Wrecking crew

Illustration: BHANU BHATTARA

Four years after the Constitution was promulgated, the main political actors involved in drafting it are now ruling the country. The 2017 federal, provincial and municipal elections made this the most powerful government in Nepal’s democratic history. Yet, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has squandered not just its mandate but also the opportunity to make the Constitution work.

There were very high expectations among Nepal’s long-suffering people that stability would attract investment, create jobs and improve accountability and governance. But disillusionment is running high, with opposition parties and dissident groups exploiting the discontent to push for constitutional amendments.

The government’s response has been to crack down on dissent, intimidate and attack those who are critical of ruling party figures on social media, and try to push through bills in Parliament that would curtail hard-won freedoms. Prime Minister Oli himself has ordered that Constitution Day on Friday, 20 September be used as an opportunity to defend the Constitution.

In what critics say is Panchayat-era style, the central government ordered Chief District Officers and local governments to ‘celebrate with much enthusiasm’ Constitution Day for three days, 19-21 September, by proudly flying national flags at homes, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with flags and illuminating homes and offices for three nights. The Home Ministry homepage even has a popup box displaying the exact dimensions and colours of the national flag, and instructions on correct ways to display it. The new Minister of Tourism and Culture, Yogesh Bhattarai, even tried to get the national anthem played before evening prayers at Pashupati.

Oppositionists are trying to cash in on the public’s anti-government mood. Despite being in disarray itself, the Nepali Congress (NC) has smelt blood, and its leader Sashank Koirala is trying to ride the Hindutva wave to have secularism scrapped from the Constitution. Kamal Thapa of the RJP is going one step further to campaign for the restoration of a Hindu monarchy. Former Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, now leader of Samajbadi Party Nepal, wants a constitutional amendment for identity-based federalism and executive presidentship. And then there is the Biplav faction, which wants to go back to armed struggle.

The NCP is lashing out at critics. Party Co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal last week instructed cadre to ‘retaliate’ against the opposition, echoing Prime Minister Oli’s call to ‘unleash hornets’ on them. NCP youth have used mob tactics against those posting critical content on social media. Information Minister Gokul Banskota doesn’t hide his disdain for the free press, and is pushing the Media Council Bill, an IT  Bill and the Mass Communication Act through Parliament.

Critics say the way to defend the Constitution is not by threatening dissenting voices, but by protecting the freedoms that it guarantees. Former head of the Nepal Bar Association, Sunil Pokhrel, says: “If there is a problem with the Constitution, the way to resolve it is not by wrapping ourselves in the national flag. The flag is being used to hide defects in the Constitution.”

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