The choice now between the devil and the deep blue sea

Published On: December 8, 2016 01:35 PM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

With the unified Rastriya Prajantra Party deciding not to support constitution amendment bill registered in the parliament on November 29th, the fate of the amendment motion hangs in balance. As the second largest party in parliament, CPN-UML, is vehemently opposed to the proposed amendments, the support of unified RPP is vital for the bill to have any chance of passing with two-thirds majority. So how does it feel to play the kingmaker? And what can we expect from the united party? Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal met RPP Executive Chairman and former Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa for some insight.

Didn’t your party, RPP Nepal, initially support the amendment proposal before its unification with RPP? If yes, why did you backtrack? 

RPP Nepal never supported the amendment proposal. We were not consulted while finalizing the amendments. The government ministers from our party have already expressed their reservations over the amendment bill. Make no mistake. Our (unified) party’s last executive committee meeting has said government’s effort to bring disgruntled Madheshi forces on board the constitution implementation is positive. We are aware that without resolving the problems of Madheshis and Janajatis, holding three sets of elections by January, 2018, as stipulated in the constitution, will be impossible. But we have some reservations on the content of amendment bill. 

And it is not just us who are dissatisfied with amendment proposal. Madheshi forces, UML, those in Province 5 agitating against the government’s decision, they are all unhappy. The main opposition has disrupted parliamentary proceedings over the same issue. Our assessment is that some provisions of the amendment bill are not in national interest. So we have suggested to the government that the bill be put on hold for the moment and efforts be made to forge new consensus and understanding among all stakeholders. 

You said certain amendment provisions are not in national interest. Could you elaborate? 
We have found that certain issues like citizenship, provision regarding language and alteration of Province 5 need to be reviewed. We have not come out with specific recommendation on these issues yet. When the government invites us for discussion, then we will propose something. 

But isn’t it true that you only started opposing the amendment bill only when there were protests in Province 5?

Let there be no confusion. I have been consistently saying that we must try to find a common ground to resolve Madhesh issue. This had been the stance of our party even when I was leading RPP Nepal, my former party. We stand by this position even after unification. But this does not mean we wholeheartedly support the amendment bill. When we were in KP Oli-led government we had initiated a process for constitution amendment to address Madheshi issues. We had even formed a High Level Political Committee to settle boundary disputes. We believe amendment is necessary to address Madheshi demands. We have been consistent on this. 

You contradict your National Chairman Pashupati Shamsher Rana, who has been saying all along that the constitution bill should be passed.

The RPP led by Pashupatiji had that position before unification. In fact, RPP had formerly submitted a proposal identical to the amendment bill introduced by this government. Then RPP Nepal had opposed not only amendment but the very idea of federalism. Today the two parties have united. We are yet to work out common ground for the unified party. So you should not confuse what RPP Nepal and RPP said before unification with what we have been saying after unification. 

What is the basis for the unification of the two parties? It seems aimed at the upcoming three sets of elections. 

The deteriorating situation of the country brought us together. Some of measures the big parties took after the popular movement of 2006, in the name of institutionalizing change, have contributed to the mess we find today. People are frustrated with those forces and are looking for an alternative force with an alternative roadmap they can rely on. RPP Nepal and RPP have fundamental differences over the principles on which the big parties stand. These factors brought us together. The unified RPP will be a strong nationalist, democratic party. 

Are you suggesting that post-2006 achievements like federalism, republicanism and secularism need to be undone?

I don’t have to say this. Even the political parties who champion these agendas have failed to manage them. Look at secularism. It provided a cover for those who are interested in organized proselytization. In the last couple of years, organized and planned attempts have been made to weaken Sanatan Hindu base of the country and replace it with foreign religious ideology. As for federalism, it is not a bad idea in principle. But major parties failed to come up with a common proposal on federalism due to their inherent contradictions. They failed to manage it. The major parties also failed to fill the void left by the absence of monarchy. We must get out of this mess, for which the major parties neither have the courage nor the vision.

As the amendment drama unfolds, the voices against federalism seem to be gaining in strength even inside big parties like Congress and UML. Do you see it as a vindication of your earlier stand against federalism? 

There was not enough debate and discussion among political parties about the federal system before it was introduced. The practical side of implementation was ignored. But today federalism has become a fait accompli.  The constitution has recognized it and it is a national reality. So there is no going back on federalism. The challenge is to effectively implement it and try to minimize the damage it might cause to our aspiration for peace and prosperous future. 

Can you tell us where you stand on the current dispute over Province number 5? 

We are flexible. Our top priority at the moment is local, provincial and federal parliament elections within the stipulated time because that is mandatory for constitution implementation. This is why we have asked the government to first bring the Madheshi forces on board. We have also asked the government to respect the aspirations of people of Province 5. Then the government should forge an understanding with UML. As for our reservations on the content of amendment, we are prepared to be flexible, if elections and smooth implementation of constitution are guaranteed. We are ready to help the government constructively.

Are you saying that you are ready for the kind of east-west provinces that Madheshi forces want? UML says such provinces could lead to disintegration.

No, I am not saying that. In fact, we do not accept the idea of dividing the plains from the hills.  In our reckoning, that won’t be in our national interest. But we must also bear in mind that all the major parties have already created east-west Madhesh-only province: Province number 2. As for the current proposal to alter the boundary of Province 5, even UML had agreed to it in the past. Today it says the same proposal is against national interest. 

Just to be clear, you will be happy to remove hill districts from Province 5 if it helps bring Madheshi parties on board.

As I said, principally, we are against splitting hills from the plains. But if major parties come to a consensus that paves the way for elections and ensures smooth implementation of the constitution, we will respond to it positively. I say this because there are certain elements emerging in Tarai plains which have avowed goal of disintegration. Madheshi parties are moderate forces and they are the part of constitutional framework and political mainstream. If we fail to give them space the radicals will take advantage of the situation.  Considering this, it is necessary for major parties to be flexible. Today we are forced to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. In both the scenarios, there are risks. We have to choose the one that is less damaging to the country. We need to address Madhesh issue not only for implementation of the constitution but also to safeguard national integration.

So you will then vote in favor of the amendment bill?

Not at all. We do not think the government will dare to go ahead with the amendment bill in its current form in the face of opposition from all sides. I do not expect the government to be so defiant. 

There have been many speculations about India’s alleged hand in bringing the current constitution amendment proposal. UML goes to the extent of accusing an ‘external force’ of trying to break the country apart. What in your reading is India’s interest in constitution amendment? 

If we keep quarreling among ourselves the neighbor will definitely try to take advantage of the situation. If we are strong and united, they can do nothing. So instead of blaming particular country for interfering in internal affairs our priority should be national unity. At times India seems to interfere in our internal matters but if we are untied that will not happen. As for disintegrating the country, there are always many rumors about this. But like I said, if we are serious about protecting national interest, no one can divide us. 

It is even rumored that India helped bring the two RPPs together as it wanted to see the unified party vote in favor of constitution amendment that it backed. 

The rumor that India brought RPP and RPP-N together and I have surrendered to Indian establishment is totally baseless. Our unification is the outcome of tremendous pressure for unity from our grassroots organizations, party cadres, well wishers and the general public. We decided to stand together considering the deteriorating political situation, especially on the issues of nationality and nationalism. Regarding our position on India, we believe Nepal and India share unique relations, which are incomparable to relations between any other two countries. Nepal and India cannot afford sour relations. This will neither benefit overall interest of Nepal nor that of India. During the times of economic blockade, we had stood firm in preservation of national interest. We continue with this stand even today. We have not deviated from our earlier stand on national interests and sovereignty.


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