Monday, February 23, 2015

Nepal: Looking beyond constitution promulgation

Despite the hitches and risk of new confrontation, Nepal's much-awaited constitution is now finally on its way but its promulgation will only lay bare new challenges. The toughest one will be to reinvigorate the ailing economy by denting the cronyism and crimino-political nexus which has enriched the politicians and fueled the informal economy so far.

There is one effort that has drained the precious time and resources of the entire country over the past decade in Nepal: building the constitution. After failure of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) to deliver the constitution at the end of the extended period of four years, the second CA was formed after an election overseen by a caretaker government led by the then Chief Justice of the country.

Finally, eight years after the powerful street revolts paved the way for uprooting the centuries old monarchy and elections for CA, the new constitution is in sight. After a failed attempt to forge a consensus in divisive issues like state restructuring, the ruling parties--which enjoy a two-third majority in the CA--have resorted to the procedure in the CA which allows a voting on those issues.

Unable to influence the outcome in negotiations with the ruling coalition, the opposition led by the Maoists, the former armed rebels of the country who were the largest single party in the first CA but have been heavily downsized in the second CA, have decided to boycott the procedure in the CA.

Sans a miraculous reconciliation in the near future, the ruling coalition formed by the traditionally dominant political parties Nepali Congress and CPN (UML) is now on track to sorting out the issues through voting despite the vehement protests of the opposition.

As the rival sides are drifting further away from each other's position on contentious issues--ruling coalition with upper hand in the CA taking an increasingly hardliner position in favor of status quo vs the opposition reluctant to shed the more radical stand on contentious issues--new faultlines are appearing in a country already fraught with old ones.

 The consequence of this unfortunate turn of events is this: those of us who were looking forward to the new constitution as the document of compromise between conflicting interests if not of absolute agreement and consensus, are set to be disappointed. This also raises the specter of lingering political confrontation and instability in the country that was badly shaken by an armed insurgency that ended only eight years ago.

The move of the ruling coalition to enter into procedure rather than continue with the apparently futile efforts to bring the opposition on board has made one thing certain: a constitution will be promulgated soon even though the self-imposed deadline of January 22 was missed.

This has left the opposition--formed by parties that had spearheaded the movement to transform Nepal from the unitary kingdom to inclusive federal republic--in a precarious situation: agree with the unpalatable position of the ruling coalition or remain as the mere bystander of the momentous process of building and promulgating the constitution for which most of their political capital has been invested so far.

Given this somber reality, it is too early to rule out the possibility of a compromise before finally promulgating the constitution, but the vested interests of the leaders on either side are making a compromise even more elusive as time passes.

Whichever way the promulgation of new constitution takes place, one based on consensus or on a two third majority, real test for the Nepali political leadership will start after the event. That is largely because so many issues of crucial importance have been so far postponed awaiting the period of--potentially--more certainty and stability following the promulgation of new constitution.

Rebuilding Nepal will have to start with the arduous task of reinvigorating the ailing economy which is now sustained by remittance from millions of workers mostly doing the manual jobs in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

A sluggish to shrinking industrial sector and ballooning foreign trade deficit makes Nepal, a country rich in water resources, an undeserving failure in a region where China and India are resurging as the fastest growing economies in the world despite the relative slowdown of the past few years.

Poor governance and rampant corruption have been plaguing Nepal for long and many in Nepal wonder if a reasonably good governance during the post-1990 years could have avoided the catastrophic armed insurgency that annihilated nearly 15,000 lives over a decade.

Indeed, what Nepal would have accomplished by now had the Maoists desisted from launching the devastating insurgency in 1996 has now become an important counterfactual history. One thing is certain though: rampant corruption, mismanagement and lack of accountability make a fertile ground for catastrophic social disruptions and insurgencies.

Ever since the insurgency came to a halt in 2006, a factor of absolute impunity has compounded the problems as the transition period has lingered with one failure of the politicians after another.

As the young men and women leave the country in increasing numbers to escape the unemployment and poverty thereby sustaining an otherwise failing state, the political leadership is showing a consensual disdain towards the rule of law and accountability.

From appointing a tainted former bureaucrat as the chief of the nation's corruption watchdog to blatantly appointing party cadres as judges, the rot starts at the top and extends to the grassroots. Meritocracy is the last thing that comes to the mind of the politicians while making appointments in posts as sensitive as the president of the governing body of national health sector.

The public institutions in health and education sector have been hollowed out so thoroughly by blatant interference by party leaders and cadres that the returns from the government's huge investment in those sectors is dismal.

As the poorly-equipped private schools and colleges draw the crowds of young students, the profligate govt-owned schools have seen dwindling admissions and empty classrooms. As party cadres jostle to get a bigger pie from the budget of hospitals and health centers, people are forced to seek health care in private hospitals which are notorious for fleecing the poor.

The ordinary people, who are deprived of decent employment opportunities, are also deprived of an affordable and quality health and education service threatening to cripple the people economically as well as socially for decades to come.

The nexus between the politicians and organized crime is an open secret, the current Home Minister is known for deliberately weakening the morale of the police force by openly embracing the thugs affiliated to his political party. Cartels in the private sector are so strong thanks to their nexus with politicians that the roads in the country have been literally divided among the transport entrepreneurs so that they can fleece the people by charging exorbitant fares for dismal service by totally eliminating the factor of competition.

The most worrisome thing, however, is this: none of the leader from any political party is realistically expected to even give a thought to these myriad issues making the daily lives of the people an ordeal.

KP Oli, the man widely tipped to be the next prime minister of the country after constitution promulgation is known for not bothering to keep his association with the criminal elements in the country under wraps. As every single political party jostles to get a larger pie of the ballooning 'black' or informal economy, CPN (UML), the party led by Oli, is miles ahead of the rivals.

Even though this momentous challenge faced by the society is being pushed away from the priority due to the ongoing polarization of the society into those for and against the status quo in relation to state restructuring, the situation is bound to change after promulgation of constitution and no power that keeps its contempt and disregard for good governance and accountability is likely to have a sustained support of the people.

The performance of the politicians will thus soon be measured with the new yardstick of economic progress and restoration of accountability. As things stand now, that task will be far more difficult than the task of settling the contentious issues on state restructuring.

And the success of Nepal as a viable nation state in the long run will depend on how well the leadership will grasp the ethos of good governance and accountability by shedding the baggage of patronage, cronyism and plain disdain for rule of law that has plagued them so far. 

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