Below is the conclusion to an article I’ve written for the next issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review on the political and social crisis facing Nepal. It looks at possible scenarios but concludes that the situation could go in a number of directions right now. Resolving the crisis comes down to whether the leading parties can forge an agreement on the vexed question of federalism, or whether that issue will have to be decided at the polls. Whatever happens is likely to leave many communities and interest groups unhappy, so further instability is to be expected.
The process of drafting the constitution has been tortuous and beset by political infighting, with several leaders now openly admitting that they failed to address many important issues, such as federalism, during the early stages of negotiations when there was less political fragmentation.
However, the scale of the task that was put before Nepal’s lawmakers when the Constituent Assembly was first formed in 2008 should not be underestimated. For a desperately poor country to manage the transition from a centralised, authoritarian monarchy to a democratic, federal republic, while also dealing with the aftermath of a civil war, was a difficult challenge. Added to that has been the awakening of long-suppressed claims to political representation by the country’s myriad ethnic and social minorities. Following the departure of the UN Mission to Nepal in January 2011, and given the suspicion with which India’s involvement is regarded by many Nepalese, this transition has been undertaken without significant external support during the latter stages.
In that light, it is worth noting the considerable progress that has been made by Nepal’s political leaders. The majority of issues involved in drafting the constitution have been resolved, including the difficult question of demilitarising former Maoist cadres. There has been tentative agreement on how powers will be divided between the president and parliament, although these remain poorly specified and vulnerable to further disputes.
With no legislature and the patience of the public almost exhausted, the leading political parties may be forced into new compromises. The UCPN-M [Maoist party] has already shown itself to be responsive to the complaints of minority communities following flawed agreements on federalism in recent months. The conservative parties will need to appreciate the fundamental changes that have taken place in Nepal in the past two decades and accept that marginalised communities will no longer tolerate the dominance of upper caste elites that has characterised the country for centuries.