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Nepal: Perpetual Legislature, Political Legitimacy

Nepal: Perpetual Legislature And Political Legitimacy

By Sanjay Upadhya

With the monarch and the upper chamber out of parliament’s perimeter, Nepal is cruising on a legislative course with a third of the mass the current constitution contemplates. Compare this with the much-maligned direct rule of King Gyanendra, when two-thirds of the legislative aggregation was alive. It’s a different matter that nobody thought of convening the upper house while the speaker of the dissolved lower chamber was busy attending international conferences in his official capacity.

But who is concerned about the constitution? Members of the reinstated House of Representatives (HoR), having monopolized the assembly, are operating on an open-ended tenure. In their frenzied fealty to the “historic mandate” of the April Uprising, MPs evidently feel comfortable with stretching their interpretation of popular aspirations and expanding their job description accordingly.

To be sure, much of what has passed for legislative deliberation over the last five weeks boils down to vendetta. But, then, expecting the newly empowered political class to desist from vengeance would be tantamount to rejecting basic human nature. The amalgamation of incarceration and humiliation the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) endured during the palace’s 15-month direct rule could not have been conducive to conciliation.

In the passions of the moment, it is easy to miss the bigger picture. The Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML), as the principal drafters of the 1990 constitution, virtually claimed ownership of the subsequent 12-year political process. The sense of finality that set in from the outset impelled some to insist that the constitution did not need to be amended for another 30 years. When King Gyanendra began exercising his constitutional responsibilities in forms unpalatable to the political parties, governance assumed an exclusive political content.

The pendulum has swung in the other direction with the attendant kinetic energy. Having succeeded in casting the monarchy as the principal obstacle to “total democracy” – a convenient euphemism for their predominance – SPA leaders have temporarily obscured their own role in precipitating the return of royal assertiveness.

The emasculation of the monarchy, in the SPA’s view, is the principal precondition of the moment. The wider political climate undoubtedly favors that interpretation, as the virtual silence emanating from the royalist parties/factions in the legislature underscores.

Through the “landmark” HoR proclamation, the SPA has sought to tame the palace in the run-up to the constituent assembly elections, which would determine the future of the monarchy. The SPA and its opponents both recognize that the legality of current actions can be fought over another day. For now, the focus is on ensuring the supremacy of a parliament on life support. For how long?

SPA leaders insist that the legislature must remain active until an alternative is found. The Maoists want the HoR and the government dissolved in favor of a national conference and interim government. Despite his rhetoric, Maoist supremo Prachanda recognizes that the SPA is carefully weighing its options. Among individual constituent parties and factions within, choosing between the Maoists and the monarchists requires careful deliberation and an abundance of time.

Having split the premiership and speakership between them, the Nepali Congress and the UML have consented to the existence of the breakaway Nepali Congress (Democratic) as an independent entity. Mindful of the Maoists’ opposition and the political loss to the Nepali Congress, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s government has rejected the UML’s demand for the restoration of the local bodies. While announcing that civil servants would run those bodies, the government signaled its tentativeness by adding the “for the time being” proviso.

In seeking to bolster their public persona, legislators have overreached to address a “final status” issue like turning Nepal into a secular state. The argument that Nepal’s Hindu identity was an appendage of active monarchy and therefore deserving of a democratic makeover has been rubbished by avowed critics of the king. Legitimacy acquires the greatest slipperiness where sincerity looks like smugness.

It took 15 months for King Gyanendra’s roadmap to be discredited. The SPA can consider its democratic character a cushion against such a swift and sharp reversal of perceptions. Their principal claim to the moral high ground – that errant politicians are always ready to face the wrath of the people – is already sounding hackneyed. And, lest we forget, we still have to figure out the kind of constituencies the assembly is going to represent.

There is a more immediate operational disadvantage for the SPA. In the spring of 1990, the parties had reclaimed power after three-decades of partyless direct rule by the palace. The 15-month interregnum this time – considering that the government King Gyanendra ousted on Feb. 1, 2005 before assuming direct control contained two of the three principal SPA constituents – has considerably constricted the alliance’s comfort zone.

The ideology-vs.-personality clashes within parties and their factions, the assertion of power by non-political actors, representational resentments that led to the squandering of political capital and the other factors that created an anguished electorate are all capable of returning to the forefront of the national consciousness – and with a vengeance.


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