Rule of the lawless
Monday 19 September marks the seventh anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution, and it comes just two days after the first Parliament elected under that federal system was dissolved to pave the way for elections in November.
This is a good time to take stock of those five years of Parliament and seven years of the Constitution. Spoiler alert: the report cards on both are not good.
The 2015 Constitution was finally finalised after two elections to Constituent Assemblies, and was itself an outcome of the armed struggle waged by the Maoist party from 1996-2006. The very fact that 17,000 Nepalis were killed for the monarchy to be abolished should have made the new secular, federal, democratic republic worth dying for.
Alas, the past seven years have proven otherwise.
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The Constitution was fast-tracked after the 2015 earthquake because the Nepali Congress-led coalition government was AWOL. To make up, it hurriedly passed the Constitution despite demands for greater autonomy from Madhesi and other groups. There was violence in the Tarai, and then New Delhi expressed its displeasure by punishing quake-ravaged Nepal by enforcing a border blockade for six months.
A Constitution is a rulebook for governance, and is by definition work in progress. It needs to be tweaked to respond to changing aspirations and mores of the citizenry. But the past seven years have shown that the ones who made the rules think they were made to be bent and broken. Following the rule in Nepal is an exception, rather than the rule. It is the rule of the lawless.
The first elections under the new Constitution were held in 2017 for all three tiers of government. There were some progressive provisions that mandated greater participation of women, the excluded and indigenous groups. Citizens had a chance to elect mayors, chairs and councilors to local governments with inclusive representation.
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The electoral alliance of the UML and the Maoists swept that election, and the two parties united in 2018 to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). There was hope at last that with its strong majority in Parliament and an egalitarian agenda (at least in theory) the Communists would work for the welfare of the people.
It took barely a year for those hopes to be dashed. The NCP’s two leaders, K P Oli of the UML and Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists, had a secret arrangement to take turns at prime ministership, but after Oli survived a second kidney transplant, it seems the deal fell through. The power struggle between these two alpha males ultimately brought down the government, and led to the NCP splitting into the UML and Maoist Centre again.
Oli tried twice to dissolve Parliament in violation of Constitutional provisions, and was struck down both times by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana. It is a supreme irony that even as the country marks Constitution Day, the country’s Chief Justice is under semi-house arrest for what appears to be political vendetta. Rana was prevented from going to his office this week after the dissolution of the Parliament that was debating an impeachment motion against him.
Rana was not known for unblemished integrity, but had disallowed unlawful dissolution of Parliament. In the end, his staunchest defender has turned out to be the very K P Oli whose government was ousted by Rana’s Supreme Court verdict last year.
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None of this is surprising. The practice of distributing appointments among short-term allies (bhag-banda) has been the curse of Nepali politics for decades. In 2017, Oli and Dahal divided up between themselves appointments of the office of President, House Speaker, Chief Justice, other constitutional bodies, chief ministers, and even ambassadorships. The division of the spoils got even more extreme since the present coalition came to power since all five members had to be appeased.
Neither Parliament nor the Constitution could meet the people’s expectations for better governance, equity and justice because both were held hostage by inter- and intra-party feuds. Their power struggles have been played out in Parliament, where protagonists have blatantly violated the Constitution to gain the upper hand. Ordinances were weaponised as ordnances.
Nepal’s federal Constitution was supposed to devolve power to local bodies, they have instead let lack of accountability trickle down to the grassroots. It was meant to decentralise decision-making, but decentralised corruption instead.
The November elections offer hope to change all this. It is now up to the people to oust the six elderly gentlemen men who have monopolised, misruled and abused power for decades and bring in a new crop of representatives who understand what the Constitution stands for.
Read also: Political expediency trumps Nepal Constitution, Santa Gaha Magar