Results of CA elections confirmed worst fears of skeptics. Deep fissures of Nepal’s polity and society resulted in a fractured mandate. Since no political party was dominant enough to have its way and leaders were fearful of losing face in public, negotiations between different forces began to be held privately. Influential politicos shunned CA proceedings as a matter of routine.
No matter in which way the drama at New Baneshwar ends on May 27—on the morning of the D-day, rumor was rife that the probability of a constitution being promulgated or fresh elections being called was fifty-fifty—Nepal’s first CA would be remembered for not asserting its authority at critical moments of history. The experiment of formulating a constitution with the participation of representatives from the broadest cross-section of Nepali society collapsed for all practical purposes the day Supreme Court decided that interim constitution empowered the judiciary to review the functioning and the tenure of CA. The hallowed doctrine of separation of power and the principle of checks and balances are meant for maintenance of an existing regime. These should not have been allowed to undermine the sovereignty of a body entrusted with the task of creating a new political order altogether.
The court, however, was not alone in assuming that CA members could not be trusted with the task of making a ‘proper’ constitution and the legislature needed a judicial nudge from time to time. Nepalis of certain castes, class and community refuse to accept, individually and collectively, that certainties of yore when everyone knew their place cannot be resurrected again. Their attachment with beliefs of the past is so strong that they are ready to take political risks not only to defend but also to aggressively promote the politics they have been accustomed to. Unfortunately for them, the ruling castes and community can no longer get away with having a monopoly over truth and power. The saving grace of CA process is that it has made a large section of the previously ruled populations aware that they don’t have to unquestioningly conform to values of the dominant community.
The framing of a constitution is an exercise in making political compromises without sacrificing one’s fundamental beliefs. The CA, however, has hardened positions of almost all sections of society. The cultural elite wants to ensure continuity of its position at all costs. The upwardly mobile are more interested in maintaining a familiar system than gambling with a new order, which runs the risk of limiting horizons of their ambitions. The marginalized have no hesitation in using militant language to stake their claim over polity and society. And the externalized groups have little interest in saving legal processes that show little flexibility for their hopes and aspirations. Four instances, selected at random, demonstrate that apprehensions about efficacy of CA were correct and even if a new constitution materializes at the last moment, its legitimacy and acceptability shall remain permanently in doubt.
Among the troika of Brahmin Marxists—the adjective and noun have to be reversed in order to correctly reflect their outlook—that claim monopoly rights over politics of CPN-UML, Chairman Jhalanath Khanal is the only one who owes his position to popular mandate. He got into the CA with the majority support of voters in his constituency. He won the presidency of his party with a convincing majority. He may not have been a successful prime minister, but his tenure remains more or less untainted of institutionalized corruption and willful inactivity that characterized the term of his predecessor. Hence, a certain level of political decency was expected from a person of Khanal’s stature. However, he too turned to be cut from the same thick hide when he reportedly asked his Madheshi and Janjati colleagues in the party and in the CA to sign on a blank piece of paper. The incident needs no explanation. Trust is a two way street—when a leader doesn’t have faith in his flock, nobody can blame followers for being on lookout for an escape route.
The second reported incident is so outrageous it is difficult to believe that it may have actually happened. It was rumored that a section of Nepali Congress was hatching a plot to bring a no confidence motion against the government on a day when voting on the proposal was out of question. The justification of the move was pure conspiracy: Had the CA died without promulgating a constitution, it would have given the ceremonial head of state a pretext to intervene in affairs of governance. The most intriguing part of the plot consisted of actors behind the move. It brought extreme leftwing section of UCPN (Maoist) and ultra conservatives of NC on the same platform. Apparently, the power elite of Nepal doesn’t believe in the sanctity of political ideologies and is ready to sacrifice its principles at the first available opportunity.
The third event was even more symptomatic of biases that prevail in the minds of dominant sections of Kathmandu society. In order to undermine the influence of general shutdown called by Janjati and Madheshi activists, moneybags of the capital city decided to have a mass gathering (apparently, they preferred an apolitical sounding term over what turned out to be protest rally against federalism for all practical purposes) to promote peace, harmony and prosperity. It was a colorful affair, but its orchestration widened the gulf between the elites of the old and the emerging order.
At the height of summer, it would have looked awkward to ask participants to don labeda-suruwal ensemble complete with black shoes, black coat and bhadgaule black topi. So organizers of the goodwill rally of May 23 had settled for the next best getup: White T-shirts. The original venue selected for the show of strength was picturesque Kathmandu Durbar Square. That quaint site could have given television cameras charming shots. Unfortunately, it has already been booked for a public meeting. Protestors that wanted “peace, not pieces” were ultimately forced to move to Durbar Marg.
The new location turned out to be even more appropriate for the temperament of the crowd that had gathered on the road between Narayanhiti Palace Museum and the Mahendra Memorial roundabout near Tindhara Pathshala. This is an area where the beautiful people of cosmopolitan Kathmandu truly belong. The place has everything for the daily needs of the rich and famous: Five-star swimming pools, pricey boutiques, fancy restaurants, exclusive beauty parlors, international airlines offices and travel agencies, upscale malls, and several banks should the need arise to cash a check. The upwardly mobile professionals come to Durbar Marg to pretend that they too have arrived in life. Little wonder, the group of forever-youngs, waving flags, looked uber-cool in their ultra whites. They were on their home turf mouthing slogans that were beyond reproach. The event, however, had unintended consequences of alienating aspiring Janjati and Madheshi activists, which may haunt its organizers should federalism materialize or even fail to take off.
The thread that binds these isolated incidents together is the conviction of the ruling community in the country that only they know what is best for the rest of the country. When such supercilious assumptions have to face rising aspirations, a clash becomes inevitable. The fracas at a media center may have been symptomatic of spars of the coming days.
The ruling community believes it knows what is best for the rest. When supercilious assumptions face rising aspirations, a clash is inevitable.
Ang Kaji Sherpa is neither illiterate nor a social lightweight. The fact that he was invited to speak at a popular media forum was evidence enough of his clout. It would be highly presumptuous to assume that he did not know what he was talking about when he alleged that the Bahun-dominated Kathmandu media was contemptuous of Janjati movement. The media was awash with the coverage of the controversy for next few days. The Nepali cyber-space continues to reverberate with adversarial comments over what was quite clearly an observation intended to provoke and invite backlash.
Sanctimonious fears about verbal violence are all very well, but it comes naturally to communities that had to speak in grunts for centuries. The meek have begun to speak and the strong had better learn that now it is their turn to listen. Nepal needs a constitution so that it can hold further conversations. The musical instrument of harmony is powered by pressure and oftentimes it can generate some hot air too. However, even unpleasant notes are preferable to conspiratorial silences.