Madhes-based Parties Against Direct Democracy?
Ritu Raj Subedi
Even if there is a slim chance of getting the constitution amendment proposal approved in the parliament, the Madhesi Front continues to hunker down and refuses to admit the current political reality. The ruling Nepali Congress, CPN-Maoist Centre and Rastriya Pajatantra Party had told the agitating Front leaders that it is as clear as day that the Bill won’t get the nod from the required number of lawmakers in the existing political equation. The amendment proposal was tabled five months ago to appease the disgruntled Madhesi parties after toppling the KP Oli-led coalition government. The inability of government to meet the Front’s controversial demands has finally sent them back to square one. In retaliation, they have pulled out their support to the government but this has not affected the fate of the coalition. The anti-federalist RPP has embarked on the government ship, and the shaky alliance remains floating in the uncharted waters until another political storm hits it.
Spoke in the wheel
The announcement of date of local election has proved to be a breaking point for the five constituent groups of the Front. They have shown their distaste for the local election, a robust vehicle of grassroots democracy, and announced a series of stir to put a spoke in its wheel. This posture stands against the popular sentiments that local elections must not be stopped at any cost. Though the Front’s non-cooperation movement against the poll gives some trouble to the Election Commission, the government and opposition parties, they have not suspended their negotiation with the ruling parties. This is a positive facet of the Front’s strategy despite being overwhelmingly found itself in the firing line.
The NC’s role has also come under scrutiny. It had put mounting pressure on the PM to declare the poll date. With election preparations taking place on a war footing, the NC has resorted to double-talk. NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba had assured the Madhesi leaders that the election would be held only after the House endorsed amendment proposal. Deuba wants to take the Front into confidence so that his plan to take over the reins of government won’t hit the roadblocks. The NC lawmakers and central committee members from the Terai belt are also pressing the party leadership to amend the statute before the local election. By giving a false promise to the Front leaders, the NC can hardly put its stand above board. If the largest party itself reels from confusion and gets cold feet, the momentum for the election can’t be generated and the people’s enthusiasm sustained.
The belligerent attitude of the Front leaders has appeared to be a more disturbing element on the national scene. They have sworn to foil the election and dismantle new local level political structures. They have also vowed not to let the government set up the office of new municipal and village councils. The government has recently declared 744 local units under the federal set-up. From the very beginning, the Front has been demanding that the constitutional rights of the local governments be curtailed. Article 57 of the new constitution has guaranteed around two dozen rights to the local level units but the Madhes-based parties are hell-bent to clip their crucial rights and keep the local units under the control of provinces through the amendment to the statute. They want to wrest power from both the centre and local governments, and establish provincial lordship and maintain the status quo.
It is bizarre that they are dead set at not giving electoral right to heads and deputy heads of village and municipal councils to elect the National Assembly members, president and vice-president. Democracy really takes root if the local elected representatives exercise their rights to pick the highest public office holders of the country. This balances power and the people’s voices are directly resonated across the upper echelons of the society. Is it the demand of Madhesi people to stifle the local democracy? Of course, not. The so-called parochial intellectuals and rights activists have blinded themselves and regurgitated ‘the Madhes agendas’ to pepper over diabolic design of a handful of Madhesi leaders.
There are obvious reasons why the Madhesi overlords want to cut the electoral right of local elected representatives. The new statute has made it mandatory to elect one woman either in the post of head or deputy head of local units. At ward level, it has arranged reservation for the Dalit and backward groups. When the marginalised groups – women, Dalits and backward ethnic community - are empowered and begin to exercise autonomy of local governance, this will automatically erode the monopoly of some Madhesi elites and landlords in the Terai region. It seems they find it hard to tolerate the access of Dalit (untouchables) to power, resources and opportunities, who were subject to various forms of exploitations and slavery at the hands of Terai landlords for centuries.
The local units have been granted rights to decide on all issues except the security and foreign relations of the state. The local government has been mandated to form its own police force, run cooperatives and FM radios, collect taxes, manage the local services, collect statistics and keep inventories, formulate development plans and projects, and conduct basic health and sanitation programmes. It can build local, rural and agriculture roads and irrigation canals, and distribute land ownership certificates to the people. It has been authorized to mediate among village assemblies, district assemblies and the local court. The local government has been obliged to sort out the problems faced by senior citizens, the needy and the people with disabilities. The onus is on it to grow agricultural production and oversee crop and animal husbandry within its territory. Constructing the drinking water and small hydropower projects, exploring alternative energy, managing natural disasters, protecting rivers, wild animals, quarries and minerals, language, culture and fine art are its other duties and functions.
Decentralisation of power
The new statute has clearly identified and listed the rights of central, provincial and local governments in a balanced manner. It is the duty of citizens to abide by the separation of federal powers and responsibilities. The devolution of above powers and rights to the local units forms the hallmark of the new national charter. It is the finest expression of decentralization of powers and a road to vibrant and cooperative federalism. Concentrating powers in the hands of provincial government hardly reflects the true spirit of federal system. The Madhes-based parties that have been engaged in a series of pointless agitations should take their cue from this discourse and must not create any unnecessary stumbling blocks to direct democracy.