The fact that the much awaited and highly contested elections in Nepal have resulted in a hung Constituent Assembly and a humbling defeat for the Maoists who had emerged as the largest party in 2008, have been no surprise. Given the polarised situation in Nepali politics, this is the best that could have come. Now the more serious questions can be raised. Will the parties elected be able to make a cohesive coalition to finally make a new constitution that the people await? Will they be able to deliver stable governance that this poor country so badly needs? Will there be peace and reconciliation between political forces so issues of development can be addressed?
The elections for the Constituent Assembly in Nepal are complicated business. This House has 601 seats that are divided between those elected in direct elections and proportional representation based on percentage of votes for parties. Now that the results have come, the Nepali Congress (NC) won 196, Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) known as the moderate communists won 175 seats and the Maoists- UCPN came a measly third with 80 seats. (Under proportional representation, the NC got with 91 seats, followed by the CPN-UML and the UCPN got just 54 seats). A total of 30 parties are present in the new Constituent Assembly, of which many small parties represent ethnic communities from the Madhes region of Nepal that borders India.
Now the Maoists are sulking. They claim the election was rigged (just as the other two parties had claimed in 2008). They want to boycott the creation of the government. This does not help them now or in the future. Instead of being a responsible opposition they are playing spoilers. This was the very reason they were voted out of power. But the comrades obviously will not learn from history.
The Maoists had joined democratic politics and came overground after waging insurgency for almost 13 years. Their demand had been for Nepal to make a change from a monarchy to a republic; from a Hindu state to a secular one, from a unitary to federal state. They also raised demands for women’s and minorities’ representation. All these were progressive issues. People identified with these demands and voted them into power in 2008, over the traditional parties like the NC and the CPN-UML.
However, to make the constitution it is necessary to have a two-thirds majority. For this a coalition between parties was necessary. Besides, the new constitution needed to represent the many small ethnic communities of Nepal, who so far had been dominated by the upper caste Nepali elites of Kathmandu Valley. In addition, the Maoists’ militia—the Peoples’ Liberation Army—had to be disarmed and merged with the Nepal Army, which also had to reorganised. Moreover, the Maoists had committed crimes during their armed struggle, and a truth and reconciliation commission had to be set up. Each of these issues became highly contested with all the major parties disagreeing on each issue.
To compound the situation, the Maoists had strong internal disagreements within the different factions of leadership. Prachanda, the main leader during the armed struggle, wanted complete control, to which Baburam Bhattarai, the ideological theoretician, disagreed. The leader of their armed militia “kiran” disagreed with both, and would not allow complete disarmament of their armed cadre, and constantly threatened to return to armed struggle. In addition, the leadership appeared more interested in using the gains of political power for personal entitlements, as opposed to building a coalition for carrying through a constitution based on consensus.
Of course, in hindsight, each group has the other to blame. But none were able to give in or make compromises for the sake of a final and just peace that only constitution making would bring out. Further, if any one group had a problem they could always have constitutional amendments. For example, India has amended its constitution more than a hundred times. But the Nepali political class was unable to find a solution to any difference of opinion.
The issue of ethnic federalism where the ethnic communities wanted about 14 provinces in a small state like Nepal has been particularly contentious and is likely to be so in the future also. Also in the last five years the question of India’s relations with Nepal was both used and misused- and was used to divert from internal factionalism as and when convenient.
All these are the challenges to the new government. Clearly, the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML can form a coalition and get a majority. But if they want to be magnanimous, they can include some Madhesi formations also. Second, instead of getting caught in the wrangles of the day-to-day privileges of power like the last Constituent Assembly, this new coalition should focus on finalising and passing the constitution. Third, they should take the advice of their regional allies, including India, rather than create threat perceptions where none exists. India has offered Nepal change in the trade and transit and other treaties. River water disputes can arrive at settlement methods. Nepal can benefit from Indian development co-operation and growth.
At a time when the world is remembering and condoling the passing of Nelson Mandela, leaders in each country should not just iconise him but learn the most important lessons he lived. These were to make a rainbow coalition, one had to learn to forgive and tolerate different opinions and accept dissent. Mandela argued “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” He also believed “in leading from the back” which meant let the people be in front.
If the new Nepali leadership just takes these two lessons, they can help remake Nepal’s transition from conflict and stalemate to peace and development.
(The writer is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)