Friday, April 9, 2010

Cards up his sleeve

There must be an exit point for every political crisis if the country is to move ahead. The president, even though he was elected to be a constitutional president, cannot keep watching from the sidelines while the country is close to disaster.


APR 08 - Recently, references in the media as to what the president needs to do if the Constituent Assembly (CA) is not able to deliver a new constitution by Friday, May 28, have become quite frequent.

There is clear indication that a new democratic constitution by May 28 is unlikely. There are many issues which are yet to be resolved, but too little efforts to materialise them. Even the possibility of the Constituent Assembly coming up with a framework constitution, based on crucial compromises on important political and constitutional issues, leaving the details for the future, looks slim.

The rest, including the (controversial) amendment of Article 64 of the Interim Constitution, to extend the tenure of the CA, and a new deadline, is at the mercy of UCPN (Maoist). Without its backing, the house cannot garner a two-third majority to pass any amendment bill. The Maoist party is aware of this, and as long as it is not in the driving seat, it thinks there is simply not enough incentive for it to gratify anybody. The road map, however, does not seem to have a signpost for the changeover. The limits of negotiation are no more secret.

This status quo cannot continue after May 28. On May 29, the Constituent Assembly will cease to exist. All existing institutions based on the CA will also lose their constitutional status. The principles of revolutionary legality, pursued by the leaders of the Jana Andolan II, cannot possibly be resurrected as the revolutionary fervour has died down. Girija Prasad Koirala, who gave democratic face to the recent restructuring of Nepal, is also no more. It is natural for people, therefore, to look at the president and try to fathom what he will do as the last authority in the state hierarchy.

Nobody wants the president to usurp the space for democratic politics. But any delay in properly assessing the situation might not help the democratic and nationalist aspirations of the common people. After all, those who know how dictators proliferated during the last two centuries in Europe, which witnessed the rise and fall of fascism and communism, but also in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where military as well as ideological dictators have emerged, understand that time and tide will not wait even for the president.

Assumption of power by potential dictators in a volatile situation as now persists in the country is nothing new. Every dictator is a product of his time. It hardly comes on all of a sudden and out of the blue. The need is felt acutely, and somebody takes the lead and fills up the power vacuum. In fact, if one goes by history, words like ‘dictator’ and ‘tyrant’ hardly bore any negative connotations in the beginning. One can find many references, when the term ‘dictator’ was used to indicate a person taking over power for a limited time to deal with an emergency. Similarly, the word ‘tyrant’, which has no positive overtone anymore, was also a respectable Greek title for most of history. But the story does not stop there.

The rise of all dictators including Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Ferdinand Marcos, Napoleon Bonaparte, Slobodan Milosevich, Muammar al Quaddafi, Josef Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Juan PerĂ³n, Manuel Noriega, Fulgencio Battista, Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, and many more epitomise the phenomena. There are dozens of examples to be found in Nepal’s neighbourhood of how dictatorships develop and are sustained — from Burma to Afghanistan, China to Sri Lanka.

So long as the constitution is not amended, and the future direction is charted out through this process, the president of Nepal as a constitutional head of the state has little responsibility. However, the demise of the Constituent Assembly, by all means, leads to a constitutional crisis, which must be tackled in order to set the future course. The failure of the constitutional machinery, and the inability of the government to give a legitimate outlet to the nation, does not mean that the president should not come up with a contingency plan to minimise the risks to the country in this unfortunate situation.

A strong component of such a contingency plan, no doubt, involves massive security arrangements to keep the situation under control, and ad hoc arrangements to allow further opportunities for the political forces to design a democratic exit strategy. This also involves a series of decisions about the peace process, and management of combatants in different cantonments under the supervision of the United Nations Mission in Nepal. There is no reason why the president should not take an initiative to start the consultation process. If it is too much for the president, then the political machinery must be able to convince the nation that it has both the capacity and willingness to deliver according to the letter and spirit of the constitution.

There must be an exit point for every political crisis if the country is to move ahead. The president, even though he was elected to be a constitutional president, cannot keep watching from the sidelines while the country is close to disaster.

In Nepal itself, the Licchavi King Amshuvarma (605-629 AD) is a great example. He took the throne when his father-in-law died, there was no heir apparent, and the situation was shaky. He married his daughter to Tibetan king Srong Chong Gampo and sister to king Samudragupta of Maurya dynasty of India, thus keeping Nepal safe from neighbourhood challenges. If the account of the famous Chinese traveller Huen Tsang is true, Amshuvarma was greatly helpful in maintaining the glory of his country. In the age of feudal relationships, there would not have been any better alternative to the situation.

Similarly, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary of the 19th century, also proclaimed himself as an interlocutor during his famous Expedition of the Thousand. Garibaldi was not a popular choice. But this did not prevent him from being awfully popular in Italy and in the estimates of international public.

The position of the president of Nepal is that of a constitutional president. (It is not a ceremonial position.) He is not supposed to have any independent power, but there is nothing in the constitution that bars him from facilitating the constitutional process as the head of the nation to find a democratic exit for the country.