Nepal is trying to write a constitution for the second time, after the first Constituent Assembly (CA) of four years collapsed in May 2012. The entire polity and economy of the country have suffered a state of suspension since 2006, when the People’s Movement and the end of the decade-long internal conflict promised peace and prosperity.
For a land richly endowed by nature, Nepal’s lot has been poverty and marginalisation since the unification two-and-half centuries ago down to the present, through oligarchy, monarchy, and obstinately unstable democracy. The ongoing attempt is to erect the newborn republic on a strong foundation of pluralism and representative politics, and make Nepal an exemplary democracy of South Asia, which its size and sensibility allow.
But these are precarious days. There are hurdles to the constitution drafting that have to be resolved urgently if the radical leftists and the royalist (Hindutva) right are not to rear up and blow away hard-won freedoms. India has been a player on the complex Nepal chessboard, recently leaning towards micromanagement of internal affairs, and the best support it can provide is staying outside the laxman rekha of constitution writing.
There are three main pending issues before the second CA, more or less the same ones that brought down the earlier one — secularism, electoral process and definition of federalism. On secularism, there is a rising undercurrent to redefine Nepal as a Hindu state, and a whole phalanx has taken energy from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral success in India. However, such a definition would be incompatible with the range and layers of Hindu belief and practice in Nepal, plus the fact that 20 per cent of the population is non-Hindu.
The term “secularism”, on the other hand, is imported from the Indian Constitution (as amended) and, translated as “dharma nirpekchhata”, carries an exclusionary denotation that rankles many. All else remaining the same, the framers can probably agree on declaring Nepal “dharma bahool” (with religious pluralism) or do away with mention of religion altogether, to respect all and injure none.
On the electoral scheme, the tussle is between those favoring the first-past-the post system for effective governance and others who maintain that only proportional representation can reflect Nepal’s diversity of marginalized communities. The effort is on to find the acceptable proportional-to-direct elections ratio, and a compromise will probably be reached between half-half and 70:30.
It is the demarcation of federal provinces that has the hackles up on all sides, and it is here that communal passions could flare up, particularly on the hill-and-plain dimension. The resulting polarization would set the country back by another decade, and impact variously the neighboring States of India as well.
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(Kanak Mani Dixit is publisher of Himal Southasian magazine based in Kathmandu.)