Eighteen years have passed since the last local elections. So Prime Minister KP Oli wants to hold local-level elections in the next six months. But Nepali Congress, UCPN (Maoist) and other Madheshi parties don't seem all that keen. Nepali Congress lawmaker Ramesh Lekhak has registered a proposal in the parliament arguing that elections cannot be held on the basis of existing constituencies.
Why so? Mahabir Paudyal and Thira L Bhusal had caught up with him on Wednesday afternoon to discuss this and other recent political developments.
Why is Nepali Congress opposed to local polls?
Congress is not opposed to local election. We are clear that local elections must be held as soon as possible. We have committed to it in the new constitution. Local election was one of the priorities in Policy and Program of Sushil Koirala government as well. So the notion that we are opposed to local polls is wrong.
The new constitution has a provision for a commission to determine the number and boundaries of local bodies. This commission has been formed and it is mandated to complete this task by March 13, 2017. This is a constitutional requirement.
The logic behind this provision is that the number and boundaries of local bodies fixed by this commission will be permanent, in line with federal system and also perfectly constitutional. Once this happens, the existing number and boundaries of local bodies will be invalid. This is why it is mandatory to have the final number and boundaries of local bodies before we hold local elections. This is our concern. We are not opposed to local polls per se.
CPN-UML argues that settlement over the new constitution might be time-consuming. So why not hold local-level polls under transitional provisions of the new constitution?
If you have to hold local election after March 13, 2017, what is the harm of waiting little longer? After all, the number and boundaries of local bodies will have been determined by that time. You can hold local election in March comfortably and in accordance with new constitution. I am ready to hold local polls even in September or October. But for this we need to equip this commission with necessary infrastructure and human resources. Let this commission work on war footing and complete its tasks within September. In that case we can have local election in October. So the moot question is whether you want to really conduct local polls or you want to limit it to a slogan for public consumption. There will be complications if we hold polls under transitional provisions.
What sort of complications? Will you elaborate?
Let me make it clear with an example. In Kaski district, you have Pokhara sub-metropolitan City and the adjacent Lekhnath municipality. Suppose you hold election in November there. Later in March 2013, the commission recommends that Lekhnath municipality be merged with Pokhara sub-metro. Each of them will already have their office bearers—mayors, ward chiefs and other members. What will you do with them? How do you manage their portfolios? Do you dissolve the municipal council and hold reelection? There are such issues. This is why I say it is best to wait until the commission completes its duties.
But how's that possible when Madheshi forces are demanding changes in existing provincial boundaries?
There are separate provisions for provincial boundaries and number of local bodies in the constitution. Do not connect local issues with provincial ones. This commission I am talking about is related to boundaries and numbers of local bodies. It has nothing to do with provincial boundaries. If the commission cannot complete its tasks by March 13, 2017, it will lead to a constitutional deadlock. But once the commission makes its recommendation, we can hold the polls irrespective of whether provincial boundaries have been settled. The commission does not have to work with the assumption that the boundaries of current seven provinces will be altered. Even if they are, we can always amend the constitution.
Suppose that we hold local elections in November as per transitional provisions. But it will then be valid only for three months. The question is whether to hold local elections under transitional provision and prolong political transition for next few years or whether to seek permanent solution in line with the new constitution. We are opposed to prolonging the transition under any excuse. So let the commission first submit its report. Like I said, if it does so within September, we can hold local elections in October. If it does so earlier, so much the better. The first requirement is to empower this commission and getting it up and running.
There is something fishy about the way ruling UML is pushing for election under transitional provisions. It seems they want to derail federalism. This is a conspiracy not to implement federalism. This is a conspiracy not to settle boundaries and number of local bodies according to provisions in the new constitution. By extension, this could be a conspiracy not to implement the constitution.
You sound flexible on federalism now. But were not you strong proponent of undivided Far-west? There is also a strong lobby in Congress opposed to altering current boundaries. How will you sort out federalism?
If you ask me there has not been a serious dialogue with Madheshi forces on federalism. They walked out of Constituent Assembly as constitution-making was gaining momentum. We have not since sat together to discuss this contentious issue. Yes, you are right that there are competing claims on federalism. I was and am in favor of an undivided Far-west. There are others who think breaking parts of Kailali and Kanchanpur can be a solution. Let us sit together to find a middle point. We have a history of reconciling with forces holding exact opposite political views. Think of Maoists. They were opposed to parliamentary system and we were not going to compromise on this system. At times it seemed like there was no meeting point. But we were still able to find common ground. So we need to sit down for talks in good faith, which has not happened so far. I have raised this issue in the note of dissent against this government's Policy and Program as well.
Congress knows Madhesh issue is complicated, and yet you are using it as a weapon to topple Oli government.
It is true that Congress has been raising Madhesh issue with high priority. Congress believes that Madhesh issues should be addressed at the earliest. But we have not used it as a weapon to unseat Oli government. There is another story behind it.
Maoist leader Prachanda came to Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba and said this government is already a failure and that it is taking country on the wrong path. He said Oli's government could not implement the constitution, or address Madhesh issue and did not take transitional justice issues seriously. He also said he together with Congress must seek an alternative to this government. He added that he would be able to address Madhesh issue, control black marketing and inflation. We are the main opposition. In parliamentary democracy, opposition is also called an alternative government. So we accepted his proposal. He wanted to become the prime minister. We agreed to it as well. But then he changed his mind in next few hours. We don't know why. Then this episode came to an end.
Congress was not behind government change. It simply supported the Maoist in this game. That said we are also mindful that this government is failing and is likely to take whole country down the wrong path. So it is natural for us to try to change it.
It is said New Delhi wanted to unseat Oli and install Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba in Singha Durbar.
Who went to Delhi? Deuba. But who was going to be the new prime minister? Prachanda. It is clear that Prachanda himself was taking this initiative. Why do you bring Deuba into it? Besides, we tend to needlessly drag in New Delhi, Beijing and Washington in our domestic politics. The domestic reality is that Prachanda sought Congress support to become the prime minister. Congress agreed but Prachanda backtracked. If Prachanda had not come with that proposal, Congress alone would not be able to do anything. It does not have the required strength for this either. It was Prachanda who was doing homework for government change. Only he can answer which external force was backing him, why and how.
Even so, Prachanda and Deuba had reached a tacit understanding on a number of issues. Can you tell us something about it?
Both of them had agreed that grievances of Madheshi forces including on federal boundaries should be sorted out with political consensus after discussions among parties. They agreed to institutionalize key achievements like federalism, republic and secularism and create a favorable atmosphere for implementing this constitution. They also agreed to address black-marketing and scarcity of essential goods.
It has been learnt that the two leaders had reached an agreement on war-era cases as well.
Yes, this issue had been discussed but not in a way that came out in the nine-point agreement between UML and Maoists. We discussed confiscation of land during war era. The nine-point agreement lends validity to land sold, purchased or confiscated during that period. We were not in its favor. We had not agreed to withdraw war-era cases and provide amnesty either. Congress had agreed to make transitional justice bodies more effective.
Congress President has been insisting that Kathmandu-Nijgadh fast-track must be contracted out to Indian firm. Why?
The party President can't have meant it. He must have drawn the attention of the government that this issue had already been decided by the previous government.
Congress has asked its parliamentarians to act tough during budget session. What does it mean?
We abide by parliamentary norms. We are not in favor of obstructing budget, or picketing the rostrum like other parties in the past. We will raise our issues responsibly.
Of late Madheshi forces and Congress seem to stand on the same page on certain issues. Is there a possibility of Congress and Madheshi forces forging an alliance?
Yes, we are together on certain issues. Like us, Madheshi forces are also opposed to holding local election under transitional provisions. Even UCPN (Maoist) has joined the bandwagon now. So half of government as well as opposition forces are on the same page on local elections. Call it an alliance, or what you may. But this was not planned.
Congress President says Oli government is myadi (short-lived).
I was listening to a radio interview of Maoist leader Barsha Man Pun Tuesday morning. He said this government would change after budget session after the nine-point UML-Maoist agreement. Congress understands it as an unwritten agreement between the two leaders. Even other sitting ministers have been saying so. Why do you blame Congress?