Thursday, September 23, 2021

Right turn

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Journalist-turned-politician Rabindra Mishra's new proposal to roll back federalism and conduct referendum on the issue of secularism with the aim of reverting the country to Hindu state  has invited fierce debates in Nepali society.

On 26 July, President of Bibeksheel Sajha Party Mishra uploaded the full text of his proposal (in Nepali) with the title "Change of path: Nation above notion" on his personal website. In that long proposal he has enumerated the ills of nascent federalism in Nepal, terming it to be a fount of corruption and financial burden. He maintains that it is dangerous for the integrity of the country and harmful to chief institutions of the country.

While casting aspersions on secularism, Mishra has claimed that it was introduced in Nepal with ulterior motives whereas the country never discriminated other religions when it was a Hindu state. People from the ethnic community have a different take on this. Mishra contends that secularism was disingenuously announced and endorsed by the revived parliament in 2006. People's Movement had just toppled the autocratic monarch and insurgent Maoists had just joined the mainstream at that time. In that charged environment, Maoists and seven party alliance announced Nepal as a secular country without taking consensus from the wider public.  

The third change in post-2006 Nepal, namely republican system, too is under Mishra's scanner. He claims that people are disillusioned with republican system due to the political party leaders' indulgence in corruption and brinkmanship. Good governance and smooth service delivery as well as putting the President above politics will save republicanism, he maintains. Mishra is not passionately against republicanism unlike the other two issues.

By raising questions on the central tenets of so-called "New Nepal", Mishra has let the proverbial cat among the progressive pigeons in Nepali society. Smashing the idols and desecrating the tradition has been the hallmark of post-2006 polity in Nepal. Conservatives and rightists have been put on the defensive while the left-liberal clique dominates the discourse in the country. All the major political parties except Rastriya Prajatantra Party have leftist inclinations and the changes are sacrosanct for them. Therefore, these left-liberals become utterly illiberal when questions about their hallowed ideals are raised. This is proved by the fact that Mishra is being lynched in social media after he floated the new proposal.

Mishra has taken a bold step in articulating the aspirations of the conservatives.

In this sense, Mishra has taken a bold step in articulating the aspirations of the conservatives. The truth is that Mishra himself is a conservative as he had shown his disdain for systemic changes in the country earlier as well. As mentioned earlier, conservatives nurse grievances that secularism and federalism have been foisted upon the people without taking any consensus. Mishra correctly points out that people had taken exception to the insertion of secularism when the draft of the present constitution was taken to the people to collect their reactions. But the framers of the constitution ignored the people's suggestions and enshrined secularism albeit with the explanation that it means "religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial". In this sense, secularism in Nepal is not a clean break between church and state like in the west but state treating all religions equally and protecting them. But advocates of Hindu state want absolutely no reference to the "s" word in the constitution.

Regarding the issue of federalism, Maoists had raised it during insurgency. Their vision was to build ethnic states with a particular ethnic group in power. Hot on the heels of People's Movement 2006, Madheshi leaders started agitating in the southern plains demanding federalism. Many rounds of discussions and deliberations on federalism in the constituent assembly managed to mellow the aggressive connotations and denotations surrounding the issue. Ethnic overtones were dropped finally.

Foreigners' advice was liberally taken while discussing about federalism. Nepal has adopted the German model of federalism with federal, provincial and local governments in place. This is the reason why conservatives claim that federalism is an imported issue. Nepali historians have pointed out at the practice of federalism in the country in previous centuries. Native model of federalism could have been introduced in the country by the power-that-be. Further, there are complaints that federal and local level structure have proven their worth but the provincial governments have not been able to justify their existence. The parliamentary malpractice of the past era has repeated in provincial assemblies and people's representatives have taken luxurious pays and perks for themselves at the taxpayers' expense. This has further disillusioned the people. But is this the fault of the system or of the actors?

It is to be understood that horrified and repulsed with barbarians breaching the gate and ultimately ruling the castle, the elite class of Nepal has not come in terms with the changes. It also feels cheated that the state-defining changes have been introduced without wider consultation (they mean referendum). The other side of the aisle, the progressives, however, maintain that referendum is unnecessary because subsequent general elections have already put the authoritative stamp from the people in favour of the systemic changes. Rabindra Mishra, by reiterating the call for referendum on secularism, has lent support to those conservative voices.

Unfortunately, the issue of change in Nepal is so fraught that discourse maintaining civility is hard to come by. Ethnic slurs fly fast when someone raises the issue, with each side of the debate coming up with invectives. This is an unfortunate development because enlightened discourse on this sensitive issue across the country is needed. Saner heads should prevail, keeping emotions in check.

The country has moved a step ahead in the last decade and reverting to the previous status quo ante is arduous, if not impossible. Polarization of the society is deep and chief actors on both sides refuse to back down. Trying to force things upon the other (including referendum) can invite violence. Coming out of the decade-long violence, the country has no appetite for another round of violence.

But referendum can be one of the means for settling the issue. It would be even better if systemic changes are given due time to take hold and all imperfections in the system gradually rectified. That said, Rabindra Mishra has launched a formal debate on the issue of change and it needs to be taken positively. One can only hope that the proposal is not Mishra's ploy to take up the largely vacant political rightist space to gain electoral dividends.

Published on 1 August 2021

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