September 30, 2013 Sujeev Shakya

Will Nepal Vote for Peace?

The formation of a Constituent Assembly (CA), which was a major point of discussion even sixty years ago, still eludes us as Nepal continues to see political instability as its only constant. Whenever you have too many questions in your head, the obvious thing to do is look for answers. And a book titled Nepal votes for peace really gives you perspective on the lessons we learnt from 2006 as we voted for a CA for the first time, only for it to be dissolved after extensions expired. The exercise taught Nepalis many lessons at the cost of the state exchequer paying 601 people for four years and huge indirect economic expenses.

Former Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel and Chevening scholar Shristi Rana provide a fantastic narrative of the journey as Nepal once again gears up to votes for peace. The book, published by the Cambridge University Press, provides a good factual account of what happened since Janaandolan 2. The lessons learnt while conducting the election to the first CA can hopefully provide indicators about the upcoming elections to talk about what worked and what did not. By allowing criminals to file nominations, the current government has already compromised on a key recommendation provided by the authors.

The context of the upcoming CA election is different; the Maoist do not have an army anymore, many former combatants have been integrated into the national army and the rest are hopefully not carrying arms anymore. The Nepal Army, which was an observer last time around, can be used this time to ensure that the level of fairness improves. But looking for a perfect, violence-free, fair elections in South Asia is similar to expecting democracy in the wrong zip code. Power politics in South Asia are similar to power struggles within each home or business in South Asia; they are never fair. The United Nations Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) is no longer here, so people can indulge in discourse that is more meaningful and get things done rather than cribbing about the disparity between salaries of expatriates and Nepali staff.

The book is sprinkled with interesting facts, like even after the decision to be a secular state, the CA election date was decided by astrologers and November 26, 2007 date was changed to November 22 when a more powerful Indian astrologer intervened. Similarly, when Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ did not have his name on the voters’ list when he filed his nomination papers, after a huge uproar, the political parties decided to do away with the need for candidates to have their names in the voters’ list through an ordinance. These provide a glimpse into the state of the mind of the Nepali political parties as they moved through a culture of superstition to bowing under pressure in the name of managing post-conflict issues.

For those who can never figure out how the CA is constituted through different means, be it proportional representation or First-Past-the-Post, this book is a ready reckoner on the mathematical models used to calculate those numbers. While we have heard different versions of the story as to how the Maoists were never to make it but made it anyway, the book provides a credible account of what happened and how the Maoists actually got the numbers that they did.

There are many lessons to learn but the key lesson the authors point to is that elections have more to do with the voice of people than working through the route of taking in people in the name of excluded and marginalised groups. One of the lessons from the cost point of view is ensuring even a 1.5 percent threshold for proportional representation would have reduced the number of parties to nine. The authors also talk about how the holding of by-elections, due to big leaders contesting from more than one constituency, should not be paid for by the government and hint that maybe the political parties should pay instead. They have some very creative ideas too, like recruiting university graduates as polling staff volunteers and reducing governmental or affiliated employees, which at times turns into a long paid vacation for many.

The book also gives some nerve-wracking pointers on the critical junctures at which things could have gone worse. Be it the Army or the ex-king meddling in election affairs or leaders coming to a last minute settlement of issues. The book also surely brings out the author’s perspective of how the leadership of Girija Prasad Koirala was towering and after his demise, things became difficult to handle. Perhaps in a feudal society reigned by a dynasty for 240 plus years, people still yearn for a feudal lord disguised as a patriarch.

The book is yet another milestone in the progress of Nepali society where people are penning experiences for the future generation to learn from and can help formulate more informed decisions. Furthermore, the quality of work demonstrates the fact that for English language publishing, it is also important to get international publishers as their quality definitely makes one’s work world-class.

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