M.R. Josse: Don't Tilt The Electoral Field Now
Constituent Assembly Polls: Don't Tilt The Electoral Field Or Shift The Goalposts Now
By M.R. Josse
Understandably, these days there is a constant din regarding the proposed Constituent Assembly (CA) polls. That is only to be expected since it constitutes perhaps the most politically significant of the shortlist of Maoist demands. As all are aware, towards that end they launched a lethal 10-year plus armed struggle.
Lately, however, CA polls have been adopted by SPA constituents with all the gusto of new converts. In the not so distant past the main constituent elements of today's SPA were ideologically opposed to the CA concept. For the sake of historical perspective it will be recalled that today's votaries of "total democracy" had dropped suggestions for adopting the CA process in the drafting of the 1990 Constitution like the proverbial hot potato. No credible or authoritative explanation had been given to the people then. To return to the present, however, the decision to go forward in the direction of CA elections was formally endorsed no sooner than the House of Representatives (HoR) was reinstated following King Gyanendra's proclamation on 24 April.
Despite much apparent bonhomie between the SPA and the Maoists the fact that there is no consensus – as yet, anyway – on vital issues relevant to the CA polls cannot simply be brushed away. For instance, while UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal has gone public insisting that the government announce the date for those polls, after consultations with the Maoists, Minister for Land Reforms and Management, Prabhu Narayan Choudhary, has been quoted as dismissing calls for a clear-cut time frame, thus: "We cannot give any time. It is not a match to set a goal, circumstance will develop with time."
Given that there is now a canyon-like divide between the Maoists and the SPA government with regard to the Maoists' demand for the immediate dissolution of the reinstated HoR, and not forgetting that the former have insisted that formal talks between them cannot begin before that happens, or even that all Maoists in prisons must first be released, it is anybody's guess when the CA process will actually get underway.
Besides, from the outpourings in the Nepalese media and debates in the HoR itself it is quite evident – and this point has been made here earlier – that there is considerable confusion about the CA's very meaning or primary objective. That being the case it is nothing if not astounding that there has been agreement on the CA concept without first defining precisely what its vital elements are or would be!
To me its primary purpose is very simply to frame a constitution that is not foisted upon the country by a few but one that is written, instead, by people's representatives elected for that specific purpose.
The current confusion that seems to prevail is also underlined in conflicting views on whether CA elections should or "unconditional" or not. While there is a body of opinion that favours the first option, there is also a competing school of thought that insists that a constitution that is drawn up following the CA process should, in keeping with the present mantra of "total democracy", be put forward for endorsement by a national referendum.
And, since the adoption of a new constitution via CA polls is a novel and very consequential political exercise affecting the fate of millions of citizens, the case can be made for the endorsement to be by two-third majority, instead of by a simple majority.
LAMENT AT LESIURE?
Alternatively, there can be a justifiable case for first organising a referendum for approval of what the core elements or directive principles of a Constitution arrived at through the CA process should be. That, however, is necessarily bound to be a time-consuming process as is, for example, underlined by the fact that many of the world's CA-drafted constitutions, including the Indian one, have taken years.
To be sure, such a leisurely process may be anathema and stoutly resisted to those who wish to rush through the whole process so that, in their pre-determined view, "reactionary forces" do not have any room to create further problems.
On the other hand, can anyone dispute that overly haste in its drafting was one principal reason why the 1990 Constitution – once claimed by its drafters to be among "the best in the world" – today stands abused and rejected? As the saying goes: what we do in haste, we might lament at leisure.
Another complicating factor concerns the arms management conundrum. The majority view, as can be surmised through media write-ups and so forth, is that elections to a CA should be held after bringing the Maoists' militia and the state's armed forces under some form of credible international supervision.
That, alas, is more readily said than done.
In fact, while the Maoists have insisted that they will not do so before CA elections are actually held, following among other things the formation of an interim government in which they too would participate, there is little indication that the state forces will do likewise. That is so especially against the present backdrop of cease-fire violations by the Maoists and their unrelenting drive for forced donations and acts of physical violence in various parts of the country.
Yet another complicating factor concerns the validity of the 1990 Constitution. Has it been replaced by the unilateral HoR declaration of 18 May as some claim or has it, instead, merely added on to it, even while replacing all clauses that it contradicts?
In this context let us not forget that the 18 May declaration does not go all the way in satisfying Maoist demands. For one thing, the Monarchy still exists, even if in a severely mauled state. For another, one should not forget that the Maoists' jana yuddha has been directed not merely at the abolition of the Monarchy but also of the parliamentary system as such.
Forging a consensus on procedures, time frames, modalities and other nitty-gritty aspects between the SPA and the Maoists is thus bound to be a ticklish and potentially heated business.
TILTING THE FIELD
Perhaps more important than the above mentioned roster of obstacles to a smooth and swift CA process is the fact that, right from the reinstatement of parliament, a calculated effort has seemingly been underway in attempting to guide the eventual outcome of the CA process in a pre-determined direction and with pre-determined results.
If, as should be, the idea is to obtain the people's views on how they wish to be governed in the future, surely there cannot be any gainsaying the need to allow them to do so without the SPA or the Maoists, or any other force, or even an external lobby from, in effect, guiding their hands while in the voting booths.
In other words, where is the fairness in foisting a whole blizzard of political changes biased against the Monarchy even BEFORE the voters are provided the opportunity of voting freely and without fear or favour? That, in effect, is what the HoR declaration has already sought to do: and there may in the future be more of such institutionalised vote-rigging exercises in the name of "total" or "inclusive" democracy.
The CA electoral field, very simply stated, must be an absolutely level one: it should not, repeat not, be deliberated slanted between now and polling date so that the outcome is pre-determined by either HoR, the SPA government or the Maoists.
If, as they claim, it is the people who are sovereign, then it is the people alone who must determine – and this freely and without fear – how they wish to be governed, whatever the desires of the competing political parties and philosophies may be.
Already attempts are being made not only in slanting the CA electoral field along SPA-tailored contours but, indeed, in also shifting the goalposts even before the game has started, as the HoR declaration attempts to so. Such endeavours do not bode well for the future of the CA process – an outcome that has been secured after such high cost in human lives and time.
In sum: the playing field must remain level and goalposts can only be shifted AFTER the people as a whole have indicated what is it that they desire in an electoral process that is fair, free, transparent and in keeping with all internationally accepted norms.
Towards that end, this commentator strongly recommends that the "international community" that took such an intrusive interest in our national political affairs be sure they monitor the process not six months or a year from now, but RIGHT AWAY before more institutionalised rigging is attempted by a democratic parliament in which there is virtually no opposition.
Else, the fiction and extremely high cost of a lengthy, cumbersome CA process should be done away with and a Republic – democratic, people's or otherwise – be declared through fiat right away!