This is my third visit and presentation in Nepal.
The first was to a seminar organised by the UNDP over three years ago exploring the meaning of federalism.
The second was earlier this year, to the conference of international experts, organised in January.
On both occasions I have deeply appreciated the hospitality of our Nepali hosts and the candour of the discussions.
Last January there were hopes that the Constituent Assembly would complete its work on time, by the end of May.
That did not happen, and the inability of the CA and the major parties to agree on a Prime Minister and a new government has clearly stalled the process even further.
The report of representative of the United Nations Karin Landgren on September 7 2010 paints a stark picture of the deadlock over army reform and integration and the future role of UNIMIN, as well as the consequences of the political stalemate. I have also seen a very good paper by Dr Bhola Chalise and Dr Pradap Upadhyay from May 2010 “The Management of the Transition towards a Federal System in Nepal”, which describes in some detail what needs to be done and how the continuing political
crisis is preventing necessary action. Their report states “it seems every agency is responsible in its own right but no particular agency is designated to take the lead. Thus state restructuring has not received high priority. Major political parties do not seem to be serious on the issue of state restructuring.”
Peace agreements, as we saw in Sri Lanka and are seeing today in Northern Ireland, are fragile when they are really ceasefires between deeply opposed forces whose supporters will not go away, and whose views have not changed that much. It takes leadership and imagination to make a breakthrough. That has still not happened.
There is today, after two and half years of discussion and debate, still no draft constitution and no agreement on fundamentals such as the number of federal units, the type of political system, and the pace of state devolution and restructuring. There are many reports, proposals, and analyses. There will be more, and much advice on how other countries have done it.
Until there is the political will to move ahead with this constitutional project these studies will lie on a shelf. The work is there to be done. But the starter gun has yet to go off. And there are many hands competing to hold the gun.
Nepal’s constitutional odyssey has really been a sixty year project, not just a two and half year one. Years of war, death, destruction, homelessness and economic stagnation have gone by while political forces have struggled for power.
Through all this the millions of citizens of the country have struggled to make a living, and to survive. By any international indicator Nepal has fallen behind. The rise of the Asian tigers, the most rapid economic transformations in the history of the world in China, India, and elsewhere in the Asian neighbourhood, have left Nepal behind.
All the expertise in the world, foreign and domestic, will be for naught if there is no political will to break the logjam.
Making a constitution is not about the triumph of one theory or another, or the victory of one side or the other. It is about improving the condition of the people. Families cannot eat theories. Unless the making of the constitution transcends day to day politics, while remaining close to the condition of the people, it will not succeed.
There is no point in debating further the theory of federalism in the abstract. The focus has to be on what will work for Nepal. The answer to that question cannot come from outsiders.
Agreement must be reached on the number of sub-national units. Until that happens, the discussion of restructuring is about castles in the air. And there is even less point in debating where the furniture in these castles should go.
Examples of successful devolution can certainly be provided, and the experiences of other countries can be shared, but the meaning of these examples and experiences will only take shape once the path to a certain and defined devolution is firmly set. The impetus for this cannot come from others. It can only come from within Nepal itself.
I have of course heard much criticism in Nepal of foreign experts. “Let Nepalis get on with the job”. I share this sentiment. A particular model of democracy cannot be exported like so many cars or refrigerators.
But this does not avoid the uncomfortable fact that people who pay the price for the current paralysis are not the members of the Constituent Assembly or the leaders of political parties, let alone international observers. They are the millions who are waiting for their lives to improve.
I spoke last time of the need to “mind the gap”. The gap between words and deeds, between leaders and citizens, between hope and achievement, is getting wider. This is actually dangerous, because political nature abhors a vacuum. Patience has its limits, and the connection between constitutional reform and the condition of the people has to be clearly established before the constitution can become a truly popular document
Successful constitutional politics transcends partisanship, and looks ahead instead of attempting to redress old grievances. It is not afraid to draw on international experience, but refuses to follow slavishly any foreign model.
Don’t operate in the name of a theory. Make the changes that are ‘sufficient unto the day’ – it is a framework you are seeking, not a detailed blueprint for every detail of decision making. Constitutional politics is about making the foundation and the framework, setting out basic principles, the underlying values as well as the essential institutions. I spoke earlier of the risks of building castles in the air.
By contrast, real politics and events are about building the walls and ceilings, the furniture and above all the spirit that makes a home on the ground. As we say in Canada, this is where the rubber hits the road.
The wheels have to stop spinning. It is not just about processes and programmes. It is about leadership, creating the habits of trust and confidence that will make a difference, and the institutions that reinforce these habits, at both the national and the local level. It means fighting corruption, the cancer that gnaws at trust and is the great and insidious enemy of the rule of law.
There’s always an excuse to deny a problem and to delay dealing with it. But the problem will only get worse . Great leadership is not about force, or ‘getting my way’. Mandela, Gandhi – these examples of goodness, humility and effectiveness are all around us.
They have only to be applied and followed.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.