Call for Pragmatism in Drafting a Progressive Constitution

Call for Pragmatism in Drafting a Progressive Constitution

by Kul Chandra Gautam
With only one month left to 28 May 2011 deadline for promulgating the new Constitution, preceded by the completion of the peace process, tensions are rising high and political parties are blaming each other for lack of progress. This is a moment where the test of leadership will lie not in the championship in blame-game, but in coming up with practical win-win solutions.
In the life of every nation, as in the case of every individual, there are ups and downs. There is a time for excitement and there is a time for cool reflection. There is a time for revolution and there is the need for evolution. Nepal has gone through periods of conflict and revolution. It has gone through several people’s movements and dramatic changes in political regimes. People’s hopes and dreams have been successively raised and dashed.
We have had enough of revolutionary rhetoric, but no commensurate real change in the lives of ordinary people. People feel deeply disappointed by false promises and divisive polarization. The inability to complete the peace process and to draft a new national Constitution in a timely manner, have already discredited our political leadership – of all parties – in the eyes of ordinary citizens.
Perhaps the people would have forgiven political parties for the delay in the peace process and drafting of the constitution, if there had been some meaningful improvement in people’s living standards, or at the very least, in the law and order situation of the country. But the inexcusable lack of progress on all these fronts is leading to a sense of popular disillusionment.
While each political party and their followers can and do blame other political parties for this lack of progress, ordinary people blame all parties, particularly the larger national parties, collectively as a group. For the major political parties to regain the trust and respect of ordinary people, they should muster the wisdom to undertake the following actions in good faith in the coming weeks leading up to the May 28th life-span of the Constituent Assembly:

1. Stop blaming other parties and take greater responsibility
Rather than taking responsibility for their own actions or inactions, our political leaders tend to blame or look for scapegoats in other parties or in rival factions of their own parties. Blaming rivals, “royalists”, foreigners, donors, neighbours, etc. is not going to solve our problems. Political leaders ought to challenge themselves to come up with constructive proposals that have a chance of being accepted by competing parties, rather than self-righteous or populist demands catering mainly to their party cadres or partisan supporters.

2. Focus on what unites us all rather than what divides us
We tend to focus too much on what divides us – Madhesis vs. Pahadis, Bahun-Chhetris vs. Janajatis and Dalits, democrats vs. autocrats – rather than what unites us all as Nepalis. The largest political party of the country tends to particularly specialize in using divisive rhetoric and tactics aimed at radicalizing its support base by calling for “popular revolt” if its views are not accepted, and harping on how this country is irredeemably divided between feudals, royalists, capitalists, agents of foreigners and imperialists, etc. all considered oppressors and pratigami elements on the one hand, and the oppressed and agragami forces, the peasants and proletariat, whose interest it claims to champion.
Far from being progressive, this divisive approach is actually backward-looking as it focuses primarily on rectifying some perceived as well as real injustices of the past, rather than on building a brighter future. We must certainly acknowledge and rectify the injustices of the past, but not by inciting vengeful retribution but by inculcating a new sense of unity for shared prosperity for all by harnessing the richness of our cultural and ethnic diversity in a forward-looking manner.

3. Stop making false and unrealizable promises
Our political leaders have at times promised to turn Nepal into a Singapore or Switzerland if they get to rule the country or if their ideology prevails. Exaggerated promises are made, for example, of how some “scientific” or “revolutionary” land reform would magically lift our peasantry from poverty to prosperity. There has been very little home-work, much less any evidence, that such claims can actually materialize.
Yes, we do need some scientifically solid agrarian reform, including some redistribution of land and protection of the rights and well-being of small peasants and tenants, but we must guard against exaggerated hype and big promises which are likely to create more tensions and even violence in the Nepalese society rather than really solving the problems of poverty and inequality.
Similarly, much of our radicalized trade union activism has proven harmful to the best interest of labourers as it has discouraged investment, industrial growth and job creation. Having to endure 14 hours of blackout daily for years in a country with one of the highest hydro-electricity potential in the world is clearly a mark of the self-defeating nature of our narrow nationalism and radical politics. We need more pragmatic, evidence-based practical approaches to solving our problems, not exhortation of ideologically loaded slogans or hollow promises of demagogues.

4. Recognize that a constitution is not a panacea

The election of a Constituent Assembly was undoubtedly a great historic achievement, and drafting of a new Constitution by the representatives of our sovereign people is something we can be truly very proud of. But undue expectations have been aroused as to how a “progressive” constitution will solve all of Nepal’s problems.
Experience world-wide shows that existence of a good constitution by itself, is not a guarantee of a just and prosperous society. Ensuring good governance and rule of law are equally – if not more – important. Even when we have had good and progressive laws in our books, we have often failed to implement them. Combating impunity and lawlessness, and cultivating a culture of individual as well as collective responsibility and accountability are just as important as having a progressive Constitution.
Let us recognize that our new constitution, while very important, will be a work in progress as our society develops a culture of compliance with rule of law and develops institutions of good governance. A constitution drafted when emotions continue to be very high; when it is difficult to have a dispassionate discussion on certain critical issues; and when the shadow of the gun hangs overhead because the peace process has not been completed, is likely to be yet another interim constitution, rather than a lasting historic document envisioned during the great People’s Movement. Extremism and radicalism in all forms will have to be tamed by mature leaders if we are to have a truly progressive constitution that enjoys voluntary national consensus.

5. Federalism without Bantustans and second class citizens
Perhaps the most controversial issue in drafting the new Constitution will be the nature of our new federalism. The Comprehensive Peace Accord and the Interim Constitution speak about ending all forms of discrimination through “inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state”. Establishment of a federal state structure is considered one important means to achieve this.
Our national commitment to federalism is irreversible, but there must be a very sober, thoughtful, dispassionate and rational debate on what form of federalism will be in the best interest of all Nepalis in the long-run.
Federalism is not an end in itself but a means for creating a more prosperous and just society. Thus the design of federalism must promote a balanced regional development of the country, taking full advantage of its natural resources, hydro-power, tourism potential, etc. The new federal structure can and must embrace explicit objectives of reducing disparities among geographic regions, people of different communities and income groups. Our federal set up must promote opportunities for more equitable economic growth and social progress for all; protect our fragile environment, and harness the benefits of globalization that is now penetrating even the remote corners of Nepal.
Recognition of ethnic and regional identities and aspirations can certainly be important factors in determining the future shape of federal units, but given the actual geographic settlement patterns of Nepal’s various ethnic communities, it would be unwise and impractical to consider such identities as the main or sole basis for federalism. As we cannot change the unjust past but can certainly build a better future, our federalism should be primarily forward-looking and future-oriented, not a backward-looking reaction to the inequities and injustices of the past.
Some proposals for federalism, including those endorsed by some constitutional committees, do not reflect such a progressive, forward-looking vision of the future, but seem primarily intended to rectify some real or perceived injustices of the past. Some proposals even smack of creating what seem like the economically unviable “Bantustans” proposed by the apartheid regime in South Africa, under its philosophy of “separate but equal” which was soundly rejected by Nelson Mandela and the ANC who wisely insisted on creating a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, where there would be no second class citizens in any part of the new South Africa.
Nepal too must guard against creating economically unviable, parasitical mini-ethnic states or disproportionately large and lopsided mega-states where some residents risk being second-class citizens. Let us remember that two wrongs do not make a right. In our effort to rectify the unjust inequities of the past, we must desist from creating new forms of segregation and inequalities that are likely to create resentment and backlash from other groups.

6. Other Key Constitutional Features
So long as certain basic tenets of a functional democracy are respected, we should be open to different forms of government – whether parliamentary, presidential or some mixed system. The essential features not to compromise on include – respect for universally agreed human rights; check and balance through separation of power among different branches of government; and political pluralism. Some time-bound affirmative action to uplift the historically marginalized and deprived communities must be legislated to create a level playing field for all citizens, but without creating new forms of discrimination or a culture of dependence on hand-outs and entitlements.
A unique feature of Nepal is that it has become the only country in the world in the 21st century where political parties espousing Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (MLM) ideology have managed to secure a majority in its legislature through relatively free and fair elections. In a democracy, people’s views and voices and freely expressed preferences must, of course, be respected. Citing this electoral outcome, some MLM ideologues have argued for the enactment of a constitution that would establish a “people’s republic”.
However, it is important to understand that the Nepalese electorate and even most members and cadres of Nepal’s leftist political parties that espouse MLM, do so not out of any deep or critical understanding or acceptance of the tenets of MLM ideology, but out of a general conviction that these parties stand for progressive social change. It behooves the leaders of these leftist parties, therefore, to adopt policies that genuinely respond to the wishes of their voters and cadres, rather than to emulate or seek to impose ideologically-driven policies and practices that have been tried, tested and widely rejected after half a century of experimentation in many countries of the world.
If Nepal wants to be a respected member of the international community in the 21st century and not some oddball pariah state, proposals such as those trying to establish a “people’s republic” should be summarily discarded.

7. Harness the forces of globalization for Nepal’s prosperity In this age of globalization, Nepal must learn from the successes and mistakes of other countries in charting out our future. We cannot afford to be yet another testing ground for the failed socialist ideological experiments of yester years, nor should we blindly adopt unbridled capitalist economy of the so-called neo-liberal “Washington Consensus” model that has led to huge shocks and scandals in the world economy in recent decades.
The vision of a socialist-oriented polity envisaged in Nepal’s interim constitution and the Comprehensive Peace Accord is possible through a mixed economy that seeks to stay clear of crony capitalism as well as creeping state-dominated socialism. We need to adopt a pragmatic policy of encouraging and enabling the private sector to be the engine of economic growth, job creation and innovation, with the state playing a judicious, regulatory role and a guarantor of basic social services.
Situated between two of the world’s largest and most vibrant economies, Nepal can and must seek to benefit from their prosperity by adopting pragmatic policies and avoiding any ideological dogmatism – except for adhering to universally agreed norms of democracy, human rights and social justice that are the hallmarks of human civilization in the 21st century.
Having experienced monarchy, liberal democracy, and a republic, and rule by royalist, communist, democratic, and even ethnic and regional parties in different combinations – the people of Nepal no longer harbour any illusions of any particular system or ideology to usher miracles and magic for their development. There is no substitute for pragmatism, hard work and good governance to build a brighter future and sustainable development in larger freedom for Nepal as for any other country.
(English version of Nepali text published in Himal Khabarpatrika, 29 April–14 May 2011)