EIGHTEEN months is a long time in politics but even by the legendary elasticity of South Asian politicians, the transformation Nepal’s political leaders have undergone is nothing short of miraculous. On a visit to Kathmandu in September 2004, I asked Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was Prime Minister at the time, what he thought of the idea of a constituent assembly.
The Maoist leader, Prachanda, had just asked a series of six questions to Deuba, one of which was whether his government was really committed "to making the people sovereign through an election to the constituent assembly". Prachanda’s question is a ploy, a tactic, Deuba told me, adding that he could not agree to any proposal which might compromise the country’s system of constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy.
"The monarchy is widely respected... we need constitutional monarchy for the unity of the country." Deuba also ruled out a ceasefire with the Maoist rebels and brushed aside the need to remove the terrorist tag from the party and its front organisations so that they could come forward for dialogue.
That was then and now is now. Barely four months after that interview, Deuba’s "widely respected" monarch sacked him and seized control of the country himself. Addressing a mass rally in Kathmandu’s Khula Manch on April 27, the former Prime Minister, who heads his own faction of the Nepali Congress, finally came out strongly in favour of a constituent assembly. He confessed that King Gyanendra had deceived him many times before. "But this time I will not be deceived ... That is why I can’t compromise on the issue of holding elections to a constituent assembly to make people sovereign."
What changed? In fairness to Deuba, he did tell me in 2004, somewhat tautologically, that the idea of a constituent assembly in Nepal could only arise if there was a "national consensus". So what happened in the intervening year and a half since that interview to produce so strong a national consensus on constitutional change that on its second day of business, the restored House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution calling for elections to a constituent assembly?
The easy answer is people power - millions of feet worth of it - but the underlying causes need to be disaggregated as well. The first was King Gyanendra’s power grab, which made it clear he wanted to turn the clock back to the panchayat era when the palace was completely unconstrained in what it could do. In many ways, the royal coup of February 1, 2005, did more to foster a longing for constitutional change in Nepal than 10 years of "peoples’ war" waged by the Maoists. Regardless of its intrinsic merits, many Nepalese also saw in the creation of a constituent assembly the possibility that the Maoists would end their insurgency and enter competitive politics.
The combination of republican sentiment and the yearning for peace proved irresistible for the parties, who found themselves pushed by their own cadres and supporters towards endorsing the Maoist demand for a constituent assembly. Meanwhile, in the Maoist camp, two years of ideo-political debate had led to the emergence, by 2005, of a new line in which the party’s participation in "competitive politics" was seen as the best way of ushering in a democratic revolution.
These two political streams came together last November in the form of the 12-point understanding reached between the parties and the Maoists. The rest, as they say, is history, though the real historical transformation the constituent assembly will bring is still many months, if not years away.
When the assembly meets, the easiest question to resolve will be what happens to the king.
The choices are discrete - (1) monarchy, the way it is now with the power to dismiss parliament and control the army; (2) constitutional monarchy, where the king and army are subservient to parliament; and (3) republic, where the monarchy is abolished totally. Selecting one of thee options will depend largely on the configuration of the assembly.
However, members of the prospective assembly will find it far more difficult to resolve the kind of political and social questions over which a partially elected body like the Indian constituent assembly agonised for nearly four years.
What kind of political system should Nepal have? Should it be a federal or centralised state? How to ensure adequate representation for all of the country’s ethno-linguistic groups and castes? Should there be affirmative action in favour of the most disadvantaged communities? What should the prerogatives of parliament be in overseeing the country’s foreign relations? How can the economic and social rights of citizens be guaranteed? What kind of army does Nepal need?
At the end of the day, the constitution and system that emerge from this process will stand or fall depending on how inclusive they are. Nepal’s janajatis - the Magars, Tamangs, Gurungs, Rais, Limbus, Sherpas and others - as well as the Dalits and Madhesis would like a system, which would grant them a greater say in governance. Nepal’s peasants would like an end to the feudal system. Nepal’s women, who played an equal part in the struggle against the king, are looking for meaningful empowerment. And there are others - the disabled, for example, or religious minorities like Muslims and Buddhists - who want their specific rights enshrined.
As the product of the greatest mass upsurge South Asia has witnessed for decades, Nepal’s constituent assembly will be uniquely placed to create a genuinely inclusive democratic system. The challenge would be to create mechanisms which empower the citizenry and its diverse collectives rather than the economic and social elites - as electoral practice in India, the United States and other democracies has ended up doing.
One can only hope that the seven-party alliance, the Maoists, and all others who eventually win representation in the constituent assembly will rise up to the occasion. If they don’t, Nepal will eventually sink back into violence and instability. But if they do, the modern, inclusive and empowering democratic system they create could be a model for the rest of South Asia, including India, as well as the world.
* From "The Hindu", Sunday Magazine, May 7, 2006.
Online 9 May 2006