Monday, November 8, 2010

Beating around the bush

John Narayan Parajuli

Last Monday, CPN-UML Chairman Jhalanath Khanal hurled a broadside at Nepali Congress’ prime ministerial contender Ram Chandra Poudel—that should have resonance across the political spectrum. “Repeated defeat in the PM polls reduces his [Poudel’s] qualification [for the top job],” Khanal told reporters emerging from the CA hall after the failed 15th round of election. Few minutes later Poudel ventured with a ready retort: “How much has his qualification increased?”

In last three years no politicians have been able to burnish their credibility, except perhaps late Girija Prasad Koirala and Baburam Bhattarai. Khanal certainly can’t claim the moral high ground now. His spirit for consensus may be admirable, but he has done very little to translate his idea into reality. Khanal is as guilty as Poudel and Dahal for the erosion in the public faith from the political system.

The hair-splitting over whether Poudel’s withdrawal or an overarching agreement should come first is equivalent to the chicken-and-egg conundrum. There is probably no right way of deciding it. But in any case, Dahal and Khanal, if they are serious about consensus, should be able to assure that they (especially Dahal) mean what they say.

The Maoist leaders have a serious credibility issue, as far as Nepali Congress is concerned.

They feel that the former rebels have reneged on many written and unwritten agreements. While both sides are calling for a new set of agreement, their understanding of why is it necessary varies. Congress and others want a new agreement to implement the past agreements. The Maoists feel that at least some of the past agreements have outlived their utility. They also argue that the solution to the political stalemate lies in Delhi. There is fundamental difference in the perception among them as to where the crux of the problem lies: Delhi or the Maoist dubiousness. Though each agrees that if the other side is flexible, solution isn’t far away.

For Congressites, and those who share their worldview, the problem lies in the undependable nature of the Maoists. They find it hard to take Maoist commitment at face value. They complain that Pushpa Kamal Dahal tells them what they want to hear, but never goes as far as implementing them. In short, Dahal doesn’t make his word count. There is a fatalistic acceptance among the Congressites that India’s ‘influence’ is inescapable, and they find Dahal’s effort to neutralise it via Beijing unrealistic, and even dangerous.

To a certain extent they are right. But it doesn’t at all help the image of Nepali Congress, as a party that espouses liberal democracy to adopt a ‘take it or leave it’ absolutist approach. As the largest party and one half of the peace process, the Maoists should do their fair share. But there has to be a middle ground, where both the Congress and the Maoists feel comfortable. Dogged insistence on past agreements without the flexibility or imagination to achieve the same ends will only stall the process further. Onus also lies on the new NC leadership to take a proactive approach in addressing Maoist concerns. There is no right formula for integration, and it is right that there has to be solution to issue of armed combatants before the Constitution is promulgated. But parties should also be willing to come up with a framework where the Maoists can detach themselves from the combatants (without a total surrender) before a constitution is drafted. That is where an honest broker can play a role.

The Maoists also have to get better at voicing their concerns and reservations more clearly. By simply committing to complete the integration and rehabilitation within four months (of which only two and a half remain) either to regain power, or under UN pressure, or both, without actually intending to do it, will only raise more questions about their words and deeds. The Maoists clearly do not want to give up their combatants before they can be assured of their ‘desired’ type of constitution. One way of ensuring a win-win formula is to have a neutral third-party oversee the combatants until the day of constitution promulgation, more or less in UNMIN’s mould, but with a clear enforcement mandate to hand them over to government control on day of constitution promulgation.

With less than seven months to go for the extended deadline of the CA, no politician wants to think about the prospect of another extension. They rightly fear that they would overreach any claims of legitimacy—inviting unintended consequences should they go for second round of extension.

A renewed sense of urgency in resolving the outstanding disputes in the constitution drafting is palpable, perhaps triggered by the hanging Damocles sword. But that by itself may not sufficiently built momentum for integration. There are legitimate concerns on both sides that are preventing a progress on the issue. They can only be resolved through clear and sustained communication among parties. Rather than beating around bush through the media, or taking detours through foreign capitals, they should sit down and talk—and talk really long and hard.