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Prachanda resigns: Nepal PM sticks to word, but constitutional knot remains

Nepal has had close to 25 prime ministers in the last 25 years.

world Updated: May 25, 2017 13:22 IST
Prashant Jha, New Delhi
Nepal,Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’,Prime Minister
Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal announces his resignation on Wednesday.(AP Photo)

Last July, when Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ gave his first interview to the Hindustan Times soon after it became clear he would be Nepal’s new Prime Minister, he told us, “I will hand over power in nine-ten months to the Nepali Congress, as soon as I can do the local elections.”

The change of yet another Prime Minister in Nepal is not a surprising development in itself.

The country has had close to 25 prime ministers in the last 25 years. In the past ten years itself, since the People’s Movement and restoration of democracy, there have been 10 ministers and since the second constituent assembly elections at the end of 2013, Prachanda is the third head.

What is striking though is that in the cynical and deeply dishonest political culture of Kathmandu, Prachanda has stuck to his word.

On Wednesday, he did resign - after holding the first phase of local elections.

India, the architect of this power sharing a deal between Maoists and the Nepali Congress, would be smiling for it wanted to see a smooth handover.

Prachanda, however, exits with a mixed legacy.

The southern tilt

Prachanda came to power after breaking ranks with the hardline nationalist KP Oli. This was a difficult decision. China wanted Prachanda to stick to Oli under the rhetoric of ‘left unity’ - the unstated goal was having a prime minister who was averse to Delhi’s special relationship with Kathmandu.

India, for its part, was keen that Maoists, Nepali Congress and Madhesis get together. It wanted to get rid of Oli, who had deepened a toxic variant of anti Indian nationalism and was the primary driver of an exclusivist constitution.

Prachanda tilted south and entered a power sharing arrangement with the NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba. The deal was simple. Both sides explicitly committed to amending the constitution to accommodate Madhesi aspirations - the people of the plains have been waging a movement since 2015 against constitutional provisions which entrench exclusion from the power structure.

Prachanda would then hold local elections, and hand over power to Deuba, who would hold national and provincial elections - by January, 2018.

Prachanda’s stint was important, for within Nepal, it reduced - somewhat - the visibly hostile relationship between the Kathmandu government and the Madhes. He spoke a language of inclusion and reconciliation, and consistently reiterated his commitment to an amendment.

Externally, Prachanda restored a semblance of warm ties with India. He visited India twice and both publicly and privately was careful to be sensitive to Indian concerns on security, China, and internal political reform. Under him, Nepal signed on to OBOR but Prachanda was careful to first consult India, address its concerns even as he laid out his constraints.

The big failure

But Prachanda’s biggest failure would be his inability to translate the words into actions and move on the constitutional question. If he had succeeded, he would truly have got the hills and plains together and after a period of deep division, laid the foundations of a common future.

To be fair, any amendment required two thirds majority. And Prachanda did not have the numbers on his own. However, it can be argued he did not try hard enough. And he took the short cut - of announcing the local elections before the amendment.

The Madhesi forces resisted this sequence of events; the elections were then divided into two phases; the first phase- in Kathmandu and mid hills - is now done; and Prachanda has walked away a satisfied man at having conducted elections and kickstarted the process of constitution implementation.

But here is the thing.

He has left the problem unaddressed, for the second phase of local elections are due on June 14. NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba is expected to take office next week - and will have a huge challenge.

The newly unified Madhesi party - Rashtriya Janata Party led by the veteran Mahant Thakur - has made it clear that it will not participate in elections unless there is an amendment. Deuba will either have to make a serious effort at constitutional accommodation immediately after taking over to bring them on board - this is unlikely.

Or he will have to push elections even as the major Madhesi force remains outside the process - a scenario that could well deepen the divide between the hills and plains, raise questions about the legitimacy of the election, and even lead to violence if there are active obstructions.

In this scenario, even if the state forces through elections, it will leave an angry and restive younger Madhesi population willing to explore more radical paths including secession. Or he might have to postpone the election - this will give him some time to work on the constitutional question, bring the Madhesis on board, and then go in for inclusive elections in due course.

Prachanda has shown rare political honesty in handing over power. He has also been a relatively successful prime minister, given the extraordinarily low standards of performance in Nepal, after a disastrous first stint when he antagonised all sides back in 2008-09.

This was a far more mature Prachanda in power. But he made a mistake in holding the elections before the amendment. This has left Nepal’s thorniest problem of the constitution unaddressed.

It is now upto Deuba to correct the sequence of politics and get the constitutional question sorted out before the next phase of elections. If this requires more time, he should show the courage to postpone the elections. His real success would be in uniting the pahad, hills and Tarai, widening the ownership of the constitution and then moving on to its implementation.

First Published: May 24, 2017 18:39 IST