When the four major political blocks agreed on CA polls on Sept. 19, the issue of reinstatement of old CA vs. election of a new one was thought to have been settled once and for all. But the unpredictable Nepali politics has taken a new turn with renewed discussions on the revival option after UCPN (Maoist)’s proposal to Nepali Congress leadership that in case of CA’s revival, NC could lead the new government, provided Congress agreed to settlement of contentious constitutional issues beforehand.
This proposal seems to have renewed the prime ministerial ambitions of senior NC leaders Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel. Republica’s Biswas Baral and Kosh Raj Koirala talked to another senior NC leader, Ram Sharan Mahat, for his views on the revival option, its impact on Congress politics and broader national politics.
How does Nepali Congress view the latest Maoist proposal of CA revival?
This proposal is indicative of the inconsistency of the Maoists. Initially, there was an understanding that, if there is agreement on the contents of the constitution, then CA could be revived for a short period. If there was no agreement, we would go straight for fresh polls. We decided to go for fresh election once it was clear that the contents of the constitution could not be agreed at present. The agenda for debate should have been the form of national government, election date, composition and character of the new assembly and modality to bring the derailed constitution back on track. The latest proposal for CA revival has not only created confusion, but also shown how inconsistent the Maoist position is. It is unfortunate that party leaders are raising an issue over which the debate had already been closed.
Will it be right to say that the Maoists have capitalized on the existing differences in NC leadership?
Let us first agree that the Maoists are in the driver’s seat. They head the government and they are also the largest party, and Prachanda is trying to define the agenda of debate. He has kept everybody confused and has everyone guessing. His real intent seems to be to prolong the Maoist stay in power by keeping other parties engaged in such debates. As for the differences, they exist in all parties.
Is there any possibility that NC could again agree to reinstatement?
The question is not whether the CA should be revived or not. We have to go to election either way. There must be a fresh election by April-May (2013). The question of reviving the CA for a short while will arise only if there is agreement on the contents of the constitution. But so far, there are no signs of such an agreement. We cannot compromise on our basic premises, particularly on the issue of federalism. We are not for ethnic federalism, we are not for single-ethnic provincial names and we, unlike the Maoists, are for limited number of provinces based just not on ethnic character, but also geography, historical continuity and economic viability. We want to respect the people’s right to choose the province they want to be part of, in case of controversial districts.
The CA is the process and a mechanism to endorse the constitution. The basic question is whether we have agreements on the contents of the constitution. Unless there is agreement on constitution, how can the CA be revived? At the moment, bringing the agenda for the CA revival upfront is like putting the cart before the horse.
Do you buy the argument that CA revival is essential for amendments in the interim constitution to clear the path for new polls?
I don’t. If the CA can be revived following political consensus, why cannot the same principal be applied for fresh polls? Constitution amendment by political consensus can later be endorsed by new parliament also. Let us accept that the constitutional process has broken down. The interim constitution does not envisage a situation where the parliament would be absent. There is also no executive prime minister. There is no constitutional way of reviving the CA or going to fresh polls. So either way, you have to take a political decision. So I don’t buy the argument that CA revival is necessary to amend the constitution. Under which constitutional provision one can revive the CA? Furthermore, the CA came to an end because of the Supreme Court verdict. Last time, the parliament was revived (in 2006) as a result of a popular movement when the people forced the king into complying with their wishes. No such thing is happening now.
In their recent proposal to Congress for CA revival, have the Maoists specified a timeline? For instance, do they want CA revived for a day, a month?
That has not been decided. But I believe even if we go for that option, the revival should be for a very short period. It could be five days, 10 days, a week, or two weeks. It depends on the procedural requirement to pass the constitution.
Let’s come to NC’s internal matters. The party president and two of its top leaders seem to be divided over the issue of reinstatement. How has this debate played out in the party?
The position in the party in mixed, in that there is no single opinion. There are people who favor CA revival and there are those who believe we should go straight for fresh election. The party president is doubtful whether revival is a legitimate way out. As I said, it had been more or less agreed before that if there were agreements on all aspects of the constitution, A could be revived for a short while. But at the moment, such agreements look unlikely. Therefore, that option was ruled out some weeks ago. Now Maoists are singing a different tune.
What do you make of two of your top leaders taking up the Maoist proposal of revival?
I cannot speak for others. But I think it would be foolish to fall for the Maoist bait. Under no circumstances will NC give up on its principle stands just for the sake of prime ministership. The issue of prime ministership is not a major issue. Any election PM will have limited flexibility regarding governance. It will again be figurehead prime ministership. Thus for the sake of this short-lived figurehead prime ministership, NC will not budge from its position on constitutional matters. Maybe the Maoist design is that by dangling the PM’s chair, they can make NC accept their political and constitutional agenda, which will not happen.
Given this situation, how do you assess the likelihood of a breakthrough in the near future?
Last month, we had come to an agreement. But Prachanda backed out. He said he could not convince others in his party and in the governing coalition. Prachanda says one thing today and something else the next. There is thus no basis to trust his words. We wanted to find a breakthrough by building on past agreements. But when Prachanda backed out, negotiations stalled.
The Maoists have been saying that NC leadership would be acceptable only in the case of CA revival, not for an electoral government. What do you make of this?
It is natural that Nepal Congress leads any consensus government. This is not a debatable issue. Like I said, prime ministership is not the main issue at present, one should not be dying for the election prime menistership. But as I said naturally, NC will make a strong claim in view of its size in the parliament and past understandings and agreements, and also in view of the fact that we have been successful in holding free and fair elections in the past.
But even if it was decided that NC would get the leadership, who from the party will lead the government?
Unless and until there is a clear offer of the position to NC, why should we propose a PM candidate? If and when such an offer is made, the central committee will make the final decision.
What are the possibilities on the emergence of a fourth candidate besides the three who have been projected as NC PM candidates? We believe even you are in the race.
First of all, let me make it clear that, personally, I am not in the race now. If the three leaders can agree to a common candidate, it’s fine. If they can’t, we are capable of devising a formula, and even producing a fourth contender. But personally I believe a candidate will be settled among the three. Now, I hear that Sher Bahadur Deuba is pulling out of the race. The signs that some kind of consensus is being formed is positive.
There seems to be disagreements within NC on whether to take to the streets or still continue with the dialogue process.
All options are open. But my point is: You don’t need to take to the street to change a government every time. There is also the constitutional way. Taking to the street every time will create a wrong precedent. The prime minister has been relieved of his post. Now he is just a caretaker prime minister. In this situation, I believe it is incumbent on the president to call upon the political parties to suggest a consensus candidate. If such consensus is not coming, he should consult political parties and based on those consultations, he must come to a decision. He should appoint someone who in his opinion commands greater support as the prime minister. The president should have done that long time ago. I hope he will still do it, as the situation is demanding. But at the same time, even to push the president into taking such an action, it is natural for the political parties to use pressure tactics including street agitation.
Separately, NC leadership has been saying it cannot work together with the Baidya-led Maoist outfit, given its recent actions. Is that the case?
On the question of replacing the present prime minister, the Baidya-led party and NC are on the same page. But we have fundamental differences with them on many other counts, like their current stand on Indian vehicles, cinemas, and foreign investment. We totally oppose these actions.
On the basis of current inter-party negotiations, how hopeful are you of a breakthrough?
There must be a breakthrough, but I don’t have much hope that it will be possible through political consensus. We have wasted enough time. Thus, as the guardian of the constitution, the president must act to bring the constitutional process back on track. Since the political parties have failed to arrive at a conclusion on the next government, on the next election and on constitutional amendment, the president himself must take the initiative to find a constitutional way out.
There is also a view that contentious constitutional issues should be taken to a referendum.
If there is no agreement on basic constitutional issues, a referendum cannot be ruled out. If there is agreement on those issues now, you don’t need to make them an election agenda or referendum agenda, which will be a waste of time. If you can avoid the wastage of time by agreeing on the contents of the constitution before hand, well and good. But if you can’t agree, either let the next parliament take the decision or go for a referendum.
The Maoists have proposed that a new constitution be promulgated leaving aside contentious issues for later.
This is precisely what we proposed before the expiry of the CA on May 27. But Maoists flatly refused and brought the CA to an end. If they now agree with what we proposed then, they must admit they were wrong then. They have no consistency and there is design in their every step. Their position keeps changing depending on immediate interests. How can you trust the Maoists? They say one thing today and another thing tomorrow.
But if you can’t trust them, how can there be meaningful negotiations?
Despite the serious trust deficit, the reality of the situation demands that we talk to find a solution. We cannot trust them so long as there is no foolproof agreement in the presence of witnesses. As President Ronald Reagan famously said to his countrymen during his negotiations with the Russians on SALT treaty “Trust, but verify”. The president as a constitutional guardian must also be brought into the picture. That is the reason I am insisting that the president himself must take the initiative.