is a broader agreement on federalism and other sticking points in the constitution drafting.
The serial corruption scandals and vertical splits may have significantly weakened the Maoists, but it will be a mistake to believe the NC and UML have become stronger. Assuming that the Baidya and Matrika-led factions of CPN-Maoist contest polls (they maintain they won't), the Maoist votes will be divided. But the two old parties have clearly failed to appease the sentiments of the Janajatis, Dalits, Muslims, Tharus, and Madhesis, who together constitute more than 70 per cent of the population. There are also reasons to believe that many Janajati and Madhesi leaders in the NC and UML may leave the party in the event of an election. In short, the net effect will not favour them.
Nonetheless, in a democracy when politics is deadlocked, going for a fresh mandate is the best option. Because of the extent to which public opinion on federalism has been polarised, however, there is a real danger that the election campaign will be fuelled by ethnic sentiments and may turn violent. In Madhes, for instance, the election is sure to be a referendum on the Madhes Pradesh. The realignment taking place in the Madhesi camp (with unity talks between Upendra Yadav and Mahant Thakur) is an indication that federalism and Madhes may once again decide the fate of elections, like they did back in 2008.
On the surface, the Maoists, Madhesis, and Janajatis may seem natural allies due to their common agendas on identity and federalism, but the personal ambitions of leaders and overlapping political constituencies will make electoral alliances unlikely. For the same reason, the NC and UML are unlikely to forge a partnership. Eventually there will be fierce competition come elections, and the country's weak law and order mechanism will be hard pressed to ensure free, fair, and peaceful polls.
Even if the elections are peaceful, chances are, nobody will get a clear majority which makes a coalition government inevitable. The Madhes-based parties and fringe left parties will once again play a decisive role in forming the government, as well as voting inside the CA.
It will be old wine in a new carafe. The new CA under old leadership will not be any different. Once again, bargaining for portfolios will delay government formation and the issue of constitution drafting will go into the back-burner once more. We have seen in the past how parties which do not have numerical strength in the assembly have obstructed its regular proceedings and forced the other side into backdoor political negotiations.
The intention is not to question the rationality of the decision to go for polls, but it is better not to expect any dramatic breakthrough. The recourse to new CA elections is inspired by mutual distrust among the parties, rather than the need to seek a new mandate.
If the parties want to gamble with 30 million lives by going for polls in a country where nobody is in charge and nobody seems to give a damn, they better give us good reasons to believe the new assembly will not become a proxy to the decisions taken by the three male party chieftains. If that is the case, reviving the old assembly would have been a safer and cheaper bet.
Choosing election, KUNDA DIXIT