Tuesday, 26 May, 2020

Constitutional Amendment Rhetoric

Dr. Kundan Aryal


At the moment, two political parties are calling for the amendment of the constitution. Surprisingly, a senior leader of the ruling party has joined the chorus for a unique reason. When the secretariat committee, the apex body of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), offered him to become the member of the Upper House, he said he would accept the post only if the government amends the constitution. The demand was made to pave the way for a member of the Upper House to be elected to the post of Prime Minister.
The condition put forth by comrade Bamdev Gautam, head of the organisation department of the CPN, has gone in public just after the resignation of Upendra Yadav, the leader of Sanghiya Samajbadi Party and his colleague as ministers. Around two weeks ago when Yadav, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, left the government, he accused the Prime Minister of not being ready to amend the constitution. More than a year-and-a-half ago, Yadav had joined the government by signing a two-point agreement with the then CPN (UML) and CPN (Maoist Centre). The agreement was, though vague in language, also about the amendment of the constitution. However, he neither could convince PM Oli nor could take a strong stand to realise his demand.
The exit of Yadav did not create any tremor for the government. It is because the demand for constitutional amendment has not been able to prove its relevance. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nepal, in the course of its implementation, has gained the acceptance even in the strongholds of Madhes-centric parties. Four years on, the promulgation of the constitution has proved to be a significant step for the nation towards completing the political transition and embarking into a new era of stability.
It was inevitable for Samajbadi Party to quit the government. The decision came a day after the prime minister rejected Yadav’s proposal to form an expert committee to prepare for constitution amendment. But there is another interesting development; a member of Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJPN) Presidium Rajendra Mahato is on the front. Although he says that his party could not even think of joining the CPN-led government, his party has already reached a significant deal with the ruling party. RJPN and NCP reached a pact to support each other in a bid to sweep the upcoming National Assembly election. It shows that even his Madhes-based party is aware that the quest for the amendment of the constitution has subsided.
The politics of contention over the constitution was visible even before its promulgation. The then United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) was against it. The constitution was drafted and passed by the Assembly in September 2015 despite serious reservations from the Madhes-based parties. Subsequently, they went against the constitution and prompted the Indian government for an economic blockade. India had strong reservations against the constitution and the Madhesi leaders declared that they would not accept the charter. 
An attempt to amend the constitution was initiated immediately after its promulgation. However, PM Sushil Koirala, along with major parties, could not reach an agreement with the agitating UDMF as it could not demonstrate the rationale. 
In this disturbing situation, within 126 days, the constitution was amended for the first time on January 23, 2016, with a two-thirds majority. In response to the reservations, the amendment bill forwarded by Oli, the first PM after the inception of the new constitution, was passed. The major five political parties of that time UML, UCPN-Maoist, Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum-Democratic and the main opposition NC were together in that endeavour. 
The attempt was made in a bid to incorporate issues such as ensuring proportional inclusion of the backward communities, including the Madhesi people, in the state bodies. Another issue was about delineating electoral constituencies based on population. For that, two articles, namely, 42 and 286, were modified. The amendment was carried out after nearly five-month-long protest in the southern plains. But the UMDF termed the amendment as incomplete and unilateral. The agitating parties continued their activities to generate a negative momentum. Several bitter incidences happened during that period. They even announced a ban for KP Oli to enter Madhesh. Later, they opposed the local elections dates and demonstrated reluctance. Eventually, they joined the electoral process in 2017.
The election outcomes have shown the way forward. The 2013 Elections to the CA had already downsised the Madhes-based parties. Parties, including those of Gachhadar, Mahantha, Upendra and Rajendra, won 12 seats. In the last election of the House of Representatives in 2017, the left front that comprises UML and CPN (MC) won 174 seats out of the total 275 seats of the House, which was a nearly two-thirds majority. NC was reduced to 63 seats and Mahantha Tahakur's Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal and Upendra Yadav's Federal Socialist Forum Nepal got an equal number of 17 seats. 
Even after the amendment, however, the Madhes-based parties continued their demand. But, the issue of yet another amendment has been faded over time. This was mainly because of the changing graphs of the electoral results in the subsequent elections. However, the Madhes-centric parties have indulged in keeping the issue alive.
Since a two-thirds majority is required to amend the constitution, NC had kept mum after the last general elections. Three months ago, while the country was all set to mark the fourth constitutional day, NC again opened the mouth -- making the constitution amendment one of its protest agendas. Before the last elections, in August 2016, a seven-point amendment bill was registered in Parliament by Prachanda-led coalition government. The proposal was then forwarded to Deuba-led government to vote. Thereafter, the amendment failed as the then UML did not support the move. Today, even a section of NC leaders do not wish to revive it as it could open the Pandora's Box.
Now, in juxtaposition to its earlier stand, it is time for another pro-amendment party to join hands with the ruling party. Ten months ago RJPN had withdrawn its support to the government. Now, the deadlock has ended. Member of RJPN Presidium Mahato, even while ruling out the possibility of joining the government, has hinted at the possibilities of dialogue with the ruling party. He had withdrawn the support given to the government citing that the ruling party failed to keep its promises of constitution amendment. 
The chronicle concerning the rhetoric of the amendment of the constitution shows that the mission itself is not founded on serious homework and public will. Even if a leader claims it is serious and based on public support, the issue will remain an odd squawk at least until the next election. The pro-amendment parties will have a greater opportunity during that election campaign to convince the people. They will fulfill their dream only if they achieve the required majority in the next parliament.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.) 

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