Monday, October 15, 2007

Poll deferral is a crime against the state’

Daman Nath Dhungana was speaker of the post-1990 parliament. He was also a member of the constitutional drafting committee formed after the 1990 people's movement. Besides serving the nation in various capacities, Dhungana was actively involved in bringing the Maoists into mainstream politics, and always advocated against a military solution to the insurgency. He spoke with Puran P Bista and Kamal Raj Sigdel of The Kathmandu Post on the current predicament created after the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists deferred the Constituent Assembly (CA) poll. Dhungana sums up saying it is a powerful tug of greed between the prime minister and the Maoists.


Q: What will be the consequence of SPA's decision to defer the CA poll?
Dhungana: This is something that should not have happened. However, that was not something unpredictable either, mainly because the government was never enthusiastic about holding the election. But the people had hoped that the prime minister would carry out his historic responsibility at any cost. The next hope was that the seven parties, which had reached a consensus on adopting the mixed electoral system, would not retreat.

Had the government been serious and committed to holding the election, nothing could have deterred it from carrying out its responsibility; it could have disregarded the Maoists when they put forth unreasonable pre-conditions at the eleventh hour. The government's lackluster performance in election preparation and the Maoist strategy of capitalizing on its sluggishness by raising their 22-point demand clearly indicate that the SPA worked in collusion with the Maoists to postpone the CA poll.

This has an immense impact, particularly on the common people who have been suffering from various chronic problems such as strikes, bandas, unemployment, scarcity, poverty and so on. None of the national industries is doing well; there is chaos all around. The people had hoped that the CA poll would provide them some relief. And the Election Commission, too, had nourished their expectations. But in the end, the politicians completely shattered their hopes.

Even on the very day the SPA decided to put off the election, and just a few hours before the decision was made public, the prime minister had reassured Marjatta Rasi, the visiting Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, that he would hold the CA poll on schedule.

On the one hand, the prime minister said he would hold the CA poll, and on the other, he took a hasty decision to suspend it. If it was impossible to reach a consensus among the seven parties, they could have called a wider conference, inviting the civil society, professional associations, janjatis and others. During the present transitional phase, the SPA has no authority to defer the CA poll.

This is a serious betrayal of the April Movement and the people's aspirations. It is a crime against the state which cannot be pardoned. More dangerous is the people's loss of faith in these parties; they have now concluded that these parties can no longer hold the CA poll. This has disappointed all the Nepalis and the international community, which has made an immense contribution to the peace process. A sort of disenchantment has begun to set in. Who's going to hold the poll now?

Q: Were the Maoist demands genuine?

Dhungana: No. This is very undemocratic, untimely and an attempt to sabotage the peace process. There is no reason why the government should have accepted their demands. This shows that the Maoists cannot adopt a democratic method. If one commits oneself to a certain system, one must be dedicated to it. However, the prime minister and the SPA, too, have weaknesses. They should not have deferred the poll just because the Maoists raised those demands. They could have forged a middle path. I clearly see the working collusion between the NC and the Maoists; they are working together not to hold the CA poll on November 22.

Q: How can you say that the NC was working in collusion with the Maoists to defer the poll?

Dhungana: Because the prime minister was not in a condition to hold the CA poll. The CA poll was just a strategic step for the Maoists, their first aim being a republic and then ultimately “state capture”. So, the way was opened for the Maoists when they led the parties up to the CA. Now, they have come to the second stage, i.e., the republic, and their third stage is “state capture”. It would have been impossible to reach their target through the CA, so they brought forward their proposal for a republic. I feel that the prime minister is slowly falling under the grip of the Maoist strategy. Though they may think that they have succeeded strategically, they have failed to assure the general public that they are part of the democratic process.

Q: Now that the SPA has flouted the interim constitution, where and how do you see its validity?

Dhungana: This has taken us to an uncertainty and instability of a serious scale, and to a period of delicate transition within the transition. This has also questioned the interim constitution. This government's legitimacy was already in question when it failed to hold the CA polls in June as stated in the interim constitution. This has questioned the entire process and activities of the political parties. Q: What do you think went wrong?

Dhungana: The political parties failed to give importance to national interests. Even at times of national crises, they gave importance to partisan and vested interests. Each party calculated its benefits and loses from going to the CA poll. They did not take it as an election to write the new constitution, but as a parliamentary election. So they tried to write the constitution to suit themselves therein. This shows that partisan interests will keep increasing; they cannot solve the national problem. Such a situation may come again. Parliament may also be strangled in a deadlock; such a possibility cannot be ruled out. Even if they do come to a decision, they won't be able to implement it. If, today, the Maoists can take one stand and create problems which victimize other parties, tomorrow, another party may do the same thing. So the SPA has strangled the nation itself.

Q: What could be the right way of solving the current political quagmire then?

Dhungana: The only solution is realization; the SPA should realize that it completely failed to solve the problem. And the prime minister should call a national conference because the SPA alone cannot represent the entire nation. Neither can the SPA make any decision. We gave them a mandate at a point in time, but we cannot trust them again. They must go to a wider conference where they should make it clear why they failed to hold the CA poll. They should accept whatever the conference suggests; if it confers them another mandate, they should go ahead with it. Whoever it assigns must take the responsibility.

I think now that the Maoists will again oppose the CA poll at the eleventh hour. They have established a bad precedent; the prime minister has accepted that. If the Maoists did it today, tomorrow the NC and then the UML can do it too. And in this manner, the CA will be postponed indefinitely. This shows that neither the SPA nor parliament could do the job. So they must form a national council, which alone can provide an exit out of the current political quagmire.

Q: Don't you think that the Maoists had the intention of reaching a point from where they could jump to their goal of “state capture” via the CA drama?

Dhungana: We cannot doubt them. They came forward to join the movement, they actively took part in writing the interim constitution, they signed different peace accords, they joined the interim parliament and the government, they cut down their violent activities significantly and they were ready to give up arms. All these activities showed their commitment to a democratic process. But gradually, they started thinking in strategic terms. When they got to the CA poll and found that it could not help them meet their objective, they—after leading all the parties to the CA—set their strategic plan into action. This was a test for the prime minister and the SPA. And they failed because they thought that it would be impossible to hold the CA poll without taking the Maoists into confidence.

Q: Why do you think the prime minister was not prepared to hold the CA poll?

Dhungana: I think the prime minister had a conflicting state of mind. On the one hand, he was conscious that he should not miss the historic opportunity. On the other, he provoked the tarai, and staged the Lahan, Gaur and Kapilvastu incidents, whereas the tarai contributed to the April movement to a great deal. And it is the tarai which needs the CA most. He did not make serious efforts to bring the armed groups to a dialogue.

Instead, he created new groups and held separate talks. Instead of dealing with each group separately, he should have convinced them that they should go for the CA because that only would settle everyone's demands. His way of giving assurances to each and every demand was undemocratic. Next, he should have been able to give a point-to-point answer to the Maoists that the issues which have been settled already by the agreement would not be changed. Currently, the nation is bonded by the SPA, and the SPA is bonded by the Maoists.

Q: You mean the Maoists took such an adamant stand because the SPA tried to sideline them?

Dhungana: We cannot see inside the party, but this is true: the government's negligence provoked Madhes and that created a situation which was not conducive to holding a free and fair CA poll. I don't see any reason why there should be violence in Madhes, and why the Maoists should give up arms before the CA. No sensible man can believe that Madhes does not want the CA poll to be held. Madhes needs the CA most.

Q: Now that the parties have called a special session of the interim parliament. How do you respond to this effort?

Dhungana: I don't want to comment on that. That is according to the provision of the interim constitution. However, it is not sure whether there will be any consensus on the Maoist proposal. The government's notice reads: “The election is deferred due to the calling of the House meeting.” If there was a need for a House meeting, they could have called it earlier when the Maoists were demanding not to end the House session. So, I can claim with full confidence that the NC, the prime minister and the Maoists were working hand-in-glove to defer the poll.

Q: Many blame the prime minister for often taking decisions alone. As a result, the Maoists felt left out and began raising such demands at the last moment.

Dhungana: There is no reason for the SPA to isolate the Maoists. The main thing is that there is a lack of trust and confidence between the SPA and the Maoists. The CA was neither in the SPA's proposal nor was it the aim of the Maoists. The CA was a Maoist strategy to go from one stage to another. They took part in the movement, which is why they had to accept the constitution. The SPA, therefore, had to agree on holding the CA, which was never on their agenda. This was the reason why the Maoists supported the movement.

Though the Maoists and the SPA worked together, they never established a relation of trust. They kept on wrangling and competing with each other. And the other parties could never trust the Maoists. Some political parties did not even like the idea of bringing them into mainstream politics. There was an element in each party that wanted to exclude them. This is also one reason behind this failure.

Q: It is also reported that after the plenum, the Maoist hardliners had the upper hand in the party, and that the leadership was forced to raise such demands just before the poll was to be held. Do you agree with this analysis?

Dhungana: This is an internal matter; we cannot get into that and say anything. The Maoists came to an agreement. Probably, there was some reservation within the party, but they agreed to negotiate with the Koirala government. The leaders who did the negotiating—Prachanda, Baburam, Mahara—faced difficulties in convincing their cadres that they are not more into the prime minister's agenda; and day by day they found it difficult to establish trust in the prime minister's assurance, too. Therefore, I think a gap was created between the three leaders and the rest of the Maoists. Probably, this forced the leadership to pose the demands at the eleventh hour in deference to the party's instructions.

If the Maoists had agreed to face the CA poll under the same mixed electoral system, the sky would not have fallen upon them. They could have finalized a constitution at last; they could have improved it later. But they put a hurdle on the way, and the prime minister and the SPA agreed to that. Such activities will happen again. The SPA has committed a big mistake.

Q: Was it possible for the government to accept the Maoist demands?

Dhungana: Every system has its advantages and disadvantages. But if you agree on something, you must stick to it. You cannot change your horse midstream. The manner of the Maoists became more strategic but never democratic. Had there been a situation of risk, the prime minister should have dared to take it. But it was his mistake to accept those demands. If the Maoists are not going to correct themselves, we must be prepared to hold the election whether or not they come to an agreement. Otherwise, we cannot correct them, for what we want primarily is to correct the Maoists by teaching them the democratic value system.

Q: At such a critical point in time, what should be the role of the civil society?

Dhungana: We are just opinion makers. If needed, we can influence opinion as per the rationality of the demand. We are not an organized force. The parties should do the work. If the parties fail to do anything, we will be forced to make an opinion.

Q: You suggested calling a national conference. What if the SPA did not do that?

Dhungana: If the SPA does not go in that direction, the interim government will face a crisis of legitimacy; the interim parliament, the interim constitution, the interim government and the entire process will face a legitimacy crisis. The international community has also warned that Nepal will be in a trap of a new kind of instability and conflict.

Q: There are worries that, amid the political instability, regressive forces will pop up their heads. What is your observation?

Dhungana: Leave aside regressive forces, what have these so-called progressive forces done? If regressive forces resurface, I say that progressive forces have invited them. When progressive forces act like regressive ones, it is sure that regressive forces will come forward. But regressive forces cannot make a comeback only because the progressive ones failed to yield any result. Unfortunately, the progressive ones do not have the will power to carry out the national responsibility they have shouldered. The leadership should be very strong and committed, and it should be able to say NO to any force which raises inapt demands at the eleventh hour and be able to hold the election on time.

Q: Some argue that the interim parliament could be turned into a constituent assembly. What is your opinion?

Dhungana: This is a matter of simplifying the process of the CA. I had already said it observing the activities of these parties. These are the options we can discuss. We cannot hang on to the interim constitution for long. Some alternatives should be sought. So to solve the crisis, all the stakeholders, which include not only the parties but also the civil society, academia, professional associations and others, can sit down and find a solution to end the interim period. I therefore had said that we needed a national conference. I wish that the prime minister takes the initiative. Such a conference will be sanctioned only if the prime minister or the government takes the initiative. And so I repeat, the prime minister should first say how to form such a council, then he should share all the problems and future courses of action and explore options for CA. And then the prime minister, as head of state, should execute the best option discussed and agreed upon by the council. That will receive legitimacy.

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