The relay hunger strike of the constituent parties of the protesting Federal Alliance at Khullamanch in Kathmandu is now over a month old. During this time the government of KP Sharma Oli has repeatedly called on the protestors to come sit for dialogue.
But the alliance is not inclined to do so until the government first creates conducive climate for such talks. To do so, the government, it says, should first take confidence building measures like ensuring timely treatment of all those injured during the recent Madheshi uprising, starting a judicial inquiry into the deaths of protestors killed during the uprising and offering a clear commitment to implement all past deals with Madheshi and Janajati forces.
The alliance would also like to see the government delegation to such talks headed by either Oli or CPN (Maoist Center) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Alliance partners suspect making deputy prime minister and foreign minister Kamal Thapa—who is also the chairman of the openly royalist and anti-federalist RPP-Nepal—the head of government team is a subtle ploy to derail federalism. There are such suspicions on both the sides. But it will not be wrong to say that neither side has been serious about breaking the impasse.
We think the alliance could be more flexible, for instance by not insisting that there be clear prior commitments on all important constitutional issues. That is something to be worked out during negotiations. But we believe the onus is on the UML-Maoist coalition government to make the first move towards such settlement. Irrespective of the demands of the protesting Madheshi and Janajati outfits, there has been no serious attempt to reach out to the protestors besides the random calls for talks from the prime minister.
The ruling parties seem to believe that the agitation of Federal Alliance will fizzle out with time, and that their agendas will be confined to the footnotes of history. We see the possibility of exact opposite. If the mainstream Madheshi and Janajati parties cannot get their intended constituents to support their cause, the appeal of extremist forces will concomitantly increase, and so will the appeal of their extremist views.
We need only look at how populists like Donald Trump (in the US) and Nigel Farage (in the UK) have successfully tapped into the growing disillusionment of their countrymen with mainstream parties. Nepal, we fear, is similarly nearing a point of no return.
At this point, we would not like to go into who is right and who is wrong when it comes to interpreting the provisions of the new constitution. In a transitional country like Nepal national politics tends to be centered on popular, often exaggerated, perceptions rather than cold facts. And this provides the perfect breeding ground for extremists and populists of all stripes.
If we enter a phase of “with-us-or-against-us” narrative it will be extremely hard, if not impossible, for moderate forces to wrest back the initiative from the extremists. So there has to be more substantive give and take between the two sides and contentious issues need to be hammered out soon. There is not a day to lose. As the leader of the country at this difficult time, it is up to prime minister Oli to go the extra mile to accommodate the protesting parties.